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Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright

This is the second meditation-related book I’ve read. Last year in 2020, I read The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness by Andy Puddicombe and liked it a lot. I got into the habit of daily meditation and benefited tremendously from a twenty-minute practice each day. I picked up this book not because of mindfulness meditation though. I didn’t know it has a lot about the author’s meditation experience. I wanted to learn more about Buddhism. And to my delight, the book taught me both.

Andy’s book did a great job in introducing me to meditation, but I had to admit that after almost a year’s practice, I felt my progress was stagnant and I started to get bored. This book talks about meditation in a deeper sense. It combines modern science—Darwin’s theory and psychology—with the ancient teachings from Buddha. Grew up in China, I heard a lot about Buddhist thoughts but never attempted to understand it. They sound mysterious and murky. Wright striped away those exotic aspects and explained Buddhism in an apprehensible manner.

It may not be that easy to follow had I not practiced meditation before. As a novice meditator, I could fathom the ideas through logical reasoning with the help of my shallow experience. To deepen the practice, the book recommends us to attend a meditation retreat which I plan to do in the future.

I sometimes struggled to grasp the author’s intention. The writing could be more cohesive and less repetitive to my taste. I felt lost at times as Wright mixed his logical analysis with hypotheses, anecdotes and quotes from others. Otherwise it’s an illuminating book.

Notes #

Chapter 1: Taking the Red Pill

  • Evolution by natural selection has no interest in maximizing our ability to see the reality. Although sometimes this strategy might help, the ultimate goal is to get genes into next generation.
  • What exactly is the illusory part of pursuing desires (donuts, consumer goods or a promotion)? One common illusion is the overestimation of how much happiness they’ll bring.
  • Thought experiment: If you were designing organisms to be good at spreading their genes, how would you get them to pursue the goals that further this cause? (Goals like eating, having sex, impressing peers, and besting rivals.)
    • Three basic principles
      • Achieving the goals should bring pleasure.
      • The pleasure shouldn’t last forever.
      • The animal’s brain should focus more on the first one rather than the second one.
    • These explain why pleasure fades. We now know that dopamine releases more in the anticipation of reward rather than reward itself.
  • Although science sheds light on why and how the illusion would be built into us, it is not entirely helpful to liberate ourselves.
    • “Don’t believe me? Try this simple experiment… as you’re reflecting on this fact, hold a powdered-sugar doughnut six inches from your face.”
  • Buddhism offers an explicit diagnosis of the problem and a cure.

Chapter 3: Feelings

  • Feelings are designed to encode judgments about things in our environment.
  • It’s hard to tell whether feelings are true or false from an objective perspective.
    • It’s supposed to be useful, but environment changes (e.g. road rage), or they may be false positive (e.g. snake illusion)
  • The feelings were originally “designed” to convince you to follow them. They feel right by definition. They actively discourage you from viewing them objectively
  • [I think one way is to judge right or wrong is according to our own values (say, according to our definition of Happiness and Well-being), but of course the first step is to be aware of them.]

Chapter 4: Gain Insights through Meditation

  • When we start to meditate, we try to interrupt the default mode network and turn to experiential mode, by focusing, say, on our breaths (p. 47).
  • Once you’re able to escape from your wandering mind, there are two paths, corresponding to two types of meditation:
    • One is to sustain the focus on your breath, and deepen the focus. This is called concentration meditation, also called serenity meditation. It can even bring powerful feelings of bliss or ecstasy if sustained for long enough.
      • When Wright experienced it, his meditation teacher told him “Sounds nice. But don’t get attached to it.”
    • Another one is related to mindfulness (Noble Eightfold Path). And mindfulness, or staying in the moment, is just the means to an end.
  • There is a particular school of meditation known as vipassana, or “insight”. The ultimate purpose is to gain insight, meaning to see the true nature of reality, “the three marks of existence”.
  • Three marks of existence are:
    • impermanence
    • dukkha, meaning suffering or unsatisfactoriness
    • anatta, or “not-self”
  • Seeing reality with true clarity is to pave the path to enlightenment.

