Book Review of
Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
(Simon and Schuster, 2017)
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Robert Wright is a popular author whose award-winning books attempt to explain religion and morality according to Darwinian assumptions — human beliefs, morality, and culture have their only roots in the adaptive mechanisms of naturalistic evolution. In The Evolution of God (2010), Wright thinks that there are no good reasons to believe in monotheism. But Darwin is ready at hand, so he invokes a problem-ridden philosophy of nature (Darwinism)1 to explain belief in God without affirming anything supernatural.
Darwinism, neuroscience, and his own experience meditating give Wright the basic categories for assessing Buddhism; but, unlike his argument in The Evolution of God, Wright, defends certain Buddhist ideas instead of debunking the religion itself. In other words, neuroscience comes to the rescue of Buddhism. In this, Wright’s approach is similar to that of Fritjoff Capra’s influential book The Tao of Physics (1975), which advanced an Eastern worldview by showing its supposed consonance with discoveries in quantum physics.2
In recent years, several atheists have advocated a Buddhist spirituality. A foremost “new atheist,” Sam Harris, promotes nontheistic meditation in Awaking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion (2015). Barbara Ehrenreich described a powerful mystical experience in Living with a Wild God (2014), but insisted that it had nothing to do with God or a spiritual realm. In these and other books, I discern a trend for some thinkers to glean from Buddhism meditative techniques and “spiritual experiences” without making any full-bodied commitment to the worldview of Buddhism or any other Eastern religion.
The stakes are high for Wright. Buddhism, he thinks, can save the world. He waxes messianic by saying that the scientifically established benefits of Buddhist meditation provide the way to correct “the nature distortions” of the mind that bring about so much misery in the world. “All I’m really saying is this: the means to the planet’s salvation is at hand” (p. 259). Let us evaluate this Buddhist gospel.
The title, Why Buddhism Is True, commits the logical fallacy of begging the question. It assumes Buddhism is true and then asks why it is. The title should have been Is Buddhism True? or How Can We Know Buddhism Is True? Despite the logical faux pas, the author does try to make a case that certain Buddhist ideas are true and that meditation is good for you and enlists some ideas from neuroscience to make his point. Oddly, however, it is non-Buddhist who is making the case that Buddhism is true. Near the end of the book, Wright writes, “I don’t call myself a Buddhist because traditional Buddhism has so many dimensions — of belief, of ritual — that I haven’t adopted. I don’t believe in reincarnation or related notions of karma” (261).
Odder still, the Buddhism he thinks is true is not historic Buddhism at all. This is because Wright rejects the classic, majority Buddhist view of the self as entirely nonexistent (65–69) — although he allows that it might be true, and many of his arguments seem to assume that it is true. He does claim that “there is no one self, no conscious CEO, that runs the show” (104). Further, he is not concerned whether the ideas of Buddhism can be traced to Buddha himself because this is impossible to know.3
Before critiquing Wright’s ideas, a primer on Buddhist doctrine is apropos. The Buddha, or “awakened one,” taught “the Four Noble Truths,” which all Buddhists accept. The first is that life is suffering. Secondly, suffering is caused by craving or desiring what he cannot have, or having what we do not want. Thirdly, suffering is remedied by eliminating craving, or what is called “the cessation of desire.” Without extinguishing craving, one remains tied to this world and cannot exit the wheel of rebirth. Yet if craving is overcome, the Buddhist enters a state called nirvana, which literally means what is left when a candle is blown out — nothingness. The last of the Four Noble Truths is that nirvana is attainable through the eightfold path of discipline, which consists of ethical conduct (right speech, right action, right livelihood), mental discipline (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), and wisdom (right thought and right understanding).
It is obvious that Buddhism as a religion involves far more than meditation techniques divorced from metaphysical truth claims. The original Buddhism, taught by Buddha himself, requires at least these philosophical beliefs. (1) One can escape suffering only through attaining nirvana, which is a transcendent state of being. (2) Unless one attains nirvana, one is trapped in the system of karma (your deeds determine your future lives) and reincarnation (you come back to Earth in some form according to your karma). (3) You must realize through meditation that there is no substantial self; rather, you are a composition of different elements that shares no essence.
One of the central philosophical problems for Buddhism is the doctrine of no-self (3). Wright wants to retain some minimal sense of self while appropriating Buddhist ideas on the nature of thought and consciousness. He argues that instead of having one dominant self, our brain functions are modular. Our consciousness consists of several systems, interlocked, but without a mental CEO in charge. The notion flows from evolutionary psychology’s claim that the human brain was built up over evolutionary history by incorporating previously existing systems. He says, “As our species encountered new challenges, new chunks would have been added [to the brain]” (86). So, “your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules — modules for sizing up situations and reacting to them — and it’s the interplay among these modules that shapes your behavior” whether you know it or not (86). The idea of the modular mind stems from theories in neuroscience, which Wright takes to be in accord with Buddhist ideas about the self.
Although much could be said about Wright’s apologetic, I will limit my comments to his claims about the self and then give a Christian alternative.
First, the notion of the modular mind is, as Wright admits, more speculative than well established. But if different parts or systems in the brain perform different functions, that does not require a Darwinian explanation nor does that support Buddhism per se. It simply means there is a division of labor in our brain concerning consciousness.
Second, while Wright tries to whittle away the notion of a dominant self that controls brain functions, his arguments fail. Yes, many of our thoughts are not under our direct control. If they were, we would never get anything done, since much of our daily lives are based on habit (such as the typing skills needed to type this review) and not based on conscious cogitation. However, when we reflect on these habits, we have control of our thoughts. Even thoughts that seem simply to occur to us are still experienced by us. This means that the self, however mysterious, remains securely in place. Descartes is still right; there are no thoughts without thinkers.
Third, Wright advocates Buddhist meditation, the essence of which is to detach yourself from your thoughts and observe your mental state from a kind of third-person perspective. You are detached from your experience, thus freeing yourself from craving. It is good to be self-aware (Why am I so angry?), but thoughts and emotions rightly or wrongly address objective reality. We should not let them go as they please. One should not be detached from reacting when he sees a man beating a dog. Rather, you should be bothered and do something about it. If I think of the staggering number of abortions performed in the United States per year (more than one million), I should not be detached but rather outraged such that I try to do something about it. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6 NIV).
Against the Buddhist view of human nature (whether orthodox or Wright’s diluted version), Christianity teaches that humans are made in God’s image and likeness as a duality of body and soul. Our self is rooted in our Creator and endures through time and into eternity. Our deepest problem is alienation from God because of our sin against His holiness. No amount of meditation (Buddhist or otherwise) can cure this ill. Redemption comes through the person and work of our Mediator, Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). Christ calls us to give ourselves fully to Him in repentant faith. He calls us to receive the gift of the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting by faith alone through the grace of Christ alone (John 14:1–6; Eph. 2:8–9).
The Christian’s thought life should be brought into the obedience of Jesus Christ, as the apostle Paul explains: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 NIV).
Our minds should be alert and ready for spiritual discernment. They should also dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Phil. 4:8 NIV).
Robert Wright to the contrary, Buddhism will not save the world, since it cannot even explain the nature of the human self, let alone how it might be liberated. Christianity, however, both understands the human condition and offers redemption through Jesus Christ.
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness — A Philosopher’s Lament (InterVarsity Press, 2017).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith