Why I Am Not NOT a Buddhist

by Deanna K. Kreisel (Doctor Waffle)

I have a confession to make: I ❤️ Seymour Glass. If you don’t know who that is, count yourself lucky and walk away now—come back in a few weeks when I’ll be discussing humiliating experiences at middle-school dances or whatever. (Obviously I am joking—as always, I desperately want you to finish reading this essay.)

For the uninitiated, Seymour was the scion of the Glass family, a half-Jewish-half-Irish troupe of tragic prodigies populating nine stories by J. D. Salinger, of Catcher in the Rye fame, set in the years 1924 to 1959. If you’re familiar with the oeuvre of Wes Anderson, you probably know that the Royal Tenenbaums are generally considered an homage to the Glasses. Both families are casually and eccentrically well-to-do, aswim in a world of brownstones, 5 p.m. martinis, private education, summers in the Hamptons, family branches in Connecticut, fur coats, and tennis lessons. And they’re all brilliant. On this point Salinger was most adamant—every child of the Glass family, all seven of them, appeared on the fictional radio program “It’s A Wise Child,” a purportedly wholesome entertainment wherein smarty-pants kids are prompted to say unintentionally hilarious smarty-pants things, but (IMO) is clearly just a wisecrack sweatshop where children are ruthlessly exploited for their youthful naïveté and left dessicated husks sucked dry of all joy.[1]

But Seymour alone is a true savant. Precocious even by Glass family standards, he is a brilliant poet who becomes a professor of English at Columbia by the age of 20. He is also the most tragic member of the gang, a real Romantic-hero type. Too smart and sensitive for the world around him, even his gifted family members,[2] he eventually blows his brains out in a Florida hotel room in front of his sleeping wife. This all happens in the very first story in which he appears, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” so from the moment of his introduction we already know he is doomed.

Seymour was also a Buddhist, or at least a Buddhist manqué, and that is why I begin this essay with him: the Glass family stories were my introduction to Buddhism. A voracious intellect and spiritual seeker, Seymour was smitten with Eastern religions at a very young age: we learn in the final story that he began his serious study at the age of six. He not only read widely in these traditions but also foisted them on his younger brother Buddy, and the two of them in turn “instructed” all five of their younger siblings—who mostly attribute their own chronic unhappiness to this early tutelage.[3

When I first read the Glass family stories as a tween and was introduced to brilliant, troubled, unfit-for-the-world Seymour, I immediately (rightly or wrongly) identified with him[4] and fancied that he alone—or perhaps J. D. Salinger—truly understood me. [5] (These stories should feature a warning label to protect the mental health of any tortured, sensitive, bookish teenagers who might accidentally stumble across them, identify with Seymour, and be scarred for life. At least for your humble author, Seymour Glass did more to glamorize “poetic” suicidal depression than Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath combined.[6])

Because Seymour was always spouting off about Zen koans and The Four Great Vows, I started reading about Buddhism. I started with Alan Watts and progressed to other 60s-counterculture classics: Zen in the Art of Archery, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,[7] Zen and the Art of Staring Out the Window and Not Doing Your Schoolwork. Mind you, I did not actually practice Zen at this point: it was mainly an intellectual exercise—a frantic summer reading program if you will—that completely missed a central point of Buddhism, which is to observe and therefore quiet the mind.

The heyday of the Glass family coincided with the rise of “Western Buddhism,” the second great wave of Buddhist influence in Europe and North America. After British and American scholars began translating and codifying Sanskrit and Pali texts in the nineteenth century, the influence and prestige of Asian religions burgeoned: Western engagement shifted from an openly racist, missionary project in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to admiration and growing conversion by the early twentieth. (I actually have published scholarship on this topic!) “Buddhist modernism” refers to the notion, promoted by many of these early scholars, that the central tenets of Buddhism are consonant with Western rationalism, scientific thought, and psychological models.[8] (We are really still in the throes of Buddhist modernism today, with the added fun twist of “neuro-Dharma” research, whose apostles keep popping Buddhists into MRI machines in order to demonstrate how good meditation is for the brain.)

