Why Buddhism Is True Summary and Review

by Robert Wright
Has Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. The modern human mind is an incredible thing. It lets us communicate with each other, create beautiful things, analyze, and plan, and these abilities exist to let us successfully move through this complicated world. These qualities allow us to do everything from finding a partner so that we can pass our genes down to the next generation, to being able to predict and avoid danger. But, if survival is actually the result of having a mind constantly looking out for trouble, shouldn’t there be a cost involved? Yes, you guessed it: We spend a lot of time being hyperaware, overthinking things, and worrying. So, what happens when we spend all our time living with a mind programmed to do nothing but assess, judge, and flee at the first sign of danger? This book summary offers an answer: try Buddhism. Buddhism’s many teachings not only serve as an inspiration for the worn down and stressed out, but they’re also supported by modern science. So, dive in and learn what Buddhism truly is, and what it might be able to do for you. In this summary of Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright, you’ll learn
  • why the anticipation of pleasure is more alluring than the pleasure itself;
  • why popular ideas of the self are actually an illusion; and
  • how to make the noise of construction work sound like music.

Why Buddhism Is True Key Idea #1: Life is full of delusions based on evolution hardwiring these ideas into our brains.

In the modern sci-fi classic, The Matrix, the protagonist, Neo, discovers that the life he’s been living has all been an illusion – nothing more than a bunch of ones and zeroes. This movie became a hit because of many reasons, including the fact that it touches on some highly relevant things, like the way modern society has “programmed” us to pursue delusional goals. Ask yourself: are you in complete rational control over your life and your desires? What about when it comes to sweets and processed foods? A lot of people are aware that sugary foods and drinks are bad for them, but they succumb to cravings or even trick themselves into thinking that junk food is a well-deserved reward. The thing is, however, the short term satisfaction that comes from indulging in junk food is then quickly replaced by guilt and shame about having eaten something you know is bad for you. So, why do we keep falling into these traps? One reason is evolution. Everyone is given the natural instinct for food, sex, popularity, and competition due to the fact that these were the things that helped our ancestors survive so that they could pass their genes onto the next generation. Each instinct triggers a strong response in our brain’s pleasure center, releasing the neurochemical dopamine every time we taste something sweet or win a competition. The thing is, though, too often our anticipation of pleasure that comes from things like sweet flavors and winning actually outweighs the reward itself. There was a study during which monkeys were given a sweet drink, which allowed researchers to observe the trigger of the release of dopamine in their brains. The scientists then turned on a light prior to giving the monkeys more juise. The first few times, the juice triggered the release of the same amount of dopamine, however, soon enough, more dopamine was released when the monkeys saw the light go on than when they actually had the treat. This proved for the researchers that the anticipation of the reward was actually more pleasurable than the reward itself. Science believes that we’re wired this way so that we keep searching for and discovering new and better things, but this wiring has also led to a lot of destructive-compulsive behavior. Luckily, though, Buddhism can actually help to restore a healthy balance in our lives.

Why Buddhism Is True Key Idea #2: Following Buddhist teachings, we should avoid focusing on aspects of our lives that we can’t control.

Like most people, you’ve likely spent a good portion of your life pouring over two main topics: how you look and how smart you are. The only problem is, these are actually quite pointless to concern ourselves with. Through Buddhism, it becomes clear that these matters of the mind and body are not actually true concerns of the Self. In a foundational Buddhist text, the Buddha asks for his monks to search within so that they could figure out what qualities could be considered to be part of the “Self” – that is, the qualities that we have total control over. It’s easy to mistakenly believe that your body would fall under this category, but the thing is, your body can get sick and deteriorate against our will – in the same way that the mind can deteriorate, and even give us thoughts or emotions we’d rather avoid. Normally, we’d think our body, mind, and spirit to be the things that comprise the Self, but since none of these things are really under our control, the Buddha concludes that none of these things should be considered the Self. This doesn’t mean, though, that there is no Self, just that the Self has to do solely with consciousness. While this consciousness inhabits a body, it simply isn’t limited to a single body, meaning it’s free of attachments. It’s free of the ego laden attributes which cause us to be obsessed with our appearance, material things, and intellectual achievements. The things you seem to own – from your nice house to a handsome face or intelligent mind – are all illusory. However, we can attain the aforementioned state of pure consciousness. While it may be uncomfortable to change the way you think about your Self so dramatically. The thing is that it’s a theory of reality backed by science, which will be explored in the following book summary.

Why Buddhism Is True Key Idea #3: The Buddhist view that reality of subjecting, rendering our senses unreliable, is backed by science.

We have a tendency to think of science in terms of absolute truths. However, relatively recently, there have been developments in things like quantum theory that show that science has started to view reality as subjective. Theories like this show that science has begun to support the Buddhist point of view that says that what the brain perceives isn’t necessarily a reality. The most famous scientific experiment to look at this is known as the “split-brain” experiment, which questioned the reliability of our brain’s sensory input. The name of the experiment came from the subjects themselves: people who either had brain damage or had undergone surgery that separated the hemispheres of their brain. If a person only looked at something with one eye, only one half of the brain would engage – the hemisphere associated with the perceiving eye. Interestingly, however, the hemisphere that isn’t engaged will actually fabricate and believe a story to fill in the blanks, although it doesn’t actually have a way of knowing what’s happening. In the study, participants were asked to engage their right hemisphere with a unique prompt that told them to stand up and start walking. When they did, the participant was then asked to explain why they were walking. An explanation like this can only come from the left hemisphere, which, in the case of the experiment, would have no recollection of the prompt. Nevertheless, the participants always concocted some explanation, which was oftentimes a complex narrative that didn’t have anything to do with the prompt that actually told them to start walking. Later, there was a study dubbed the pantyhose experiment, in which psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson offered shoppers a selection of pantyhose to choose from. It turned out, nearly every participant picked the pantyhose that was positioned on their far right hand side. The thing is, when they were asked to explain their choice, they always said something about its superior quality, the color of the fabric, or some other physical attribute of the pantyhose. The thing is, the pantyhose were actually identical! This shows how strong of a capacity our minds have for self-delusion and creating their own reality in a rather convincing way. The next book summary will allow you to have a look at the transformative power our emotions have and how they can change our perspective on life.

Why Buddhism Is True Key Idea #4: Buddhist ideals are able to help us prevent our emotions from taking over.

Like The Matrix, the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a fictional allegory about human nature. But unlike Dr. Jekyll, who concocts a potion that turns him into the young, sociopathic Mr. Hyde, we don’t need a laboratory full of bubbling beakers and dark experiments in order to transform into someone else. All we need are a few strong emotions. One of the strongest, and most transformative, emotions is jealousy. During the 1980s and 1990s, evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby studied the effects of jealousy and were able to discover the drastic changes this emotion could have on a person. When we’re under the influence of jealousy, even reasonable people suddenly have the potential for violence, revenge, and punishment. It also led them to mistrust people more and more, leading to them oftentimes changing their appearance so that they can seduce others. Each of these responses to jealousy can be scientifically explained as our instincts, but they also reinforce the Buddhist belief that we’re not completely in control of ourselves. So, if you’d prefer to be in control of your emotions, rather than the other way around, Buddhism is able to help you make the appropriate move in the form of mindfulness. The goal of mindfulness isn’t to repress your emotions to become a mindless robot. The goal is to stop acting on negative feelings – to no longer believe that they accurately reflect who you truly are. Once you devote some time to your mindfulness practice, you’ll be able to learn how to observe your feelings, rather than them simply letting them happen and acting upon them. So, rather than honoring a feeling of resentment right away and yelling at your partner immediately, you can recognize that the feeling is simply a temporary emotion, and work with your partner to understand where it came from so that you can figure out a solution to how it can be avoided in the future. When we aren’t mindful with our feelings, the emotions we feel are often given far more power than they deserve. The next book summary will let us look at what science has to say about these powerful emotions.

Why Buddhism Is True Key Idea #5: Controlling our impulses requires that we re-frame our thinking.

Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume famously said that our ability to reason is rather weak if we compare it to our willingness to act on our passions. Buddhism was able to recognize this imbalance long ago, and more recently, science has been able to prove why it exists in the first place. In a 2007 Stanford Study, it was explained exactly why people make such impulsive purchases, rather than buying a product after careful evaluation. The results showed that certain purchase decisions – such as whether or not to buy a Star Wars DVD – are controlled by the same parts of the brain as our emotions. The nucleus accumbens portion of the brain is associated with pleasure. This specific study shows that activity in this area, or lack thereof, was actually the best predictor of whether a prospective customer would purchase a product or not. If that particular area of the brain showed high activity when a shopper saw the cover of the Star Wars DVD, it was more likely that they’d make the purchase. When we’re finally able to recognize the power of our emotions, we’ll be able to begin improvements on our self-control through applying our ability to reason in an emotional way. For example, let’s say you have trouble controlling yourself around ice cream. You may have tried to reason with yourself, thinking, “Ice cream is causing me to gain weight; thus, I need to cut it from my diet.” The thing is, the odds are, this didn’t work. Instead, try to reason with yourself in an emotional and meditative way. Take a step back, and visualize how you’ll feel once you take ice cream out of your diet. Perhaps you’ll feel slimmer, more full of energy, and better about yourself because you’ll be able to fit into your favorite pair of jeans again. Pairing reason with emotion will nearly always be more efficient than simply trying to use reason alone. Both Buddhism and neuroscience offer examples of how we can benefit from reframing the way we think, and in the next book summary we’ll look at another powerful example of the Buddhist perspective.

