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Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment Hardcover – August 8, 2017
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“A sublime achievement.”
—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
“Provocative, informative and... deeply rewarding.... I found myself not just agreeing [with] but applauding the author.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“I have been waiting all my life for a readable, lucid explanation of Buddhism by a tough-minded, skeptical intellect. Here it is. This is a scientific and spiritual voyage unlike any I have taken before.”
—Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and bestselling author of Authentic Happiness
“This is exactly the book that so many of us are looking for. Writing with his characteristic wit, brilliance, and tenderhearted skepticism, Robert Wright tells us everything we need to know about the science, practice, and power of Buddhism.”
—Susan Cain, bestselling author of Quiet
“A fantastically rational introduction to meditation…. It constantly made me smile a little, and occasionally chuckle…. A wry, self-deprecating, and brutally empirical guide to the avoidance of suffering.”
—Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine
“Robert Wright brings his sharp wit and love of analysis to good purpose, making a compelling case for the nuts and bolts of how meditation actually works. This book will be useful for all of us, from experienced meditators to hardened skeptics who are wondering what all the fuss is about.”
—Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society and bestselling author of Real Happiness
“What happens when someone steeped in evolutionary psychology takes a cool look at Buddhism? If that person is, like Robert Wright, a gifted writer, the answer is this surprising, enjoyable, challenging, and potentially life-changing book.”
—Peter Singer, professor of philosophy at Princeton University and author of Ethics in the Real World
“Delightfully personal, yet broadly important.”
“[Why Buddhism is True] will become the go-to explication of Buddhism for modern western seekers, just as The Moral Animal remains the go-to explication of evolutionary psychology.”
“Cool, rational, and dryly cynical, Robert Wright is an unlikely guide to the Dharma and ‘not-self.’ But in this extraordinary book, he makes a powerful case for a Buddhist way of life and a Buddhist view of the mind. With great clarity and wit, he brings together personal anecdotes with insights from evolutionary theory and cognitive science to defend an ancient yet radical world-view. This is a truly transformative work.”
—Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University and author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion
About the Author
Robert Wright is the New York Times bestselling author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal, Three Scientists and their Gods (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Why Buddhism Is True. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the widely respected Bloggingheads.tv and MeaningofLife.tv. He has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Time, Slate, and The New Republic. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton University, where he also created the popular online course “Buddhism and Modern Psychology.” He is currently Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
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Secular, naturalistic Buddhism rests on a few key ideas: the idea that people don't have an essential 'self' (no-self), the idea that dissatisfaction (dukkha) is caused by the 'hedonic treadmill' of pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, and that meditation can help us to get off this treadmill. The philosophical approach is similar to that of Stephen Batchelor in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist and Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World.
There is a decidedly Gnostic bent to the writing here, right from the beginning, when the movie The Matrix is cited. Here natural selection is the process which holds us in a state of delusion, warps our perceptions of reality, prevents us from experiencing lasting contentment and satisfaction, and keeps us trapped on the hedonic treadmill. And secular-Buddhism is The Way (the 'red pill') that will liberate us from this endless drama of delusion and frustration. This view of evolution stands in marked contrast with that of Wright's previous book, The Evolution of God (Back Bay Readers' Pick), in which biological and cultural evolution are instead 'divine' processes by which the Good becomes manifest in the world. (The God-as-Evolution view is also that of the 'Integral' spirituality of Ken Wilber, Steve McIntosh, and others.)
Part of this book is dedicated to showing that the key ideas of secular-Buddhism are scientifically true, through discussion of studies in psychology and neuroscience (an approach shared with Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris). This would be more convincing if the studies were cited as a way of evaluating Buddhism against competing theories of well-being, such as modern positive psychology, but the book generally avoids this type of direct comparison. This is reflective of the basic approach of secular-Buddhism: the concepts which don't find support in scientific studies, such as reincarnation, or lasting enlightenment, are abandoned or de-emphasized. Secular-Buddhism is reformulating Buddhism to be more consistent with modern psychology, a dynamic which complicates the question of whether science can be used to show that 'Buddhism is True'.
Wright expands on the concept of 'no-self' by presenting a 'modular' model of the mind. The idea is that our mind is composed of modules with different goals, desires, and thought patterns. The modules jostle and compete with each other on the subconscious level. Only when one of them carries a sufficiently strong feeling, do we then become aware of its associated thought on a conscious level. While Wright finds some support for this modular model from the Insight Meditation school, and from psychological research, he formulates it through his own preferred perspective of evolutionary psychology (Darwinian competition within the subconscious mind). Interestingly, the model is extended to suggest how mindfulness can improve our 'self'-control, and to weaken the pull of indulgent or addictive behavior.
One of the pleasures of The Evolution of God was its detailed historical examples of the ways in which the 'spiritual marketplace' of competing ideas, and the needs of merchants, kings, and rulers all influenced the development of ancient Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Wright could have also taken this approach with Buddhism, exploring how its history as the state religion of multiple empires has shaped its development over time and place. I was hoping for this, and am disappointed not to find it here. However, Wright instead manages to tackle some pretty subtle philosophical issues, such as the distinction between the Buddhist concept of 'emptiness' (sunyata) and Hindu non-dualism, in a manner that is unusually accessible. He enlivens the discussion with narrative accounts of past conversations and interviews.
This book is in many ways a personal account: Wright has found a version of secular-Buddhism that is True for him in his life, and he is bringing us along through his experience and thought process. Unlike many authors on Eastern spirituality, he is in no way trying to present himself as enlightened, or a spiritual teacher or guru. He is refreshingly unpretentious--humorously self-effacing, and transparent about his motivations for writing. And he is a clear writer--he does not try to intimidate us with obtuseness and paradox, even when addressing difficult concepts. The book is not always convincing, but it is engaging, approachable, and thought-provoking.
It is worth the read for those starting on the meditation path who also have an interest in Buddhism. To Wright's credit, his personal presentation does assist in making the paradox more understandable. And, it does pique my interest in the next book along Wrights' search for insight.