The second big wave of American Buddhist fandom in the 1950s and 60s built upon the first, and got an extra push from the restless spiritual seeking of the Beats, hippies, and other counterculture types. It was during this era that Americans began converting to Buddhism in larger numbers, visiting monasteries in Asia and studying with Japanese, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, and Tibetan teachers, founding Buddhist centers and monasteries back home, and continuing their lineages with American acolytes. Thus did “western Buddhism”—a mix of traditional doctrines, new teachings focused on uniquely Western perspectives, and an emphasis on lay meditation and retreats—shuffle toward Bethlehem to be born.

Clearly one of the reasons that Buddhist teachings have appealed to so many Americans in the past century is that we are soul-sick and in search of a balm for our disaffection, loneliness, spiritual emptiness, and materialism. For many of us, the Judeo-Christian tradition can no longer supply that comfort, and we are drawn to a spiritual system that explicitly promises us relief from suffering in return for much less sacrifice and moral compromise than the churches and synagogues of our grandparents. Ha ha ha! My guess is that most Buddhist wannabes do not realize, when setting out, how long, thorny, and even treacherous the path to enlightenment can be. (One of my Victorianist colleagues who also studies Asian religions once said to me, “Buddhism is fucking terrifying.”) The mind is a scary place, and sitting quietly with it for hours at a time can stir up all kinds of rotting leaf mold that we usually keep covered over with work, alcohol, food, TV, shopping, and other distractions. As Philip Larkin writes about the terror of death in the wonderful, awful poem “Aubade”: “realisation of it rages out / In furnace-fear when we are caught without / People or drink.”

And yet obviously many do persist on the eight-fold path, even to the point of facing the reality of death head-on through the practice of Maraṇasati, the contemplation of mortality through such techniques as picturing the nine stages of corpse decomposition.[9] Presumably this is not exactly what the HR director who’s asked your department to log their meditation minutes on a smartphone app has in mind, but even the most watery versions of “mindfulness” share at least the germ of the same goal: to be fully present, to wake up. As Robert Wright notes in Why Buddhism Is True, “if you want to liberate yourself from the parts of the mind that keep you from realizing true happiness, you have to first become aware of them, which can be unpleasant.”

But let’s dive into the book from which this quotation is drawn, shall we? Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (Simon & Schuster 2017) was a New York Times bestseller, which is sort of amazing when you think about it. Enough Americans want to be convinced (or maybe convince others) that the Buddhist path is the right way to salvation that they bought a book about it in the hundreds of thousands—or maybe even millions.[10] (It might not be a coincidence that all this went down in the first year of the Trump presidency.) Its author is a journalist with five books, all of which circulate around science-y and evolutionary-biology-ish and spirituality-esque topics. Why Buddhism is True it the apotheosis, the pinnacle, the ne plus ultra of the “neuro-Dharma” movement, which aims to harness the insights of Western psychology and neuroscience, particularly research into neurological plasticity, to demonstrate that Buddhism has all the answers to our modern ailments. (Another big proponent of neuro-Dharma is Rick Hanson, one of whose books is entitled Buddha’s Brain; another is called, well, Neurodharma.)

The very basic thesis—and this is a gross oversimplification—is that meditation and mindfulness can actually change your brain, including helping it to heal from childhood trauma and emotional deprivation, and that therefore Buddhism has gotten some fundamental things right about human psychology for thousands of years. You need not be embarrassed about meditation, it’s not hopelessly woo-woo, because this guy over here in a lab coat is saying that it’s all backed up by SCIENCE. I have to admit that I ate Wright’s book up with a spoon when it first came out: I have a vivid memory of reading the bulk of it while floating in a beautiful underground pool during an anniversary spa day with my partner. That says pretty much all you need to know about Western Buddhism right there.

The neuro-Dharma approach has its critics, of course. For many practitioners and students of Buddhism, there is something unseemly about stripping a millennia-old religious tradition of all spiritual elements in order to extract a burnished nugget of “scientific” “truth.” The impulse seems consonant with the extractivist and colonial mind-set of the West; while modern Buddhism might seem an improvement over the extirpative practices of early nineteenth-century missionaries, is it really so different? Just cut out the mumbo-jumbo and give me all your good stuff.

