Why Buddhism is True – Wright

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It took me over four months to read this book. With that being said, it’s still a decent book.

Wright sets out to demonstrate that the core tenants of Buddhist Philosophy are a truer perception of reality. He does this more by inductive reasoning than quoting scientific studies.

Really, the book should just be called, A Rational Case for Non-Religious Buddhist Practice, because it does that pretty well.

What annoys me about Wright is that his writing lacks any logical structure and has no signposting as to where it’s going. The result is a meandering journey from one unknown place to another.

Notes

  • “Mindfulness is about observing your rulessets as they process information from the outside (and internal) world. This observation is fundamentally another layer of rulesets that are feeding back into the originally observed ones. Over time, regular mindfulness results in stronger high-level rulesets which have a greater impact on the other rulesets they are influencing.”
  • “Enlightenment is understanding causation through experiential learning.”
  • “What annoys me about Wright is that his writing lacks any logical structure and signposting. His chapters are too long and he mixes ideas as he meanders his way (hopefully) to the idea.”
  • “Statements like this make me feel like Wright thinks that Evolution has a greater plan. Evolution is the pattern that emerges from everything that has been.”

Quotes

  • “[Illusion] is things not being quite what they seem.”
  • “Achieving these goals should bring pleasure, since animals, including humans, tend to pursue things that bring pleasure. 2. The pleasure shouldn’t last forever. After all, if the pleasure didn’t subside, we’d never seek it again; our first meal would be our last, because hunger would never return. So too with sex: a single act of intercourse, and then a lifetime of lying there basking in the afterglow. That’s no way to get lots of genes into the next generation! 3. The animal’s brain should focus more on (1), the fact that pleasure will accompany the reaching of a goal, than on (2), the fact that the pleasure will dissipate shortly thereafter. After all, if you focus on (1), you’ll pursue things like food and sex and social status with unalloyed gusto, whereas if you focus on (2), you could start feeling ambivalence. You might, for example, start asking what the point is of so fiercely pursuing pleasure if the pleasure will wear off shortly after you get it and leave you hungering for more. Before you know it, you’ll be full of ennui and wishing you’d majored in philosophy.”
  • “Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.”
  • “there was more in the way of anticipating the pleasure that would come from the sweetness, yet less in the way of pleasure actually coming from the sweetness.”
  • “knowing the truth about your situation, at least in the form that evolutionary psychology provides it, doesn’t necessarily make your life any better. In fact, it can actually make it worse. You’re still stuck in the natural human cycle of ultimately futile pleasure-seeking—what psychologists sometimes call “the hedonic treadmill”—but now you have new reason to see the absurdity of it.”
  • “Long before psychologists were describing the hedonic treadmill, the Buddha saw it.”
  • “Aaron Beck, who is sometimes called the founder of cognitive-behavioral therapy, has written, “The cost of survival of the lineage may be a lifetime of discomfort.””
  • “the importance, in Buddhism, of grasping key ideas experientially, through meditation.”
  • “Though in the deepest sense the self doesn’t exist, human language isn’t very good at describing reality at the deepest level.”
  • “In other words, the self doesn’t exist in an “ultimate” sense, but it exists in a “conventional” sense.”
  • ““You’re real. But you’re not really real.””
  • “our conception of our selves is, at best, wildly off the mark. We associate the self with control and with firm persistence through time, but on close inspection we turn out to be much less under control, and much more fluid, with a much less fixed identity, than we think.”
  • “Kurzban has summarized this finding, “We think we’re better than average at not being biased in thinking that we’re better than average.””
  • “if you were to build into the brain a component in charge of public relations, it would look something like the conscious self.”
  • “Jerome Barkow has written, “It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision-maker).””
  • “Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind—”
  • “By and large, my philosophy is Live and let live: if you’re enjoying the Matrix, go crazy. Except, maybe, when your illusions harm other people in your life or contribute to larger problems in the world.”
  • “Zen is for poets, Tibetan is for artists, and Vipassana is for psychologists.”
  • “To see what I mean, just follow these four easy steps: (1) sit down on a cushion; (2) try to focus on your breath; (3) (this step is the easiest) fail to focus on your breath for very long; (4) notice what kinds of thoughts are making you fail.”
