Why Buddhism Is True | Review & Notes

Robert Wright. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Simon & Schuster, 2017. (321 pages)


There still exists in some fundamental circles a fight for the validity of one’s religion over another. This “apologetic” ethic is quite lacking precisely because those approaches are usually more about “defending” one’s religion rather than “explaining” it. By saying “my religion is true” to mean “yours is false” does not actually help people understand what we’re really talking about. Too much limbic system. Not enough neocortex.

So if you pick up Why Buddhism Is True, recognize the title is meant to be more of a marketing provocation. The subtitle is truly the essence of what this book is about, The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. To that end, Wright does an incredible job at weaving together the various spiritual concepts with neuroscience and biology. It is a fascinating look at how our brains have been wired, and how we actually have the power to hack our wetware into happier and more fulfilling life experiences. And, because this is grounded in our common experiences as sentient and conscious beings, you will discover that what lies between these pages has been recognized, not just by Buddhism, but by virtually all the religious and spiritual philosophies in the world.

What is also surprising is that this book is not about Buddhism ultimately, but is in the end mostly about how the world can become a better place. Wright’s call to us to consider the concepts and practices in this book are for “the planet’s salvation,” and he makes a compellingly articulate case. While that goal may seem audacious, if received in the spirit of hope and a plea, it is rather quite inspiring and persuasive, something that all of us can consider, regardless of one’s religious persuasion or lack thereof.


A Note to Readers

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. – Dalai Lama

1. Taking the Red Pill

An Everyday Delusion

What’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings is the general dynamic of being powerfully drawn to sensory pleasure that winds up being fleeting at best. One of the Buddha’s main messages was that the pleasures wow seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. (5)

Indeed, though the Buddha is famous for asserting that life is pervaded by suffering, some scholars say that’s an incomplete rendering of his message and that the word translated as “suffering,” dukkha, could for some purposes, be translated as “unsatisfactoriness.” (6)

Why Pleasure Fades

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. (8)

…what do you expect from natural selection? Its job is to build machines that spread genes, and if that means programming some measure of illusion into the machines, then illusion there will be. (9)

Unhelpful Insights

This is what I discovered after immersing myself in evolutionary psychology: knowing the truth about your situation, at least in the form that evolutionary psychology provides it, doesn’t necessarily make your life any better. In fact, it can actually make it worse. You’re still stuck in the natural human cycle of ultimately futile pleasure-seeking–what psychologists sometimes call “the hedonic treadmill”–but now you have a new reason to see the absurdity of it. In other words, now you see that it’s a treadmill, a treadmill specifically designed to keep you running, often without really getting anywhere–yet you keep running! (10)

Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them. – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

The Truth about Mindfulness

2. Paradoxes of Meditation

I am, in microcosm, what’s wrong with the world. (18)

[via: HT: G.K. Chesterton]

My Big Breakthrough

Was the initial unpleasantness in any sense an illusion? Certainly, by adopting another perspective, I (21) made it disappear–and that’s something that’s often true of what we call illusions: shifting your perspective dispels them. But are there any additional grounds for thinking of it as an illusion? (22)

| This question goes way beyond my own little episodes of transcending overcaffeination and melancholy. It applies, in principle, to all negative feelings: fears, anxieties, loathing, self-loathing, and more. Imagine if our negative feelings, or at least lots of them, turned out to be illusions, and we could dispel them by just contemplating them from a particular vantage point. (22)

Pain That Doesn’t Hurt

The question I’m circling around–which of our “normal” feelings, thoughts, and perceptions are in some sense illusions–is important for two reasons. One reason is simple and practical: obviously, if many unpleasant feelings–feelings of anxiety, fear, self-loathing, melancholy, and so on–are in some sense illusions, and we can use meditation to dispel them or at least weaken their grip on us, that’s news you can use. The other reason is at first glance more academic, but it ultimately has a kind of practical value as well. Figuring out when our feelings mislead us will help shed light on the question of whether the Buddhist view of the min, and of the mind’s relationship to reality, is as crazy as it sometimes sounds. Is perceived reality, or a sizable chunk of it, really an illusion? (23)

The most basic division in Buddhism is between the Theravada school and the Mahayana school. (24)

If you put these two fundamental Buddhist ideas together–the idea of not-self and the idea of emptiness–you have a radical proposition: neither the world inside you nor the world outside you is anything like it seems. (25)

And speaking of the world: Is saving the world–keeping the psychology of tribalism from covering the planet in chaos and bloodshed–really a matter of just clarifying the vision of the world’s people? …it would be nice to know if the struggle for enduring peace is also the struggle for truth; as long s we’re undertaking a task as Herculean as saving the world, it would be great to kill two birds with one stone! It would also be nice to think that when people pursue the path to liberation–use meditation to try and see the world more clearly, and in the process reduce their suffering–they are helping humanity broadly, that the quest for individual salvation advances the quest for social salvation. (26)

3. When Are Feelings Illusions?

Hovering over the question posed by the title of this chapter is a larger question: What the hell are we talking bout here? (27)

Are our feelings in some sense “false”? Or “true”? Are some false and some true? And which are which? (28)

…regardless of the feelings first arose, there is a wrought consensus among behavioral scientists on what the original function of good feelings and bad feelings was: to get organisms to approach things or avoid things that are, respectively, good for them or bad for (28) them. (29)

Feelings arose as proxies for this kind of thinking. (29)

Pleasures and pains must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other. – George Romanes, 1884

Obsolete Urges

But here’s the thing: natural selection designed our feelings in a particular environment–an environment with no junk food, an environment in which the sweetest thing available was fruit. (30)

There are quite a few feelings like this–feelings that, back when they entered our lineage, served our ancestors’ interests but that don’t (30) always serve our interests now. Take road rage. (31)

