Robert Wright. WHY BUDDHISM IS TRUE
The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Simon and Shuster 2017
Notes by John Baxter www.johnbaxter.org firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wright is a graduate of Princeton where he first specialised in Evolutionary Psychology, then has worked as a science journalist for leading American publications, then as a lecturer in Religions and Psychology at Princeton and currently at Union Theological Seminary. See Wikipedia.
Raised a Southern Baptist (evangelical fundamentalist) he detached from Christianity at university and rejects supernaturalism in all forms, including transmigration and biblical theism and is happy to be described as a humanist or naturalist Buddhist. Since 2006 he has attended many retreats at the Insight Meditation Centre at Great Barr and has studied Buddhism deeply, academically and systematically.
I have found his book which shows how Darwinian Natural Selection as applied to Psychology turns out to be in line with Theravada Buddhism to be outstanding and helpful. To understand it I have summarised the first nine chapters. My opinions and comments are within brackets. The main text quotes directly or summarises his words. The numbers are for pages, The book is available on Amazon.
Ch 1. Taking the Red Pill
(The Matrix film. Wright sees this film as exploring the idea that our every-day view of ourselves is basically wrong – as the Buddha also taught)
Evolutionary Psychology (Wrights specialism) shows that the human brain, “designed” by natural selection, NS, enslaves and deludes us. It, NS, is a blind, unconscious process working to get genes into the next generation. The traits that survive because they do this include facilitating mental traits and algorithms. It is beside the point if these reveal “reality.” They both do and don’t. While anxiety, despair, hatred and greed all have delusional aspects we are better off without, they are more illusion than delusion, but they add up to a very large-scale warping of our experience of reality. This then adds up to a serious delusion.
The Buddha taught that the pleasures we seek, food, sex, status etc evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. To further our genes we need to eat, have sex, best peers and defeat rivals. These goals need to give us pleasure, but not pleasure that lasts for ever. NS gets us to feel the anticipation of pleasure very strongly, but to make us productive this is not long lasting. This is how natural selection builds organisms that spread genes.
If you want to liberate yourself from the parts of your mind that keep you from realising true happiness, you have to first become aware of them, which can be unpleasant. (p10) Studying Evolutionary Psychology gave Wright the pain of self-consciousness without the deep happiness he sought. So, in August 2003 he went on a Massachusetts Vipassana or Mindfulness retreat.
What is often presented as Mindfulness is often a selective, manicured version. SATI is not just reflection or health therapy,(which is what the Mindfulness movement based on Kabat Zin and the Oxford Mindfulness Centre do where the focus is mental and physical health). Buddhism offers a specific diagnosis of our problem with NS induced delusion, and a cure.
Ch. 2 Paradoxes of Meditation
We live in an imperilled planet and I am in microcosm of what is wrong with the world. (He describes the retreat experience) Is a sizeable chunk of perceived reality, really an illusion? If you put the Buddhist idea of not-self (Theravada Annatta) and the idea of emptiness (Mahayana) together, then you are faced with the proposition that neither the world inside you nor outside you is anything like it seems. P25 Failing to see this leads to a lot of suffering. The quest for individual salvation also advances the quest for social salvation.
Ch 3 When are Feelings Illusions?
Feelings seem to be the tool NS uses to get organisms to take the right NS choices. NS developed our feelings to operate in a specific (hunter-gatherer) environment. Hence obsolete cravings (junk food, sugar, binging) Urges that make us feel good (road rage) but on reflection are not good for us. Also “false positives” anxiety over public speaking and winning the good opinion of others.
The Buddha recognised “the happiness delusion”. This is an overestimation of how long “better” is going to last. The “hedonic treadmill” of the psychologist is what the Buddha called dukkha. What he could not see is its source, Natural Selection. P41. It is hard to tell valuable from harmful feelings, but all trigger you to follow them.
Ch 4 Bliss, Ecstasy and more Important Reasons to Meditate
Waking up to the wandering mind – the “default mode network.” P45 This is active when we are doing nothing in particular. Its focus is either on the past or the future, but very seldom on the PRESENT MOMENT. Very experienced meditators show little of the “default mode network.” Concentration meditation on the breath or a mantra can trigger powerful feelings of bliss or ecstasy. Intensely visual, bordering on the hallucinatory and blissful –(he experienced this powerfully on his first retreat. It has been life-changing – I have had similar experiences on 2 retreats).
