It's been the case for exactly two hundred years, so we may as well admit it: the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was wrong. Poetry is not the "unacknowledged legislator of the world," as he put it. Science is. Not only that, but science is the "true religion" of the Western world. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. As the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich thought, "[The sciences] can be a very solid expression of ultimate concern in secular language… as long as the ultimate concern or 'infinite passion' is still in them and shines through them."
When Buddhism was joined to Western science, it would generate its own clerisy and become not a thing of infinite passion but a sort of cult, specifically a cult of expertise.
Perhaps the efforts of science, especially neuroscience, to integrate Buddhism into its own worldview is the realization of what Tillich was imagining. In an article in Religion and Ethics News Weekly written in 2001, Carl Bielefeldt, professor of Buddhist studies, observed: "We seem to be dealing not with a religion, but with something that might be called American 'secular spirituality.'" But Bielefeldt also recognized the danger that Buddhism could be "submerged in a spiritual soup in which the Asian religion of Buddhism has been so fully blended into American culture that we may no longer be able to speak of it either as 'Asian' or as 'religion.'"
What Bielefeldt could not foresee at the time was the possibility that when Buddhism was joined to Western science, it would generate its own clerisy and become not a thing of infinite passion but a sort of cult, specifically a cult of expertise. The evidence for this cult is not hard to find. Take for example, Rick Hanson's most recent book, "Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness." (Hanson is a psychologist and a fellow at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.) The book begins with a formidable list of blurbs (eight pages in all) from some serious heavy hitters on the American Buddhist scene: Sharon Salzburg, Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Deepak Chopra. The people on this list are all credentialed. Nearly all of them are doctors of one kind or another, mostly PhDs and a few MDs, lots of psychologists and neuroscientists. Hanson, too, has a PhD in psychology, something he notes purposefully on the cover. I suppose that this is a way of saying, "You're in good hands. All the experts say so, and I'm an expert myself." As Spirit Rock Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield has concluded, confirming Bielefeldt's fears, "Buddhism is not a religion. It is a science of the mind."
In marked contrast, Thai forest master Ajahn Chah taught that markers of expertise are only "appendages." As Chah said, "We think they are real and carry them around with us. We carry possessions, status, name, and rank around."
Proudly foregrounding prestigious academic degrees is a symptom of the American cult of expertise, although Hanson's epic eight pages of Who's Who blurbs lead me to wonder if his isn't a cult of expertise Gone Wild! That wouldn't be anything new. The experts have been going wild for some time now — conspicuously wild since 1990, the year of the first TED talk (Technology, Entertainment, and Design), whose stage is the national shrine for this improbable cult.
Not in the least surprisingly, Hanson gave a TED talk in 2014 on meditation and happiness. He is not the only science guru to do so. Self-styled "mindfulness expert" Andy Puddicombe gave a TED talk, and so did a Buddhist Monk with a PhD in molecular genetics, Mathieu Ricard. There's an irony here. Hanson's TED talk is not only a presentation of "ideas worth spreading," as TED likes to say. It is also an exercise in not noticing, in inattention, the opposite of mindfulness. TED talks are exercises in not noticing how white the audience is, nor how well-heeled the audience is, nor how siloed these talks are from those who can't afford or have never heard of TED.
But from the perspective of the corporate culture of that time and our own, the counterculture and its alien religions are threats in need of secularization. Like every contrary thing in corporate America, Buddhism needs to be managed.
Extending this irony, the affluence of the TED crowd is a good part of what the Buddha meant by samsara, the world of craving, grasping, clinging, and consequent suffering. TED's congregation arrives "with a hand full of gimme/and a mouth full of much obliged," as Taj Mahal sang. In short, the wealth displayed at TED talks is itself one cause of the suffering that TED's audience is hoping a neuro-Buddha can fix for them! Conflating Buddhism with a science of happiness creates a perpetuum mobile of self-inflicted dukkha, suffering. Its final meaning is, "I can be happy while keeping my wealth and a scientific world view. I can be a Buddhist without actually having to change." From a properly Buddhist perspective, this is a delusion.
But in a way this is all beside the point because what TED is really about is branding — thus "neurodharma," the Rick Hanson brand. Like many another, Hanson aspires to be a charismatic entrepreneur engaged in expanding a market-based enterprise. This is what Danish scholar Jørn Borup calls "prosperity Buddhism," marketing happiness to elites who can afford to buy their entrance into the path of enlightenment.
American Buddhism didn't have to go down this path, the Way of the Expert. The growth of Buddhism in the West began with the arts, especially poets like Blake, Whitman, and Thoreau (whose nickname was "the Concord Buddha"), followed by William Butler Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, and, later, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and the explosion of all things Eastern during the '60s counterculture. But from the perspective of the corporate culture of that time and our own, the counterculture and its alien religions are threats in need of secularization. Like every contrary thing in corporate America, Buddhism needs to be managed.
This managing came early on when Steve Jobs introduced his omnivorous creation, the Apple I microcomputer (1976). Jobs later introduced the iPhone and other products through theatrical product launches—TED talks before the fact. Jobs adapted both Zen and the counterculture to the purposes of a corporate monopoly (co-opting the name of The Beatles' label, Apple Records, in the process). Jobs not only neutralized the counterculture and Zen, he used them as marketing tools— e.g., "Think different!"
This is not Buddhism, not even close. But from the perspective of the tech industry, it will do. It will "pass," especially if there is a statue in the background—the Buddha smiling knowingly. And why shouldn't he smile? The money is good. Productivity is up. Techy peeps are happy. So, "That's that." That's that unless, as William Butler Yeats wrote, "Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing," and unless we take seriously the Boddhisattva vow: "Those who suffer are infinite. I vow to save them all."
The Way of the Expert, on the other hand, is not serious. It is content with its position in and among the residents of capitalism's "protected class," buffered for now from the consequences of climate disaster and the sixth great extinction.
The Buddha's reasoning did not require glowing fMRI maps of brain circuitry. The Buddha's reasoning was simple: wake up and live differently, or suffer.