"Why Buddhism is True" by Robert Wright

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Last week, I wrote a post exploring what spirituality means, and how it intersects with knowledge and wisdom. Gary Hawker left an insightful comment in which he ruminated, “spirituality begins where knowledge ends and wisdom tells us where the border is.

In Why Buddhism is True, author Robert Wright imparts his wisdom on the secular aspects of Buddhism, focusing on the practice of mindfulness meditation, the concepts of “not-self” and “emptiness” in light of modern day science, and points us towards where that border between knowledge and spirituality might be.

The contentious relationship between science and spirituality (or religion) have long fascinated many great thinkers, from Albert Einstein to Carl Sagan to Yuval Noah Harari and Maria Popova. There’s a common thread that runs through all of their musings — what if spirituality and science didn’t come as an “either/or” statement, but as an “and” statement? What if they are two sides of the same coin? Both have merits in our modern world. The two are complementary, one pushing the other further along its path of evolution and development.

“Every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.”  — Albert Einstein, awarded the Nobel Prize in Theoretical Physics

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.  — Carl Sagan, a uthor of Cosmos

“It is often argued that science and religion are enemies, because both seek the truth, yet each finds a different truth. The fact is that science and religion are allies. Science is interested above all in power. Religion is interested above all in order. Together, they are a winning team.”  — Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens

“When confronted with the world’s complexity, we default into navigating it by creating artificial binaries, perceiving contradiction where they might in fact only be complementarity — the idea that two different ways of regarding reality can both be true, but not at the same time, so in order to describe reality we must choose between the two because the internal validity and coherence of one would interfere with that of the other — is a centerpiece of quantum theory.”— Maria Popova, creator of Brainpickings.org

Disclaimer: to clarify, when I refer to spirituality, I am mostly referring to the Eastern philosophies and practices of Yoga, Buddhism and Taoism, and not to pseudoscience. While there may be truths yet to be discovered in astrology or the occult, I remain skeptical of this domain of spirituality and have not experienced any benefits or improvements in my life in practicing either. I am also skeptical of the Buddhist idea of samsara, though I suppose I find it no more or less astonishing than some of the bizarre and inexplicable phenomenon sometimes found in the realm of science. Hello black holes, event horizons, parallel universes and the Observers Effect in quantum mechanics.

Having spent most of my life in progressive, coastal American cities, I’m often surrounded by people who treat science and data as their religion. I can appreciate their skepticism towards the more esoteric spheres of life — especially since so many have been burned by organized religion. I, too, share these skepticisms, just enough for me to seek out knowledge that might validate these spiritual experiences, but not enough to keep me from acting on faith. This is partly why I meditate — to develop insight into when I’m intellectualizing and the ability to notice the underlying feeling, however subtle, so I can detach myself from the stories and belief systems I’ve created and experience what it is to be.

In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Siddhartha’s greatest challenge is to “lose the power of [his] intellect, to unlearn how to think, to forget the unity.

I think this may be mine, too.


INTRODUCTION

As I wrote in Bridging the Gap: A Chinese Immigrant in America & An Expatriate in China, I’m drawn towards bridging the gap between opposing cultures, tribes, ideologies. Perhaps this is why I’m also fascinated by the intersection of science and spirituality. Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True satisfies my intellectual urge to better understand Buddhism and why it works. (I don’t know whether this newfound knowledge helps or hinders my being able to internalize it, but the book has inspired me to continue meditating.)

For those who have trouble wrapping their minds around the abstract tenets of spirituality and Buddhism, Wright’s book soothes the rational and analytical mind with supporting evidence rooted in cognitive and behavioral psychology as well as evolutionary psychology. He offsets the sciencey bits with anecdotes from his own personal and spiritual experiences, and attempts to bridge the gap with his own theories on how the practice of mindfulness (meditation) can help one find contentment through experiences (however brief) of ego dissolution or “not self,” and “emptiness.”

Wright simplifies Buddhism for his book. He supports his argument with a few dozen studies and theories in evolutionary, cognitive and behavioral psychology, conversations with a handful of Buddhist masters and meditation practitioners, and his own experiences. That said, Wright’s defense of mindfulness meditation and certain Buddhist concepts are tough to rebut. Why Buddhism is True is an illuminating and digestible read for the curious and skeptical.

I’m a big believer in evolution and philosophy as a basis for understanding ourselves and the world in which we live. This is likely why Wright’s book resonates so much. His underlying thesis is that our biology, as programmed by natural selection, is built around the singular goal of passing down and ensuring the survival of our genes, which often comes into conflict with finding contentment and satisfaction. If we programmed artificial intelligence with this singular goal, we’d likely all be doomed. And in some ways, Wright argues, we kind of are, unless we get our shit together and start meditating.

