Review: Why Buddhism Is True: the Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright

[2] What is easy to overlook is the extent to which the world’s religious traditions are unified in finding a profound problem at the core of our humanity.  However differently they might identify the causes of that problem and however varied their prescribed courses of treatment, the world’s religions speak with one voice about a deep restlessness at our core and an ever-present sense that something within us and among us isn’t right.

[3] The world’s major religious traditions undertook this reflective work centuries before the many gifts of science and technology could join the conversation and it raises a powerful question: In light of what science and technology tell us about ourselves, can it be said in any meaningful way that one of these religious traditions has a better understanding of our predicament than others? Is there a religious tradition that has a more effective answer to our problem?  On that admittedly pragmatic definition of ‘true,’ Robert Wright, bestselling author and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York claims that the answer is yes.

[4] The title signals Wright’s answer readily enough and his preface makes it clear: “Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and. . .its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” But, it’s a very specific kind of Buddhism that he has in view, namely the philosophical secular Buddhism that has came into vogue in the West in the second half of the last century.  To his credit, and to the greater clarity of the book, Wright admits candidly that he doesn’t actually call himself a Buddhist because there are so many aspects of the tradition that he hasn’t adopted.

[5] Though the scope of Buddhism as used in this book is bounded it is nonetheless a deep and thorough treatment of the philosophical tenets and assumptions of Buddhism.  Readers will be exposed to a substantial and clearly articulated outline of how Buddhism understands the human condition, what causes and sustains suffering, and the way of escape.  At risk of radical oversimplification, Buddhism finds the root of human suffering and dissatisfaction, or dukkha, in our inability to see the world clearly.  That lack of clarity, the confusion of motives, and the wrongheaded way we go about addressing that ‘lack’ is seen in our cravings and aversions, and the often ridiculous and harmful ways in which we go about satisfying them.  Only by seeing the world clearly, the goal of meditation, can we begin to free ourselves.

[6] This straightforward articulation of Buddhism takes on a unique power when juxtaposed with clear and engaging presentations of what modern science and medicine tell us about how our brains work.  Wright’s scientific story will surprise no one who keeps up with basic scientific literature; we are the result of natural selection. Humans evolved over countless millennia and our brains are wired in ways that are deeply inconsistent with the way we live now.

[7] For starters, our brains evolved to assist us in the task of survival. A brain responds to stimuli; our emotions drive us to make short term decisions in favor of things that increase our chances of survival, and against things that reduce our chances of survival.  Eating a huge meal when food is available makes sense in a world where food may be scarce tomorrow.  It makes little sense in a world where food is plentiful. A lifetime of short-term decisions to eat huge meals at every opportunity easily leads to not only personal, but also communal and environmental suffering in the long term!

[8] Likewise, reacting violently and defensively in immediate reaction to a perceived threat may have helped our pre-historic ancestors fend off animals, but encased in our cars on the evening commute it merely leads to suffering for ourselves and others.

[9] That our actions are oriented around short term survival points to the second thing our brains drive us toward, which is passing our genes to the next generation.  Evolutionarily speaking, our brains and our bodies have a rather simple purpose — getting the species into the next generation — and Wright convincingly shows the ways that desire can hijack us and cause suffering.

[10] Put simply, our brains don’t really have our best interests in mind. And the sooner we recognize that, the sooner we start to see ourselves more clearly, and the sooner we can eliminate suffering.

[11] For many readers already sympathetic to a Buddhist approach to life, the book will be an affirmation and a helpful encouragement.  For readers interested in Buddhism and Science, there is much to be learned.

[12] The more interesting questions for JLE readers, however, centers on the challenge to Christian readers. Although Wright doesn’t engage the questions directly, it’s important to consider the value of reading this book from the vantage point of a Christian theologian or pastoral leader.

[13] For theologians, reading a book like this raises a stark question: Is Christianity true in the sense that Wright’s Buddhism is true?  Does it diagnose the human condition accurately and prescribe appropriate treatments?  If it does, do we communicate that clearly and in a helpful way?

[14] Buddhism has its own challenges with theological rabbit trails, of course, but the cultural success in America of a distilled and pragmatic take on Buddhism runs a rather interesting parallel to certain strands of Christianity that have seen remarkable success. In a 2013 interview Joel Osteen countered a question of why he doesn’t preach about sin or hell with this: “I think today when I say the enemy, I like to make it broader. Sometimes the enemy can be our own thoughts. We’ve trained ourselves the wrong way. Or the enemy can be our own lack of discipline. Some people preach about hell like you’re already going there, and to me the Gospel means ‘Good News.’ I’d rather say God is a God of mercy. . . I think the people already know what they’re doing wrong. . .”

[15] These two odd threads – secular Buddhism and evangelical Christianity – may be woven together by a commitment to working from felt symptoms to diagnosis to prescription based on a theological system, rather than starting with a theological system and rolling through prescription, diagnosis, and the attendant judgement of felt symptoms that often occupies much of Christian thought.

[16] For preachers the questions are similar.  Much is made about the fact that the truths of Christianity are packaged as story.  The assumption is that stories are more easily digested and understood and it’s true as far as it goes.  It could also be true that stories can distract and confuse.  They can too easily become the basket that hides the light through overuse and overfamiliarity in the case of those who have been in church all their lives or miss their mark for those who have not.

[17] For general Christian readers the book provides a rich opportunity to look in on another tradition and assess what might be helpful for their own journey.  In spite of all the differences between the two religions, both apparent and profound, there is much that a Christian reader can think about from a different angle.  A Buddhist’s attempts to stay in the present pair well with the admonition that none of us, by worrying, can add a day to our lives.  The Ash Wednesday reminder that we are dust can be deepened by the Buddhist exhortation to cultivate awareness of the impermanence of our life and surroundings.

[18] The Buddhist concern for Right Action leads inevitably to an intersection with the ethical concerns of this journal.  Wright’s reminder to all of us, packaged in accessible prose that’s appropriate for general readers as well as scholars, is that Right Action grows from a Right View, one that can be aided by Buddhism and science.

Will Bergkamp

Will Bergkamp holds degrees from The Moody Bible Institute, The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and The University of St. Thomas.  He is currently the Vice President for Business Development and Publisher of the Fortress Press Academic, Education, and Ministry lines at 1517 Media.