Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright (Zan’s Review & Summary)

Photo by Zan Azahiro

Concise Summary

Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True is a scientific validation of the core idea of Buddhism – that we suffer because our brain “tricks” us into deluding ourselves, making us fail to see things for what they truly are.

Why does the brain create delusions? Blame it on Darwinian evolution. Your brain only cares about two things: (1) your survival, and (2) your ability to pass on your genes. As long as these two functions are preserved, it will go as far as creating illusions to trick you.

The solution? Meditation. It will loosen the grip that your thoughts and emotions have on you. By watching your thoughts come and go, you will disassociate yourself from them, giving you the ability to break free from delusions and see the truth.

Zan’s Review

Breaking free from “the mind’s delusions” is the primary idea of this book. It fits in perfectly with the concept of Pauseability – in which a man would get his freedom by distancing his reactions from his impulses.

Much of Buddhism is based around some rather esoteric concepts which may seem to be detached from modern living. Robin Wright’s book wisely focuses on the more “practical” and non-esoteric aspects of Buddhism, steering clear from rituals and exotically metaphysical parts such as reincarnation and karma. As such, it could serve as a good primer not only on Buddhism, but on secular spiritualism in general.

Many of Wright’s ideas do align uncannily with our work with the Inner Zen – probably due to our shared approach of looking at spiritualism from the pragmatist’s point of view.

There are some points which we do not fully agree on; for example, the assertion that “specialness” is a delusion, and has a net negative effect on humanity. We take an opposite view – specialness (or rather, individualism) is net positive for humankind. By pursuing our Life Tasks individually, humanity moves forward as a collective.

Key Ideas (With Commentary)

Why We Are Delusional

  1. Be suspicious of your intuition: Our “default” way of perceiving the world may not bring us the truth.
  2. Evolutionary psychology is about how the human brain has evolved to mislead (or even enslave) us.
  3. Natural selection (via Darwinian evolution) only “cares” for one thing – to get our genes passed on to the next generation. Its sole function is to “build machines that spread genes”.
  4. For the purpose in (3), the brain may (usually) choose the thoughts and emotions that delude us.
  5. For the continuation of the human race, it’s not important for humans to see the world clearly. It is, however, important to have perceptions and beliefs that would help preserve the genes. These beliefs are often delusional.
  6. Delusion is not always bad. However, it may create anxiety, despair, hatred and greed – the things that will make us unhappy.

Zan Azahiro: One of the Mind Axioms of the Inner Zen is thus: Nature wants us to survive, not necessarily to thrive. The mind will go as far as to create misconceptions and illusions (and it often does) to “delude” us into taking action for one reason – the sole purpose of self-preservation.

Why Pleasure Is Short

  1. Nature gives us pleasure to incentivize us to perform certain things that ensures that our genes are passed on to the next generation. These things include: eating, having sex, impressing our peers and beating our enemies.
  2. If pleasure is permanent, we will only do the thing that gives us pleasure once. However, eating once and having sex once will greatly limit our chance of survival and the passing of our genes.
  3. Hence, pleasure is impermanent by design. A dose of pleasure will make us hunger for more, so that we perform those gene-passing and survival activities again and again.
  4. As a result, our brain does two things. First, it overestimates how much happiness a pleasurable thing will bring us. Second, it overestimates how long the pleasure will last.

Zan Azahiro: This gives rise to the “perpetual aspiration” problem – when we have reached a certain goal, we ask ourselves: “Is this it? There must be something more, surely?”

Paradoxes of Meditation

  1. It’s a paradox, but thinking about succeeding interferes with succeeding. This is especially true with meditation.
  2. The first paradox: The people who are least likely to meditate are those who need meditation.
  3. The second paradox: The problems that you want to overcome with meditation are the same problems which will make your meditation difficult.
  4. In mindfulness meditation, focusing on your breath is to keep the mind still so that you can observe your thoughts passively (with non-attachment).