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ON NATURAL SELECTION

On Feelings

“Natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.” — Robert Wright

We’re wired to feel, think and behave in a way that helps natural selection advance its goals. Our programming is elegant in its simplicity — we react to our environment in such a way that will make things “better” (by natural selection’s standards) through “tanha,” a Pali word for thirst, desire, longing or greed, of the physical or mental variety.

Everything we feel, think, say or do can be distilled down into a simple desire — “the desire to obtain or cling to pleasant things or the desire to escape from unpleasant things” (272). This is the driving force behind our suffering. (In some ways, Facebook got it right when they whittled our humanity down to a “Like” button.)

What makes this harder to navigate is that we now live in a more complex world, a world full of temptations and stresses that never previously existed in the history of mankind. Whereas we have an innate partiality towards sugar, which once existed only as seasonal fruit and hard-to-gather honey, we now live in a world of sweet abundance where sugary drinks and powdered donuts permeate our environment and can be delivered to us at the click of a button.

Our bodies with its primal programming and our modern environment are painfully mismatched.

Social anxiety and self-consciousness is another byproduct of our modern environment and environment mismatch. We used to spend our whole lives with more or less the same tribe, our neighbors would have known us well — they would have had quite the collection of data on our behavior and personality — and thus one off-day wouldn’t have skewed their perception of us much. But nowadays, especially in big cities, so many of our encounters are one-offs, with people with whom we have little-to-no history, so social encounters have evolved into high-pressure events, in which we must make a good impression or suffer the illusion of being disliked or judged.

“The point is, whereas our feelings weren’t designed to depict reality accurately even in our ‘natural’ environments, the fact that we’re not living in this ‘natural’ environment makes our feelings even less reliable guides to reality” (41).

Feelings were designed to “encode judgements about things in our environment”(29), and thus to increase our prospects of surviving and reproducing, whether in the form of seeing a snake that 99 times out of 100 isn’t there, experiencing disproportionate road rage or anxiety about social interactions. Unfortunately, these are often illusory, misleading and counterproductive to our well-being.

That’s not to say all feelings are bad, Wright clarifies, and this is where he makes a case for why Buddhism’s practice of mindfulness meditation just might be the way through:

“[There is] virtue of subjecting your feelings to investigation — inspecting them to see which ones deserve obedience and which ones don’t, and trying to free yourself form the grip of the ones that don’t… It’s in the nature of feelings to make it hard to tell the valuable ones from the harmful ones, the reliable from the misleading. One thing all feelings have in common is that they were originally “designed” to convince you to follow them. They feel right and true almost by definition. They actively discourage you from viewing them objectively” (42).

On Causality

This is a complex yet important concept in Buddhism. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright focuses on one aspect of causality, pratītyasamutpāda, translated as “interdependent arising” or sometimes “dependent arising” in English. It states that all phenomena arise in dependence upon other phenomena, as captured by the quote: “If this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that ceases to exist.” Wright uses the term “conditioned arising” to refer to the same point, and provides a simplified version of how this condition relates to our feelings and to “tanha.”

Wright wisely does not expound on the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, which would necessitate diving into Samara and the Six Realms (often oversimplified as reincarnation), and the Wheel of Life, as these concepts vary in interpretation and understanding across the different schools of Buddhist thought. Instead, Wright draws our attention to a section of the twelve links, to how “tanha,” our desire to move towards or away from pleasant or unpleasant experiences, emerges from our feelings, which emerge from a subjective experience of our six sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind) coming into contact with the environment, which arise from our having six sensory organs, so on and so forth.

“Through the condition of the sensory faculties, contact arises. And here is the next link: Through the condition of contact, feelings arise — which makes sense, because, remember, in the Buddhist view (and in the view of many modern psychologists), the things we perceive through our sense organs tend to come with feelings attached, however subtle the feelings. Then, in the next causal link, feelings give rise to tanha, to ‘craving:’ we crave the pleasant feelings and crave to escape the unpleasant feelings” (218).

Wright believes these are the “conditioned” reactions natural selection has built into our biology, to react reflexively to whatever input impinges our senses. To become “unconditioned” is to free ourselves from the chain of causatory events that trigger feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Whereas we can’t exactly avoid contact with the external environment, we can, through mindfulness meditation, observe and become more aware of these feelings as they arise and fade. This isn’t always easy, as some of these feelings are extremely subtle, but with practice and repetition, we can recognize these feelings for what they are, appreciate their ephemeral quality, and respond rather than react.

