The Truth of Buddhism

I was impressed by Robert Wright’s Nonzero (2001) and The Evolution of God (2009), so I was eager to read his most recent book, which is Why Buddhism Is True (2017).

Wright links this book with his previous work in evolutionary psychology, and he combines this work with research in neuroscience and psychology to explain how buddhism reduces regret, anxiety, and other negative experiences and increases appreciation of beauty and other people. In particular, he uses a modular model of the human mind that developed as a result of natural selection. 

The most useful part, I thought, was the alternative explanation of self-control. Wright explains that conventional accounts suggest that self-control can be increased with practice. Instead, he argues that self-control is less an issue of strengthening skills and more a result of neutralizing mental modules that, while perhaps useful to ancestors, are counterproductive to contemporary human experience.

The challenge, he suggests, is that these modules, after several times of being reinforced, become so powerful that “countervailing modules” cannot compete (132). This perspective, which describes self-control is an issue of reinforced habits, leads to an alternative solution, which involves recognizing, accepting, investigating, and then non-identifying with these feelings, or RAIN (134). As such, this approach allows individuals to disrupt the rewards, and subsequent associations, that reinforce these habits and can create new connections, which results, over time, in reduction and even cessation of these urges (135-136).

Nevertheless, I liked this book less than I expected, in part because I was expecting, or hoping for, more research, and less testimony. I also wanted more insight into questions about engaged experiences — how does sitting, for example, not create less connection with daily experiences and other individuals? Wright and I share these concerns — he argues that sitting enhances experiences and compounds compassion — but he doesn’t supply sufficient answers to this and other questions.

Wright also avoids my central concern, which involves the implications of buddhism for the meta-narratives that make our lives meaningful. At most, he acknowledges Eastern religious aspects of buddhism, which he then mostly ignores, and suggests Western practices of buddhism are at least not inconsistent with Christianity and other accounts. Still, I wanted more.

Wright, Robert. 2017. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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