So that’s one way to define true and false as they apply to feelings: if they feel good but lead us to do things that aren’t really good for us, then they’re false feelings. But there’s another sense in which feelings can be true or false. Some feelings, after all, are more than feelings; they don’t just imply judgments about whether doing certain things will be good for the organism; they come with actual, explicit beliefs about things in the environment and how they relate to the organism’s welfare. (32)

False Positives

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. (33)

Another unpleasant product of environmental mismatch is painful self-consciousness. We’re designed by natural selection to care–and care a lot–about what other people think of us. (34)

cf. Scar Face Experiment

…a feeling–an uncomfortable feeling of self-consciousness–sponsors a kind of perceptual illusion, a basic misreading of the behavior of others. (35)

We wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about what other people think of us if we realized how seldom they do. – Robert Wright’s mother

She was right; our assumption that people give much thought to us one way or the other is often an illusion, as is our unspoken sense that it matters what pretty much everyone we see thinks of us. But these intuitions were less often illusory in the environment of our evolution, and that’s one reason they’re so persistent today. (36)

Public Speaking and Other Horrors

…I’ve been known to lie awake at the night before a big presentation worrying that if I don’t get to sleep I’ll do a bad job the next day. (37)

The ancestral environment–the environment of our evolution–featured lots of social interaction, and this interaction had great consequence fo our genes. If you had low social status and few friends, that cut your changes of spreading your genes, so impressing people mattered, even if PowerPoint wasn’t the thing you impressed them with. Similarly, if your offspring didn’t thrive socially, that boded ill for their reproductive prospects, and hence for your genes. So genes inclining us toward anxiety about our social prospects and our progeny’s social prospects seem to have become part of the human gene pool. (38)

Thus can we have beliefs–about, for example, the near-certainty of impending disaster–that are false both in the literal and the pragmatic sense: they aren’t true, and they aren’t good for us. (39)

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. (39)

Levels of Delusion: A Recap

…let’s review several senses in which feelings can be misleading:

  1. Our feelings weren’t designed to depict reality accurately even in our “natural” environment. Feelings were designed to get the genes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors into the next generation. (40)
  2. The fact that we’re not living in a “natural” environment makes our feelings even less reliable guides to reality. …the modern environment can take various kinds of feelings that served our ancestors in this Darwinian sense and render them counterproductive in the same sense–they may actually lower a person’s life expectancy. (41)
  3. Underlying it all is the happiness delusion. (41)

In fact, natural selection doesn’t even care about our short-term happiness. (41)

…we are the heirs of this tendency toward false positives–not just in the realm of snakes but in the realm of other (41) fears and everyday anxieties. (42)

The cost of survival of the lineage may be a lifetime of discomfort. – Aaron Beck

One thing all feelings have in common is that they were originally “designed” to convince you to follow them. They feel right and true almost by definition. They actively discourage you from viewing them objectively. (42)

4. Bliss, Ecstasy, and More Important Reasons to Meditate

I was beginning to observe the workings of what psychologists call the “default mode network.” (45)

As for where the mind wanders to: well, lots of places, obviously, (45) but studies have shown that these places are usually in the past or the future; … What you’re generally not doing when your mind is wandering is directly experiencing the present moment. (46)

When the default mode network subsides–when the mind stops wandering–it can be a good feeling. There can be a sense of liberation from your chattering mind, a sense of peace, even deep peace. (47)

Concentration and Mindfulness

One path is to sustain the focus on your breath, the focus it felt good to establish in the first place, for a long, long time; and try to tighten and deepen the focus, becoming more immersed in the breath. Then just keep going. (47)

Concentration meditation is sometimes referred to as serenity meditation… (47)

Mindfulness in Real Life

First, mindfulness meditation is good training. Viewing your feelings mindfully while on a meditation cushion can make you better at viewing them mindfully in everyday life, which means your life will be less governed by misleading or unproductive feelings. (50)

Another virtue of mindfulness meditation is that it can make you more attuned to beauty. (50)

…if I’m going to sing the praises of meditation retreats, I’m obliged to mention possible side effects. The very silence and seclusion that frees you from workaday concerns can also give you time to get immersed in other concerns–notably personal or family issues that in everyday life might visit you, and even (51) revisit you, but not settle in for a long stay. What’s more, being in closer-than-usual contact with the actual workings of your mind can lead you to confront issues with a new and perhaps unsettling honesty. (52)

…you need to understand that staying in the present, though an inherent part of mindfulness meditation, isn’t the point of the exercise. It is the means to an end, not the end itself. (53)

Approaches to Enlightenment

Becoming enlightened, in the Buddhist sense of the term, would entail wholly ridding yourself of the twin illusions from which people tend to suffer: the illusion about what’s “in here”–inside your mind –and about what’s “out there” in the rest of the world. (53)

Insight Meditation

Vipassana is an ancient word that denotes clear vision and is usually translated as “insight.” (56)

They define vipasana as apprehending what are known as “the three marks of existence.” (56)

The first is impermanence. … The second…is dukkha–suffering, unsatisfactoriness. …the third …“not-self,” is different. with not-self, comprehension itself is a challenge. (56)

…however ironic it sounds, grappling with the sense in which you don’t exist is a step toward putting you–or at least “you”–in charge. (57)

5. The Alleged Nonexistence of Your Self

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 trouble sin the world form personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world. – Walpola Rahula, What the Budhha Taught

The Seminal Not-Self Sermon

cf. Discourse on the Not-Self:

For starters, he links the idea of self to the idea of control. (61)

So form–the stuff the human body is made of–isn’t really under our control. …it must be the case that “form is not-self.” We are not our bodies. (62)

So feeling, the Buddha concludes, “is not-self.” So too with perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Are any of these things really under control–so completely under control that they never lead to suffering? And if they’re not under control, then how can we think of them as part of the self? (62)

When I think of my self, I think of something that persists through time. (63)

So two of the properties commonly associated with a self–control and persistence through time–are found to be absent, not evident in any of the five components that seem to constitute human beings. This is the core of the argument the Buddha makes in this first and most famous discourse on not-self, and it’s commonly taken as the core Buddhist argument that the self doesn’t exist. (63)

Does Not-Self Really Mean No self?