Chapter 5: Not-self

  • Buddhist emphasizes the importance of grasping the key ideas experientially through meditation. The authors argues that we can still try to fathom not-self. Even though the not-self is usually reported by experienced meditators, the experience isn’t strictly binary and we can still get started.

    • [For my own experience, I woke up one night and found my arm to be extremely numb. I tried to observe it and found myself freed from the discomfort immediately. In the words of the author (p. 69), “I was still conscious of the feeling, but my consciousness was no longer engaged with it in the sense of having possessive feelings toward it.”]
  • From the text from Buddha, he went through the five “aggregates”, that according to Buddhist philosophy, constitutes a human being and human’s experience, and showed that none of them warrants the label self (p. 61).

    • He showed that, we cannot control our form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations (thoughts, habits, etc.) or consciousness (awareness).
  • I thought the self is the thing that’s in control, rather than under control?

    • See “Modern Psychology on Not-Self” below (chapter 6, p. 77).
  • Another property (other than control) of self is that it persists through time. And when asked for each of the aggregates, none is permanent.

    • None of the two properties of self — control and persistence through time — can stand the scrutiny. This is the core of the arguments Buddha makes in his first and most famous discourse on not-self.
  • Not-self vs. no-self?

    • If there is no self, what is the thing that is freed from thinking in this way?
    • One common buddhist response is that human language is limited to explain the reality at the deepest level. The self doesn’t exist in an “ultimate” sense, but it exists in the a “conventional” sense.
    • Another approach to this, as believed by a few scholars but seems radical among mainstream Buddhist thinkers, is that Buddha didn’t really mean to be denying the existence of the self.
      • (not going thought the details/arguments here)
    • It’s hard to think through it, as acknowledged by the author. He suggests us to be open to the idea while continuing practicing meditation.
  • Then it comes a more practical perspective. The scholar Peter Harvey sees the not-self teaching “is not so much a thing to be thought about as to be done.”

    • We can use rocket as a metaphor: One can, then, perhaps see the Self idea as fulfilling a role akin to a rocket which boosts a payload into space, against the force of gravity. It provides the force to drive the mind out of the “gravity field” of attachment to the personality-factors (the aggregates). Having done so, it then “falls away and is burnt up”, as itself a baseless concept.”
    • Maybe the not-self the Buddha just meant something like “not usefully considered part of my self” or “not to be identified with”.

Chapter 6: Modern Psychology on Not-Self

  • The conscious self is not some all-powerful executive authority. It has a lot of different players (p. 77).

    • [Think about the movie Inside Out]
    • “Thoughts think themselves.”
  • The conscious self convinces itself that it’s calling the shots.

    • Split-brain Experiments
    • For normal brains, an experiment showed that people explained the reasons why they like a certain piece of clothing (because of fabric, the feel, etc.) although they’re exactly the same.
    • People can also be manipulated by sublime information that is below the conscious awareness.
  • Why does the conscious self do that?

    • From natural selection’s point of view, an individual who knows what he’s doing and why (i.e. telling coherent stories) are more likely to gain trust.
      • [It also shows it’s hard, physiologically, to “be honest” with oneself.]
    • People are also tend to view themselves more capable and upstanding (p. 85).
      • People overestimate their driving skills; people take more credits for themselves in a team; people remember more positive experiences, and alter their memories over time; different cultures also plays a role as how they view themselves
  • So there are at least two illusions, one is about our selves, that we think we’re in control; the other is about ourselves, that we are “better” than others, we are more beneficial and effective than others.

  • The modular model of the mind, though still young and not fully fleshed out, holds a lot of promise.

    • The name is misleading, as the “modules” are usually intertwined and overlapped. They are not as clear-cut as what we mean by modules in general (p. 87).
  • The closest thing to a self would be the algorithm that determines which circumstances put which modules in charge. The algorithm is not “conscious self”, because we don’t consciously decide on the algorithm. The activation of modules is closely associated with feelings (p. 95).

