Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright
The promise of Robert Wright’s title is not fulfilled in this personal narrative of his journey toward enlightenment and a deeper understanding of Buddhism. The Appendix of Why Buddhism Is True finally reveals “A List of Buddhist Truths”: this list and the brief discussion provided for each truth would have been better employed as the framework on which to structure the entire book.
Each truth refers the reader to a specific chapter in Wright’s narrative (which supports this reviewer’s assertion that the Appendix should have provided the real framework). Perhaps one should start at the back, read a truth, then flip to the appropriate corresponding chapter or chapters. However, there can be problems with this tactic. The first truth, for example, asserts that humans suffer because “they fail to see the world clearly.” The, Wright offers the following construction: “For example:” then nothing! There is no example, just blank space.
The final paragraph of the Appendix provides “the shortest version” of why the title is accurate: “Because we are animals created by natural selection. Natural selection built into our brains the tendencies that early Buddhist thinkers did a pretty amazing job of sizing up, given the meager scientific resources at their disposal.” Elsewhere, he writes that each idea expressed as a Buddhist “truth” is true because each “has substantial corroborating evidence in its favor and has not yet encountered firm evidence that is incompatible with it. That’s what the title of this book means in referring to core Buddhist ideas as ‘true.’”
In another paragraph, Wright seeks, again, to explain the book’s title. Buddhism is “true” because its “ideas draw corroboration—in some cases overwhelming corroboration—from the available evidence…But I certainly think the core of Buddhism’s assessment of the human condition—its basic view of why people suffer and why they make other people suffer and, more broadly, its conception of certain basic aspects of how the mind works and how we can change how our minds work—warrants enough confidence to get the label that the title of this book gives it.” Earlier in the book, he downplays the basic concept of suffering: “The old Rolling Stones lyric ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ is, according to Buddhism, the human condition.” Therefore, according to some scholars, the core of Buddhism, that life is suffering, might be better translated as “unsatisfactoriness.”
Wright’s narrative concentrates on the promise of his sub-title, “The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.” Granted, meditation and enlightenment are integral to the serious practice of Buddhism, but neither, individually or collectively, proves that Buddhism is true. His descriptions of how he came to embrace meditation can be useful to anyone who is contemplating following that route to deeper understanding of self. He notes in one anecdote of his first experience in trying to learn meditation. He was supposed to be disconnected from the world: news, books, iPhone, talking, and all the trappings of modern society. The first few days were difficult, but he gradually began to understand the purpose of disengagement. He does mention, however, that he kept a notebook so that he could record his impressions as the week and learning curve progressed. Wright uses his experience in learning the process of meditation to discuss elements of Buddhism, but these examples do not bring any sort of clarity to his central thesis.
Wright is best known for The Moral Animal, which The New York Times Book Review named one of the ten best books of the year. His The Evolution of God was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. He has written for numerous magazines and taught at Princeton and is now at Union Theological Seminary.