Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment – Robert Wright
Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment – From one of America’s greatest minds, a journey through psychology, philosophy, and lots of meditation to show how Buddhism holds the key to moral clarity and enduring happiness.
Robert Wright famously explained in The Moral Animal how evolution shaped the human brain. The mind is designed to often delude us, he argued, about ourselves and about the world. And it is designed to make happiness hard to sustain.
But if we know our minds are rigged for anxiety, depression, anger, and greed, what do we do? Wright locates the answer in Buddhism, which figured out thousands of years ago what scientists are discovering only now. Buddhism holds that human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly – and proposes that seeing the world more clearly, through meditation, will make us better, happier people.
In Why Buddhism Is True, Wright leads listeners on a journey through psychology, philosophy, and a great many silent retreats to show how and why meditation can serve as the foundation for a spiritual life in a secular age. At once excitingly ambitious and wittily accessible, this is the first book to combine evolutionary psychology with cutting-edge neuroscience to defend the radical claims at the heart of Buddhist philosophy. With bracing honesty and fierce wisdom, it will persuade you not just that Buddhism is true – which is to say, a way out of our delusion – but that it can ultimately save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.
As Wright sees it, ‘The Truth’ of the human condition is to be found in natural selection, as described through evolutionary psychology in his early book The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. And he argues that this truth is uniquely addressed by ‘The Way’ of Buddhism, or at least naturalistic Buddhism. This ‘secular Buddhism’ is Buddhism without reincarnation, spirits or gods. Even the concept of complete or lasting enlightenment is held at arms length.
Secular, naturalistic Buddhism rests on a few key ideas: the idea that people don’t have an essential ‘self’ (no-self), the idea that dissatisfaction (dukkha) is caused by the ‘hedonic treadmill’ of pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, and that meditation can help us to get off this treadmill. The philosophical approach is similar to that of Stephen Batchelor in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist and Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World.
There is a decidedly Gnostic bent to the writing here, right from the beginning, when the movie The Matrix is cited. Here natural selection is the process which holds us in a state of delusion, warps our perceptions of reality, prevents us from experiencing lasting contentment and satisfaction, and keeps us trapped on the hedonic treadmill. And secular-Buddhism is The Way (the ‘red pill’) that will liberate us from this endless drama of delusion and frustration. This view of evolution stands in marked contrast with that of Wright’s previous book, The Evolution of God (Back Bay Readers’ Pick), in which biological and cultural evolution are instead ‘divine’ processes by which the Good becomes manifest in the world. (The God-as-Evolution view is also that of the ‘Integral’ spirituality of Ken Wilber, Steve McIntosh, and others.)
Part of this book is dedicated to showing that the key ideas of secular-Buddhism are scientifically true, through discussion of studies in psychology and neuroscience (an approach shared with Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris). This would be more convincing if the studies were cited as a way of evaluating Buddhism against competing theories of well-being, such as modern positive psychology, but the book generally avoids this type of direct comparison. This is reflective of the basic approach of secular-Buddhism: the concepts which don’t find support in scientific studies, such as reincarnation, or lasting enlightenment, are abandoned or de-emphasized. Secular-Buddhism is reformulating Buddhism to be more consistent with modern psychology, a dynamic which complicates the question of whether science can be used to show that ‘Buddhism is True’.
Wright expands on the concept of ‘no-self’ by presenting a ‘modular’ model of the mind. The idea is that our mind is composed of modules with different goals, desires, and thought patterns. The modules jostle and compete with each other on the subconscious level. Only when one of them carries a sufficiently strong feeling, do we then become aware of its associated thought on a conscious level. While Wright finds some support for this modular model from the Insight Meditation school, and from psychological research, he formulates it through his own preferred perspective of evolutionary psychology (Darwinian competition within the subconscious mind). Interestingly, the model is extended to suggest how mindfulness can improve our ‘self’-control, and to weaken the pull of indulgent or addictive behavior.
One of the pleasures of The Evolution of God was its detailed historical examples of the ways in which the ‘spiritual marketplace’ of competing ideas, and the needs of merchants, kings, and rulers all influenced the development of ancient Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Wright could have also taken this approach with Buddhism, exploring how its history as the state religion of multiple empires has shaped its development over time and place. I was hoping for this, and am disappointed not to find it here. However, Wright instead manages to tackle some pretty subtle philosophical issues, such as the distinction between the Buddhist concept of ’emptiness’ (sunyata) and Hindu non-dualism, in a manner that is unusually accessible. He enlivens the discussion with narrative accounts of past conversations and interviews.
This book is in many ways a personal account: Wright has found a version of secular-Buddhism that is True for him in his life, and he is bringing us along through his experience and thought process. Unlike many authors on Eastern spirituality, he is in no way trying to present himself as enlightened, or a spiritual teacher or guru. He is refreshingly unpretentious–humorously self-effacing, and transparent about his motivations for writing. And he is a clear writer–he does not try to intimidate us with obtuseness and paradox, even when addressing difficult concepts. The book is not always convincing, but it is engaging, approachable, and thought-provoking.
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