    • One experiment shows that seeing pictures of women, men tend to discount the future (intertemporal utility function) more steeply than they did only moments earlier (p. 93) . They suddenly turn to “mate-acquisition mode”, in other ways becoming a different person.
      • [This is like what social media does to our brain, bring out the jealousy. Nassim Taleb talked about having “wax in the ear”, not to be exposed to it.]
    • Cosmides and Tooby, early and influential advocates of a modular view of the mind, concluded that what emotions do — what emotions are for — is to activate and coordinate the modular functions that are, in Darwinian terms, appropriate for the moment (appropriate meaning, spreading the genes).
  • Buddhist thought and modern psychology converge on this point: in human life there is no one self, rather, there seem to be a series of selves that take turns running the show. If the way they seize control of the show is through feelings, one way to change the show is to change the role feelings play in everyday life, by losing attachments to them. “I’m not aware of a better way to do that than mindfulness meditation.”

Chapter 8: How Thoughts Think Themselves

  • There are three kinds of meditation: Zen meditation, Tibetan meditation, and Vipassana meditation.
    • Vipassana emphasizes on mindfulness, Tibetan often steers the mind toward visual imagery, and Zen involves ponding those cryptic lines known as koans.
    • There is a saying that: Zen is for poets, Tibetan is for artists, and Vipassana is for psychologists.
  • Themes about our thoughts when we’re meditating (in default mode): involve the past and future, not the present; involve self; involve other people; involve some kind of reward
    • They are also from different modules
  • What it’s like to watch the thoughts (p. 110)
    • “Imagine that every thought that’s arising in your mind is coming from the person next to you.”
    • “It’s not so much they have the intent to reach out and capture us, but rather there’s this very strong habitual identification.”
    • “When we have that basis of wisdom about the nature of things, then we have more power to choose which thoughts are healthy, and let go those that are not so healthy.” [I think this meant in everyday life, not during meditation. We should try to let go of every thoughts during practice.]
  • One theory the author acknowledges is that, it is the feeling that propels thoughts, and the stronger the feelings are, the stronger they can hold our attention (This is not scientifically proven though).
    • There is a broad trend in psychology over the past several decades to quit talking about “affective” and “cognitive” processes as if they were in separate compartments of the mind and recognize how finely intertwined they are.
  • In some subtle cases, like indulging in curiosity, the author depicts that he can feel “a kind of continuously doled-out carrot that keeps me meandering along the path of the puzzle toward a solution; and if I find that solution, I’m given a culminating burst of satisfaction as a reward.
    • “Curiosity is a git, a capacity of pleasure in knowing.” — John Ruskin
    • There is also a difference in the intensity of curiosity (p. 117). If it’s more direct and urgent (figuring out whether the stock market will continue to plunge today, rather than wondering why it crashed in 1029), it’s becomes more like a desperate hunger or a delightful lure.
    • Brain scans showed that a curious state of mind involves activity in the dopamine system.

Chapter 9: “Self” Control

  • As Hume puts it, human reason is “the slave of the passions” (passions mean feelings in our term). He also says that “Reasons alone can never be a motive to any action of the will.”
  • Feelings are the original motivators in evolutionary terms (as reasoning is developed at a later stage).
  • Self-control has often been described as a matter of reason prevailing over feelings. Plato invoked the metaphor of a charioteer (the rational self) keeping horses (the unruly passions) under control. This idea is obviously rejected by the modern science.
    • It makes sense for Plato to think in this way, and the idea has been held for about 2.5 millennia. After all, when we’re deciding whether to eat chocolate or not, we hear the arguments from both sides in our mind. But what really happens is that there are different modules with different goals “inhibiting” each other.
    • Why our conscious mind observes the debate? (p. 129)
      • It’s possible that when asked, you can give a plausible rationale.
      • Or you can share the reasons with others, and get their feedback.
  • How people getting indulged in unhealthy things?
    • It would make sense for natural selection to design modules that get stronger with repeated success.
    • This view is better than simply calling some all-purpose muscle “self-discipline” (the more you use, the stronger it becomes). It doesn’t suggest you to fight your temptation, to exercise your “self-discipline“ muscle. As it often turns out, it won’t work.
  • Modular view suggests us to overcome the problem using mindfulness meditation approach. Specifically, RAIN method as suggested by scientists Judson Brewer
    • Recognize the feeling, Accept it, Investigate it and becomes Non-identification, or Non-attachment
    • Letting the feeling form and observing it deprives it from getting the rewards. It’s like allowing rats to press the bars, but no food pallets come out (compared to forcefully forbid rats from approaching the bars).
  • Similarly, when we say hateful things, we get some rewards and feel good (failing to exercise “right speech” from Noble Eightfold Path). This too is sort of an addiction.
    • David Hume distinguished between the “violent” passions, such as revenge and hatred, and the “calm” passions, such as the love of beauty. Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, an attempt to give the calm passions more power and give the violent passions less power.

