1 A 3 O R N

Wisdom in Exile

by Jampa Thaye

Created: 2021-02-12
Wordcount: 1k

Wisdom in Exile is a critique of Westernized Buddhism. The following is less a review than it is my notes on it.

First, Wisdom in Exile is an unabashedly religious book, in that it believes that it is presenting an ancient tradition that contains the fundamental truth about humanity. You're invited to accept the truth humbly; if you investigate it reasonably, you'll find it reasonable, but if you come into it with an attitude of critique then you have the wrong attitude. I'm still in conflict with books that take this tone. Overall, I think, this tone comes from taking a very strong particular position on weighing-priors versus weighing-evidence... where, well, priors don't count as much if they aren't coming from Buddhism.

But this is a really difficult issue overall, and the concern that Buddhism will be corrupted and accepted in an incorrectly altered form is one I'm sympathetic too. So, I'll -- well, not try to repress my feelings about this, but rather just accept them and go forward.

Second, this was my first exposure to some specifically Buddhist vocabulary. Nagarjuna and Dharmakirti, Buddhist Indian philosophers, who might have been somewhat influential to Buddhism; the Bodhichitta, the resolve to attain the state of Buddha for the benefit of all things; The Great Vehicle, and the Lesser Vehicle; this was kind of my first time encountering them. That I remember, anyway.

Third, a lot of the critique of Western culture is like the Catholic critique. The section on scientism, in particular, I thought, seemed straight out of Ed Feser. It benefits, though, from being able to group all Christianity and modern liberal movements beneath the same eschatological impulse, relative to a Christian critique of the same.

Fourth, I really like the unification of understanding the truth about the world, in this, with altruism.


Everyone's religion is different from the rest. Unlike theism, which commences from an appeal to faith in the authority of revelation, Buddhism asks us to start with a dispassionate examination of our experience, actions and motivations. Of course, for such analysis to be effective, systematic attentiveness is required, which therefore requires us to practise meditation, so that we do not flounder in a mere piling up of ideas about the world rather than unmasking and liberating ourselves from our projections.

Everyone's religion is in the rhetorical middle. "Buddhism, for its part, sees both of these types of systems as deviating from a correct perception of the world. Whereas the ‘eternalists’ distort the continuity and inter-connectedness that are evident in all processes in to a notion of permanence, the ‘annihilationists’ distort the change and development that are also evident in all processes in to a denial of continuity. The teachings of the Buddha offer a ‘Middle Way’ that transcends these extremes.... To be specific, in the Middle Way view, all phenomena are empty of any inherent existence – selfhood, if you like – precisely because they arise through dependence, whether it be dependence upon an assembly of causes and conditions, dependence upon their own constituent parts or dependence upon merely being designated as existent by an observing mind. Thus, emptiness and dependence are the same reality seen from two different sides. The world and the beings within it are not static entities and thus there is both change and continuity interwoven as the very fabric of everything that appears. What all this means is that Buddhism offers a way out of the chaos that has descended upon Western thought in four particular areas."

Atheistic Buddhism, not so much. "A Buddhism refashioned to accommodate materialism would, for instance, necessarily be a Buddhism without rebirth. Thus, if there is no mind but merely material processes, there can be no past and future lives. This would follow, because, once this present body came to an end at death, there could be no further basis for experience."

"The unique force of the Buddha’s teachings lies in its diagnosis of suffering and its causes, and its prescription of the path to the cessation of that suffering. This fact alone means that Buddhism can speak for itself, even in the modern marketplace of ideas. It follows from this that the best way we can help preserve the Buddha’s teaching is to stay true to it."

"The inevitable link between selfish behaviour and consequent suffering is that they are rooted in a mistaken notion of ourselves and the world: one that assumes that we ourselves possess an identity contiguous with our body or mind that is permanent, singular and autonomous (whether we call it ‘a self’, a ‘personality’ or something else) and that phenomena ‘out there in the world’, likewise possessing the characteristics of solidity, can be appropriated or rejected, bent to our will. In short, we are in conflict with reality, and, consequently, none of our endeavours can bring authentic freedom from suffering. On the contrary, further suffering is ensured as each repeated round of disappointment, frustration and misery merely fires up another doomed attempt to wrest happiness from a world uncontrollable by our ego."

Meditation styles. "Thus authentic meditation necessarily involves two stages – calm-abiding and insight. Some modern proponents of insight argue that one can dispense with calm-abiding. Unfortunately, however, attempting to practise insight on its own, without a degree of stillness brought about by calm-abiding, only leads to further entanglement in conceptual knots. As Shantideva said: Knowing that the disturbing emotions Are overcome by insight Endowed with calm-abiding, I shall first practise calm-abiding.[5] Calm-abiding is a settled one-pointedness of mind, not a sleepy or blank state. One rests in the experience of the present moment, neither distracted by thoughts of past or future nor anxiously grasping at whatever is arising right now. It is a state that is stable, open and clear, in which thoughts are neither suppressed nor cultivated. Only once such stillness has become characteristic of one’s meditation can one begin to work with the instructions for insight."

Meditation as app. "If current trends continue, meditation will become a mere app for stress-free living. It will simply come to accommodate the harmful consumption-driven lifestyles that still characterise much of life in wealthy countries. In such a scenario, meditation would serve as a reinforcing agent to stabilise delusion, rather than a force that liberates us from delusion and self-centredness."