Zan Azahiro: Most “deep” knowledge is full of paradoxes, and Buddhism is no different. One of my favourite books is John Kay’s Obliquity, where this is the central premise: Achieving goals is best done obliquely. The same applies to meditation – it’s necessary NOT to have the goal of being good at meditating in order to be good at meditating (!)

Feelings Are (Sometimes) Illusions

Why Feelings Are Illusions

  1. We are attracted to things that keep us alive, and repelled by things that harm us. We are not “smart” enough to know one from the other, and so feelings are proxy to this kind of thinking.
  2. Feelings exist to motivate or induce action. And these actions are primarily for survival and passing of the genes to the next generation.
  3. Therefore, feelings encode judgments about things in our environment.
  4. Are feelings “true”? Yes, if the judgments that they encode are accurate (i.e. the things that we are attracted to are indeed good for us, and the things we are repelled by are indeed bad).
  5. However, we know that the judgments are not always accurate. For example, I like a sugar doughnut, but it’s bad for me. So, the question is: Why would natural selection let this happen? Is this a mistake?
  6. Reason: It had served the interests of our ancestors (but not ours). Carbohydrates were scarce, and so our ancestors were naturally attracted to foods that contain carbohydrates (the “sweet” stuff). This is no longer true in the modern times.
  7. Therefore, the feeling of attraction to sweet food is “false”.

Zan Azahiro: Feelings are triggers for humans to take action in response to an external stimuli. They are often inaccurate and lead to choices which may not be ideal for us. Building the distance between feelings and action will let us have the freedom to choose our responses appropriately.

Why Illusions Can Sometimes Be Useful

  1. Imagine hiking on a hill known to have rattlesnakes. Suppose you hear a sound in the bushes. You feel fearful, imagining a rattlesnake. It turns out to be a lizard. You stopped feeling afraid.
  2. This misconception is an illusion (you imagined a rattlesnake, but in reality it was a lizard). However, it’s a useful illusion – because it made you alert, and kept you safe.
  3. So, there are two types of illusions : the useful kind (the “rattlesnake”) and the harmful kind (the “doughnut”).
  4. Examples of “rattlesnake” illusions – Unfamiliar situations. Fear of the dark.
  5. Examples of “doughnut” illusions – Bad food choices. Most social situations – offending someone, feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness.

Why Illusions Are (Usually) Bad

  1. Anxiety may be useful sometimes (“rattlesnakes”), but most people worry for no purpose at all. Worse, the worrying create bad consequences (“doughnuts”).
  2. Example: I am anxious about a presentation tomorrow. So, I worry about not getting enough sleep tonight. By worrying I won’t get enough sleep, I couldn’t sleep!
  3. There is a mismatch between how we have evolved and the environment that we are in right now. And this mismatch creates beliefs that are untrue, and these untrue beliefs can be bad for us.
  4. Meditation will liberate us from these untrue beliefs, beliefs that not only affect our happiness, but delude us into taking actions that are harmful.
  5. Subject your feelings to investigation – to see which ones are useful, and which are harmful.

Zan Azahiro: The choice seems stark: either live a long life of suffering, or a short life of happiness. But this is a false dichotomy. We can live a long life of happiness – if we can first understand the delusional nature of the mind. Then, we can work to defeat it.

Why Meditate?

  1. Viewing your feelings mindfully when meditating makes you better at viewing your feelings mindfully in real life.
  2. Additionally, it makes you appreciate aesthetics more. Even food tastes better!
  3. Meditation, according to Buddhism, is the path to enlightenment. Enlightenment is defined by the dispelling of mind illusions that lead to suffering and the “non-satisfactory” state.
  4. Meditation’s entry point is often the relief of negative states like stress, anxiety or anger. However, it leads to a path where profound realizations of the human mind can bring deeper happiness and freedom.