Though in the deepest sense the self doesn’t exist, human language isn’t very good at describing reality at the deepest level. So as a practical matter-as a linguistic convention–we have to talk about there being an I and a you and a he and a she. In other words, the self doesn’t exist in an “ultimate” sense, but it exists in a “conventional” sense. (64)

A Heresy Examined

Some philosophers of Buddhism have suggested that maybe there are two kinds of consciousness–or two modes of consciousness, or two layers of consciousness, or however you want to think of them. One is the kind of consciousness you’re liberated from, and the other is the kind of consciousness that stays with “you”–that is you–after the liberation. (67)

Continue to entertain the proposition you’ve probably been entertaining your whole life, that somewhere within you there’s something that deserves the name I. (68)

Taking the Ache out of Toothache

…the key to letting go of a chunk or two of my self was to separate the act of observation from the act of evaluation. I still experienced the anxiety, but I no longer experienced it as either good or bad. … The 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. (71)

Taking Charge by Letting Go

…the paradox of control. All three feelings, in their initial, annoying persistence, proved that they were not under my control–indeed, if anything, they were controlling me! And, according to the Buddha’s conception of “self,” my lack of control over them in turn proved that they were not part of my self. But once I followed that logic–quit seeing these things I couldn’t control as part of my self–I was liberated from them and, in a certain sense, back in control. Or maybe it would be better to put it this way: my lack of control over them ceased to be a problem. (71)

Maybe he wasn’t really trying to articulate a doctrine but rather to draw you down a path. (72)

…he was basically saying, “Look, if there’s a part of you that isn’t under your control and therefore makes you suffer, then do yourself a favor and quit identifying with it!” (72)

We associate the self with control and with firm persistence through time, but on close inspection we turn out to be much less under control, and much more fluid, with a much less fixed identity, than we think. (74)

6. Your CEO Is MIA

‘You’ aren’t the president, the central executive, the prime minister. – Robert Kurzban

“Thoughts think themselves.” (77)

So if the conscious mind isn’t in control, what is in control? As we’ll see, the answer may be: nothing in particular. The closer we look at the mind, the more it seems to consist of a lot of different players, (77) players that sometimes collaborate but sometimes fight for control, with victory going to the one that is in some sense the strongest. In other words, it’s a jungle in there, and you’re not the king of the jungle. The good news is that, paradoxically, realizing you’re not king can be the first step toward getting some real power. (78)

Of Two Minds

In other words, maybe it’s not so much “conscious motivation” as “consciousness of motivation.” (81)

…you think you’re directing the movie, but you’re actually just watching it. Or, at the risk of turning this into a metaphor that’s impossible to wrap your mind around, the movie is directing you–unless you manage to liberate yourself from it. (81)

…it seems fair to say that the role of our conscious selves in guiding behavior is not nearly as big as was long thought. And the reason this role was exaggerated is that the conscious (81) mind feels so powerful; in other words, the conscious mind is naturally deluded about its own nature. (82)

The Darwinian Benefits of Self-Delusion

In short, from natural selection’s point of view, it’s good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. (82)

In 1980 the psychologist Anthony Greenwald invented the term beneffectance to describe the way people naturally present themselves to the world–as beneficial and effective. (83)

I consider myself an average man except for the fact that I consider myself an average man. – Montaigne

We think we’re better than average at not being biased in think that we’re better than average.” – Robert Kurzban

You might call these two misconceptions the illusion about our selves and the illusion about ourselves. They work in synergy. The first illusion helps us convince the world that we are coherent, consistent actors: we don’t do things for no reason, and the reasons we do them make sense; if (85) our behavior smart credit or blame, there is an inner us that deserves that credit or blame. The second illusion helps convince the world that what we deserve is credit, not blame; we’re more ethical than the average person, and we’re more productive than the average teammate. We have beneffectance. (87)

It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision-maker). – Jerome Barkow

Of Many Minds

7. The Mental Modules That Run Your Life

…”intertemporal utility function” isn’t a malady. It’s something everybody has. It’s an equation that describes, roughly speaking, your willingness to delay gratification–your willingness to forgo something you like in order to have more of that something later. (91)

…the psychological flux, the impermanence, that in Buddhist thought calls into question the existence of the self can be described partly as the workings of those modules. Seeing things in these terms helps illuminate a core paradox of Buddhist meditation practice: accepting that your self isn’t in control, and may in some sense not even exist, can put yourself–or something like it–in control. (93)

If you have different preferences from one moment to the next, then in what sense is it the same “you” from moment to moment? Isn’t this image of you exchanging one mood for another just a way of covering up the fact that today’s you and tomorrow’s you aren’t really the same you? (94)

…the dynamics of the mind are well captured by a modular model. In this view, if you built a robot whose brain worked like the human brain, and then asked computer scientists to describe its workings, they’d say that its brain consists of lots of partly overlapping modules within modules, and the robot’s circumstances determine which modules are, for the moment, running the show. These computer scientists would have trouble pointing to a part of the robot’s programming and saying, “This part of the robot itself.” (95)

| The closest thing to a self would be the algorithm that determines which circumstances put which modules in charge. And that algorithm can’t be what we mean by the “conscious self” in humans–the CEO self–because humans don’t consciously decide to go into romantic mode or fearful mode. (95)