Chapter 10: Formless and Emptiness

Form is emptiness. — Heart Sutra

  • When we apprehend the world out there, we’re not really apprehending the world at it is, but rather constructing it.
    • There is an airplane flying overhead for example. We immediately think that it is the sound of an airplane, but another way to hear it, in the sense of formless, is that it’s just pure sound, unattached to the idea of a particular, concrete object.
  • We all hear “annoying” sound — a sound by itself is a passive, not an active, thing, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
    • [I think just like fear, there are some sounds that are “innately” annoying for our ear, although from an objective sense it is, indeed, just some sound wave. When we try to observe the “annoyance” inside us, it brings us back to the not-self idea, that we can observe some part of our body is being agitated.]
  • Emptiness does not mean the absence of everything, but the absence of essence (the version of emptiness doctrine that are widely accepted by Buddhist scholars).
    • “… without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.” — Samadhiraja Suntra
    • Essence is dependent on human perception.
    • To perceive emptiness is to perceive raw sensory data without doing what we’re naturally inclined to do: building a theory about it (p. 148).

Chapter 11: From Modern Science

  • Capgras delusion is that the patient is able to see, say, his wife, who looks like his wife, but denies that she is his wife, but rather an imposter. One long-standing theory to explain this is that there is a disruption of the connection between a part of the brain involved in visual processing and a part of the brain the processes emotions.
  • Thus, Wright argues that, we actually attach feelings to many things — feelings play a bigger role in perception than we normally appreciate.
    • “We tend to assign adjectives to nouns, whether consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.”
    • Another thing intertwined with essence is stories. We create narratives around things.
    • [but, I thought it’s good to have ‘feelings’ toward things, like the connections with people and things? — as discussed later, like feelings, it’s not necessarily bad. The point is that we need to clearly see them.]
  • Two different ways that “essence” can impede clear perception
    • It evokes experience that otherwise wouldn’t be evoked
      • “fantastic glass of wine” case — just knowing the bottle of wine is more expensive will make us to think it’s better. A region in the cortex is activated (“the hedonic experience of favor”, p. 171).
    • It minimize the experience
      • It’s just a tree. The view is just okay.

Chapter 12: Emptiness on Human Relationships

  • Our Essence-of-Person Machinery
    • The machinery works fast as we judge people; the judgments we make are often base on a single data point
    • “The fundamental attribution error”: we explain people’s behavior based on either “dispositional” factors or “situational” factors
    • Our brain tends to preserve the essence — attribute good things happened to an enemy or bad things happened to a friend to circumstance
    • The essence is easily spread from one level to another. e.g. few people protest when America dropped atomic bombs on Japan. A nation’s leader is bad -> the people are bad.
  • Loving-kindness meditation: imagine directing loving-kindness to other people, even enemy
    • “The more I thought about it, the more that lizard and I seemed to have in common. We were both thrown into a world we didn’t choose, and were trying to make the best of the situations.”
  • Can take essence out of things make us indifferent to the welfare of other people?
    • “tends not to”, but doesn’t mean “never does”
    • The two-edged nature of meditative mastery underscores the value of supplementing Buddhist meditation with moral instruction.
  • Does it make you emotionless, even for happiness?
    • It lets you experience your feelings with care and clarity. It lets you choose which ones to follow — like, say, joy, delight, and love (p. 192).

