Book Review: Why Buddhism Is True

My copy of the book.

Is it solipsistic in here, or am I even here? That’s a twist on the solipsism joke, befitting Robert Wright’s 2017 book, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. In other words, the two dominant thoughts in Buddhism Wright wrestles with in his book and largely through an evolutionary psychology perspective — that is, the behaviors and traits our human ancestors adapted to solve problems they faced, i.e. natural selection’s way of ensuring our genes were passed on to the next generation — are not-self and emptiness. The way we move through the world, perceive the world and other sentient beings, both fellow humans and other animals (and even non-sentient objects), and indeed, still tap into natural selection’s survival mechanisms in a modern context, are distorted, an illusion of sorts. Even on a basic scientific level, this is the case, as our brains are transmuting a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional understanding for us, and often enabling “cheat codes” along the way to make it easier and more efficient. But on a deeper level, the subconscious level, we “tag” everything we interact with with judgments — or feelings, both positive and negative, feelings that are alluring and ones to avoid — and those judgments inform how we see and interact with the object or person or event. These judgments, because they are operating at the subconscious level, are not conscious decisions, even though they often appear to us in that way. Wright, in other words, disputes the idea that we are the “king of our domain,” as it were (no, not in that way, Seinfeld fans, but maybe also in that way?). Rather, natural selection and all the forces that made us … us since the beginning of life on Earth, made that judgment in a manner of speaking. Therefore, there is not an “I” or “self” in the way we think of it. It doesn’t help that we don’t have the language to properly capture what Buddhism is getting at, but in any event, this is the notion Buddhism seeks to dispel us of, and in so doing, liberate us from the associated problems these judgments, these feelings, can afflict upon us and compel us into actions deleterious to ourselves, each other, and even on grander scales, the world via wars, famines, climate change, etc.

Emptiness is a bit more of a nebulous concept to nail down (I suppose trying to understand “not-self” isn’t any easier), but Wright tries. The simplest way, I think, to convey the notion of emptiness is that once you reach a mindfulness meditative state where you become nonjudgmental of the world and begin seeing more clearly, then those things, objects, persons, events, you’re seeing more clearly are, by definition, “empty.” They are no longer imbued with essentialism of a kind. This is easier said than done since humans, as a way of understanding and interacting with the world, and as social beings, essentialize everything (give “essence” to everything, my-dog-essence or my-house-essence, as example), even inanimate objects (JFK’s tape measure versus an ordinary tape measure, is an example Wright uses), because we need narratives and stories to understand the world and ourselves. To the latter, I should note, we like to think of ourselves as acting rationally, so we tell stories to ourselves and others about our actions, even if those actions are feelings made at the subconscious level. Once we reach that point of embracing not-self and the emptiness of the world, in some sense, we’re on the path to enlightenment and “nirvana.” And as Wright emphasizes, paradoxically perhaps, far from Buddhism being an organizing principle and way of seeing the world that strips the world of meaning and makes humans automatic machines, this way of seeing the world more clearly makes the beauty of the world somehow more beautiful.

Now that I’ve introduced you to the overall thrust of the book, I want to make a few notes before proceeding: 1.) Since I was in my early teens, I’ve been interested in religion and spirituality from an academic and intellectual perspective, including Buddhism (although Wright quotes a Buddhist with saying if you try to intellectualize not-self and emptiness, instead of experiencing it, your head will explode); 2.) I feel like Buddhism more aligns with my feelings about the world, and specifically, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation was instrumental to my understanding of Buddhism; 3.) My ideology already predisposes me to the idea of liberation; intellectually, I’m an anarchist, and more practically speaking, a libertarian who believes in the “peace, joy and liberation” made possible by human cooperation via free markets, trade, and breaking down all barriers and hierarchies to that cooperation, so, a tradition that emphasizes personal liberation, which extends to benefits for all of humanity, was always going to be appealing to me; and 4.) I quite literally read Wright’s book all day today, and am trying to synthesize major themes. As such, please excuse any blunders I may make in my synthesizing what Wright was himself synthesizing and trying to convey.

If everything I said before my notes was confusing, I think Wright sums it up beautifully on page 33 of the hardcover edition, “This is a reminder that natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.”

We’re basically just a vehicle for our genes, and natural selection’s modus operandi is to ensure the vehicle safely enters the garage of the next generation, as it were. This has its advantages, obviously, such as ensuring I exist (notwithstanding the use of “I” there), but it also has its disadvantages, especially in the modern where were much of the advantages engendered over generations by natural selection are obsolete and yet still operational, and this is how you get suffering, the Buddhists would suggest.

One of the most pervasive things we do as humans, which I think will elucidate what Wright is talking about and how Buddhism can help, is that humans tend to ascribe our negative behavior to situational (we think of ourselves as good people with a strong moral core, so if we’re off track, it’s situational), and we think of the behavior of others as dispositional (they must lack a weak moral core of some sort, and situational factors are not considered). This extends to those we have close friendships with: if someone we are friends with is acting negatively, we rationalize away any notion of disposition and ascribe it to situational. We are good at rationalizing … because of natural selection! We need that narrative to make sense in our heads. Buddhism can help us with empathy and compassion.

I also particularly like how Wright undergirds his argument that Buddhism is true through both presenting psychological and brain science studies showing how our brains are wired to distort reality for us, and his own experience with meditation, which hasn’t always been fruitful. In other words, I think it’s refreshing and enlightening that unlike other popular social science, philosophy, religious and spiritual books, Wright isn’t pretending he found the capital T Truth through one meditation retreat and is now relaying it us. He is not pretending to have all of the answers. Rather, he had some transformative moments through mindfulness meditation, but also feels like he still is guided by the illusion that is the world in other moments. The truth of Buddhism isn’t to suggest a panacea (yes, yes, I know nirvana) through mindfulness meditation, but I think, that getting on the journey toward nirvana is itself positive and fruitful. Because it is the truth, as buoyed by evolutionary psychology and other psychological studies and our scientific understanding of the brain.

In short, I think Wright achieved his aim to prove the truth of Buddhism, and how science and philosophy show us the path forward via meditation to a clearer enlightenment. If you have any interest in this subject, and no matter how you’re approaching it with religious, spiritual, philosophical, scientific, or ideological intrigue, I think you will fill find much to appreciate about Wright’s book. And I should say, it is accessible despite being so heavy in all of those aforementioned fields of study and understanding. He’s a smart guy, to be sure, but he’s also accessible in the way the best popular science writers are: he doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he takes his subject very seriously.

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