Skip to content

Questioning Assumptions about Buddhism, with Evan Thompson

evan thompson

Evan Thompson discusses his new book, “Why I Am Not a Buddhist” with host Michael Taft. Topics include the myth of Buddhist exceptionalism, how Buddhist modernism presented a false picture of Buddhism as a value-neutral “mind science” rather than a religion, his own lifelong journey with Buddhism, and much more.

Evan Thompson, PhD, works on the nature of the mind, the self, and human experience. His work combines cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and cross-cultural philosophy, especially in Asian traditions. His most recent book, Why I Am Not a Buddhist, examines the role of Buddhism in the modern world.

Evan Thompson’s website:

Please support this podcast by contributing on Patreon

2 thoughts on “Questioning Assumptions about Buddhism, with Evan Thompson”

  1. this was excellent thanks, one emerging way to fill in the blind-spot of science and to address the our attempts to sketch out the non-scientific practices we undertake (including religious, moral, aesthetic, etc) can be found in the philosophical anthropology (there are still folks who sadly confuse pragmatism/instrumentalism with scientism/reductionism but unfortunately most scientists reject instrumentalism and other constructionisms) of Tony Chemero which shares much with Evan but is properly more enactivist than autopoietic:

  2. Thanks for your podcast! Sorry for this long post, as a long-time lurker, finally engaging I have a lot to share. 🙂

    I felt prompted to post after listening to share why Evan’s take on Buddhist modernism can help an individual person because the conversation didn’t seem to me to connect those dots.

    I had a largely spontaneous experience of nondual awareness but could not find anyone to help me make sense of it as in my area teachers are mainly secularized, mind science type mindfulness or yoga teachers … I was told not to conceptualize it but outside of a larger meaning system that was unhelpful; others told me that it just takes spiritual maturity but without offering any framework for what that would look like or how to get there; others seemed to think I was awakened but just too stupid or had too bad of karma to realize it and didn’t bother trying to help; in books, I got a neuroscience account that seemed somewhat orienting & credible but that is not a meaning system like religion or old school philosophy. Other paths like Centering Prayer or yoga involved too much overt religion I couldn’t get into. So I was left feeling holding something unspeakably precious but impotent in my relationship with it.

    The best frame I eventually found was that I had a mystical experience via what Ajahn Geoff calls a neurotic breakthrough, but it wasn’t a Buddhist awakening, for that I needed a Buddhist framework of meaning and practices to integrate & build upon it.

    If someone (ideally highly credible and experienced like Evan) just explained the difference between religion & science & told me that I needed a religion aka a lineage, even something conceptually bare bones as Zen, to understand it & have a path from there, I would have been spared a lot of confusion, seeking, and self doubt looking for the T truth of it.

    I lost the massive amount of energy & clarity & fundamental okay-ness of that experience over a span of 2-3 years; so now find myself basically at square one mediation wise, though it seems to have cured me of the type of pre-experience mass of neurotic suffering I lived under the before. (Have new types of ‘spiritual’ neurotic suffering mainly a spiritual longing & grief that feels like abandonment by a lover, lots of thoughts that I squandered the window opportunity and am now screwed, & tons of aversion & feelings of claustrophobia as to now being able to to get fully lost in thought – but that is largely managable). Which I accept as my own fault because I knew I was lost but was afraid to quit my job and move somewhere that has a lot of traditional teachers … CA, CO, AZ, and MA.

    But how many other students with potential get lost in the sea of dharma incoherence & well-intentioned efforts to ‘mainstream’ Buddhism by striping it of its theorical frameworks, rituals, and social meanings understood as such? I know I am a bit of an odd duck … but there are a lot of us, I’m sure.

    Basically I am saying that systems of meaning – understood explicitly as systems of meaning – are critically important! One huge obstacle for me is that I had a parent who had an ‘awakening’ in midlife, which I believe was a genuine nondual awareness experience, so my mystical experience came into a pre-existing conceptual and ’emotional truth’ framework that someone can be in a state of nondual awareness & still be interpersonally, at least with their own child, basically unchanged. Instead, he still seemed pretty deluded to me and painfully unavailable for genuine emotional intimacy and care. That is likely why I found much of the unaligned nondualists & secular mindfulness teachings unsatisfying. What’s the point of awakening if you are still an ass@#$*? Nondual awareness is as nondual awareness does! I knew this; that I guess is why I was so exacting with myself & set a very high bar of what ‘awakening’ means.

    I know Buddhism as a religion is problematic in many ways, but for this one person here with genuine aspiration, the popularity of secularized, mind science, dharma proved actually harmful.

    By the way, I would love to hear a conservation with you and Ajahn Geoff! I don’t know if he does interviews, but that would be wonderful!

    Wishing you all the best, and again thanks for your podcast & other efforts.

Let us know what you think