Right concentration may need to precede right mindfulness. Mindfulness moves on to focus on what is happening inside and outside you with an “Ironic combination of closeness and critical distance.” Viewing feelings in meditation helps you be more mindful of them in everyday life. In a retreat you come to face your sufferings. The point being to confront, not evade your sufferings but to face them unflinchingly and thus undermine them. (Very useful comments)
Staying in the present, though an important part of mindfulness meditation, isn’t the point of the exercise. It is a means to the end, not the end itself. 53
The traditional Buddhist goal is Nibbana, Liberation, Enlightenment. Is this A. Open to all. B. Open only to very experienced and dedicated renunciates/practitioners, C. Something no-one quite reaches? Is it an asymptote Something you can get closer and closer to, but never quite reach. (A view I am inclined towards) Mindfulness meditation, vipassana, Clear Vision, Insight can lead to a place of a sharply and vividly altered perspective. An initially therapeutic endeavour can turn into a deeply philosophical and spiritual endeavour. P56.
The three marks of existence. 1. Impermanence. 2. Dukkha pain, suffering, unsatisfactoriness. 3. Annata not-self. Grappling with the sense that you don’t exist is a step towards putting your “self” in charge. P57. But what does not-self anatta mean?
Ch 5 The Alleged Non-existence of Your Self
Ajahn Chah said, “To understand anatta you have to meditate.” This is so if you wish to put it to use to become a happier or even a better person. (Interesting he quotes Ajahn Chah)
Walpola Rahula says, “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 and impurities and problems. It is the source of all the problems in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.” (What the Buddha Taught 1959)(A quotation I have never forgotten)
Wright points out that the meaning of anatta remains contentious. He starts with the Buddha’s reflection on the “Five “heaps, aggregates, collections” (Skandhas) that make up a person. Briefly these are: 1. Bodily form, our physical nature 2. Basic feelings, our emotions 3. Perceptions what comes to us through our senses. “ sights, sounds (touch, smell taste?)”
4. Mental Formations, habits of thought, subtle moods, emotions,
5. Consciousness, Our awareness of the other four aggregates.
The Buddha does not define the self, he says, but explores how far each aggregate is under our control and his conclusion is that none of them are. Wright’s emphasises that the Buddha uses his demonstration that none of the five are under our control to argue if they are not under our control how can they be part of the self? (Rahula In What the Buddha Taught simply points out, that since all five are impermanent and constantly changing, the self does not exist p 25 WTBT) Wright goes on to recognise this, when he notes that all five are not only not under our control but that they are all changing through time, so where is the self?
Wright asks, “Does not-self mean no self? P63. How can the Buddha on the one hand insist that the self does not exist, and on the other keep using terms like I and You, He and She? This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self. Follow this and you will be free, but what is this “you”, this self that recognises this? One answer is that the self does not exist in an “ultimate” sense, though it does in a “conventional” sense for human language is not good at describing things at the deepest level. 64
Wright explores what he calls a MAVERICK VIEW This is “the Buddha did not really mean to be denying the existence of the self.” Why? Because no-where in the foundational document does the Buddha say that the self does not exist. 65 Wright explores liberation from the 5 aggregates including consciousness and the view that liberation from the aggregates means achieving a liberated form of the consciousness aggregate. (This is very subtle and hard for me to understand, let alone summarise) 67 and 287.
Wright’s conclusion is to commend: 68 Within you is something that deserves the name I. But be open to the radical possibility that your self at the deepest level is not at all what you have thought of it as being. Abandon “massive chunks of your psychological landscape” and you will attain a “breath-taking shift” in self-understanding. You come to see that a strong feeling is not in fact part of your self –(such as a physical pain or an emotional state like anxiety, rage, jealousy). A toothache can hurt you only if you own the tooth in the first place. 69 Feelings are designed by NS to represent judgements . The Buddha says the less you judge the more clearly you see and the less deluded you’ll be.
The Buddha was not lecturing on metaphysics, but simply trying to get the monks to think about their minds in a way that would lead them towards liberation. . Perhaps annatta means “not usefully considered part of your self.” If there is a part of you that isn’t under your control and makes you suffer, then quit identifying with it. 72
(Wright is no fundamentalist and he rejects a literal view of re-incarnation and unquestioning acceptance of Buddhist scriptures as historically accurate. He notes that) The historical Buddha, like the historical Jesus, is hard to discern through the mists of history. (i.e. we cannot be certain any text accurately conveys his teaching as he said it. We work with a tradition) 73
Summary on not self: Our conceptions of our selves is wildly off the mark in seeing it as in control and persistent over time. We are much more fluid. 74.
CH 6 Your CEO is MIA (What modern psychology has to say)
The Buddha says we are not in control of any of the 5 Skandhas. Modern Psychology (MPs) says the same. The conscious self is not some all-powerful executive authority. We are even in less control of ourselves than we conclude on refection. So who or what is in control? Nothing in particular.
