Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright
One reason that this is an important book is obvious – at number 5 or 8 or 11 on the New York Times Best Sellers, depending what you’re looking at – it’s reaching a lot of people.
It could, of course, be important but not a fair or positive presentation. Fortunately, after reading Wright’s ambitious undertaking Why Buddhism is True, I can say that, in my view, it is a sound working through of some important aspects of the buddhadharma through the lens of personal experience, the traditional teaching, and evolutionary psychology.
A Summary by someone else
What does Wright have to say in a nutshell (that is, a biggish nutshell)? Antonio DaMasio in his review, “Assessing the Value of Buddhism for Individuals and the World” says it really well:
“First, the beneficial powers of meditation come from the possibility of realizing that our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender — which operate in automated fashion, outside our deliberate control — are often inappropriate and even counterproductive relative to the situations that trigger them. Second, the mismatch between causes and responses is rooted in evolution. We have inherited from our nonhuman and human forerunners a complex affect apparatus suited to life circumstances very different from ours. That apparatus — which is controlled from varied sectors of our nervous systems — was created by natural selection and assisted by genetic transmission over a long period of time. It worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers, but it has worked far less well as cultures became more complex. Third, meditation allows us to realize that the idea of the self as director of our decisions is an illusion, and that the degree to which we are at the mercy of a weakly controlled system places us at a considerable disadvantage. Fourth, the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.”
DaMasio summarizes the content well, but, in my view, doesn’t get the flavor.
Wright is an engaging author, effectively speaking directly to the reader, while at the same time sharing his retreat experiences as a student of Vipassana/mindfulness meditation at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. No wonder this book sells! Those interested in meditation retreats will find this aspect of the book particularly compelling, getting a glimpse of what is possible from the early stages of intensive practice.
But that’s not all. This is no fluff project. Wright starts the book with the well-worn-but-worth-another-run scene from the first Matrix movie with Morpheus offering Neo the blue or the red pill. Wright would take the red pill, then walk through the door to illuminate the illusion of this life, at least by his earnest description, if not always through personal experience.
How so? Wright digs into the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, formations, consciousness), the teaching of nonself, and emptiness while offering passages from the Pali Canon, even quoting the Buddha. I think that’s just incredible for a best seller. Has that ever happened before? And, of course, he uses psychological research and a modern paradigm, the “module” view of the self, that supports a good deal of what the Buddha and generations of practitioners have discovered in meditation.Refreshingly and consistent with modernity, Wright also acknowledges that
“There’s roughly no chance that all the sayings attributed to [Shakyamuni Buddha] in Buddhist texts were uttered by him. In fact, some scholars will tell you that there is little or nothing in these texts that we can confidently attribute to him. Like the “historical Jesus,” the “historical Buddha” is hard to discern through the mists of history.”
What’s most engaging?
I found myself most engaged in sections where Wright shares conversations he’s had with some of his Vipassana teachers, particularly the well-known Joseph Goldstein and less well-known Rodney Smith (author of another excellent book, Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart).
Here’s an excerpt of one of Wright’s conversations with Goldstein.
“Let me see if I have this right. During meditation, you can begin to see that . . . whereas you might have thought all your life that you’re thinking thoughts—the thing you think of as ‘you’ is thinking thoughts—it’s closer to being the case that the thoughts try to capture you, the thing you think of as ‘you.’ ”
“They come from somewhere in your body, somewhere in your brain.”
So far so good. But then I pressed the point too far for Goldstein’s taste. I said, “But whatever part of the brain or body you think of as you is more like the captive of the thoughts; the thoughts try to reach out and grab that—”
“That’s kind of an interesting way to describe it, and it certainly feels like that. But I would phrase it a little differently. It’s just that the thoughts are arising and there’s a strong habit of mind to be identified with them. So it’s not so much they have the intent to reach out and capture us, but rather there’s this very strong habitual identification. This is how we’ve lived our lives, and it takes practice to try to break this conditioning, to be mindful of the thought rather than be lost in it.”
Wright has been criticized, along with others of his ilk (like me), for being a Modernist or Secular Buddhist. He acknowledges that he doesn’t believe in rebirth, for instance, and that he is selecting aspects of Traditional Buddhism that most resonate with him and his evolutionary psychology perspective. If that’s a negative for you, you might still read the book with bare attention just to beef up your practice of sympathetic joy.
That’s not to say that Why Buddhism is True plumbs the depths of the dharma ocean and will replace Dogen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye or Nagarjuna’s Discourse on the Middle Way. It is, however, an excellent introductory book, directed at a “normal” reader, and covers a lot of ground that is shared, at least, by the Vipassana and Zen lineages.
The main difference that I see between his presentation of practice and Zen is not in the analysis of illusion of a solid self and world, but about the skillful means to realize what’s true. Wright talks a lot about detachment or nonattachment. The Zen way is through intimacy and identity action.
But then Why Buddhism is True isn’t a Zen book.
I hope that it points more people, suffering in the swirl of this life, to the real possibility of awakening so (to paraphrase Albert Low) instead of using Manjushri’s sword to sharpen a pencil (blue-pill practice), wielding the flaming clarity of nondual wisdom to cut through illusion and benefit beings.
I also hope that I live to see the day that somebody writes a Zen book that reaches as many people with such intelligence and grace as Why Buddhism is True.