Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment


Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
Genre: Health
Published: 8/8/2017
From one of America’s greatest minds, a journey through psychology, philosophy, and lots of meditation to show how Buddhism holds the key to moral clarity and enduring happiness. Robert Wright famously explained in The Moral Animal how evolution shaped the human brain. The mind is designed to often delude us, he argued, about ourselves and about the world. And it is designed to make happiness hard to sustain.

Book Summary - Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright

Key Insights

In Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, New York Times bestselling author Robert Wright uses both science and his own experiences to prove that meditation may be the key to improving, not just your own life as an individual, but the lives of everyone else around you as well.

Unhappiness, according to the teachings of Buddhism, is caused by not seeing the world clearly. We see everything through a distorted lens; everything we think or do is affected by some internal force or idea.

The key to real, true satisfaction with your life is finding a way to see the world more clearly. The way to do this is through meditation and the realization that humans are self-centered, biased beings whose point of view is limited to their own experience.

With a more objective view, we can better see the beauty in ourselves, other people, and the world around us. We can lessen the anxiety, the hatred, and the regret we feel over past experiences and live a fuller, more fulfilling life.

Wright supports this theory through the use of philosophy, psychology, and even neuroscience, proving that Buddhism isn't simply a religion, but a path that can lead to a bettering of ourselves and of the entire human race.

Key Points

Reality Is an Illusion

Both Buddhists and experts in the field of evolutionary psychology agree on one thing above all: reality is an illusion. Feelings lie; we all make up our own version of reality that informs our decisions and perceptions of what is going on around us. True reality can only be perceived when one detaches and distances themselves psychologically.

According to evolutionary psychology, humans are programmed to do two things in life: survive and contribute to the expansion of the species. To achieve these goals, the mind works to hide certain truths by making one feel certain things, even if these feelings are false.

Buddhism also tells us that feelings are not to be trusted, because they keep us from understanding the whole, unbiased truth. Just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors were programmed to have feelings that led to forming social bonds for survival and increasing the chances of having intercourse for breeding purposes, we are driven by feelings that urge us in a direction that maybe we don't necessarily need to go in.

In fact, it is this disconnect between the feelings, thoughts, and urges we have and the fact that these things don't apply in the modern world that serves to make us unhappy on a deep, mental and emotional level.

Wright gives the example of sexual desire once being just a tool to enable humans to better reproduce. But now, with the invention of things like birth control and pornography, sex has taken on a whole new form. It isn't just a way to propagate the human race, it can be an act carried out for a whole host of other reasons in a lot of other ways, or not at all.

This is a huge problem, as humans were made to exist in a world that has completely changed. The instincts that drive us are no longer needed, which leads to existential suffering and angst.

Happiness Is Also an Illusion

Another thing that leads humans to endless suffering is the constant pursuit of happiness. We search for a long-term source of happiness, but this is an illusion. Happiness by nature is fleeting. Most people, though, believe that it can be something that can be prolonged if we just knew how.

The problem with this, according to evolutionary psychologists, is that our bodies are not made to sustain happiness for long periods of time. Humans are born with a built-in mechanism that enables us to adapt and get used to things, whether these things are good or bad. If we are put in a negative situation, we don't feel the same level of distress about it for years and years: we learn to live with it.

Studies also state that the opposite is true. After around two years of marriage, the level of happiness a couple feels begins to decrease. This is not actually a problem with the marriage, but with the way, our bodies are built. After a certain amount of time, the levels of certain hormones level off. However, it is often seen as a reason to get a divorce or to be unfaithful or to just be generally dissatisfied with life. The same thing can occur with other "happy" things, such as being promoted at work, winning the lottery, or purchasing a house.

The struggle to pursue this elusive happiness is inherently flawed, as happiness just can't be sustained long-term.

Feelings Versus Logic

The problem with human beings is that their consciousness is ruled, not by objective logic, but by feelings. We take in stimuli via our five senses, and the collected information is then colored by emotion by the body's limbic system. Before the information can be processed or interpreted by the logical part of the brain, it has already been altered by our feelings about what we are seeing/smelling/touching/etc.

The left side of the human brain decides what is "good" and what is "bad," but this side is often a liar. It makes unconscious snap decisions to process things faster, which leads to false narratives. The strange thing is, though, that we do not realize that this is occurring. We believe that we can trace the trail of our thought and the choices we made before reaching a decision, but this is just another biological trick.

