Why Buddhism is True
(2017) is a work on the ideology and modern capabilities of the dharmic religion of Buddhism by journalist Robert Wright. A believer in the metaphorical usefulness of Buddhist teaching in fostering well-being and human flourishing, Wright dedicates much of the book to an accessible analysis of Buddhism in the hope his audience will resonate with its teachings. Moreover, rather than treat Buddhism as a set of rules or precepts, or a tradition strictly confined to the Eastern tradition, he describes it as a nonlinear journey in which the realization of Buddhist ideas comes in stages or gradations. He strays from reference to Buddhism’s history as it has manifested, caring more about the ways it can be applied universally to the human experience. The book became well-known for offering an alternative to modern Western religions from a liberal, open-minded, and ahistorical point of view
Wright begins by conceding that Buddhism’s reputation as boring or dogmatic can, from the outside, appear valid. Moreover, he sympathizes with the common assumption that Buddhist meditation is monotonous. However, he argues that the initial obstacle of boredom is part of the gateway to Buddhist thought. The distraction of the modern subject from his own inner life instills a fear of becoming calm and acquainted with himself, for which we have invented the reductive term “boredom.”
Wright explains what he means by his titular claim that Buddhism is essentially “true.” His usage of true does not refer to any truth claims made about historical facts relating to Buddhism. Rather, he uses it to express the validity of the stance Buddhism takes on modern conditions such as suffering, anxiety, and existential disease. Unlike organized Westernized religions’ truth claims about their evolutionary legacies, which they conceive as made up of objective events comprising a grand narrative, Buddhism is tenable with modern science and reasoning, resonating with how many modern subjects feel about themselves. He argues that fields such as neuroscience and evolutionary psychology can evolve in synthesis with Buddhist teachings.
In trying to remove much of the history of Buddhism’s implementation from his analysis, Wright acknowledges that he is failing to survey all of the paths that the Buddhist tradition has taken. He also debunks the stereotypical Western perception of Buddhism: that it involves intense meditation and denies the existence of deities. He broadens this limited model for who a Buddhist can be by arguing that many Buddhists, particularly in Asia, believe in a god (or gods), and do not make meditation a focal point of their lives. The idea of the atheistic, monk-like Buddhist is mostly a Western invention.
Wright leverages a wealth of research to demonstrate that Buddhism is a more diverse ideological domain than commonly perceived. Though he subscribes to a chiefly scientific and empirical form of Buddhism, which can survive in discourse with other modern lines of inquiry, he asserts that many other compelling forms exist, with legacies dating back thousands of years. He affirms that someone interested in Buddhism need not fully understand all of these traditions. In fact, most forms of Buddhism are rather convoluted; to learn all of them would not only invite confusion and contradiction, but would also require an immense amount of time.
After his introduction to Buddhism, Wright turns to his thesis: that Buddhism is essentially correct in its evaluation of the human condition. To demonstrate his claim, he turns to evolutionary psychology, which conceives of the human brain as a machine molded by natural selection to confine human beings to repeat their behaviors, and therefore, their destinies. Evolution is a creator of delusions, forming emotions and belief patterns to ensure our survival at the expense of squelching our ability to understand ourselves as our environments change. Most psychological mechanisms are adapted to a world of nomadic hunter-gathering that no longer exists. Many of our emotions, primarily the negative ones, such as hatred and greed, are vestiges of this era. Buddhism, in Wright’s view, offers a remedy to this modern irrationality.Why Buddhism is True
is both a diagnosis of modern suffering and a return to a millennia-old framework for alleviating it. Wright takes care to emphasize that humans from all times and places can understand and apply Buddhist teachings that hone in so precisely and presciently on the human brain.