In a recent book entitled Why I am Not a Buddhist (Yale 2020), the philosopher and Asian Studies scholar Evan Thompson takes square aim at what he terms “Buddhist exceptionalism,” the faddish Western idea that Buddhism is different from all other religions in being uniquely rational—kind of not like a religion at all!—and having a privileged insight into The Truth lacking in other spiritual traditions. His book is a stately, measured, thorough take-down of this idea from the inside: his training and scholarship in Asian religions allow him to place Buddhist traditions back into their original context alongside Hinduism, Taoism, Jainism, Confucianism, etc., thus demonstrating the decidedly non-exceptional nature of core Buddhist tenets. His central goal, however, is to debunk the sacred cows of Buddhist modernism: the claims “that Buddhism is a ‘mind science’; that there is no self; that mindfulness is an inward awareness of one’s own private mental theater; that neuroscience establishes the value of mindfulness practice; that enlightenment is a nonconceptual experience outside language, culture, and tradition; and that enlightenment is or can be correlated with a brain state.” Thompson declares himself a “good friend” to Buddhism, but not a Buddhist—it is a mark of his deep respect for the religious and spiritual aspects of Buddhist traditions that he declares himself unable to sign on.

I hope it’s not contradictory to say that I also ate Thompson’s book up with a spoon; most Buddhists and fellow travelers I know did, despite its bristly title. It was a pleasure to be in the company of a scholar with such deep understanding of Buddhist scripture, history, and traditions who is also a cognitive philosopher—and thus able to contextualize and think through the claims of the neuro-Dharma movement from not one but two insider perspectives. But (of course you saw that a “but” was coming), it also left me feeling … deflated. Which I suppose was its point—to pierce the bubble of American complacency toward the majesty, terror, and richness of Buddhism as a religion.

To be clear: I have always taken Buddhism seriously. I am not a “Calm app” McMeditator who thinks that 10 minutes a day of guided contemplation of my financial portfolio makes me a Buddhist. But it’s precisely because I take Buddhism seriously that I’ve always had one foot in the door and one foot out. My dabblings in Buddhism progressed from my first youthful Seymour-inspired obsession with koans to actual meditation practice at the Chicago Zen Center in graduate school, ongoing off-again-on-again solo practice for the next 20 years, a few-years-long recommitment at the Mountain Rain (Soto) zendo in Vancouver, and for the past four years a promise to myself to “one day make it out to” the Magnolia Grove Monastery, one of a small handful of monasteries founded by Thich Nhat Hanh (incredibly located 20 minutes away from me in Batesville, Mississippi). I have always felt slightly unworthy and embarrassed to claim the title “Buddhist”—I just haven’t made the commitment I feel is necessary—but I still feel a deep affinity for and attraction to Buddhism.

I realize I am trying to have it both ways, and while that is a nice comfy position to be in, it’s probably not the healthiest or most self-actualized. But it also has its benefits. I remember having a long intense conversation with my BFF about this very ambivalence nearly 20 years ago, when I was getting ready to move to Vancouver for a new job at UBC. She and I, along with our spouses, had just eaten brunch at their house, and afterwards Trish and I sat among the eggy dishes while the husbands were off watching the FA Cup, or some other hilariously gendered configuration. (At least Trish and I weren’t washing up.) We got real deep, discussing the function of spirituality in our lives, the traditions in which we were raised, what religion meant to us, what we believed. I explained my half-in, half-out relationship to Buddhism, and how important it was to me that it was always “there,” waiting for me to one day “get serious about it.” Trish responded, “It makes perfect sense that you’re paralyzed about diving in. Because Buddhism is kind of the last resort, right? If that doesn’t work, what’s left?”

I think we all need at least one or two back-up plans to turn to in the middle of the night, schemes that we know we can’t ever actually enact because if they don’t work, what’s left? Quitting a crap job and starting your own business; finishing that half-written novel; returning to grad school; joining an ashram—it doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as you never do it. Thus we remain creatures of unrealized potential whose brilliance, resolve, and determination are never tested. But I also think your scheme has to speak to you on a very deep level; it has to be a true “last resort.” It has to feel like salvation. For me, it will always be about Seymour Glass, my first love.[11] Buddhism will always seem “exceptional” to me because of him, even if I agree with every single thing that Evan Thompson writes.

