I stumbled across this book about the Buddhist-Aristotelian synthesis. The conclusion, somehow both obvious and unexpected, is that Western Buddhism is mostly Aristotelian eudaimonia grafted on to a Buddhist background.
It’s unexpected in the sense that I had never thought of my own practice in those terms, but it makes sense the more I think about it.
We can neatly divide Buddhist teachers into those teaching a metaphysical nibbana and those teaching eudaimonia (with a full range of agnosticism to outright rejection of metaphysical nibbana).
I’d put Ajahn Buddhadasa squarely into the camp of eudaimonia teachers.
Ajahn Thanissaro is one of the most vocal proponents of a metaphysical nibbana.
In terms of practice, the two are virtually identical.
The Buddha himself allowed for a eudaimonic interpretation of the practice in the Samaññaphala Sutta when asked:
Is it possible, lord, to point out a similar fruit of the contemplative life, visible in the here and now?
The response begins with a strong affirmative:
Yes, it is, great king…
And goes on to detail the entire Gradual Training. The practice itself generates peace and happiness that make it a worthwhile pursuit in the here and now, not just for a metaphysically distant reward.
Nonetheless, there’s an ironclad case that the Buddha wasn’t a materialist, even if a materialist can make progress along the path.
I don’t see a problem with an Aristotelian or Eudaimonic Buddhism. Zen is a Daoist reworking of Indian Buddhism, so why shouldn’t Western Buddhism go through the same process?
The better question is, why should a westerner (or a modern Thai or Sri Lankan) concern themselves with Buddhism when there are philosophical schools more directly in tune with eudaimonia as a goal (and without any metaphysical baggage)?
Buddhism is a lived tradition. Stoicism is an academic rival.
The eightfold path is a powerful method for giving meaning to life and producing eudaimonia. Even in traditional Buddhism, it’s perfectly acceptable to not shoot only for nibbana.
When I talk to other Western Buddhists, it’s easy to think that the practice is only retreats and intense meditation. A stronger emphasis on flourishing and happiness in the here and now would add some much needed balance to Western Buddhist practice.