This idea–that modules are trigged by feelings–sheds new light on the connections between two fundamental parts of Buddhism: the idea of non attachment to feelings and the idea of not-self. (95)

Jealousy: Tyrant of the Mind

So we have three things that can change about people who sense a mating opportunity: they can become crowd-averse, suddenly partial to intimate environments; their inter temporal utility function can get recalibrated; and their career goals, at least for the time being, can become more materialistic. These three changes hardly exhaust the list of things that can happen to a person’s mind in mating mode. But already you can see why it’s tempting to think that a module–or a “sub-self,” as Kenrick and Griskevicius put it–takes control of the mind when people are in the presence of a potential mate who strikes them as attractive. (100)

Messy Modules

If our mind keeps getting seized by different modules, and each module carrels with it different illusions, how do we change the situation? The answer isn’t simple, but what should already be clear is that getting more control over the situation may have something to do with feelings. … But the case against being enthralled by our feelings only grows when you realize that their connection to illusion can be described in a second way. Feelings don’t just bring specific, fleeting illusions; they can usher in a whole mindset and so alter for some time a range of perceptions and proclivities, for better or worse. (103)

Buddhist thought and modern psychology converge on this point: (103) in human life as it’s ordinarily lived, there is no one self, no conscious CEO, that runs the show; rather, there seem to be a series of selves that take turns running the show–and, in a sense, seizing control of the show. If the way they seize control of the show is through feelings, it stands to reason that one way to change the show is to change the role feelings play in everyday life. I’m not aware of a better way to do that than mindfulness meditation. (104)

8. How Thoughts Think Themselves

No, if anything, the relationship between science and meditation works the other way around. It’s not that meditative observations about your mind validate theories, but more that theories can help validate meditative observations about your mind. If during meditation you see things that are consistent with credible scientific models of how the mind works, that gives you a bit more reason to believe that, indeed, meditation is helping you see the dynamics of your mind clearly. (106)

First, these thoughts involve the past and future, not the present; the one thing you’re not doing while having these thoughts is paying attention to what’s actually going on in the real world at this moment. Second, all of these thoughts involve you. … Third, most of these thoughts involve other people. (108)

But another way to describe it is to say that, actually, the different modules are competing for your attention, and when the mind “wanders” from one module to another, what’s actually happening is that the second module has acquired enough strength to wrestle control of your consciousness way from the first module. (109)

What It’s Like to Watch Your Thoughts

the main point these meditation teachers are making is the same as the upshot of the modular-mind model: the conscious self doesn’t create thoughts; it receives them. (112)

Escaping this drama–seeing your thoughts as passing before you rather than emanating from you–can carry you close to the not-self there doing the thinking or doing anything else, that moment when what seems like a metaphysical truth is unveiled. (113)

What Fuel Propels Thoughts?

…the main point is just that all kinds of curiosity–ranging from a driving, headlong quest to a pleasant stroll along the byways of speculation–do seem to involve feelings. (117)

Feelings as Filing

Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness. (119)

This hypothesis–that feelings are, among other things, the mind’s way of assigning priority labels to thoughts–is consistent with a broad trend in psychology over the past several decades: to quit talking about “affective” and “cognitive” processes as if they were in separate compartments of the mind and recognize how finely intertwined they are. (120)

9. “Self” Control

In the eighteenth century, the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that human reason is “the slave of the passions.” … But Hume meant “passions” in a different sense; he meant feelings, broadly speaking. He was saying that, though rational thought plays an important role in human motivation, it is in a certain sense never really calling the shots. When we decide to do something, we decide on the basis of a feeling. (121)

Though weighing the pros and cons of a purchase sounds like a purely rational, even mechanical act, this experiment suggests that the way the brain actually does the weighing is through a contest of conflicting feelings. … And the stronger the feeling-attraction or aversion–wins. (123)

Why Feeling Governs Thought

Over the history of our evolutionary lineage, thinking has played a larger and larger role in action, but the thinking has always had both its beginning and its end in feelings. (124)

…this growing web of feelings and thoughts was a straightforward extension of the basic value system (124) evolution built into us to begin with–a system that prized surviving and getting our genes spread. (125)

Reason and Chocolate

Self-control has often been described as a matter of reason prevailing over feelings. (125)

Still, if Hume is right, this prefrontal activity shouldn’t be framed as it’s commonly framed, as reason “overcoming temptation” or successfully “opposing feeling.” Reason has its effect not by directly pushing back against a feeling but by fortifying the feeling that does do the pushing back. (126)

In this view, the prefrontal cortex isn’t a kind of command module that evolution invented when we got promoted from mere animals to human beings; it’s not something that finally tamed our unruly feelings and put us under rational control. No, the powers of reason embedded in the prefrontal cortex are themselves under the control of feelings. The value system embedded in the feelings–natural selection’s conception of what’s good and what’s bad, what we should pursue and what we should avoid–continues to be, more or less, the prevailing value system. (126)

Does Your Inner Judge Really Judge?

All of this highlights a puzzle: Why does our conscious mind have to spend time witnessing the presentation of reasons–that is, participating in the “deliberation”? If it’s just a show trial–if it all comes down to a contest of power between modules that have summoned whatever fortifying logic might support their cause–couldn’t the whole thing happen subconsciously, freeing up the conscious mind to do something constructive, like ponder the mind-body problem? (129)

My guess [is that the reason your conscious mind observes the debate, including the winning rationale, is so that] if someone ever challenges you or asks you why you did x, y, or z, [you’ll be able to cite a plausible rationale. – Kurzban

Either way, one virtue of your conscious mind being in touch with the reasons generated by competing modules is that you can share the reasons with others, and get their feedback, before making your decision. Strictly speaking, though, the way I should put it is this: You can share the reasons with others, and then their feedback will recalibrate how good or bad the two options feel. (130)

| You may have noticed a trend in this chapter: the more we ponder the connection between reason and feeling, the dimmer the prospects seem for keeping our behavior under truly rational control. (130)

But cheer up! Just because feelings are critical players in this drama doesn’t mean we’re powerless to intervene. In fact, we have a tool–mindfulness meditation–that’s well suited to intervening at the level of feelings and altering their influence. (131)

Is “Self-Discipline” Really the Problem?

