Robert Wright is one of my favorite authors, and I have previously read his books:
1) Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny;
2) The Evolution of God;
3) Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information; and
4) The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (I taught out of this one.)
His most recent work comes with the audacious title: Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Wright isn’t talking about supernatural Buddhism or its more exotic elements like reincarnation. Instead, he’s interested in the naturalistic parts of Buddhism that can be examined by psychology and philosophy. However, this includes some radical and life-altering claims about nirvana, enlightenment, emptiness, impermanence, overcoming craving, and the doctrine of no-self.
Wright’s basic claim is “that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” (15) Now Wright is no tender-minded, new age thinker, and he complements his careful analysis of Buddhist ideas by sharing his experiences meditating. Wright analyzes Buddhist ideas in light of his years of study of Buddhist doctrines, discussions with Buddhist scholars and meditation masters, his own meditative experiences, and especially Darwinian natural selection.
Natural selection is crucial here, as it has wired our brains in ways that cause suffering. Buddhist thinkers detected these tendencies long ago, although they didn’t know about evolution. So Buddhism is a rebellion against much of the evolutionary wiring our brains in order that we can see reality more clearly.
This is all important today because we now possess such destructive power. Combine this power with hatred, which derives from a brain designed by evolution to believe that it is special and its ideas always right, and we are in a dangerous situation. Thus Wright believes we need a revolution in consciousness to overcome this bias toward self and tribe that threatens our survival. A first step would be to realize emptiness, the no-self, and the freedom that results from this understanding. Perhaps we can then see at a deeper level than natural selection designed us to do, and marvel and be thankful for what we find.
The only problem I have with the work is that while we would certainly be better off if more people meditated, were less egocentric, minimized craving, and all the rest, I doubt this will happen, at least not on a planetary scale. Wright is aware of this criticism but hopes that whatever small gains we make in becoming self-aware are worth it. On the other hand, I believe that we should use technology to redesign our brains to make them more intellectually and morally virtuous, more capable of experiencing truth, beauty, goodness, and joy. Or perhaps we could scan the brains of meditators and transfer elements of their consciousness to the rest of us. Something like taking a Buddhist chill pill. But we definitely need high-tech fixes and we won’t survive without them.
Let me conclude by saying that Wright is a wonderful writer whose prose engages and inspires. Reading the book invites us to further study Buddhism and begin to meditate. One of the most compelling works I’ve read in a long time.
5 thoughts on “Review of Robert Wright’s, Why Buddhism is True”
I am glad you brought up “Why Buddhism is True” for discussion. Like you, I feel it was one of the best books I have read recently. In this book Wrights has stood Buddhism on its feet; now it is founded on science and the fact of evolution by natural selection instead of on myths and anecdotes of supernatural deeds.
John, the adoption of a wise way of life may not need to happen on a planetary scale in the sense of almost everyone; you just need it to happen to the critical mass in a population (between 2 to 20%) to effect the transformation in every nation and the world. This percentage can be achieved through education from kindergarten up to university level. But what would children learn to lead a wise way of living? I believe that they would learn some mixture of critical thinking, creative thinking, virtues and some mental and affective practices. I will also venture to propose that p4c (philosophy for children) will take care of the critical and creative parts of the teaching or training.
But how would such education be achieved on a national and international scale? Here, I will take the he Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as an example to go by. The world intellectual and political leaders must first be convinced of the absolute necessity of such a programme to save humanity from destroying itself through discussing the issue at world conferences such as Davos. Then a charter should be drawn and passed by a UN general assembly. This way every member country of the UN will be tasked on a regular basis to provide evidence for its development along the path of wisdom and away from tribal nationalism in the same way they are tasked on their adherence to the UDHR.
Really great ideas here, most of which I’ve never thought about. I can only hope that thoughtful persons like yourself are able to influence such things. And education for children is crucial to our future survival and flourishing. When you look at say most American politicians for example you can tell that they weren’t love much as children.
Yes John, in my little area where I can take decisions I have tried to do something. I am the founder and owner of private schools and kindergartens where almost ten thousand students of various nationalities and cultures pursue their education. More than a year ago we had started p4c as a pilot project in one of the schools from kindergarten to year 6 precisely because I thought that p4c would be a good foundation for teaching children to think and behave wisely. This year we are extending this to all campuses. At higher levels, we are exploring ways of integrating the method of p4c with in the pedagogy of every subject. My hope is to eventually see this process develop into a full wisdom course.
Thanks for this. I haven’t read the book yet, but I heard Wright talk about it in two illuminating podcasts. One was with the positive psychologist Scott Barry Kauffman who is a bit of a meditation skeptic:
The other was with Sam Harris who has a much, much deeper understanding of Buddhism and experience with meditation:
I’m reading “The Way of Zen” right now by Alan Watts, and the first half of the book traces the history of Taoism, Confucianism, and different forms of Buddhism, before ending up at Zen Buddhism (the last of these major strains of Eastern thought). I searched your site to see if you’d written about Watts before and I’m glad you have, but I don’t think you’ve covered this book at all. I found it to be by far the best explanation of Buddhist ways of thinking about no-self that I’ve seen–but especially for someone schooled in Western philosophy to really grasp what he’s saying. I don’t think I would have “gotten” this book five years ago (let alone 20). And I don’t think Wright has grasped Buddhism at this kind of level yet either (he will be the first to tell you this in his podcasts), nor does Wright really believe anything is really TRUE (the title was foisted upon him by marketers, although he can explain some way in which he can accept it), but Wright is an excellent stepping stone for many skeptics about meditation and Buddhism. He’s like a gateway drug of eastern priests if you will. At least, that’s what I’ve come to see him and this book as.
Alan Watts was an early influence on me and I have read many of his books. As I remember it, The Way of Zen basically introduced Zen to the West. I had it on my shelf for years but never got around to reading it. I’ll go back to it especially since the no-self doctrine is so profound. (I’ve written about it before. Thanks for reminding me of it.)