Zan Azahiro: Most people have a preconceived notion of what “meditation” is, and so it’s a term that I usually want to avoid. I’d call it “self-examination” (an idea from Naval Ravikant) which is quite accurate because it’s prescriptive. And yes, the practice of self-examination does lead to increased mindfulness (another term with preconceived notion) in everyday life, and when pursued deeper, will bring tremendous understanding in how the mind works.

About The Nature Of “Self”

(Maybe) There Is No “Self”

  1. Self may be defined as the five “aggregates” that form it – our physical body, our emotions, our perceptions (sights and sounds), our thoughts and our consciousness.
  2. We are not in control of our physical body (for example, if we fall sick, we can’t simply “command” it to be well.) We are not in control of our emotions, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness either.
  3. Self is something we have control over. Therefore, the five aggregates are “not” self.
  4. Your lack of control over the five aggregates mean that they are not part of you.
  5. Some believe that there is no “self” – it doesn’t exist. Be open to the possibility that there is “self”, but it’s not what you think that it is.

Zan Azahiro: Being a pragmatist, I do find this analysis of what’s self and what’s “not-self” to be somewhat of limited use. My biggest takeaway is this: Since I am not in control of my five aggregates, I can “disown” them and view them from a distance. It’s liberating not having to “own” my feelings and thoughts – when I don’t own them, I can view them critically.

I Am Not In Control Of My “Self”

  1. “Me”, which experiences the feelings and entertains the thoughts – are not in control. “There is no CEO.”
  2. Realizing this, in a strange way, will let you have control over “self”.
  3. The conscious self is not in charge of our behaviour. The conscious mind “thinks” that it is in charge, but it is not.
  4. “You think you are directing the movie, but you’re just watching it.”
  5. Why the brain deludes us into thinking that we are in charge? Because we want to show others that we are in control, reliable and effective. (This is important from the Darwinian point of view – approval and acceptance from our fellow clansmen means survival.)
  6. “Self-inflation”: We think we are above average in everything, including our morals.
  7. The problem with this delusion: It starts conflicts, from petty quarrels to full-blown wars.
  8. There are two illusions: (1) That we are not in control of the “self”, and (2) That we are overestimating how “good” we are.
  9. These two illusions help us convince the world that: (1) We are in charge, and so we are reliable, and (2) We are more productive than the others.

Zan Azahiro: The conscious mind is never in charge! In fact, our lives are run pretty much by the Subconscious / Unconscious (I call out the difference between them in the Consciousness Continuum). With no active direction from the conscious mind, we live our lives by default, not by deliberation.

The Mental Modules That Run Our Lives

The Mind Is Modular

  1. The mind is comprised of modules.
  2. These modules each are responsible for certain type of situations. Our behaviour is shaped by how these modules interact with each other.
  3. New modules are created when we encounter new situations.
  4. There are overlap between modules: Many may be involved in a particular situation.
  5. Modules do not work together in harmony. In fact, they conflict with each other.
  6. The modules are not controlled by a central authority. There’s no hierarchy between the modules. It’s a “free-for-all” system.
  7. The modules fight for dominance, and whichever wins will gain “conscious recognition”.
  8. The conscious mind acts more like a Speaker (with no influence over the votes) than the President.
  9. Meditation is a way to turn the conscious mind more into the President than the Speaker.

Zan Azahiro: In the Consciousness Continuum we have explored about the split between the Conscious (C) and the Subconscious / Unconscious (S/U). By default, the mind is dominated by S/U with C in the backseat (the “Speaker” of the house). The opposite is ideal: C should be in the driving seat with S/U playing the supportive role.

How The Mental Modules Work

  1. The self acts differently according to which mental module which gets activated.
  2. Emotions decide which module gets activated.
  3. Traditional view: Conscious Mind → Actions
  4. Reality: Emotions → Modules → Conscious Mind → Actions
  5. The key, therefore, is to observe the emotions with non-attachment. Then, decide if we can keep the emotions from activating the modules which will enter the conscious mind.
  6. Sever the attachment to the emotions. (Easier when realizing that we don’t own the thoughts which trigger the emotions.)
  7. How we behave depends on environmental triggers which influence our emotions. So, the fuller model would be: Environment Emotions → Modules → Conscious Mind → Actions

Zan Azahiro: Knowing the chain of components which trigger our actions is useful. Why? Because it gives us the opportunity to break the chain. Living on Default Mode is characterized by this chain: “Environment Actions”. Decoupling our actions from the environment requires Pauseability – the ability to pause our reactions to our impulses.