The point is just that it makes sense that natural selection would design a modular mind this way–that “winning” modules would amass more power when their judgment is vindicated. (133)

…it’s easy to imagine why natural selection would design modules that get stronger with repeated success and why natural selection would use, as its working definition of success, gratification in one sense or another. (134)

A New Approach

If you take the former approach, the tendency is to fight your (134) temptations. (135)

But suppose you think the problem is instead being this particular module that has formed a particular strong habit. How would you try to overcome the problem then? You might try something like mindfulness meditation. (135)

There’s an acronym used to describe this technique: RAIN. First you Recognize the feeling. Then you Accept the feeling (rather than try to drive it away). Then you Investigate the feeling and its relationship to your body. Finally, the N stands for Nonidentifcation, or equivalently, Nonattachment. Which is a nice note to end on, since not being attached to things was the Buddha’s all-purpose prescription for what ails us. (135)

Attention Deficit as Addiction

…when I watch my attention-deficit disorder in action, when I pay really close attention to the dynamics of distraction, that characterization starts to seem wrong. The problem of losing focus starts to seem more like a problem of managing my feelings. (137)

Hatred as Addiction

In principle, you can describe much of mindfulness meditation this way–as depriving modules of the positive reinforcement that has given them power. (139)

10. Encounters with the Formless

“The formless” isn’t a particularly well-known bit of Buddhist (142) terminology. But there’s a better-known word that means roughly what this teacher meant by the term: emptiness. (143)

…in the world out there, which seems so solid and so structured, so full of things with a distinct and tangible identity, there is less than meets the eye. (143)

Apparently some very accomplished meditators get to a point where they feel this truth deeply, and may even see the world as “empty” or “formless” on a regular basis. This is considered an important feat, especially if your goal is to attain enlightenment.

| As you ponder these words–formlessness and emptiness–two other words may come to mind: crazy and depressing. It seems crazy to think that the world out there isn’t real, that things that seem substantial are in some sense devoid of content. It also seems kind of depressing; I don’t run into a lot of upbeat, fulfilled people who go around rejoicing in the emptiness of it all. (143)

[via: תוהו ובוהו]

But let me start at the nonracial end of the argument. There is a pretty uncontroversial sense in which, when we apprehend the world out there, we’re not really apprehending the world out there but rather are “constructing” it. (144)

Perception is an active, not a passive, process, a process of constantly building models of the world. (145)

Turning Noise into Music

If we can turn literal noise into music, can’t we turn figurative noise–all kinds of unwelcome perceptions and thoughts and feelings–into figurative music? Or at least take the harshness out of them? (147)

This is the version of the emptiness doctrine that makes sense to me, and it’s the version most widely accepted by Buddhist scholars: not the absence of everything, but the absence of essence. To perceive emptiness is to perceive raw sensory data without doing what we’re naturally inclined to do: build a theory about what is at the heart of the data and then encapsulate that theory in a sense of essence. (148)

Yes, the bus saw exists. … But when I talk about the “essence” of the buzz saw, I’m talking about something we perceive in a buzz saw that is more than the sum of such qualities, something that carries distinctive connotations and emotional resonance. (149)

To put it another way,…it turns out that making unpleasant sounds isn’t actually inherent in buzz saws. And if it isn’t inherent in them, how can it be part of their essence? (149)

It’s Stories All the Way Down

…this kind of meaning, which seems so firmly embedded in the texture of things, isn’t in fact, an inherent feature of reality; it is something we impose on reality, a story we tell about reality. (152)

Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, a tool for examining our stories carefully, from the ground up, so that we can, if we choose, separate truth from fabrication. (152)

11. The Upside of Emptiness

Exotic and Ordinary Essence

The Infiltration of Perception by Feeling

Suppose you’re shown two words in succession, and you’re told that when you see the second word you should pronounce it out loud. It turns out that when the second word is robin, you’ll utter it sooner–by a fraction of a second–if the first word is bird than if the first word is street. The word bird has “primed” your brain to respond to related words. This is called “semantic priming.” There is also something you could call “affective priming.” If you’re shown the word sunshine, you’ll more rapidly react to the word glorious than if you’d been shown the word disease. Likewise, you’ll react to the word horrible more quickly if first shown the word disease than if shown the word sunshine. (160)

…human beings are automatic evaluators. We tend to assign adjectives to nouns, whether consciously or unconsciously, explicitly, or implicitly. (161)

The Disturbing Invisibility of My Brother

It may be only a slight exaggeration to say there’s no such thing as an immaculate perception. (162)

With this in mind, let’s look at the two key claims Rodney [Smith] is making: (1) The apprehension of formlessness or emptiness is a truer perception of things than our ordinary view, and (2) the feelings we normally experience in reaction to these things aren’t appropriate in light of the truth about them. These claims are consistent with what I’m saying. Rodney and I are just disagreeing over the mechanics of insight. He says–and here he reflects the orthodox position within Buddhism–that the dampening of feelings leads to the clarity of vision. Indeed, I’d almost go so far as to say the dampening of feelings is the clarity of vision, so finely is affect intertwined with perception–in particular, with the perception of essence. (165)

Feelings and Stories

This is a major theme of Bloom’s: that the stories we tell about things, and thus the beliefs we have about their history and their nature, shape our experience of them, and thus our sense of their essence. (166)