The parts of the brain that control language generate a false if coherent explanation of our behaviour (with its decisions which are taken pre-consciously as seen in 2 brain experiments) With or without conscious awareness the same physical motivational machinery (in the brain) seems to be doing the heavy lifting. Since the 80’s it has been known that the brain initiates action before the person becomes aware of deciding to do it. (tennis players?) The conscious mind is naturally deluded about its own nature.
Darwinian Benefits of Self Delusion 82
As hunter-gatherers it is to the benefit of our genes that we can convince others that we are coherent, consistent and have things under control. We present ourselves to others as beneficial and effective beneffectance. After competence comes moral fibre. We think we are (and seek to be thought we are) better than average at not being biased in thinking that we are better than average.. Memory helps. We are better at remembering what positive experiences we have had and what commendable actions we have done than the negative things – though some negatives get seared into our memories (to warn us from doing it again). Extrovert and introvert personalities (inherited) and cultures (acquired) can affect this. 84 (but the basic biases are transcultural and are all to promote NS)
Two kinds of illusions. 1. We see the conscious self as being more in control than it is. 2. (We exaggerate the positive ) What kind of people we are – capable and upstanding – (and morally admirable)
The primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management not decision maker.
Evolutionary psychology increasingly sees the mind is MODULAR. Not bunches, apps or departments.
Ch 7 The Mental Modules That Run Your Life 91
The intertemporal utility function your willingness to delay gratification. The Buddha emphasised the impermanent, changing nature of the skandhas leading to his not-self conclusion. Psychologists in experiments manipulate people’s states of mind and see their inclinations change. If you have different preferences from one moment to the next then in what sense is it the same you.
The brain consists of lots of partly overlapping modules and modules within modules and the robot’s circumstances determine which modules are for the moment, running the show.95
The self (is perhaps seen as) the algorithm that determines which circumstances put which modules in charge.
The activation of modules is closely associated with feelings. When you let go of a feeling by viewing it mindfully, you’re letting go of something you had previously considered part of your self.
97 sexual jealousy. A very powerful feeling. Observing feelings without attachment is the way you keep modules from seizing control of your consciousness. (mindful meditation)
Modules can get triggered not only without the conscious self doing the triggering, but also without it having a clue as to the Darwinian logic behind the triggering. 99
Messy modules 100
Kenrick and Griskevicius identify 7 modules: Self-protection, mate attraction, mate retention, affiliation (making and keeping friends) kincare, social status, disease avoidance.
Obviously drawing lines between these is hard. (so modules should not be thought of as sealed – there is considerable overlapping). Also the mind gets seized by different modules and each one has different illusions. These are triggered by feelings. Feelings don’t just bring specific fleeting illusions; they can usher in a whole mind-set and so alter a range of perceptions and proclivities for better or worse. 103 There seems to be a series of selves running the show, seizing control through feelings. Change this through mindfulness med.
Ch 8 How Thoughts Think Themselves
Comment on the three meditative traditions. Zen is for poets, kaons, Tibetan is for artists, visual imagery, Vipassana is for psychologists, mindfulness. 105 Experiences people have during mindfulness meditation make particular sense in light of a modular model of the mind. 106
To see that your mind is wandering is to see part of what the Buddha meant when he challenged conventional conceptions of the self. (he takes a look at the wandering mind 107) thoughts involve the past and the future, not often the present. All involve you. Most involve other people. These all tie in with NS. Exception he gives is the “beer drinking module” recreational drugs circumvent NS by going directly to the brain’s reward centre. (A bad thing!)
(He says psychologists who are pro a module view of consciousness say:) The conscious you isn’t choosing modules so much as being commandeered by modules that have prevailed over competing modules to win the prize of conscious recognition. If you then go on a Vipassana retreat it will seem more and more like your mind isn’t wandering within its own terrain so much as being hijacked by intruders. 109
(He meets and discusses with Goldstein) some say “thoughts think themselves” he says modules generate thoughts. Goldstein says, “We get caught up in the story, the drama (of our thoughts) forgetting their essentially insubstantial nature.” (This goes with what he says again) The Buddha’s original not-self teaching is best seen not as a metaphysical truth but as a pragmatic strategy, regardless of whether a self exists. By jettisoning parts of what you think of as your self, you clarify your view of the world and become a better, happier person. 113
So; If the modular model is correct then the view of thoughts afforded us by meditation is truer than the everyday unreflective view, that thoughts emanate from a CEO self. 114
What Fuel Propels Thought?