How Mental Modules Hijack The Mind

  1. Kendrick and Griskevicious: There are seven “subselves” (modules) in the mind: Self-protection, mate attraction, mate retention, affiliation, kin care, social status and disease avoidance.
  2. There are no clear demarkation between mental modules.
  3. The conscious mind does not choose which module to gain conscious awareness. It might not even “realize” which module gains prominence.
  4. We cannot manage our state of minds actively and consciously – it is always in the state of flux (impermanence in Buddhism).
  5. To gain back control, get critical distance from our emotions so that we can clarify things. Mindfulness meditation gives us this ability to distance ourselves from our emotions.

Zan Azahiro: Let’s relook into the chain: “Environment → Emotions → Modules → Conscious Mind → Actions”. We may not always be able to change the environment we are in. Our emotions, therefore, will be incited without our control, and the corresponding modules will get activated as a result. We will, however, will get to stop the dominant module from entering the conscious mind.

Why Our Thoughts Are Not “Ours”

How To Observe Our Thoughts

  1. Mindfulness (Vipassana) meditation is about observing thoughts. (1) Sit down, (2) Close your eyes and focus on your breath, (3) Watch your mind drift away, (4) Bring back the attention to your breath.
  2. The exercise is about watching how the mind drifts away. These thoughts are usually (1) about the past or the future – never the present, (2) about you, and (3) involves other people.
  3. When the mind is not focusing on something specific, like performing a certain task, it goes on the “default mode network” – it drifts aimlessly (see 2 above).
  4. Your thoughts will always try to hijack your consciousness. However, they will evaporate once you focus back on your breath.
  5. Thoughts which successfully hijack your consciousness are the ones with the strongest emotions.

Zan Azahiro: The brain wants to be on the Default Mode because it’s efficient and safe. Being able to command your focus requires overriding the Default Mode, putting it on pause so that you can decide what to do more deliberately.

Why We Have Feelings

  1. Feelings are how the brain indicates the importance of thoughts. This importance is assigned by natural selection.
  2. Good feelings goad us to approach things which natural selection deems as good for us. Bad feelings make us avoid things which natural selection deems as bad for us.
  3. When we decide to do something, we do that on the basis of feelings.
  4. Even “reason” is controlled by feelings. Feelings first tell us what to think about. After thinking, it will tell us what to do.
  5. It’s a misconception that reason will overrule feelings. Ultimately, reason will still need to go through the feelings “filter” to override a decision.
  6. For example, I may crave a sugar doughnut. Eating the doughnut will appeal to my short-term craving. However, I will feel bad after eating it. Resisting it will also give me a sense of achievement of sorts. So, in the end, it’s a battle of feelings, not feelings vs reason.

How To Weaken An Undesirable Mental Module

  1. The muscle is a common metaphor for self-discipline – it gets stronger with repeated success.
  2. Instead of “strengthening” the self-discipline muscle, think about “weakening” a mental module which has grown dominant.
  3. Mindfulness meditation will give you the ability to weaken a mental module – by examining it from a critical distance.
  4. Instead of constraining an undesirable mental module, inspect it, feel the urge and then see the urge subside.
  5. This is easy when we realize that the feelings and thoughts are not “ours” in the first place. Detaching ourselves from our feelings gives us the freedom to examine our thoughts until they lose their power (to hijack our consciousness).

Zan Azahiro: Again, obliquity is at play here. Fighting a thought head-on will only give it more power! The easier way to overcome a bad habit is to inspect the pleasure it gives us, and then, weaken it by first inspecting it from a distance, and then compare it with the pleasure of a “competing” (good) habit.