The author suggests that the way to overcome this is through meditation, which helps us to see the feelings that are hiding behind our thoughts.

There Is No "Self"

One of the main things to keep in mind as one delves into Buddhism and meditation is that there is no real "self." The thing that we think of as our "self" is something that is constantly changing. Buddhist teachings tell us that we are not really the "master of our own mind, " just as evolutionary psychology tells us that our thoughts are more affected by our genetics than by our own free will.

To take things even further, microbiologist Ed Yong suggests that our "self" is not an individual entity at all, but a "collective." Around fifty percent of any given person's cells are actually microbes — and not human at all. The genes in these microbes outnumber our own, which leads to the theory that, since we have so many other diverse organisms inside us, we can never be one hundred percent in control of ourselves.

Humans are Selfish... for a Reason

As humans evolved, they developed a sense of self-interest that was once necessary for survival. It was a falsehood that was designed to help the species live on by causing one to prioritize their own life over others, but this device is no longer needed. In fact, it can be harmful.

This self-centeredness colors our perception of the world and of others and keeps us from being objective. Meditation can help us to overcome this and to better understand how we fit into the world. In Buddhism, this is referred to as "a state of enlightenment."

The more we try to empathize with others and see the world through their eyes or even just from an objective view, the closer we come to clarity.

The Key to Meditation Is the Paradox

As much as the pursuit of clarity is the focal point of the author's book and Buddhism as a whole, it can be a bit tricky to understand. The core belief behind the practice of meditation is that the closer you examine a feeling, the better able you are to achieve a critical distance from it or perhaps even stop feeling it altogether.

This ideology isn't just present in Buddhism, though. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher, spoke of a universe that was interconnected on an incredibly deep level, so much so that there was no end to one thing or a beginning to another. The spiritual and tangible connections between things were just as much an illusion as the long-term happiness we strive to obtain. The universe, though made up of billions of smaller things, is actually one, whole Absolute.

Even before Hegel, Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “there is unity in the world, but it is unity formed by the combination of opposites." He also said, and Buddhist teachings agree, that the universe is in a state of constant change, just as we and our world are.

All three of these ideas are related in that they all speak of the fact that one whole is made up of many smaller, different, changing parts, and that you can't see the full picture without closer, thoughtful observation.

How Meditation Can Save the World

Mediation can help one to achieve balance with one's emotions, to see life from a more objective perspective, and to appreciate the beauty inherent in the world.

The author states, however, that there is more to it than this. Meditation doesn't just help the individual, but the world as a whole. For instance, a study conducted from 2015 - 2017 proved that meditation can lower levels of violence in communities by helping high-risk students to better control their stress and angry feelings. The routine practice of meditation by young students over the course of two years brought down the level of violent conflicts in schools by an incredible 65 percent, leading to meditation programs being started in multiple major U.S. cities.

A change in human consciousness itself is necessary to bring about a (possibly even bigger) change in the world. If we could see the world from a more objective perspective, this could greatly and positively affect the way that people from different backgrounds, religious beliefs, races, and nationalities interact.

The Main Take-away

The main reason why humans are constantly unfulfilled and unhappy is that they rely on a system of thinking and acting that is based on feelings, not truths. Our minds are designed to lie to us so that our species can better survive the harsh conditions of our ancestors. But we don't live in the same world as those ancestors did. Our bodies no longer need certain urges and certain reactions to stimuli. We have different goals, different drives. We no longer have to be driven by self-interest and the need to continue the species.

So, we need to take a closer look at ourselves — and to clean the lens we use to view the world outside of us.

Meditation can help to clarify the world for us. We can view our surroundings — and ourselves — in a more inclusive, truthful way, which, in the end, will help us and the rest of our society to live a clearer, more beautiful, more satisfying life.

About the Author

Robert Wright is a journalist, New York Times bestselling author, and co-founder/editor-in-chief of the popular video blog site, Bloggingheads.tv. He has written for multiple high-profile newspapers such as The New York Times, Time, and The Wall Street Journal.

In addition to this, Wright has taught courses on both psychology and religion at The University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton University, and created an online course titled "Buddhism and Modern Psychology." In 2017, he took on the position of Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at New York's Union Theological Seminary.

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