But you could look at it the other way around. Given that our experience of a bottle of wine can be influenced by slapping a fake label on (166) it, you might say that, actually, there is a superficiality to our pleasure, and that a deeper pleasure would come if we could somehow taste the wine itself, unencumbered by beliefs about it that may or may not be true. That is closer to the Buddhist view of the matter. (167)

The Man without Stories

Stories and Brain Scans

We’re exploring the brain’s capacity to create illusions. …that the “essences” we sense in the things really exist, that they inhabit the things we perceive, when in fact they are constructions of our minds, with no necessary correspondence to reality. Things come with stories, and the stories, whether true or false, shape how we feel about the things and thus shape the things themselves, giving them the full form we perceive. (171)

12. A Weedless World

These moral stakes are the main reason I’m spending so much time on the doctrine of emptiness. At the root of the way we treat people, I think, is the essence we see them as having. So it matters whether these perceptions of essence are really true or whether, as the doctrine of emptiness suggests, they are in some sense illusions. (173)

Our Essence-of-Person Machinery

…one thing judgments about moral fiber have in common with judgments about competence and status is that we often make them on the basis of a single data point. (175)

cf. Princeton Samaritan study, 1973

The word attribution refers to the tendency to explain people’s behavior in terms of either “dispositional” factors–in other words, the kind of person they are–or “situational” factors, like whether they happen to be late for a talk. The word error refers to the fact that these attributions are often wrong, that we tend to underestimate the role of situation and overestimate the role of disposition. In other words, we’re biased in favor of essence. (176)

Clerics and criminals rarely face an identical equivalent set of situational challenges. Rather, they place themselves, and are placed by others, in situations that differ precisely in ways that induce clergy to look, act, feel, and think rather consistently like clergy and that induce criminals to look, act, feel, and think like criminals. – Richard Nisbett

To summarize, there’s on situational variable that always biases our evaluations of people: every time we see them doing something, they’re doing it in our presence,… (179)

Our Essence-Preservation Machinery

Attribution mechanisms…promote confirmation of the original enemy image. Hostile actions by the enemy are attributed dispositionally, and thus provide further evidence of the enemy’s inherently aggressive, implacable character. Conciliatory actions are explained away as reactions to situational forces–as tactical maneuvers, responses to external pressure, or temporary adjustments to a position of weakness–and therefore require no revision of the original image. – Herbert C. Kelman

The Essence of Opposition

There’s always some psychological mechanism doing something. … It’s creating our world, it’s creating our perception of the world. That’s why I wouldn’t say domain-specific mechanisms color our perceptions–I’d say they create our perceptions. There’s no way of perceiving the world that doesn’t involve carving it conceptually into pieces. – Leda Cosmides

Until those significances are assigned, presumably, the world is in some sense formless. But once they are assigned, there is form; there is essence. (183)

My Brief Flirtation with Loving and Enemy

There is a meditative technique specifically designed to blur this line. It is called loving-kindness meditation, or, to use the ancient Pali word for loving-kindness, metta meditation. Typically, the meditation starts with you making a point of feeling kindly toward yourself. Then you imagine someone you love and direct some loving-kindness toward him or her. Then you imagine someone you like and direct some loving-kindness toward that person. Then you think about someone you don’t feel strongly about one way or the other. And so on–until (185) you get to an actual enemy. If all goes according to plan, you manage to feel loving-kindness even for that enemy. (186)

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. – Sufi poet Rumi

This two-edged nature of meditative mastery underscores the value of supplementing Buddhist meditation with moral instruction. (190)

Party Time

Enough sermonizing. Let’s have some fun! Or can we? Another commonly raised concern about the dharma is that it could take the joy out of life. (191)

But I would say that in my opinion, my experience, as one continues to practice the Buddhist path, it enriches the emotional life, so that one becomes emotionally more sensitive, more happy and joyful. And I would say that one can respond to things in the world in a freer, more happy, more delightful way. – Rum

Doesn’t part of the freedom come from the fact that you are not attaching these judgmental, affective connotations to things? In other words, not attributing essence so strongly to things can be a source of freedom.

Definitely. – Bhikku Bodhi

13. Like, Wow, Everything Is One (at Most)

Did I feel like I was at one with the world, or was I closer to feeling like I was nothing? (194)

But the point is that such immersion is possible, and it undermines the easy claim that “internally” originating sensations have fixed meanings, whereas “externally” originating ones don’t. Besides, if the key criterion for whether something is part of my self is how close to “automatic” my interpretation of the signals it sends are, then what about the case of offspring? My daughters don’t reside within my skin, yet when I see one of them in pain, it causes me to suffer as reliably as my own pain does. (196)

Evolution and the Bounds of Self

The generic point I’m trying to make is this: Lots of information impinges on my brain, and my brain decides which information it will (197) consider part of my self and which information it won’t consider part of my self, and which information–say, the cry of an offspring–falls somewhere in between. And I take it for granted that those decisions comport with some deep metaphysical truth about what is I and what is other. But in fact my brain could have been wired in a different way, so that it interpreted this information differently, leaving me with a very different sense of the distinction between I and other. (198)

…there’s something like a l logical progression connecting the interior and exterior versions of the not-self experience. But if there’s a kind of logic here, there’s also a kind of paradox. After all, the less sense it makes to talk about a “you” inside your skin, the less sense it would seem to make to talk about “your” continuity with the outside world. (199)

My Inadvertent Online Controversy

Emptiness, Oneness–What’s the Diff?

