I review Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. While it’s not necessary to know the “why” of things in order for Buddhist practice to be effective (and it can actually be a distraction), sometimes it can help us gain additional freedom from our subjective experiences.
I’m busy with other things this week so I’m not releasing a full episode. However, I figured I’d take a moment to give you a quick book review.
I’ve been working my way through Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.[i] It’s not often, after studying Buddhism for 25 years, I find contemporary books on Buddhism personally helpful. However, this book has really impressed me. Wright shares some fascinating modern psychological research that backs up the age-old observations of Buddhism, and those parts of the book are cool. However, what matters more to me is the way Wright presents cogent and convincing arguments – using psychological theory and research, and evolutionary theory – for how and why human beings ended up the way they are through natural selection. He also offers theories as to why Buddhist practice – particularly meditation and mindfulness – works to help us cope with the tricky mental and physical beings we are.
Before I get to talking about Wright’s book, however, let me backtrack a moment to put it in the larger context of Buddhism. There are a number of core observations about human nature that Buddhism uses as a starting point: We’re often deluded and subject to the whims of our desires and aversions; we seem to have no inherent, enduring self-nature even though we sure feel like we do; self-control is surprisingly challenging, and meditation and mindfulness help our lives go more smoothly, with considerably less suffering. The thing is, Buddhism doesn’t speculate why these things are true. Sure, Buddhist philosophers throughout time have pondered such questions, but the core teachings and practices have nothing to do with contemplating why we are the way we are, and why Buddhist practice helps.
Fundamentally, that’s because it doesn’t matter why. We can end up wasting our whole lives caught up in philosophical “why” questions and therefore fail to actually practice. Famously, the Buddha gave a teaching on just this issue in a Sutta called, “The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya.”[ii] The Buddha lists all kinds of topics a spiritual seeker might ponder, like “The cosmos is eternal,” “The cosmos is not eternal,” “The soul and the body are the same,” “The soul is one thing and the body another,” “After death a Buddha exists,” “After death a Buddha does not exist.” The Buddha explains that if someone postpones practice until they have answers to these kinds of questions, they will die without having achieved any liberation – just as a man shot with a poisoned arrow would die if he refused to have it removed until he knew the answer to bunch of questions like, “Who shot this arrow? What clan was he from? What village, town, or city? Was he tall or short? What kind of bow did he use?”
So… while it’s not essential to Buddhism or Buddhist practice to know the why of things, I find Wright’s explanations have increased my willingness to question my subjective experiences. His book alone probably wouldn’t have helped me much in that regard, but in combination with practice it gives me another level of detachment (and Wright, himself a practicing Buddhist, actually makes this point himself – that it’s practice plus understanding that makes a winning combo).
For example, Wright offers theories about how natural selection may have led to human beings who are easily deluded and carried away by their feelings. He explains how feelings evolved to maximize our chances of survival and reproduction, not to necessarily reflect reality. If, in the grand scheme of things, it pays for us to overreact to everything that looks like a snake, because one time out of a thousand that thing we just stepped on isn’t just a stick but a poisonous snake, so be it. Natural selection didn’t care about whether the overreactions were a pleasant experience for us.
The coolest theory I encountered in Wright’s book is about why we might have evolved such a strong sense of “Executive I.” Wright calls this our “conscious self” in a chapter called “Your CEO is MIA.” He presents research on how human beings can be completely unaware of what’s actually motivating them, but if you ask them why they’re doing something, they’ll come up with a coherent answer about making conscious choices. Wright then presents a modern theory in evolutionary psychology about how our sense of conscious self evolved as a way for us communicate with others and present ourselves as “coherent, consistent actors who have things under control.” After, Wright explains, if our prehistoric ancestors were deciding who in the tribe to go hunting with, they’d probably pick someone who offered a coherent narrative explaining their behavior than someone who said, “I don’t really know why I got up or where I’m going. Sometimes I just do stuff for reasons that make no sense to me.”
I admit that even though I’ve practiced Buddhism for 25 years, my sense of conscious self is still pretty captivating. It’s difficult not to imagine there’s something special about it. After all, why would our sense of self be so strong if it didn’t reflect some essential aspect of reality? When I think about my sense of self as narrative explanation of my life – for my own benefit as well as for the sake of others – I can more easily let go of attachment to my sense of self, without denying it’s a very real phenomenon.
What about free will? And how does Buddhist practice help us? You’ll have to read Wright’s book to find out.
[i] Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2017.
[ii] “Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya” (MN 63), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html .