Don’t Worry, Be Happy: How Amazon, Google & Neuroscience Threaten American Buddhism

Image: Google’s Search Inside Yourself Institute

Contemporary American Buddhism has a problem, although, thankfully, unlike Christianity it has little to do with the politics of the nation state. Buddhism’s problem is with our state-within-the-state, corporate capitalism—especially high-tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google. The situation is basically this: Buddhism has been removed from its traditional ethical and spiritual context, grounded in the hard sciences, mainly neuroscience, and then made useful to a predatory techno-capitalist economy. 

Like something out of the Book of Revelation, Buddhism looks ever more like a three-headed beast: corporate profit-seeking, secular resentment, and science delusion, an American version of what the Buddha called the Three Poisons—greed, anger, and delusion. All of this proceeds under the cover of science and reason, dismissing the transcendental qualities of what Paul Tillich called “infinite passion” as that most contemptible thing: metaphysics. 

This view receives primetime support from writers like the cognitive scientist and New Atheist celebrity Steven Pinker who writes in his book Enlightenment Now, “A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one.” Never mind that a quantitative mindset—based in quantity rather than quality—can offer no reasons for why we should be kind rather than callous. In other words, it has no answer to pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty’s famous question, “Why not be cruel?” The best this mindset can offer is a utilitarian ethic, like the business world’s cost/benefit analysis—and that’s only self-interest posing as enlightenment.

The moral confusion that Pinker gleefully celebrates reminds me of the Jacobins after the French Revolution. They kicked the priests out of Notre Dame, erected a statue to the Goddess of Reason, and then welcomed Robespierre’s notion of enlightenment: “virtue and terror.”  

Terror may be a hyperbolic way of describing what’s happening to American Buddhism, but the message it receives from science and capital are threatening enough. Corporate rationalism says to Buddhism, “If you want to exist and thrive in this culture, you will need our money and you will need to acknowledge our scientific worldview.” 

And how the Science Buddha has grown, thanks in large part to the support of Google’s Search Inside Yourself Institute; neuroscience’s discovery of what the psychologist Rick Hanson calls “neurodharma”; and the multitude of businesses who’ve adopted Amazon’s WorkingWell strategy to use yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to enhance the corporate brand and improve productivity. This, we’re assured, is the way, not only to stress-relief, but to happiness—all accomplished through what William Davies calls “the happiness industry.” Not surprisingly, this is something many Americans are eager to hear: mindfulness can give you sukha vedana, that “happy feeling.” 

Putting aside the metaphysical question of what in the world we mean by the word “happiness,” there’s the anterior fact that Buddhism isn’t about becoming happy. Happiness and unhappiness are what the Buddha called “Worldly Winds,” like success and failure, gain and loss. Buddhism’s interest is in the Middle Way, between happiness and unhappiness. As the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah taught:

If we cut a log of wood and throw it into the river, and if it doesn’t sink or rot, or run aground on the riverbank, it will reach the sea. The log is this mind. As it flows downriver, it will experience happiness and unhappiness. If the mind doesn’t cling to that happiness or unhappiness it will reach the ocean of nibbana.

In “Superstition,” his number one single from 1972, Stevie Wonder sang:

“When you believe in things/that you don’t understand/then you suffer.”

The Buddha couldn’t have said it better. The cause of suffering is delusion. It’s deluded to think that we’re better off without the experience of the transcendental, whether it’s offered to us through religion, the natural world, or the arts. It’s deluded to think that science can show us the neuro pathways that will take us to happiness’s door. It’s deluded to think that mindfulness is about workplace stress reduction, especially when it was the workplace that caused the stress in the first place

What we’re left with isn’t the Buddha but a Buddha “simulacrum,” in Jean Baudrillard’s term; a thing without an origin. Buddhism becomes just another aspect of “workforce preparation” puzzled together by neuroscientists. Eventually, we forget that it ever even had its own meaning.