Nick Romeo is a critic and journalist based in Palo Alto, Calif.
Robert Wright’s “Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment” promises to show not just that meditation helps people live happier lives but that it promotes a vision of the world that is fundamentally true. He believes that the truth of Buddhism will set you free and that this freedom will let you perceive the truth.
Wright has written lucid popular books on evolutionary psychology and the history of religion, so he is well-poised to consider Buddhism from a scientific perspective. And while he does not make a fully convincing case for some of his more grandiose claims about truth and freedom, his argument contains many interesting and illuminating points. Most serious meditators and Buddhists probably don’t feel an urgent need for scientific validation of their practices: The benefits they experience are their own justification. But for casual meditators and scientific skeptics of religion, a clear explanation of the evolutionary reasons our brains might benefit from meditation could inspire a more serious engagement with the practice.
Wright’s basic argument goes something like this: Natural selection has made humans anxious and delusional creatures prone to overestimate the pleasure we will derive from things like sex and food and status. We’re also given to petty tribalism and over-hasty judgments of others, and we chronically exaggerate our own importance and efficacy. This bundle of unfortunate traits made our ancestors more likely to transmit their genes, but unfortunately suffering and survival are perfectly compatible. As long as we remain locked in the delusions that natural selection engineered, suffering will define the human experience. We will continue to chase fleeting pleasures that leave us unsatisfied, follow the unwise promptings of surging emotions, demonize strangers without cause and pillage the environment to gratify our appetites.
In case the human plight does not seem sufficiently dire, Wright even compares our predicament to the state of enslaved delusion dramatized in the movie “The Matrix,” with natural selection playing the role of robotic overlords. The best form of resistance is not dodging bullets and engaging in balletic aerial fistfights, but sitting on a cushion each day and concentrating on the rise and fall of your breath. In a sentence that shows just how thoroughly secularized and mainstream meditation has become, Wright claims: “If you want to escape from the Matrix, Buddhist practice and philosophy offer powerful hope.”
And what exactly can we hope for? Wright devotes a decent share of the book to chronicling his own experience with meditation. After cultivating the practice for more than a decade and doing multiple intensive meditation retreats, he reports some modest but meaningful transformations. Lower-back pain bothers him less than before, he feels less intense animosity toward a despised former colleague, and he is not annoyed by the humming of a refrigerator or the whining of a buzzsaw.
Perhaps his most striking evidence of altered perception is his experience of an acutely painful toothache. He knew that drinking a glass of water caused extreme pain in the tooth, and he was curious to see if meditation could shift his perspective on the sensation. After meditating for half an hour, he took an enormous sip of water and swished it around the tooth. “The result was dramatic and strange,” he reports. “I felt a throbbing so powerful that I got absorbed in its waves, but the throbbing didn’t consistently feel bad; it was right on the cusp between bitter and sweet and just teetered between the two. At times it was even awesome in the old-fashioned sense of actually inspiring awe — breathtaking in its power and, you might even say, its grandeur and its beauty.”
Seeing grandeur and beauty in the throb of an aching tooth is no small achievement, and Wright’s enthusiasm for meditation is understandable. But his claims that meditation can help avert global catastrophes stemming from ethnic, religious, national and ideological conflict are less persuasive. “I think the salvation of the world can be secured via the cultivation of calm, clear minds and the wisdom they allow,” he writes. But the spontaneous adoption of meditation by hundreds of millions of people is vanishingly improbable. A vision of future salvation that depends on the wholesale transformation of human nature is a delusion, and one from which meditation has not rescued Wright.
Some of his claims about the truth of Buddhism are also debatable. One of his major points is that despite the human proclivity to notice essential qualities in people and things, essences are in fact merely useful figments of the mind, convenient heuristics that are often disastrously wrong. While it’s safe to say that seeing “essence-of-jerk” in someone who cuts you off in traffic is probably a delusion, this does not justify a wholesale condemnation of the intellectual act of seeking essences. Great swaths of scientific inquiry and daily life would be impossible without positing essences, and there are good philosophical reasons to believe that some of these perceived essences actually correspond to the nature of things. The very title of Wright’s book — asserting the truth of Buddhism — also presupposes the existence of essential natures.
Perhaps the most basic problem with his argument is what it lacks: a vision of how to live a good and meaningful life. Quieting the raging clamor of perception, sensation and emotion may be a necessary condition for living a good life, but is it also sufficient? In short, once we’ve achieved some degree of tranquility through meditation or otherwise, how are we to live?
By neglecting this question, Wright fails to consider the seductions of a dangerously permissive relativism and narcissism. Would it be possible to spend a lifetime mindfully enjoying pornography and violent video games? What about a life spent in the mindful pursuit of wealth and status? What are the ethics of retreating to a state of unruffled tranquility as the public sphere implodes and the environment is ravaged? Wright alludes to the moral teachings of Buddhism, but he does not show how these precepts resolve the sorts of ethical and social questions that confront humans as political animals endowed with reason. For this terrain, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle are much better guides.
That meditation is a useful and powerful technique for alleviating human suffering is clear. But to what ultimate end is it such an effective means? Seekers after truth will need to keep searching.
By Robert Wright
Simon & Schuster. 336 pp. $27