Why Things Are “Empty” And “Formless”

Why Things Are “Empty” By Nature

  1. We are born to like or dislike certain things. Our reactions to perceptions are shaped by experience.
  2. Through our senses, we create a picture of the world in our minds. This picture is heavily “tempered” by our own experiences which add color and meaning to it.
  3. When I hear an irritating sound, the reality is that the sound is just a “sound”. It is me who feels that it is irritating.
  4. Things are “empty” in a sense that they are devoid of meaning and interpretation. There is an absence of “essence” in things, and to perceive emptiness is to get the raw sensory data without building a narrative on top of that data.

Zan Azahiro: The map is not the territory. The mind, through our five senses, creates a representation of the world, and it’s important to realize that this representation is not the real thing.

How The Brain Creates Narratives Around Things (Giving Them Essence)

  1. “Essence” is what gives value to otherwise worthless things (i.e. an autograph on a guitar).
  2. Essence will almost always follow objects – i.e. “a nice house”, “an ugly house”, “a pretentious house”. Feelings infuse objects with essence.
  3. When meditating, you’ll train your mind to strip things of their essence, and get the “raw sensory data” devoid of narratives.
  4. When we are less emotionally attached to things, they lose their essence. We become detached from them.

How We Give Essence To People Around Us

  1. The narratives around things are what give them essence. For example, Danny is my friend. In my mind, Danny has the “essence-of-friend”. Robert is a rival at work. In my mind, Robert has the “essence-of-rival”.
  2. The assignment of essence on people works fast. (This is why first impression matters.)
  3. We judge a person by what we think his “character traits” are, never by the situation he is in.
  4. For example, we may see a man helping an old woman walk across a busy street. We conclude that he is a kind, helpful man. On another day, we may see the same man walking along without helping another old woman. Does this mean that he is no longer kind or helpful?
  5. “Fundamental attribution error” is usually at play. We see a person as “good” or “bad” because that’s what he is, not because the environment he is in.
  6. When a person is tagged as “bad”, he can no longer do good in our eyes. Anything “good” he does must be a trick.
  7. Natural selection’s reason for this – it makes it easy to tell a friend or a foe, and to rally against enemies and fight them.

Zan Azahiro: Essence is a “shortcut” for the brain to judge the worthiness of an object. It makes us value certain things over the others. This shortcut is necessary for survival. However, it often is no longer reliable and so must be distrusted.

“Everything Is One”

  1. Meditating leads to a feeling where the boundary between the meditator and the world dissolves.
  2. Is there a real boundary between the self and the world? Or, is the boundary arbitrary?
  3. If we are all one, then I shouldn’t be placing my interest over yours, and vice versa.
  4. Dissolving our (perceived) boundaries, therefore, has the effect of promoting goodwill and peace because we are all the same.

Zan Azahiro: This is where Wright gets rather metaphysical becomes rather too “exotic” for my liking. A clear demarkation of things is important because it shows us what we can control, and what we cannot. “All are one” is a nebulous concept which does not, in my opinion, has much utility.

What Is Enlightenment?

Nirvana In A Nutshell

  1. Nirvana is “a state of perfect happiness, complete peace, complete inner freedom, and full awakening and understanding.” (Bhikku Bodhi)
  2. In Buddhism, Nirvana straddles between both sides – the “naturalistic” (i.e. the psychological and philosophical) and the “exotic” (i.e. the supernaturalistic).
  3. In the naturalistic sense, enlightenment means “freedom of conditioning”. When you are enlightened, you are free from the conditioning that you have been subjected to.
  4. The road to enlightenment is through mindfulness meditation – being aware of your feelings changes your relationships with them. Detachment from our feelings gives us the freedom from getting conditioned by them.
  5. To be enlightened is to be “unconditioned”. You will be less reactive to your senses impinging on your brain, and so you will have more freedom to observe and react (sensibly).
  6. Enlightenment involves in becoming aware of what causes what. It, therefore, gives the opportunity to break the chain of causality between stimuli and response.
  7. Meditation will “rewire” your mind and undo its conditioning by nature, altering its response to the causes or conditions impinging on it.
  8. It may be useful to think of enlightenment as a process, not a state.

