Why Buddhism Is True

Robert Wright's 2017 bestseller Why Buddhism Is True begins and ends by disavowing much of its own title. The author carefully defines "Buddhism" in the secular sense of mindfulness meditation and associated philosophical concepts (self, emptiness, oneness, etc.) — not the historical or mystical religious faith that millions of people profess. With equal care he defines "True" in the scientific sense of something well-supported by generally-accepted evidence — yet subject to modification or even total falsification in the face of new observations.

With such a cautious approach, by a science writer with a technical education in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, one might expect ... logic? ... a few numbers? ... explicit discussion of where and when, how and why? ... fair presentation of the other side of the case?

Unfortunately, there's far too little of that. Why Buddhism Is True is engaging and well-written, and contains much goodness. And alas, it's also overflowing with Self (rather odd, given the recurring theme of unselfing). Robert Wright had an Experience, with a capital "E", during a meditation retreat some years ago. Was it a glimpse of Ultimate Truth? Or was it a passing delusion, a temporary mental state-change surrounded by feelings of profundity? Wright apparently cannot conceive of the latter possibility.

And yet, as Charlotte Joko Beck said: "I meet all sorts of people who've had all sorts of experiences and they're still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don't care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, 'Yeah, that's O.K. Don't hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?' Otherwise, they get stuck there. It's not the important thing in practice."

Another weakness of Wright's presentation is the complete lack of critical, quantitative analysis about how evolution by natural selection could have created the cognitive patterns that he sees Buddhist mindfulness addressing. Have there been enough generations of human society to evolve the thought structures that Wright fingers as crucial? Is differential reproduction strong enough? Are mental features better explained via non-genetic sociocultural adaptations of existing faculties? Even a few words about timescales and order-of-magnitude estimates could hugely strengthen Wright's case.

Wright's ultimate motivation for mindfulness-meditation Buddhism seems to be a Utilitarian one: to promote world peace. Uh, ok — but that's not an argument for or against its truth, is it?

So: is "Buddhism" "True"? That's complex, and perhaps unimportant. Seeing clearly, accepting what is, acting with lovingkindness toward all — those seem valuable. Mindfulness, nonattachment, oneness.

(cf Core Buddhism (2011-11-17), No Beginning, No End (2013-03-24), Subtle Sound (2017-01-03), Mantra - Mindfulness, Nonattachment, Oneness (2017-01-25), ...) - ^z - 2019-06-30