There is a fascinating moment in Why I Am Not a Buddhist, in the middle of Thompson’s description of his childhood. He was raised and home-schooled at the Lindisfarne Association, “an educational and contemplative institute and community” founded by his parents. He tells a story about going away on a family trip when he was eleven, and returning to discover that the commune “had been taken over by a new enthusiasm for Zen Buddhism.” Before they had left on their trip, Thompson’s father had asked the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center to send a teacher to live at Lindisfarne; he took up residence while the family were away:

My sister, Hilary, and I were not so impressed. The other kids weren’t either. We were used to running all over our ten-acre property doing whatever we liked. Now we had to take off our shoes and keep quiet whenever we entered the main lodge. There were more dinners with mushy brown rice and overcooked steamed vegetables that not even huge gobs of ketchup could fix. A weird formality seemed to have taken over many people in the community. The occasional silent meals were the worst…. My father thought the presence of Zen made the meditation room’s atmosphere thick and weighty, but the Zen demeanor seemed forced to me.

I had nothing against Buddhism.

I have never met Evan Thompson (even though we taught at the same university for 13 years), and it’s never a good idea to psychoanalyze anyone without permission, particularly people you don’t know. But. This almost throwaway incident seems to me like a pretty crucial piece of why Thompson “is not a Buddhist.” (Alternative title for his book: “I Have Nothing Against Buddhism.”) If your earliest associations with something are that it drains your life of joy and diverts your caretakers’ attention away from you, are you going to feel a deep connection and attraction to that thing? Or will you maybe become deeply interested in understanding it on an intellectual level, without ever letting it get too close? For me, with my literary crush on Seymour, Buddhism seemed to have all the answers; it was a source of infinite possibility and wisdom, not of enforced quiet and mushy broccoli. Just as Thompson might never have been able to cozy up fully to Buddhism, so I can never fully let it go.

And that is why I will probably always be not not a Buddhist.

[1] There is some evidence in the stories—if I remember correctly—that the Glass children feel this way too.

[2]  With the possible exception of his brother Buddy—a fiction writer, narrator of many of the stories, and obvious Salinger alter ego.

[3] As youngest brother Zooey complains in his eponymous short story, he and his younger sister Franny are “freaks,” and “both those bastards [Seymour and Buddy] are responsible”; in the same story he reads a letter from Buddy in which the latter acknowledges “I know how bitterly you resent the years when S. and I were regularly conducting home seminars, and the metaphysical sittings in particular.” (Obviously I’ve broken my vow and gone back to look at the stories. But I did it in the same way that Zooey, in an attempt to thwart his own vanity, looks into the mirror when he shaves: quickly, glancingly, and with trepidation in my heart.)

[4] Yes, yes, I am an English professor, and I went off to college early (although I was two years older than Seymour), and I majored in poetry. SO WHAT?

[5] Over-identification with J. D. Salinger characters can really get you into trouble. Mark David Chapman, assassin of John Lennon, was apparently obsessed with Holden Caulfield.

[6] Of course this is a highly subjective—and waggish—statement. While copycat suicide is a documented phenomenon, the real “influencers” in this regard tend to be celebrities like Kurt Cobain or Kate Spade—whose death apparently triggered Anthony Bourdain—rather than obscure literary characters.

[7] N.B. This book is not really about Buddhism, as I quickly discovered.

[8] An important side-branch of Buddhist modernism was so-called “Protestant Buddhism,” in which enthusiastic Anglicans set about demonstrating all the ways that Buddhism is consonant with Christianity.

[9] In case you’re curious! “1. A corpse that is swollen, blue and festering; 2. A corpse that is being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms; 3. A corpse that is reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons; 4. A corpse that is reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons; 5. A corpse that is reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood; 6. A corpse that is reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions; 7. A corpse that is reduced to bones, white in color like a conch; 8. A corpse that is reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together; 9. A corpse that is reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust.”

[10] It is apparently impossible to determine a book’s actual sales figures without paying for an expensive subscription service. So let’s just say a lot.

[11] Not to be melodramatic, but both Buddhism and killing oneself have always seemed like good last resorts to me for this very reason. There is a real comfort, at times, in the contemplation of suicide.