Why Buddhism Is True Key Idea #6: We’re able to construct our reality into a more positive version of itself.

If you’re at all familiar with Buddhism, you’re probably familiar with the concept of “mind over matter.” Many of us spend much of our time imagining scenarios that don’t even close to reflect our realities. Perhaps you’ve passed the time during a long wait at the airport by inventing funny backstories for the strangers around you, or imagined yourself sitting in an igloo to get through a particularly hot day. Because life is built on how we perceive our experiences via our five senses, it’s entirely possible to change the way we interpret our perceptions, especially if our current situation is less than ideal. At a time when the author was on a meditation retreat, he had an experience that was far from peaceful, due to the sound of an electric saw constantly buzzing outside his room. He found it rather intolerable until his mindfulness teacher reminded him of a huge part of Buddhism, which is to accept your current situation as it is. The thing is, you can’t change how you perceive your situation. So, the author let go of the idea that the sound was annoying and began to perceive the sound as music. After all, his perception of the sound as an annoyance was just as much a perceptual interpretation as any other. Commonly, we construct stories about our lives, but just as they can help us, they’re also able to be particularly unhelpful, as they’re able to cause suffering. Even on vacation, it’s possible to make yourself simply miserable by deciding that the trip was a mistake and that you’d rather be home watching football. The thing is, these kinds of negative ideas are unnecessary, as it’s impossible for us to ever know how any other scenario would’ve turned out. To start, there’s no way of knowing whether your vacation will end up resulting in a life-changing positive experience. Furthermore, it’s impossible to know whether staying at home would’ve resulted in some unforeseeable mishap. The point is, don’t make your life harder by imagining horrible what-if scenarios! Rather, enjoy the present and make sure that you don’t miss out on the chance to create amazing memories.

Why Buddhism Is True Key Idea #7: It’s possible for meditation to change our consciousness so that we can gain a deeper appreciation of life.

If you’ve ever experienced a Buddhist monastery, you’ll know that these havens can often feel much like a world unto themselves, especially when compared to today’s hectic, fast-paced lifestyle. However, it’s not all about the monasteries. Experienced meditators actually do live in a different world, no matter where they are. Specifically, brain scans have shown that experienced meditators enjoy a different type of consciousness than an average person. Gary Weber is one such meditator. Scans of his brain reveal that it has much calmer activity than a “normal” brain – to the point where, unless he was focused on performing a task, his brain was revealed to be in a constant state of rest. So how does this brain see the world? Weber describes what he sees as an “empty fullness,” a type of perception that takes into consideration the vast space between objects, that most people ignore. A mind like Weber’s, trained in Buddhist teachings, will recognize the difference between objects like a chair and a spoon, but instead of being isolated, each object is connected to the same space that everyone else is living in. To an experienced meditator, this space between objects unites us all, making it just as important as the objects most people pay attention to. Through his devoted practice, Weber was also able to alter his consciousness so that his thoughts would be devoid of self-conscious worries, like whether or not he’d said the right thing. With an emotionally removed mind like Weber’s, it’s easy to make the mistake that such a calm mind is not unlike a bored mind. However, this is far from true. Think of it this way: a wine expert tasting a sample of wine might not enjoy its flavor if their primary concern is to impress other critics with your opinion. Conversely, a Buddhist mind taking a sip of the same wine will not be encumbered by any expectations of self-conscious worries. Skilled meditators are able to live entirely in the moment, meaning that they’ll enjoy each sip of wine as if it’s the first time they’ve ever had such an experience. Enlightenment like this is far from boring, and it’s not as mysterious as you might think. All it takes is a disciplined practice, through which you’ll eventually start to see things in a clearer and calmer light.

In Review: Why Buddhism Is True Book Summary

The key message in this book: Buddhism and its associated practices is largely supported by science. Through mindfulness practices, meditation, and a re-framing of our general thinking – all of which are key tenets of Buddhism whose effectiveness are backed by psychology and neurology – we’ll be able to improve our relationship with the world, allowing us to enjoy the peaceful existence so many of us crave.