Flanagan isn’t talking about Buddhism as it’s actually practiced around the world, in a bewildering array of different traditions. His subject is “Buddhism naturalized” — that is, Buddhism stripped down to a core set of philosophical (and, crucially, non-supernatural) claims. Naturalize Buddhism, and you’re left with a basically materialist, deterministic view of the world. If it existed, the “Buddhist Credo,” Flanagan writes, would be something like: “I believe that everything is impermanent, that everything (including my state of mind) is subject to the principles of cause and effect, and that given that I am among the things-that-there-are, I am impermanent and subject to the laws of cause and effect.” Physicists, biologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists would agree. Today, it’s a scientific fact that human beings live in a material, determined world, and are themselves determined and material.…The real value of Buddhism, in short, is that it finds moral meaning in our material world. That, Flanagan points out, makes our Western obsession with “happy” Buddhists seem pretty shallow by comparison. Buddhism isn’t about being happy, but about seeing the world as it is, and figuring out how to respond to the facts responsibly. Our Western moral systems, upended by the Scientific Revolution, are still figuring out how to do that — for Buddhists, there was never anything to upend. In fact, Flanagan argues, Buddhist tradition records 2,500 years worth of “experiments in living” with materialism.
I agree fully. My conception of Buddhism is one informed by Western scholars and practitioners of the last half-century. But that’s also why I don’t bother identifying as a Buddhist, because I don’t feel like answering for the myriad other variations on the theme, becoming some sort of multi-hyphenated Buddhist (which seems to be just another way of reinforcing the ego anyway). There was a time when I got a sense of community and solidarity from immersing myself in Buddhist terminology and symbolism, but now it’s enough for me to know that someone – doesn’t even matter who – put these ideas out into the noosphere, where they transmogrify through endless permutations to adapt to different circumstances, as they should. Me, I’m not anything. I just exist for now, and move on.