Zan Azahiro: Wright does a good job in demystifying something as grandiose as “enlightenment” and making the concept quite accessible. Encouragingly, even small bits of improvement will accrue over time, and the resulting transformation is no less dramatic.

Are We “Special”?

  1. If there are no real boundaries between you and others, then harming others will be the same as harming yourself.
  2. Natural selection, however, wire us differently. Because our genes are “special”, then the body which carry those genes (“us”) must be protected – even at the expense of harming other people.
  3. The idea that we are “special” is absurd – because when everyone is special, nobody is. However, the delusion that individuals are special has caused conflicts and wars.

Zan Azahiro: This is perhaps where I would not agree completely with Wright. Individualism is important, and that doesn’t come from the belief that we are “special” but “unique”. We need to build on our individual strengths, and that is how we can progress as a collective – by pursuing our Life’s Task individually.

Is Truth Relative?

  1. Einstein revolutionized physics when he proposed that measurements are relative – i.e. they differ from in different frames of reference.
  2. The same goes for reality. What’s “true” may be relative. What’s good for humans may be bad for, say, a snake. What we find appealing may be repulsive to another being.
  3. Natural selection has wired our minds with what’s right or wrong, good or bad. These guiding principles, however, may not have much to do with what’s true. Morality is “attached” to an event or entity, which by itself is empty or essence-less.

A Brief History of Life

  1. Life on this planet has evolved, over billions of years, from simple cells to highly organized and complex organisms.
  2. These organisms developed “intelligence” and became social. One of these organisms, humans, become so intelligent and social that they have started a cultural evolution – organizing from the hunter-gatherer village setting to states and then global empires.
  3. There is an extension of this cultural evolution in the form of a global brain connected not physically, but virtually (the Internet).
  4. Problem arises with increased connectivity – people “connected” with others who are different from them (“specialness”), creating hatred and antagonism. The connectivity is used to spread more hatred and worse, to deploy violence.
  5. The solution to this is the “rejection” of self, bringing forth a consciousness revolution. Mindfulness meditation can be the vehicle for this revolution. (Wright calls this the Metacognitive Revolution.)
  6. Salvation of the world may depend on our collective cultivation of calm and wise minds.

Zan Azahiro: The advent of the Internet indeed was a double-edge sword. It’s a “force magnifier” which amplifies both the good and the bad in men. Unfortunately, increased connectivity amplifies the bad more than the good.

Meditation And The Unseen Order

  1. Why meditate daily? It gets us closer to the truth, which is beautiful.
  2. In meditation, we observe a feeling rather than engaging with it. So, when we feel anxious or dreadful, we can observe it from a distance, and see it for what it truly is. And the unpleasantness often goes away.
  3. Meditation is appealing to those who want certain results i.e. more calm and better stress management. However, it’s a gateway to something deeper: the truth.
  4. Religion is the “belief of an unseen order”. Enlightenment seems fragmented, but there is an underlying continuity, some sort of interconnection.
  5. Buddhism in one phrase: Alignment of metaphysical truth, moral truth and happiness. Reality lies beyond our delusions, and seeing the reality (and behaving in accordance to reality) will make us happy. There is a hidden (unseen) order that Buddhism uncovers, and it lies a level deeper than natural selection itself, and it’s marvelous!

Zan Azahiro: A befitting ending to a magnificent book! Wright’s argument about how our delusions (through natural selection) grip us is convincing, and it’s hard to see a way out – after all, we are fighting the conditioning of the mind that had occurred over billions of years. However, the idea that there is an unseen order which sits above and beyond natural selection gives us hope – to transcend our animalistic tendencies and strive to reach out to this unseen order is a worthy pursuit of a lifetime.