All kinds of curiosity seem to involve feelings. Brain scans show a curious state of mind involves activity in the dopamine system which is about motivation, reward, desire and pleasure. All feelings are judgements about how various things relate to an animal’s Darwinian interests, Feelings are the glue that makes thoughts stick to consciousness, that makes you unreflectively take ownership of them. 120 (The end of Ch. 8)
Ch.9 “Self” Control
Hume said human reason is the slave of the passions, meaning the feelings. Psychology shows now the way the brain actually does the weighing (in choosing between options) is through the contest of conflicting feelings. Hume – “Reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will” Feelings are what goad animals to follow NS. The purpose of intelligence is to make feelings better informed. 123-124 Mindfulness Med intervenes at the level of feelings to alter their influence.
The same parts of the brain mediate both physical pain and the pain of social rejection and both can be inhibited by drugs and painkillers. 125 (which is why drugs and alcohol and anti-depressants are all part of the false path to achieve happiness and stop suffering by ingesting substances.)
Reason and Chocolate.
It is not the case that our reasoning pre-frontal cortexes override our feelings. Rather from a neural and evolutionary perspective our reasoning systems are not independent logic machines. They are outgrowths of more primitive mammalian systems for selecting rewarding behaviours. 127.
Does Your Inner Judge Really Judge?
(Although it feels as if the rational mind examines the arguments for and anti for an action the reality is a battle between modules and feelings and the stronger one wins and consciousness then does a PR job justifying the choice, or it may be that we consult others before making a choice when again we go for the dominant feelings as conveyed by others and then we express justifying reasons for going along with these. Summary of 130) We have a tool, mindfulness meditation, that is well suited to intervening at the level of feelings and altering their influence, so helping us deal with addictive challenges 131.
Is Self Discipline Really the Problem? 131
What happens when the desire for immediate self-gratification gets so strong that conscious resistance becomes futile? It makes sense that NS would design (no produce) a modular mind so that “winning” modules would amass more power when their judgement is vindicated, particularly if this leads to sensual gratification (cigarettes, alcohol, sex, food) The problem we face in a modern environment is that the gratification of desires can re-enforce behaviours quite different from the behaviours NS designed (developed) it to reinforce.(E.g. porn or alcohol. 134)
A New Approach 134
Quotes Judson Brewer, Yale Med School. Do not fight the feeling but in meditation calmly examine the feeling. RAIN Recognise the feeling, Accept (don’t try to drive it away) Investigate it in relation to your body, N Nonidentification or Detachment. Non attachment being the Buddha’s all purpose prescription for what ails us. Brewer If you don’t feed a stray cat it quits coming to your door. 136
Attention Deficit as Addiction
How to deal with both nicotine addiction and a short attention span – mindfulness. We can weaken the impulse by not fighting it but by letting it form and observing it carefully. This deprives the module of the positive reinforcement it needs. 139.
Hatred as Addiction
Mindfulness is an attempt to give the calm passions more power and the violent passions less. Both “therapeutic” and “spiritual” problems are the result of not seeing things clearly. And the first step towards seeing through these feelings is to see them in the first place – becoming aware of how pervasively and subtly feelings influence our thought and behaviour. 141.
My Conclusions and Comments
This summary covers only half of the book, the half which focuses on the compatibility of the Buddha’s teaching as given by the Pali scriptures and Theravada Bhikkhus (Ajahn Cha, Bhikkhu Bodhi and Walpola Rahula) The insights in the rest of the book show how deep his exploration of Buddhist thought and practice has been, but it does not take his exploration of the links between Buddhist teaching and evolutionary psychology much further while this I think is his great contribution.
Whether total Enlightenment should be seen as a realistic goal or an unattainable mirage, he sees classic mindfulness meditation as an extremely valuable tool and a mental training which enables anyone who chooses to practice it, to be able to see and understand the power of our emotions and feelings in a more detached way. As a result one is then able to calmly make more rational and moral choices and evade addictive and destructive ones in our everyday and working lives. He sees this as being not just personally but socially extremely valuable at a time when both rationality and morality are under dire threat as we move towards a range of catastrophes. (climate change and pandemics)
Wright’s approach can be compared with that of Harare particularly in his third book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century where he discusses his own – very similar to Wright’s – meditation experience based on mindfulness retreats and a rigorous daily meditation practice. Harare however also clearly spells out that Buddhist practice and mindfulness meditation is not a panacea for it does not automatically bring about greater wisdom and insight. (See p305 and remember Myanmar and the treatment of the Rohingya.) This is something which happens when the central importance of the Five Precepts of moral guidance the Buddha emphasised are forgotten, ignored or twisted. Sadly neither Wright nor Harare say anything about the value and role of the renunciate Sangha in furthering insightful practice even as they recognise Sangha teachers.
John Baxter email@example.com