In other words: nothing possesses inherent existence; nothing contains all the ingredients of ongoing existence within itself; nothing is self-sufficient. Hence the idea of emptiness: all things are empty of inherent, independent existence. (202)

In Hindu thought, specifically within a Hindu school of thought known as Advaita Vedanta, there is the idea that the individual self or soul is actually just a part of what you might call a universal soul. To put the proposition in Hindu terminology: atman (the self or soul) is brahman (the universal soul). Now to say that atman is anything at all–brahman, whatever–is to say that atman exists in the first place. And the very birth of Buddhism, its distinct emergence within an otherwise Hindu milieu, is thought to lie largely in the denial that atman exists. (204)

…maybe the deepest meditative experienced had by Buddhists and the deepest meditative experiences had by Hindus in the Advaita Vedanta tradition are basically (205) the same experience. There is a sense of dissolution of the bounds of self and an ensuing sense of continuity with the world out there. If you’re a Buddhist (at least, a Buddhist of the mainstream type), you’re encouraged to think of that as a continuity of emptiness; and if you’re a Hindu, you’re encouraged to think of it as a continuity of soul or spirit. For that matter, maybe some Abrahamic mystics–Christians, Jews, Muslims–who during contemplative practice feel a union with the divine are having somewhat the same experience as the Hindus and Buddhists, and interpreting it in a way that is closer to the Hindu than the Buddhist perspective. The core experiences remain the same, but the doctrinal articulation varies. (206)

…my basic view of religious beliefs is that the ultimate question isn’t their specific content, but rather: What kind of person do the beliefs make you? How do they lead you to behave? (206)

The Time I Didn’t Kill a Man Who Was Snoring

dukkha–of suffering, of unsatisfactoriness… (209)

tanha, a word usually translated as “thirst” or “craving” and sometimes as “desire.” (209)

Two Sermons and Three Poisons

Does nirvana come by conquering tanha or by seeing that the self is an illusion? (212)

| Well, maybe the two are on and the same. (212)

…avoid the “three poisons” of ragadvesha, and moha….typically translated as “greed, hatred, and (212) delusion,”… The word for greed refers not just to greed in the sense of thirst for material possessions but also to thirst in a more general sense: to any grasping attraction to things. And the word for hatred can mean not just negative feelings toward people but negative feelings toward anything–all feelings of aversion. (213)

| In other words, the first two poisons are the two sides of tanha: a craving for the pleasant, an aversion to the unpleasant. Well, if tanha is indeed tightly bound up with the sense of self, then it makes sense to see these two poisons as bound up with the third poison: delusion. … Raga plus dvesha equals moha. (213)

14. Nirvana in a Nutshell

In its early years [the rock group Nirvana] went under a series of other names. One of them was Bliss. (215)

“What is the unconditioned?” 9216)

One obvious approach to deciphering “the unconditioned” is to drop the un and ask what conditioned means. “The conditioned,” in Buddhist terminology, can be thought of as roughly synonymous with “the caused.” (217)

So if nirvana is “the unconditioned,” then you might think, it would involve some kind of escape from “the caused.” And you would be right! But what does that mean?

| The answer to that question involves one of the most important terms in Buddhism: paticca-samuppada. It is a term that has numerous applications and numerous translations. For present purposes–when we’re using it to illuminate the logic of nirvana–a good translation is “conditioned arising.” (217)

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 (219) 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 your can get closer to the unconditioned. (220)

How Weird Is the Unconditioned?

You could say that enlightenment in the Buddhist sense has something in common with enlightenment in the Western scientific sense: it involves becoming more aware of what causes what. (223)

15. Is Enlightenment Enlightening?

If you would like to think of meditation practice as being a rebellion against an oppressive overlord, we can arrange that: just think of yourself as fighting your creator, natural selection. … And we have every right to decide, like Neo, that our values differ from those of the force that controls us and that we want liberation from it. (226)

[via: This to me is one of the most weighted comments in the book.]

The Enlightenment Checklist

What is enlightenment? (227)

Well, Aren’t We Special?

My specialness lies very near the heart of natural selection’s values system. (230)

But is it truth? Are the values of natural selection’s that are being rejected in the course of enlightenment actually false? Yes, in some sense. Consider the absurdity of the current situation: this planet is full of people operating on the premise that their interests trump the interests (230) of pretty much everyone else on the planet–yet it can’t be the case that everyone is more important than everybody else. So a core tenet of natural selection’s value system is internally contradictory. Rejecting it, then, would pretty much have to move you closer to the truth. (231)

Emptiness as Truth

If you ask me to defend the idea of emptiness, I would take a different tack: I’d focus not he experience of emptiness, not the philosophical doctrine, and argue that this experience is in a sense more valid, more truthful, than our ordinary experience of the world. (232)

Feelings in Cosmic Context

Einstein and Enlightenment

What happens to essence when we let go of our particular perspective–the perspective that the feelings that shape the perceived essences of things were designed to serve? (236)

Our entire notion of good and bad, our whole landscape of feelings–fear, lust, love, and the many other feelings, salient and subtle, that inform our everyday thoughts and perceptions–are products of the particular evolutionary history of our species. If having sex with armadillos had been the only way our ancestors could get their genes into the next generation, you and I would think armadillos are attractive–not just cute in an offbeat way, but deeply enticing. You might have trouble controlling your urge to caress them. (237)

The Point of View of the Universe

…the view from nowhere may be the pithiest way of describing what Buddhist enlightenment would be like: the view that carries none of my selfish cases, or yours, and that in a certain sense isn’t even a particularly human perspective, or the perspective of any other species. (240)

The view from nowhere, the view of impartiality, shouldn’t be confused with a view of indifference. (240)

A Brief History of Life

So, yes, we need to reject the core evolutionary value of the specialness of self. Indeed, there’s probably never been a time in human history when this rejection was more vital. But we don’t want to reject what is also in a sense a value of natural selection’s: that the creation and sustenance of sentient life is good. Happily, mindfulness meditation is well suited to fighting that first value while serving the second one. As a bonus, it brings us closer to the truth. (244)

