Why Buddhism is True

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
by Robert Wright (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

The summer of 2004 was a rough one for me. I had moved and expanded my business so quickly that by the time August rolled around I felt pickled in my own stress hormones. I needed to relax and recover—fast. A friend suggested I check out the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York and sure enough, they had just the thing: a week-long stress-reduction class. I envisioned lectures about how not to freak out so much, gentle yoga and a therapeutic massage or two. It never occurred to me that what I had just signed up for was a crash course in mindfulness meditation.

For several hours each day we learned to sit and non-judgmentally observe the various processes of our minds. Eventually we became able to dis-identify with our thoughts and feelings, as if they were projections on a movie screen and of no particular importance. This was a revelation to me. I was under the illusion that my constantly churning mind was my greatest creative asset. The longer I sat, and the more I observed my thinking-self the more my ruminations seemed inane, gastric even, like a cow chewing its cud: regurgitate, chew, repeat. Then is clicked: the way I was experiencing stress was on many levels an illusion—yes, I was in an intense situation, but my extreme response (to the point of non-stop low grade panic attack) was far more the byproduct of an out of control mind.

I have been a fan of mindfulness meditation since that summer and Robert Wright’s excellent book, Why Buddhism is True explains exactly why you should be too.

Ok, so the title is extremely provocative and many of you will be put off by what might appear to be a bit of my-religion-is-better-than-yours. Never fear. Wright’s “western Buddhism” (read secular) is something religious people of every stripe can engage with as it is all about practice and not belief.

According to Wright, “Human beings often fail to see the world clearly, and this can lead them to suffer and to make others suffer.” This notion of human suffering, or more accurately, “unsatisfactoriness,” is a pervasive part of life and a result of natural selection, keeping us in a state of constant yearning for the ever-fleeting idea of “better.” He goes on to break down the notion of “self,” citing the work of evolutionary psychologists who subscribe to a “modular” model of the mind (a theory that the mind exists in modules, each of which is designed to perform a very limited number of tasks and cannot do anything else) instead of an inner CEO master-of -my-own-universe type self. Anxiety, despair, hatred, greed, according to Wright, are in large part evolutionary delusions of the modular mind. “So if what I’m saying is true,” Wright says, “if the basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion—there is value in exposing this delusion to the light.” And meditation is the light, the light of consciousness.

Wright’s arguments are tempered with personal anecdotes, 2,500 years of Buddhism and more than a smidge of science. So why is Buddhism “true”? According to Wright, “There are other spiritual traditions that address the human predicament with insight and wisdom. But Buddhist meditation, along with its underlying philosophy, addresses that predicament in a strikingly direct and comprehensive way.”

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright is thoughtful, entertaining and—most importantly of all—a road map to how/why this seemingly “nothing” practice of sitting can make you a happier, more empathetic and ethical human being. In a times like these, who wouldn’t want that?

Get Lit is a twice monthly book review written by Bookstore Manager Becky Ford for the Greenwich Sentinel.  Stop by the Christ Church Bookstore to let Becky know what you think.

Christ Church Greenwich