Book: Why Buddhism Is True
I recently finished reading Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright and enjoyed it very much.
I appreciated how Wright connected ancient Buddhist concepts to modern psychology. His deconstruction of complex topics like essence and nothingness are well done and allow Western readers to connect to them easier. I would highly recommend this book if you are curious about meditation and the overall approach to mindfulness.
I’m trying something new, and sharing my highlighted passages from the book.
1. Taking the Red Pill
Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.
To live mindfully is to pay attention to, to be “mindful of” what’s happening in the here and now and to experience it in a clear, direct way, unclouded by various mental obfuscations. Stop and smell the roses.
Buddhism offers an explicit diagnosis of the problem and a cure. And the cure, when it works, brings not just happiness but clarity of vision: the actual truth about things, or at least something way, way closer to that than our everyday view of them.
2. Paradoxes of Meditation
Technologies of distraction have made attention deficits more common. And there’s something about the modern environment — something technological or cultural or political or all of the above — that seems conducive to harsh judgment and ready rage.
This is something that can happen again and again via meditation: accepting, even embracing, an unpleasant feeling can give you a critical distance from it that winds up diminishing the unpleasantness.
3. When Are Feelings Illusions?
Feelings are designed to encode judgments about things in our environment.
This is a reminder that 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.
cognitive-behavioral therapy is very much in the spirit of mindfulness meditation. Both in some sense question the validity of feelings. It’s just that with cognitive-behavioral therapy, the questioning is more literal.
4. Bliss, Ecstasy, and More Important Reasons to Meditate
Noticing that your mind is wandering doesn’t seem like a very profound insight; and in fact it isn’t one, notwithstanding my teacher’s kind insistence on giving it a standing ovation. But it’s not without significance. What I was saying in that session with my teacher was that I — that is, my “self,” the thing I had thought was in control — don’t readily control the most fundamental aspect of my mental life: what I’m thinking about.
5. The Alleged Nonexistence of Your Self
But, he notes, our bodies do lead to affliction, and we can’t magically change that by saying “May my form be thus.” So form — the stuff the human body is made of — isn’t really under our control. Therefore, says the Buddha, it must be the case that “form is not-self.” We are not our bodies.
So two of the properties commonly associated with a self—control and persistence through time — are found to be absent, not evident in any of the five components that seem to constitute human beings.
But once I followed that logic — quit seeing these things I couldn’t control as part of my self — I was liberated from them and, in a certain sense, back in control. Or maybe it would be better to put it this way: my lack of control over them ceased to be a problem.
7. The Mental Modules That Run Your Life
Feelings aren’t just little parts of the thing you had thought of as the self; they are closer to its core; they are doing what you had thought “you” were doing: calling the shots.
Feelings don’t just bring specific, fleeting illusions; they can usher in a whole mind-set and so alter for some time a range of perceptions and proclivities, for better or worse.
If the way they seize control of the show is through feelings, it stands to reason that one way to change the show
8. How Thoughts Think Themselves
Zen is for poets, Tibetan is for artists, and Vipassana is for psychologists.
thoughts, which we normally think of as emanating from the conscious self, are actually directed toward what we think of as the conscious self, after which we embrace the thoughts as belonging to that self.
And I don’t mean just focus on whatever thought is distracting you — I mean see if you can detect some feeling that is linked to the thought that is distracting you.
9. “Self” Control
The more you do that, the less the urge seems a part of you; you’ve exploited the basic irony of mindfulness meditation: getting close enough to feelings to take a good look at them winds up giving you a kind of critical distance from them. Their grip on you loosens; if it loosens enough, they’re no longer a part of you.
RAIN. First you Recognize the feeling. Then you Accept the feeling (rather than try to drive it away). Then you Investigate the feeling and its relationship to your body. Finally, the N stands for Nonidentification, or, equivalently, Nonattachment.
10. Encounters with the Formless
As you ponder these words—formlessness and emptiness—two other words may come to mind: crazy and depressing.
There is a pretty uncontroversial sense in which, when we apprehend the world out there, we’re not really apprehending the world out there but rather are “constructing” it.
11. The Upside of Emptiness
But you could look at it the other way around. Given that our experience of a bottle of wine can be influenced by slapping a fake label on it, you might say that, actually, there is a superficiality to our pleasure, and that a deeper pleasure would come if we could somehow taste the wine itself, unencumbered by beliefs about it that may or may not be true. That is closer to the Buddhist view of the matter.
And maybe this helps explain how Weber could say that “emptiness” is actually “full”: sometimes not seeing essence lets you get drawn into the richness of things.
12. A Weedless World
For example, it’s common to think of criminals and clergy as being two fundamentally different kinds of people. But Ross and fellow psychologist Richard Nisbett have suggested that we rethink this intuition. As they put it: “Clerics and criminals rarely face an identical or equivalent set of situational challenges. Rather, they place themselves, and are placed by others, in situations that differ precisely in ways that induce clergy to look, act, feel, and think rather consistently like clergy and that induce criminals to look, act, feel, and think like criminals.”
There is a meditative technique specifically designed to blur this line. It is called loving-kindness meditation, or, to use the ancient Pali word for loving-kindness, metta meditation.
14. Nirvana in a Nutshell
These two senses of liberation are reflected in the Buddhist idea that there are two kinds of nirvana. As soon as you are liberated in the here and now, you enter a nirvana you can enjoy for the rest of your life. Then, after death — which will be your final death, now that you’re liberated from the cycle of rebirth — a second kind of nirvana will apply.
15. Is Enlightenment Enlightening?
The experience of emptiness, like the experience of not-self, defies and denies natural selection’s nonsensical assertion that each of us is more important than the rest of us.
Emptiness, you may recall, is, roughly speaking, the idea that things don’t have essence. And the perception of essence seems to revolve, however subtly, around feelings; the essence of anything is shaped by the feeling it evokes. It is when things don’t evoke much in the way of feelings—when our normal affective reaction to things is subdued—that we see these things as “empty” or “formless.”
What happens to essence when we let go of our particular perspective—the perspective that the feelings that shape the perceived essences of things were designed to serve?
I think the answer is that essence disappears.
That’s the thing about feelings, a thing that is particularly true when we talk about their role in shaping essence: they 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.
16. Meditation and the Unseen Order
And here is an interesting feature of a calm mind: if some issue in my life bubbles up, I’m likely to conceive of it with uncharacteristic wisdom.
It isn’t just that you feel a little more relaxed by the end of a meditation session; it’s that you observe your anxiety, or your fear, or your hatred, or whatever, so mindfully that for a moment you see it as not being part of you.
In case all this sounds too abstractly philosophical, let me try to put it in more practical form, as the answer to this oft-asked question: Will meditation make me happier? And, if so, how much happier?
Well, in my case—and, as you will recall, I’m a particularly hard case—the answer is yes, it’s made me a little happier. That’s good, because I’m in favor of happiness, especially my own. At the same time, the argument I’d make to people about why they should meditate is less about the quantity of happiness than about the quality of the happiness. The happiness I now have involves, on balance, a truer view of the world than the happiness I had before. And a boost in happiness that rests on truth, I would argue, is better than a boost in happiness that doesn’t—not just because things that rest on truth have a more secure footing than things that don’t, but because, as it happens, acting in accordance with this truth means behaving better toward your fellow beings.
This is a happiness that is based on a multifaceted clarity—on a truer view of the world, a truer view of other people, a truer view of yourself, and, I believe, a closer approximation to moral truth. It is this fortunate convergence of happiness, truth, and goodness that is embedded in the word dharma