Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Robert Wright's "Why Buddhism Is True": Book Review

For those skeptical of supernatural claims and theistic versions of Buddhism, Robert Wright continues the quest that his earlier books such as The Moral Animal and The Evolution of God began. These titles hint at Wright's terrain, where fact and speculation, the tangible and the experiential, blur. He explores in Why Buddhism Is True the worldview that in the time of the historical Buddha could not have been clearly expressed in pre-scientific, and very pre-Darwinian terms to human mindsets.

Fresh from teaching courses on Buddhism and science at Princeton and similar courses at the Union Theological Seminary, Wright blends a wide-ranging series of investigations summed up from neural and biological research. His thesis proposes that the truth-claims of the dharma were a first, and correctly directed, step towards our own understanding of natural selection and the drives it creates. Born with them, we can free ourselves from them. Buddhism predicted the remedy for our human condition.

For instance, what on the savannah might have kept us reproducing, in thrall to our communal band, and with sufficient resources to guard against hunger or competition now linger in us. They may be go under the names of lust, social fear of being shamed, avarice, gluttony and greed, but they convey the same "fetters" which Buddhist teaching encourages, and demands, we must overcome if we want to reach a more balanced and controlled mental and physical state, freed of the illusions of the senses.

Around this central argument, Wright spins a lot of tales. A Foreigner song stuck in his mind, an annoying sitter near him on a meditation retreat, an urge to become easily irritated. He's been on the Buddhist path a while, but he rejects the trappings which have grown up around the teaching. He opts for a secular version, acknowledging that it may well be diluted (as is mindfulness or yoga) as it turns to the West, but he analyzes, in a final addendum. the core concepts that his book's laid out about establishing the veracity of what the Buddha and adepts since have incorporated into the dharma.

The tone is casual despite the heaps of learning stirred in. Wright writes again for a popular audience. Such interpretations possess value, for those of us less able or less leisured to delve into what the labs or monasteries for that matter might be generating as scholarship. However, the weight of so much data, dispersed over many chapters, sometimes slows the pace. Despite his genial tone, parts of this felt repetitious, belaboring the obvious once stated. Yet I find this same reaction to some treatments of Buddhism. A core teaching, a set of instructions  can be summed up pithily, but like chess, for each pursuit the application approaches the infinite. This might convince, therefore, those already initiating some dharma practice for a while, While Wright introduces teaching, it's more its implementation.

That leads him near the conclusion to some elevated claims. He endorses Daniel Ingram's promise that meditation results can be attained with diligence rapidly, and not just by those with decades of training. Wright like many admits that his transports have not occurred often, and when one did, he shows how ephemeral it was. He counsels daily discipline, more to calm and to establish more within one's reactive mechanism (not a term he uses) a longer-range, considered, and composed response to the triggers which, as with road rage, we inherit from billions of years of evolution, becoming an organism determined to gain ground, acquire loot, store up calories, and dominate by trophy wives.

I expected the author to turn to a philosopher who also predicted ways in which we can comprehend our predicament, and who is seen in retrospect as sympathetic to Buddhism, Schopenhauer. In my e-galley, I did not find any mention of the World as Will and Representation that he conceived. It seems prescient here. There's discussion of contemporary thinkers, more from psychology than philosophy..

This book will create some debate, I predict, among the more traditional Buddhist practitioner; those open to his analytical, even detached attitude at times, and his production of a practical set of guidelines, may benefit from a presentation of the dharma seeking liberation not into a higher realm, but from the natural selection which tethers us to demands which prevent us from fully entering the state the Buddha modeled. Sure, as Wright concurs, sentience and cognition and evolution into our present status all have definite advantages. But as to drawbacks, he advises the dharma. Even if the science we now promote might in the future shift, the bedrock of the dharma, Wright avers, remains solid. Beholden as we'll be to our genetic inheritance, we can nurture by Buddhism our true nature.

 (Amazon US 8-8-17 + Edelweiss+; this review by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker appeared after I wrote mine. It's titled in the print copy "American Nirvana" and at the website as "What Meditation Can Do for Us and What it Can't")