On Thoughts

Like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Wright too has trouble overcoming his intellect, his thoughts:

“I’ve gotten reasonably good at viewing my feelings with some objectivity — actually watching them arise as if I were watching some character walk ont stage. (At least I’m pretty good at this while meditating; in everyday life my record is more mixed.) But I find it harder to view my thoughts with such detachment” (110).

This may be because we live in an era of rationality, where intellect and logical thought are praised and rewarded. For a long time, I thought the world was divided between feelers and thinkers — the popularization of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test in recent decades has helped drive this idea home. I’ve since changed my mind. We are all feelers at our core, but some of us may be better at feeling those feelings and others better at intellectualizing those feelings. However, with the recent cognitive revolution, many of us may find ourselves identifying more strongly with our thoughts than with our feelings.

Curiosity, often thought of as a characteristic of the thinking mind has its foundation in a feeling. In brains scans, they’ve found that “a curious state of mind involves activity in the dopamine system, the system involved in motivation and reward, in desire and pleasure” (117).

“Feelings tell us what to think about, and then after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do. Over the history of our evolutionary lineage, thinking has played a larger and larger role in action, but the thinking has always had both its beginning and its end in feelings” (124).

That’s not to say reasoning doesn’t play a role in what we ultimately do — it does, but it does so by influencing feelings. Wright shares an example of the decision-making process behind eating a chocolate bar. We’re driven by the feel-good effect to eat the chocolate bar, but we read an article yesterday about how sugar is bad for our health, so we also feel a sense of guilt or self-deprecation. This feeling impinges on our consciousness and disguises itself as rational thought, causing us to believe our decision to abstain from eating the chocolate bar was a deliberate, well-thought-out decision. But what actually transpired is that the two opposing feelings battle each other and the stronger feeling wins and appears in consciousness as a thought.

“Reason has its effect not by directly pushing back against a feeling but by fortifying the feeling that does do the pushing back… ‘Reason alone,’ [David] Hume argued, ‘can never oppose passion in the direction of the wall.’ Nothing ‘can oppose or retard the impulse of passion but a contrary impulse’” (126).

We can think of feelings as participants in a never-ending war, and reason as the weapon or strategy of choice in a particular battle. A good weapon or strategy can help one side win the battle, but its worth lies in having a side to fight for in the first place.

Joshua Greene, a neuroscientist at Harvard, found that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, often associated with abstract reasoning, is deeply interweaved with our dopamine system:

“From a neural and evolutionary perspective, our reasoning systems are not independent logic machines. They are outgrowths of more primitive mammalian system s for selecting rewarding behaviors — cognitive prostheses for enterprising mammals” (127).


ON NOT-SELF

The core Buddhist tenet of not-self — that a self does not exist — is founded on the idea that if a true self were to exist, it would be in control and persist through time.

On Control

Without getting too deep into Buddhist philosophy, Wright provides a brief introduction to the five components typically associated with the make-up of an individual or “self.” These five aggregates are known as the five skandhas and include: 1) form, or the physical body along with all of its sensory organs, 2) feelings, 3) perceptions or recognitions, 4) mental formations, or formation of opinions which may include complex emotion, thoughts, intentions, etc., and 5) consciousness or awareness.

On close observation, the Buddha argues, we do not have complete control over any of these five aggregates, and this is something we can observe and experience ourselves whenever we sit in mindfulness meditation. Our sensory organs operate autonomically most of the time, feelings, perceptions and thoughts appear and disappear much to the beat of their own drums. And so the logic goes, since there’s no central seat of control for these five components, there must not be a “self.”

On Impermanence

The second argument against the existence of a “self” is based on the transitory, fleeting nature of these five aggregates. Our physical body grows and decays throughout life, our feelings fluctuate minute by minute, our perceptions shift, as do our mental formations. The Buddha argues that all of these are temporary, conditioned phenomena and that there is no lasting, cohesive “self” to be found anywhere.

It is our attachment to these aggregates, our identification with them — to our body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, etc. — that creates the illusion of there being a self or an “I,” and causes suffering. Only when we internalize the experience of impermanence (beyond just an intellectual understanding), when we cease to engage with these aggregates as “me,” “my,” “mine,” or “I,” can we begin to see reality as it is and break ourselves out of the cycle of suffering.


ON EMPTINESS

On Illusion

Why have this illusion of “self” to begin with? How does having a sense of “self” benefit us? Wright ties all of this back to natural selection — to a brilliant line in our code — that gives us the ability to delude and depict ourselves “as rational, self-aware actors [and] convince the world that we’re coherent, consistent actors who have things under control” (82). This, in turn, helps us survive and pass our genes along.