Chapter 13: Oneness

  • “I felt that the tingling in my foot was no more a part of me than the singing of the bird.” (It’s the kind of things that’s easier to do on retreat than when back in the “real world”.)
  • Our instinctive definition of what is “us” and what is “ours” is a product of the particular rules by which a particular creative process known as natural selection works (p. 197).
    • Microbes actually influence the mind, in part by influencing neurotransmitters.
    • My brain could have been wired in a different way, leaving me with a very different sense of the distinction between I and other.
  • There is an exterior version of not-self experience: “In what sense are these things not a part of me?”
  • Oneness or emptiness? This is the argument between Buddhist thinkers and Hindu thinkers.
    • “My basic view of religious beliefs is that the ultimate question isn’t their specific content, but rather: What kind of person do the beliefs make you? How do they lead you to behave?”
  • Three Poisons: greed, hatred and delusion
    • Not just greed in the sense of thirst for material possessions, but also to thirst in a more general sense: to any grasping attraction to things.
    • Not just negative feelings toward people but negative feelings toward anything — all feelings of aversion
    • The first two are the two sides of tanha: a craving for the pleasant, an aversion to the unpleasant.
  • tanha (in Four Noble Truth) entails defining the realm of self. And Conquering tanha is connected with both interior and exterior not-self experience.
    • As tanha is connected with the sense of self, it’s also related to the third one: delusion. A famous one being, the illusion of self.
  • The first two are ingredients of the third poison: greed + hatred = delusion.
  • Another delusion, the illusion of essence, and its insight of emptiness, is also related. As discussed above, things have essence because of feelings. Feelings tend to be either positive or negative, either “greed” or “hatred”. With this understanding, the first two also leads to the third poison. (p. 213)

Chapter 14: Nirvana

  • Nirvana != bliss
    • It entails much more than bliss, most notably enlightenment: “a state of perfect happiness, complete peace, complete inner freedom, and full awakening and understanding.”
    • Bliss is much easier to attain, by taking drugs for example
  • In ancient texts, nirvana is often described with a word that is commonly translated as “the unconditioned.”
    • “The conditioned” can be thought of as roughly synonymous with “the caused.”
    • This can be understood by going through a part of the sequence of twelve conditions: sensory -> contact -> feelings -> tanha (carving)
    • Mindfulness can help breaking the causal link between feelings and craving
  • Two kinds of liberation / nirvana in the Buddhist idea: liberated in the here and now -> enter a nirvana you can enjoy for the rest of your life; after death -> liberated from the cycle of rebirth.
  • There are debates about the word “the unconditioned” and whether there is a space that you in some sense occupy once fully liberated.
    • Stephen Batchelor, in Buddhism Without Beliefs, says that “There is no such thing as the unconditioned, only the possibility of not being conditioned by something.”
    • Wright thinks that it may be useful to think that there is such a zone. The zone, is that he spends less time reacting and more time observing.

Chapter 15: Enlightenment

  • It means see the truth — actually apprehend the truth experientially.
  • There are moral benefits, when apprehending the metaphysical (not-self and emptiness) — In the fullest version of the not-self experience, you start to doubt that there is any real difference between other people’s interests and yours.
  • In terms of emptiness, it aligns with the understanding in cosmic context.
    • Without a perspective to serve, there would be no feeling in the first place.
  • What caused all the hatred? At some level, it’s always the same thing: human beings operating under the influence of human brains whose design presupposed their specialness.
  • We want to reject the core evolutionary value of the specialness of self, yet we don’t want to reject that the creation and sustenance of sentient life is good. Mindfulness meditation is well suited to fighting that first value while serving the second one. As a bonus, it brings us closer to the truth.
  • In the final chapter, Wright talks about some practical reasons to practice meditation, even though it’s hard to attain enlightenment.
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