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Why Buddhism is true, a secularist's perspective

Do Buddhists retain empathy, a sense of justice? Photo/Getty Images

US journalist Robert Wright offers a persuasive study of Buddhism’s basis in human psychology.

In a recent email exchange with a relative, I described an injustice. After a meditative pause, the answer came back: “If you change, those around you will change. Did I tell you I’ve become a Buddhist?” This reply, while admirably full of emptiness in the Buddhist sense, was also devoid of advice and sympathy, and could be interpreted as a holier-than-thou way of saying, “Don’t bother me with your problems.”

It raised my curiosity, though. Is the secular Buddhism that’s now fashionable a form of avoidance for the middle-class Westerner, who’s phobic about everything from inconvenience to strong emotions? Is it more than a shield with which to fob off annoying relatives? Does a Buddhist retain empathy, a sense of justice? Would a Buddhist have advised a Jew living in the Third Reich, “If you change, those around you will change”?

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And if Buddhism aims to dial down emotions and create detachment from overwhelming feelings, is it essentially nihilistic, or even anti-art? How could we have great novels, tragedies and love stories, paintings and symphonies if everyone was so blissed-out on the meditation cushion, so immune to rage, passion and unhappiness, that they could only murmur a koan and dream of nirvana? Don’t we need grief, anger, lust, love, drive and competitiveness to colour our world?

In other words, I was a sceptic. I needed instruction, and it came in the form of the “pathbreaking” guide Why Buddhism Is True, by US journalist Robert Wright, who has written previously on science, religion and sociobiology.

His approach to Buddhism is secular, and his belief that Buddhism is “true” is based on evolutionary psychology. He argues that if you ignore its supernatural aspects such as reincarnation, Buddhism is based on a shrewd assessment of human impulses, and that its principles neatly incorporate the instinctive way people’s brains work. According to Wright, Buddhism empowers its followers to deal effectively with the strong reflexes programmed into human consciousness by natural selection. These evolutionary motivations are often unsuited to the modern world, and lead to unhappiness, conflict and chronic dissatisfaction.

The idea reminded me of the bogus paleo diet, which fails to acknowledge that humans are not simply cave people dropped, ill-equipped, into a contemporary urban environment. But Wright backs up his thesis with science in a way that’s compelling as he sets out the latest research on the brain.

Modern psychology postulates that consciousness is not a single executive identity or self, but a modular system with discrete competing motives. This accords with Buddhist ideas of self and non-self, and with the aim, in mindfulness meditation, of observing and detaching from the mind’s conflicting drives in order to master them. Wright’s descriptions of the methods and usefulness of meditation are fascinating, and entirely persuasive.

His tone is non-threatening; he admits to being a fidget on his meditation cushion and a slave to his addiction to sugar doughnuts. He’s at pains to show he’s not a purist or a super-meditator, and that he hasn’t reached enlightenment.

In the end, it’s the comparison between science and doctrine that diverts the mind here, and quells the scepticism. If you took out the Buddhism and left the psychology and neuroscience, you might come to the same conclusions about meditation, awareness and the self.

Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright (Simon & Schuster, $28.99)

This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.