The way we delude ourselves are plentiful, Wright explains how we delude ourselves by believing we’re more in control than we are, how we often misjudge ourselves as being “above average,” competent and good, especially relative to others, and how we have a tendency to overestimate “dispositional” factors and underestimate “situational” factors when it comes to other people’s behaviors (176). This body of research and growing literature — better known as cognitive biases — extends far beyond what Wright shares in his book, to authors and researchers such as Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman, who have done fascinating work on the topics of dishonesty, liesintuition and faulty reasoning.

Yet this can all be traced back to our feelings, which can “render judgment so subtly that we don’t realize that it’s the feelings that are rendering the judgment; we think the judgment is objective” (238). Wright ruminates on how mindfulness meditation can help mitigate our reactive judgments:

“The Buddha believed that the less you judge things — including the contents of your mind — the more clearly you’ll see them, and the less deluded you’ll be” (71).

On Essence

Essence is related to the elusive and often misunderstood concept of “emptiness” or shunyata in traditional Buddhist thought. Beyond the illusion of there being an individual “self,” a core tenet of Mahayana Buddhism states that all phenomena are devoid of intrinsic identity and that whatever identity exists only exists because of its interdependency on other phenomena. In lieu of “reality,” there exists only relativity.

A chair is a chair not because it is inherently a chair, but because its atomic composition has come together in such a way that when light hits it, the photons imprint onto our visual consciousness and is then recognized in our minds as a chair, replete with all previous associations and memories we might have of a chair.

“Nothing possesses inherent existence; nothing contains all the ingredients of ongoing existence within itself; nothing is self-sufficient. Hence the idea of emptiness: all things are empty of inherent, independent existence” (202).

This includes us. We, too, do not have an inherent existence, and the illusory “self” keeps us from perceiving this. When we internalize this as a perception, beyond just cognitive understanding, we can then experience reality as a set of…

“…raw sensory data without doing what we’re naturally inclined to do: build a theory about what is at the heart of the data and then encapsulate that theory in a sense of essence” (148).

The danger of essence is precisely in its relativity. The way we treat ourselves, other people, nations and the environment has everything to do with the singular and sometimes collective essence we assign them. Hence why it’s important for us to acquire the ability to see things as they truly are, rather than as we feel or think them to be, which is so often illusory. According to Wright, mindfulness meditation can get us there.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Our feelings help us make implicit, rapid judgements about whether something is good for us or bad for us, and to behave accordingly. When we accept our own interests as the benchmark for whether these judgements are accurate, we accept…

“…natural selection’s basic frame of reference: that [we] are special: [our] interests are the most important interests, and therefore our particular perspective — the perspective that judges everything in relation to those interests — is the appropriate perspective for evaluating the goodness or badness of things in the world” (234).

I don’t think further elaboration is needed as to why this might be a perilous path to continue down.

Inspired by Albert Einstein’s approach towards understanding relativity, where the famous physicist would detach himself from a particular perspective by asking not only how fast things move in relation to us, but also how fast things move, period, Wright ruminates on how things might look “when we let go of our particular perspective — the perspective that the feelings that shape the perceived essences of things were designed to serve” (236)?

His answer? Essence disappears. As Henry Sidgwick, a moral philosopher of the 19th century mused:

“‘[There is] the self-evident principle that the good of the any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other’” (240).

Wright sees meditation and the path towards enlightenment as a way to battle the soulless programming instilled into us by natural selection, where the concepts of “not-self” and “emptiness” are not just abstract cognitive concepts but are instead transformed into deep, insightful convictions with the power to change our lives.

While research in recent years have shown that mindfulness and meditation can reduce stress and increase happiness, the existence of a non-local consciousness, of “not self” and “emptiness” have yet to found and corroborated by science. Here, we’re each given the choice to disbelieve, believe or have faith, and of these three, it is faith that paves the way for science and for spirituality. It is through a leap of faith that we find the courage and the curiosity to experience our own Truths.

To wrap all of this up, I’ll leave you with a quote by Alan Watts, who popularized Eastern philosophy in the West, from his book The Wisdom of Insecurity:

Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would ‘lief’ or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”


FURTHER READING

Complement with “An Exploration of What It Means to be Spiritual But Not Religious,” Maria Popova’s post on Sam Harris on Happiness, Spirituality Without Religion and How to Cultivate the Art of Presence,” Aeon’s essay on Buddhism and Self -Deception,” Sam Harris’ podcast with Robert Wright “Is Buddhism True?” and Gaia’s post on Consciousness is a Big Problem for Science.”