Book Review: Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

About the author:

Robert Wright is a best-selling author and esteemed journalist whose writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the New Yorker and the Atlantic. He’s taught classes at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, as well as New York’s Union Theological Seminary. His 2009 book, The Evolution Of God: The origins of our beliefs was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.

My highlights:

Life is full of delusions that evolution has hardwired into the human brain

Ask yourself: Are you in complete rational control over your life and your desires?

Why do we keep falling into these traps? One reason is evolution. We all have basic instincts related to food, sex, popularity and competition, because these were the things that helped our ancestors survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. Each one of them triggers a strong response in the pleasure center of our brain, which releases the neurochemical dopamine every time we taste something sweet or win a competition. The problem is, our anticipation of pleasurable rewards like sweet flavors and winning can outweigh the rewards themselves. We’re wired this way so that we’ll keep searching for and discovering new and better things, but this wiring has also led to a lot of destructive-compulsive behaviour.

To follow Buddhist teachings, we should avoid focusing on things we have no control over.

Buddhism teaches us that matters of the mind and body are not true concerns of the Self.

The Buddha asks his monks to search within and find the qualities that can truly be considered part of the “Self” – that is, the qualities that we have total control over. You might think body and mind would fall under this category, but the body can get sick and deteriorate against our will – just as the mind can deteriorate or give us thoughts and emotions we’d rather not have. We normally consider the body, mind and spirit to be the very core of our Self, but since none of these things are really under our control, the Buddha concludes that none of these things should be considered the Self. This doesn’t mean that there is no Self, but that the Self is mere consciousness.

Science supports the Buddhist view that reality is subjective and our senses are unreliable.

We tend to think of science in terms of absolute truths. But relatively recently, with developments like quantum theory, science is beginning to view reality as subjective. This is how science has come to support the Buddhist point of view that what the brain perceives isn’t necessarily a reality.

The most famous scientific experiment in this regard is known as the “split-brain” experiment, and it calls into question the reliability of our brain’s sensory input.

The unengaged hemisphere will still fabricate and believe a story about what’s going on, though it has no idea what the eye is seeing.

Our minds have a strong capacity for self-delusion and making up their own reality in a rather convincing manner.
Buddhism can help prevent our emotions from taking over.

One of the strongest, and most transformative, emotions is jealousy.

If you’d prefer to be in control of your emotions, rather than the other way around, Buddhism can help you take appropriate action in the form of mindfulness practices. The aim of these practices isn’t to repress emotions or become an unfeeling robot. The goal is to stop acting on negative feelings – to stop believing that they accurately reflect who you really are.After some time devoted to mindfulness practice, you can learn to observe feelings without acting upon them.

Without mindfulness, emotions are often given far more power than they deserve.

To control our impulses, we need to reframe our thinking.

Our ability to reason is rather weak when compared to our willingness to act on our passions. Buddhism recognized this imbalance long ago.

Once we recognize the power emotions have over our decisions, we can start to improve our self-control by applying our ability to reason in an emotional way.

Try to use reason in an emotional and meditative way instead.

Using reason paired with emotion will almost always be more effective than trying to apply pure reason alone.
We can use our ability to construct our reality in a positive way.

Since life is all about how we perceive experiences through our senses, it’s entirely possible to change the way we interpret our perceptions, especially when the current experience is less than ideal.

A big part of Buddhism is about accepting your current situation as it is.

It’s common for us to construct stories about our lives, but just like they can help us, they can also be particularly unhelpful when they cause us to suffer.

Don’t make your life harder by dreaming up pessimistic what-if scenarios! Instead, enjoy the present and don’t miss out on the chance to create amazing new memories.

Meditation can change our consciousness and give us a deeper appreciation of life.

Gary Weber is one such meditator. Scans of his brain reveal that it has much calmer activity than a “normal” brain – so much so that unless he was focused on performing a task, his brain was revealed to be in a constant state of rest.So how does this brain see the world around? Weber describes what he sees as an “empty fullness,” which takes into consideration the vast spaces, ignored by most people, that exist between objects. A mind like Weber’s, trained in Buddhist teachings, will recognize the difference between objects like a chair and a spoon, but instead of being isolated, each object is connected to the same space that everyone else is living in. To the experienced meditator, the space unites us all, which makes it just as important as the objects within it.

Think of it this way: If you’re a wine expert who’s tasting a sample of wine, you might not enjoy the flavor if your primary concern is to impress your fellow critics with your opinion about the wine. When a Buddhist mind has a sip of wine, there are no expectations or self-conscious worries. Skilled meditators live purely in the moment, so they’ll enjoy each sip of wine like it’s the very first time they’ve experienced it.

Final summary

The key message in this book: Buddhism and its advice is largely supported by science. By practicing mindfulness, meditation and reframing our thinking – key tenets of Buddhism whose effectiveness are backed by psychology and neurology – we can improve our relationship to the world and enjoy the more peaceful existence so many of us crave.

About the book:

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment takes a scientific look at the teachings and meditative practices of Buddhism. Robert Wright presents an impressive and surprising amount of data and research, all of which suggests that even Buddhism’s more esoteric teachings may have a solid basis in science.

Originally posted 2018-01-20 12:40:43.

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