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A Book Critique of “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright

Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks). 2017. 

 

Introduction

Robert Wright, the author of “Why Buddhism is True” has taught in the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania and the religion department at Princeton University. He is currently the visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York.[1] There are sixteen wordy chapters, an appendix, some explanatory notes and cited sources, a bibliography, and an index. The book is a New York Times best seller, with extremely high reviews by sources that are considered to be highly reputable, such as The GuardianThe New Yorker, and The Washington Post

In the book, the author tries to argue, as the title suggests, why Buddhism is true, and supports his proposition through several studies in psychology, personal experience, and numerous anecdotes. In this book critique, I will show that the author is coming from a purely pragmatic position, and because of such, why this position of “Buddhism being true,” simply is a bad argument for it being true. If Buddhism is true, this book does not prove it to be such. 

  

Why Buddhism is True: the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment

The book content begins with chapter one titled, “Taking the Red Pill.” Which is an anecdote about the movie, The Matrix, where the main character is given a choice to take a red pill which will show him the truth about reality or a blue pill, which will keep him in a state of bliss and in a false reality. From here, the author explains that “Our brains are designed to, among other things, delude us.”[2] Much could be said about this statement simply because the author seems to be an evolutionary atheist. Yet this is a frequent concept throughout the book, that our brains are designed,even though he addresses natural selection as an unconscious process.[3]

The point must not be missed here, however. He is focusing on the word, delusion. He continues further down page four and argues, “…If these basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion [basically, our feelings]—there is value in exposing this delusion to the light.”[4] The light here is to be understood as just something that is clearly seen and comprehended. This, he explains to have found through evolutionary psychology: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’ Well, with evolutionary psychology I felt I had found the truth.”[5]

Right off the bat then, in chapter one, the author is self-contradicting. He argues in large part that our feelingsare delusional, yet through his own feelings, he is convinced that evolutionary psychology brought him to the truth. The question is, why would it matter how he felt if feelings are just a delusion? Something is not true because we feel that it is, because the truth does not exist in people. The truth is not subjective, but objective. 

The book is largely about mindfulness meditation,[6] but seems to derive the authority of meditation on personal experience at its foundation. Then, throughout the book, the author proceeds to argue for the validity of meditation with psychological studies and statistics. None of these things make Buddhism true. This is a fallacy called argumentum ad populum, which is an appeal to the majority as authoritative. This is how psychologists are trained to understand what is true. Consider the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals (DSM). Because of Facebook and other social media platforms, where people literally have a shrine of themselves, where everything that is said about them or pictures taken of them can be removed or blocked, in order to save face, the new normal is this type of behavior, which is narcissism. The DSM-5 does not have narcissism as a personality disorder because this is the new social norm.[7]Therefore, for many psychologists, the social norm is what makes the truth, but as we shall now see, this is false. 

The reason why this is not true is that just because everyone believes that something is true, does not make that belief true. For instance, for centuries, people thought that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the sun revolved around the earth. But for the people of the world in that time, this did not make what they believed a fact. We now know that the earth revolves round the sun, and this does not even mean that the sun is not the center of the universe. 

In chapter four, the author continues to discuss mindfulness meditation, which is his answer for enlightenment, or “liberation from the Matrix” as he puts it.[8] Most of the rest of the book is about how to do mindfulness meditation, and what it looks like, based on, at least foundationally, an experience that the author had in rural Massachusetts at a silent meditation retreat. This experience of the author is brought to memory in the reader several times throughout the entire book. It makes one think that this is simply a reflection of the retreat. This retreat consisted of basically an anxiety struggle that he had and spoke with a monk leading the retreat, and his reflection of what the monk told him eventually brought him to an understanding of the path to enlightenment. 

The interesting thing is that the author admits his pragmatism, which the reader will see the saturation of his pragmatic approach long before his confession. There is a long discourse about the self being a not-self, and halfway through the book, in chapter eight, the author discusses that “some people say that the Buddha’s original not-self teaching is best seen not as metaphysical truth but as pragmatic strategy.”[9] What he is arguing in favor of here is that the self being a not-self is true because it works. Pragmatism is also an issue because not everything that works is true. Just because something works (even if it works well) does not cause something to be truth. For instance, just because the boiler in a home can burn kerosene does not make it true that it is good for the boiler. Consider OSHA. Just because there are a million ways to get a job done (“HA! It worked!”), does not mean that it is true that it is the best way to get the job done. This is why OSHA has so many laws about safety. Likewise, just because meditation might help one slow his or her mind down to see clearly (enlightenment), does not mean that Buddhism is true. 

Throughout the book, the author puts more stock in the movie the Matrix than he does in the wisdom of Jesus: 

“The original headquarters of the CIA had Jesus’s version of the equation etched in its wall: ‘and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ And the movie the Matrix… offers a truth-freedom linkage that echoes Buddhist philosophy. Life as ordinarily lived is a kind of illusion, and you can’t be truly free until you pierce the illusion and look into the heart of things.”[10]

He goes on talking about how the Matrix fits his theories nicely. The issue here is that of confirmation bias, but the problem with this is that he is getting much of his confirmation from a fictional movie. It is a wonder that people actually take this book seriously. 

In the last chapter, the author admits that he was raised as a Christian, and that he departed from Christianity as a teenager on an account of reading Genesis in comparison to evolutionary biology. He says in regard to his departure of Christianity not being a bitter one that “the Jesus-to-Buddha transition does seem in some ways a natural one.”[11]He explains that he still likes some of the old hymns that he grew up listening to in the church. 

The author clearly does not understand what salvation means, because he claims to have felt a moment of it or a sense of it in the retreat that he attended in rural Massachusetts.[12][13] He goes on to explain more on how meditation is good for him, and basically that the only proof he needs is in how he feels. This continues to show how the book is not only circular, but also extremely self-contradicting. 

 

Conclusion

The book is not very well planned out. There is little systematic direction and it is not easy to follow. Very little of the content is actually arguing why Buddhism is true. The book is filled with contradictions, such as, “Strictly speaking, there is no Buddhist view of the world,”[14] and “You’re real. But you’re not really real,”[15] and “thoughts[modules] think themselves,”[16]

It is my opinion that the author seems to be more lost on what is true than what he was before he started this retreat. In the last chapter he talks about a refrigerator and how when he is not meditating at home he hears the hum of the fridge, and he finds it monotonous and annoying. But when he is meditating, he hears the same hum of the fridge and he can hear three distinct tones come from the hum, and this is beautiful to him.[17] He explains that the truth about the world that is ordinarily hidden from people, like the fridge hum, is an objective truth. 

After talking about how trivial this information is, he then says, “Even if we can’t comprehend 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.”[18] My question about this is why does it matter? Just for the sake of an obscure, subjective beauty? It makes sense to stop and smell the roses (something that is objectively beautiful), but to try to distinguish the different tones of a refrigerator that is humming appears to be completely useless. If one is trying to find beauty, there are a million things in the world where one can find such: Mountains, oceans, aquariums, museums, food, nature, people, the cosmos, etc. It is hard not to see this book as ridiculous. It boggles the mind how it received so many reviews, and good ones at that. In any case, this book as seen in this paper is more about meditation that it is about Buddhism. If one wanted to see why Buddhism is true, this is definitely not the book for such things. The title is extremely misleading. 

 


 

Sources Cited

Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism is True: the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017.

Parker-Pope, Tara. “Narcissism no longer a Psychiatric Disorder.” New York Times (blog). November 29, 2010, https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/29/narcissism-no-longer-a-psychiatric-disorder/

 

 


Written by Nace Howell through the grace of the Lord Jesus

© Nace Howell, 2023

 

 



[1] Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True; the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2017), Back cover.

[2] Ibid, 4.

 

[3] Ibid, 7.

 

[4] Ibid, 4.

 

[5] Ibid, 11; emphasis mine.

[6] Mindfulness meditation is paying attention to whatever is happening. Ibid, 115.

 

[7] Tara Parker-Pope. 2010. “Narcissism no longer a Psychiatric Disorder.” New York Times (blog). November 29, 2010, https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/29/narcissism-no-longer-a-psychiatric-disorder/

 

[8] Wright, 55.

[9] Ibid, 113.

[10] Ibid, 225.

 

[11] Ibid, 260.

 

[12] Ibid.

 

[13] Of all places.

[14] Ibid, 24.

 

[15] Ibid, 64.

 

[16] Ibid, 112.

 

[17] Ibid, 250.

 

[18] Ibid, 251.

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