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Reflections on... Why Buddhism Is True

Disclaimer: The 'reflections on' series is better appreciated if you've read the source material, though it isn't necessary. You can find the book here or here, the audiobook here, and a summary here.

“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)

In my last reflection I shared how early religions were in part born out of seeking truth, and that we can achieve a set of shared values through the purposeful work of seeking truth with the resources we have available to us. It seemed fitting this week to share the book that argues that Buddhism figured out thousands of years ago what scientists are only discovering now. Similar to Jonathan Haidt, Robert Wright uses cutting edge neuroscience and psychology to validate the ideas of Buddhism that can profoundly impact our vision of an ideal future.

Why Buddhism is True is a New York Times Best Seller, with their review by noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, saying, "Wright's book is provocative, informative and, in many respects, deeply rewarding". Kirkus Reviews called the book a "cogent and approachable argument for a personal meditation practice based on secular Buddhist principles".

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. As with all 'idea' books, rather than summarise all of the key ideas here, I will summarise and address the relevant ideas from the book as I reflect on them. 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 primarily in service of seeking truth, based on the same logic we've explored previously of how engagement with reality is the truest form of mental health and 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 to ground our understanding that our perception of the world is not the 'truest' reality. Wright writes, “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".

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 - in simplified terms 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 make seemingly automatic 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 obtaining or achieving something desirable is only fleeting, pushing us to set new goals and strive for them in the belief that our original goal must have been to meagre, and that true fulfilment lies in obtaining the next goal. 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 commit to the next promotion often within weeks or days of achieving it on feeling the happiness evaporate.

Buddhism warned against this, and natural selection has since provided a plausible explanation for why this would be the case. Wright writes, “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 indeed, but one worth investigating.

The Buddhist concept of Anatta introduces the idea that the self does not exist, 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. In a way, those things are an illusion to consciousness.

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 brain hemispheres 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 left hemisphere recollection which participants didn’t have. That said, the participants consistently explained their decision to walk, despite having no relation to what really occurred.

The leading model of the brain now is a modular one - that different modules within the brain are responsible for different functions, with only one or a small number of modules being engaged at any one time. Many psychologists believe that these modules are controlled or 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. The analogy is beyond stretched, but the better model might be to imagine a number of selves, each with their own approach, and feelings are what determines 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 valuable 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 in Eastern thought - of them. We must be able to take a step back and 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 the feeling itself isn't serving us. With this awareness we are in a much stronger position to detach ourselves from the 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.”

While the vast majority will use these learning to feel more peace, control, and fulfilment in their lives, the power of the practice has been shown and should be sufficient to persuade even ardent sceptics. 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 an extreme as to endure such 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. You can create a more positive reality for you, and through that for everyone around you.

This adds weight to our theory of mental bandwidth - it takes time and effort to cultivate a mindfulness practice and employ it in the heat of the moment to regain control. People with little bandwidth today have little hope, and we now have the scientific rationale behind our previous explanation of how people with less bandwidth make worse choices. But as in other reflections this understanding should give us hope - our post-work future will give everyone the mental bandwidth they need to follow these principles.

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. The model that the mind is modular and that the self does not exist, 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.

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