Robert Wright’s latest book, Why Buddhism is True: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment, extends his previous thesis in the Moral Animal that we’ve evolved to evolve. This time Wright appeals to Buddhism, a 2600-year-old religion and its philosophy to scaffold a more positive spin on genes-making-genes-making-genes.
Is Wright right?
Has he broken through to Buddhism as true?
By “true”, he means he’s discovered enough scientific evidence to support it as the True Path to making those nasty narcissistic genes a kinder, gentler mechanism for a world riddled with anger, craving, and delusion.
Wright starts tentatively, with a level of apologetics one would expect from someone about to tell a 4-year-old there isn’t any Santa Claus. Except that he’s about to tell us there is one. To give him credit, he does it was a chatty style and several appeals to modern tropes – the Matrix, addictions (to sugar donuts), tribalism – so that we can feel Buddhism is really about feeling good in our 21st-century life. And that’s where, in many places, Wright may be getting it wrong.
Honestly, when he started talking about the “Red Pill”, I was casting back to Lewis Carroll whose Wonderland is a far tighter lesson in impermanence, not-self, suffering, delusion, and all those nice things we wade around in when we practice Buddhism. In fact, most of the metaphors or teaching points Wright uses are thin explorations of the depth and richness of Buddhist philosophy and practices. Well, let me step back from that flat-footed statement: if you’re Buddhist-curious but religion-averse and philosophy-eclectic, Wright’s interpretation and frequent insertion of 21st-century desires into Buddhist foundational concepts help get over the aversion and through the often confusing rounds of Buddhist-y thought.
Start with his attitude to meditation: “I wouldn’t advocate meditation if I didn’t think there was something people could achieve by it.” That might help as a rationale to meditate. Then he gets into a circular spin-out scare-quoting “success” in meditation and offering the typical paradox of “try not try”. Still, given the zeitgeist today of everyone and their parent being meditation-curious or a meditation-surfer, the second chapter carries some appeal and reassurance that even scientists can fall into more twisted logic than a dozen boxes of red licorice. Ironically and with the possibility that this review loses all credibility, Chapter Two has some merit.
After that, if you’re schooled in Buddhist practice and have some glancing familiarity with the Noble Truths (4 of them), poisons (3 and they’re nasty), aggregates (five and they create everything), you may find Wright’s reading of psycho-social-neuro-psychology into them an interesting journey. For the most part, he does well with the attributes of being human and how meditation has support as a means of unravelling the knots of our suffering. However, and it’s a BIG however, Wright is never clear about the term “feelings”. Of course, it’s easier to foster companionship between Buddhism and evolution psychology (genes just wanna have fun) if we call it all feelings/emotions. That allows for setting up the fight-flight-flee model to explain how we come to crave sugar donuts (really).
But Buddhist feelings are not Western Feelings. It may seem a picayune detail but, really, it’s not. Because Wright maintains a confounded view of vedana with emotions throughout the book, his careful building of arguments that meditation (insight meditation specifically) is the cure-all of the poisons (his focus) misses the point: Meditation is not a DIY self-renovation project attained through understanding its psycho-socio-neuro-correlates. In fact, he goes quite a bit astray when he continuously notes that the common ground of Buddhism and evolution psychology is the desire to improve, to avoid unpleasant experiences (because that ends the genetic lineage), and to not get worked up in case those genes make a bad decision.
When Wright writes:
Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, an attempt to give the calm passions more power and give the violent passions less power.
he is making the role of practice an instrumental process and, while that may be start-point, to remain there is what is called a thin understanding.
The frustration is that Wright has the chops to offer a thick understanding of the philosophy and process of Buddhist thought and practice. Unfortunately, from the feeling/Feelings frying pan he leaps into the fire of emptiness and then “oneness”. Having taken an online course on Buddhism and Psychology he offered, I did like his teaching style and found him thoughtful. I still do. But not in every aspect of Why Buddhism is True.
If you read between the lines of the dialogues he had with his teachers (Joseph Goldstein among them), there were words of caution offered to him about the direction of his thinking. I wish he’d listened a bit closer and let the teachings penetrate deeper. Then again, like Gutei’s student who ran around holding up his finger because he saw Gutei do that, who hasn’t been consumed with the need to explain the inexplicable. And with the glut of “This is the real Buddhism” books, I certainly understand the urge (like his addiction to sugar donuts) to get his view out there.
Writing style: chatty, personable, easy to read
Will it help: Depends on what you’re looking for. Beginners would feel reassured. Seasoned practitioners may find some interesting nuggets that tie together a spiritual canon with modern science. Some may have quibbles about many things and depending on your level of seasoning these may become points of practice.
Assessing the Value of Buddhism, for Individuals and for the World by ANTONIO DAMASIO Aug 7, 2017
What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t: Examining the science and supernaturalism of Buddhism by Adam Gopnik Aug 7 & 14, 2017 (Wright’s comments defending his take on emptiness are in the comments.)
A Science Writer Embraces Buddhism as a Path to Enlightenment by Gregory Cowles Aug 25, 2017
Meditation can make us happy, but can it also make us good? by Nick Romeo Aug 25, 2017
“I want,” in all its many flavors, brings people to practice and we can celebrate that.
But we don’t practice simply to develop a more genetically acceptable “I want.” We practice to discover that the “I” and the “want” are clouds that obscure what it means to be human.
When the clouds part, even a little, our human job becomes clear. It’s not about me.
Thanks, my friend, for keeping your blog alive!
Well, look who’s here! How are you, old friend Ox Herder?
Hi Dear Friend, Now I’m living in Arizona. And I’ve started writing Ox Herding again, maybe once or twice each week. Hope you’re well!
Thanks for this thoughtful, and thought-provoking, review, Lynette. I too had a mix of positive and negative responses to Wright’s book. Among its faults – in my view, and it would seem in yours as well – are that opening chapter (meditation compared to taking the “red pill”, indeed!), his overuse and under-definition of the term “feelings”, and his often inadequate paraphrasing of the insights offered by the more experienced teachers with whom he conversed in preparation for writing the book. I was, and still am, also bothered by his evangelical-like assertion that Buddhism is “true” – very off-putting to a secular Buddhist like myself, and I suspect not very persuasive to non-Buddhists who might otherwise be in sympathy with his evolutionary psychology-based approach. But despite these flaws, he won me over with his closing chapters, where his focus turned to the growing tribalism manifesting itself in our own country and in so many others throughout the world. I found myself in strong agreement with the crucial role he thinks Buddhist thought can play in reversing this alarming trend. I hope to pursue this thesis myself in a new blog I’m developing, and will probably refer back to Wright’s book from time to time as a reference source. And when I do so, I will almost certainly refer back to your review as well, the better to keep myself aware of where Wright gets it right, and where he doesn’t.