16. Meditation and the Unseen Order

Clarity Begins at Home

Why do I still meditate? (250)

1. Moments of truth. (250)

Even if we can’t apprehend the truth about all of reality and sustain that apprehension throughout our lives, we can apprehend the truth about little corners of reality and sustain that apprehension for a little while. And here’s the key thing: seeing these little, almost trivial truths on a regular basis, in a disciplined way, can help us see bigger, less trivial truths. (251)

2. Moments of more consequential truth. (251)

3. The wisdom of clarity. (252)

4. Moments of moral truth. (252)

5. Timely interventions. (252)

The Slippery Slope toward Enlightenment

The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment–with a capital L and E–on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on a not-so-distant day. (253)

Maybe the best way to put it is that enlightenment and liberation are mutually reinforcing: the more you do the things that bring liberation from suffering, the more clearly you see; and the more clearly you see, the easier it is to do the things that bring liberation from suffering. Which allows even more clarity of vision. And so on. (254)

I’ll never forget something that Narayan said on my first meditation retreat: “Boredom can be interesting.” It’s true, but seeing its truth will involve first spending some time absorbing another truth–Boredom can be really boring!–and persisting in the face of it. (255)

Saving the World through Clarity

I think the salvation of the world can be secured via the cultivation (256) of calm, clear minds and the wisdom they allow. (257)

[via: But panicked minds act.]

I’m not sure what to call the revolution–maybe the Metacognitive Revolution,… (257)

The other thing I don’t claim is that I have a step-by-step plan for the revolution. My main point is more abstract: it would be tragic, to say the least, if, after billions of years of arduous effort on the part of organic life, effort that has gotten us to the verge of a global community of minds, we let the natural distortions in these minds blow the whole thing apart. It would be all the more tragic in light of the fact that these distortions are now a scientifically established fact and that we have ways of correcting them, including, though not confined to, meditative practice. (259)

| All  I’m really saying is this: the means to the planet’s salvation is at hand. (259)

Speaking of Salvation

Jesus said that our perception of the world is distorted and that we should work on correcting our blind spots rather than complain about the blind spots of others: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Amen to that. (261)

[via: cf. Matthew 7:3-5]

Still, it’s fair to ask, especially given my personal history, whether my meditation practice, along with the philosophy that undergirds it, qualifies as a religion. Does it do the kinds of things Christianity did for my parents, even though I’ve jettisoned the supernatural parts of Buddhism–and, indeed, retained the naturalistic parts a bit selectively? (261)

Is “Secular” Buddhism a Religion?

There is, in other words, a kind of structural alignment between metaphysical truth and moral truth. That’s a kind of order, an order that can remain unseen if we don’t practice the disciplines that make it manifest. (262)

…we live in a universe in which seeing the metaphysical truth helps you see the moral truth. (262)

Will meditation make me happier? (264)

…I’m in favor of happiness, especially my own. At the same time, the argument I’d make to people about why they should meditate is less about the quantity of happiness than about the quality of the happiness. (264)

Truth and Beauty

There’s a lot to dislike about the world we’re born into. It’s a world in which, as the Buddha noted, our natural way of seeing, and of being, leads us to suffer and to inflict suffering on others. And it’s a world that, as we now know, was bound to be that way, given that life on this planet was created by natural selection. Still, it may also be in a world in which metaphysical truth, moral truth, and happiness can align, and a world that, as you tart to realize that alignment, appears more and more beautiful. If so, this hidden order–an order that seems to lie at a level deeper than natural selection itself–is something to marvel at. And it’s something I’m increasingly thankful for. (266)

Appendix: A List of Buddhist Truths

1. Human beings often fail to see the world clearly, and this can lead them to suffer and to make others suffer. (270)

2. Humans tend to anticipate more in the way of enduring satisfaction from the attainment of goals than will in fact transpire.

3. Dukkha is a relentlessly recurring part of life as life is ordinarily lived. (271)

4. The source of dukkha identified in the Four Noble Truths–tanha, translated as “thirst” or “craving” or “desire”–makes sense against the backdrop of evolution. (271)

5. The two basic feelings that sponsor dukkha–the two sides of tanha, a clinging attraction to things and an aversion to things–needn’t enslave us as they tend to do. (271)

6. Our intuitive conception of the “self” is misleading at best. (272)

7. The more expansive and more common interpretation of the Buddha’s second discourse–as saying that the “self” simply doesn’t exist–is rendered in various ways in various Buddhist texts. (272)

8. What I call the “exterior” version of the not-self experience–a sense that the bounds surrounding the self have dissolved and were in some sense illusory to being with–is not empirically and theoretically corroborated in the same sense that, I argue, the “interior” version of the not-self experience is corroborated. (273)

9. Leaving aside the metaphysical validity of our ordinary sense of self, and of alternatives to that ordinary sense of self, there is the question of moral validity. (273)

10. The intuition that objects and beings we perceive have “essences” is, as the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness holds, an illusion. (274)

11. The preceding point about essences and essentialism is one illustration of the broader proposition that not seeing the world clearly can lead not just to our own suffering but to bad conduct in the sense of making others suffer needlessly. Or, to put a more positive spin on it: Seeing the world more clearly can make you not just happier but more moral. (274)

12. Many Buddhist teachings, including several of those listed here, could be lumped under the rubric of “awareness of conditioning,” where “conditioning” means, roughly speaking, causes. (275)

…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. (275)

About VIA



  1. Paul Xu

    I listened to this as an audiobook and loved it, but failed to take any notes. Coming back to your detailed summary afterward was tremendously helpful. Thank you so much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: