8 min read

What Buddhism Gets Right

“If you want the shortest version of my answer to the question of why Buddhism is true, it's this: Because we are animals created by natural selection. Natural selection built into our brains the tendencies that early Buddhist thinkers did a pretty amazing job of sizing up, given the meager scientific resources at their disposal. Now, in light of the modern understanding of natural selection and the modern understanding of the human brain that natural selection produced, we can provide a new kind of defense of this sizing up.”
- Robert Wright - Why Buddhism is True
“Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a better Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”
- The Dalai Lama (quoted in Why Buddhism is True)

We've seen how we can achieve a set of shared values through the purposeful work of seeking truth. This week I explore some potential components of an ideal future world that Buddhism figured out thousands of years ago. Similar to Jonathan Haidt, Robert Wright uses cutting edge neuroscience and psychology to validate the ideas of Buddhism in his New York Times Best Seller Why Buddhism is True.

I'll reflect on how the two central tenets of Buddhism that Wright highlights - non-judgment and not-self - inform our ideal future vision, and the role that mindfulness and meditation practice could play in that future. I'll also note that these ideas aren't universally accepted and next week I'll review some of the counter-arguments.


The Buddhist concept of non-judgment is based on the same logic we've explored previously of how engagement with reality is the surest path to fulfilment. In Wright's words, “Buddha believed that the less you judge things—including the contents of your mind—the more clearly you’ll see them, and the less deluded you’ll be". Wright's neuroscience reinforces Haidt's psychology. Our perception of the world is not the 'truest' reality. “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", Wright says.

He argues that feelings were designed to “encode judgements about things in our environment” that would help us survive, even if they might be misleading. Food is automatically judged to be good, and sugary, fatty foods particularly so, with no appreciation for the possible abundance of food in a person's life or how their obesity should suggest otherwise. “In fact," says Wright, "one big lesson from Buddhism is to be suspicious of the intuition that your ordinary way of perceiving the world brings you the truth about it.”

It is helpful here to reflect on the Buddhist concept of Tanha. Simply put, it is the craving one has towards pleasant, and away from unpleasant, experiences. Wright's theory states that this craving is felt automatically from the automatic feelings that arise in a situation, which is why we can seem to automatically make bad decisions - to eat that slice of cake, say - when we don't pause to think about what we're doing. This phenomenon negatively impacts our modern life in many ways, with our perception of happiness being one relevant example.

The Hedonic Treadmill

There's another layer to these encoded judgements that has a deeper impact on our happiness, best captured in the idea of the hedonic treadmill. It is the idea that the fulfilment we obtain in achieving something desirable is only fleeting, pushing us to set new goals and believing that true fulfilment lies in obtaining the next goal rather than in achieving what we have. This then also proves untrue and many people find themselves on this 'hedonic treadmill' running ever-faster and feeling ever-more exhausted without making any real progress to their true goal of fulfilment. We all know someone who neglected important things in their life as they pushed for a promotion, only to aspire to the next promotion often within weeks or days of achieving it. It's a surefire way to rarely - or never - be happy.

Buddhism warned against this and natural selection has since provided a plausible explanation for why this would be the case. Wright argues, “pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied. And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. 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".

Regaining Control

The question then becomes how we put ourselves back in the driving seat. How do we prevent these feelings from doing us harm, either in the short term in the awareness/anxiety example, or in the long term in the hedonic treadmill example? The Buddhist answer is to practice the concept non-judgment through mindfulness, which I'll explore shortly. First we must explore what it really means to be 'in the driving seat'.


Walpola Rahula, an influential Buddhist monk, once stated, “According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, this false view can be traced to all the evil in the world". A bold claim but one worth investigating.

Anatta is the Buddhist concept that is roughly translated as 'not-self'. It's a concept that is practiced more than discussed but Wright tries his best to explain the unexplainable. He says the self is best compared to the western concept of consciousness. It's something we all possess and is seemingly our experience of the world, yet exists outside of the material world, and outside of concepts like intelligence or appearance.

The Science of Not-Self

It may seem like the conscious self is in control of our behaviours and decisions but as we explored above there are many examples where this is shown not to be true. The most compelling evidence comes from "split-brain" experiments where participants had the right and left hemispheres of their brains separated. Participants would have their right hemisphere exposed to a prompt, for example telling them to walk. When they walked, they were asked why they were walking, as such an explanation would require a justification from their left hemisphere, which in theory didn't have one to give. That said, the participants consistently explained their decision to walk, despite it having no relation to what really occurred.

Due in part to these experiments, the leading model of the brain is now modular - that different modules within the brain are responsible for different functions. Many psychologists believe that only one or a small number of modules are engaged at any one time and that they are activated by feelings. Meeting lots of new people at a party might make you feel exposed, which plays a role in activating the "alertness" module in the brain. This model also helps us tie the neuroscience back to the Buddhist concept of not-self - if you were to imagine these modules as being parts of a circuitboard controlling a robot rather than squishy brain matter controlling a human, you could point to which circuits are responsible for what actions, but it would be impossible to point to any part and say "This is the robot itself". We might even say that consciousness is but one of these modules, Wright believes that “if you were to build into the brain a component in charge of public relations, it would look something like the conscious self".

You might think you're in the driving seat but a lot of the time you're being driven... and you didn't even provide the destination. A better analogy might be to imagine each of us having a number of selves and our feelings determine which of them gets to drive at any moment. So how can we take back control of our feelings so that we might determine which self gets to drive? Again, Buddhism suggests mindfulness, fostered through the practice of meditation.

Mindfulness and Meditation

The Happiness Hypothesis introduced the idea that meditation can be a valuable tool to rewire the brain towards more positive outcomes. The Buddhist rationale goes a layer deeper. “If you accept the idea that many of our most troublesome feelings are in one sense or another illusions, then meditation can be seen as, among other things, a process of dispelling illusions” writes Wright. To regain control of our emotions, and therefore of our decisions and actions, we must gain an awareness - or mindfulness - of them. We must be able to identify what feeling we are currently experiencing to see how it might be driving us towards decisions or actions that don't serve us. Or maybe that the feeling itself isn't serving us. With this awareness we are in a much stronger position to detach ourselves from such feelings and let other modules of our brain take over. Meditation is the practice that cultivates this ability.

“Mindfulness meditation is often thought of as warm and fuzzy and, in a way, anti-rational. It is said to be about “getting in touch with your feelings” and “not making judgments"" says Wright. But he argues that "you do this not in order to abandon your rational faculties but rather to engage them: you can now subject your feelings to a kind of reasoned analysis that will let you judiciously decide which ones are good guiding lights. So what “not making judgments” ultimately means is not letting your feelings make judgments for you. And what “getting in touch with your feelings” ultimately means is not being so oblivious to them that you get pushed around by them.”

In June 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, protested the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhists. Duc began meditating in the street in Saigon, while another monk covered him in gasoline. He pled for the President to have compassion and implement religious equality. Then he lit a match. “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him" wrote Journalist David Halberstam, who witnessed the event. If it is possible to internalise non-self to such an extreme as to endure extreme physical pain, then it seems reasonable that the rest of us - with sufficient practice - can change our perceptions of negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and annoyance. It is within your power to create a more positive reality for yourself.

It takes time and effort to cultivate a mindfulness practice and more so to deploy it in the heat of the moment to regain control of our emotions. People with little mental bandwidth have little opportunity to do so and are more likely to get stuck in a negative spiral. This helps explain the close relationship between poverty and mental health problems.

But as in other reflections, this understanding should give us hope. Our post-work future will give everyone the mental bandwidth they need to develop a mindfulness meditation practice and experience both greater fulfilment and less suffering.

I can't summarize better than Wright himself:

“The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings via tanha—via the natural, reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural, reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you. But if you observe those feelings mindfully rather than just reacting to them, you can in some measure escape the control; the causes that ordinarily shape your behavior can be defied, and you can get closer to the unconditioned.”

We've seen that natural selection is responsible for both the hedonic treadmill and the day-to-day moments where our reactions don't serve us. The Buddhist concept of non-judgment can take ourselves out of this reactionary stance and the concept of non-self helps us understand how our feelings have control over our actions and decisions. With mindfulness, a skill fostered through practicing meditation, we can regain control of our actions to maximise our fulfilment. The mental bandwidth we'll all have in a post-work world will give us all the capacity for bringing mindfulness to all of our actions and interactions, making for a more fulfilled future world.

Next week I'll review the leading counter-arguments to this case to validate whether this is a realistic - and aligned - vision to incorporate into our ideal future world.

Please share your thoughts if you have any feedback on this article, or leave a comment below.