  • ““imagine that every thought that’s arising in your mind is coming from the person next to you.” How would you be relating to these thoughts then? His point was that you wouldn’t be identifying with them. “The thought itself is appearing and disappearing like a sound, but being identified with it is something we’re adding.””
  • ““Correct. And they become a lot less active when we see them for what they are. When we’re not pulled into the drama of them. It’s sort of like going to the movies. We go to the movies and there’s a very absorbing story and we’re pulled into the story and we feel so many emotions . . . excited, afraid, in love. . . . And then we sit back and see these are just pixels of light projected on a screen. Everything we thought is happening is not really happening. It’s the same way with our thoughts. We get caught up in the story, in the drama of them, forgetting their essentially insubstantial nature.””
  • “if the modular model is correct, then the view of thoughts afforded us by meditation is truer than the everyday, unreflective view, the view that has thoughts emanating from a CEO self.”
  • “Whether curiosity is more like a desperate hunger or a delightful lure seems to depend on how directly and urgently relevant it is to our interests as defined by natural selection; the less direct and urgent the connection, the more subtle and pleasant the feeling.”
  • “You can share the reasons with others, and then their feedback will recalibrate how good or bad the two options feel.”
  • “Brewer said the basic idea is to not fight the urge to, say, smoke a cigarette. That doesn’t mean you succumb to the urge and light up a cigarette. It just means you don’t try to push the urge out of your mind.”
  • “For example: right now I’m focused on writing this sentence, and writing this sentence feels fine; I like to succeed at things, and so long as this sentence keeps unfolding on my computer screen, I’m succeeding at something! But if I get to a point where I can’t decide what sentence should go next, I’ll start feeling a bit uncomfortable. And if it isn’t just a question of how to word the next sentence—if it’s a larger question about what the next sentence should say, and indeed where this whole stream of writing should head—I feel really uncomfortable. I like fiddling with sentences, but I hate pondering structural problems. But wait—there’s an alternative to the discomfort of confronting an unwritten and not obviously writable sentence. My browser is open, and it has occurred to me that I should do some shopping: I need a new smartphone. I mean, I don’t have to have a new smartphone, but my old smartphone has developed this weird problem where it thinks the headphones are plugged in even when they’re not. So if somebody calls me, I can’t hear what they’re saying unless I either plug in the headphones or switch the speakerphone on. Can you imagine trying to go through life with such a burden? Don’t you think I should spend the next few minutes researching smartphones? Well, whether you do or not, I am a gadget freak, so the thought of doing that feels good—way, way better than the thought of figuring out what sentence should go next. Case closed. See you later.”
  • “Know all things to be like this: A mirage, a cloud castle, A dream, an apparition, Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.”
  • “To perceive emptiness is to perceive raw sensory data without doing what we’re naturally inclined to do: build a theory about what is at the heart of the data and then encapsulate that theory in a sense of essence.”
  • “The $90 story gets this part of the brain more excited than the $10 story.”
  • “This experiment fits into a large body of psychological literature about something called “the fundamental attribution error.” The word attribution refers to the tendency to explain people’s behavior in terms of either “dispositional” factors—in other words, the kind of person they are—or “situational” factors, like whether they happen to be late for a talk. The word error refers to the fact that these attributions are often wrong, that we tend to underestimate the role of situation and overestimate the role of disposition. In other words, we’re biased in favor of essence.”
  • ““Since it is possible to explain our ordinary belief in character traits as deriving from certain illusions,” he wrote, “we must conclude that there is no empirical basis for the existence of character traits.””
  • “Most psychologists who study these things will tell you that some personality traits are, in the average person, fairly stable over time.”
  • “This sounds quite like the view from Buddhism: everything, from spinach to football games, is empty of inherent existence; things—forms—come into existence in our consciousness only after we have taken some combination of elements in our perceptual field and imposed a collective meaning on them.”
  • “Until those significances are assigned, presumably, the world is in some sense formless. But once they are assigned, there is form; there is essence.”
  • “as one continues to practice the Buddhist path, it enriches the emotional life, so that one becomes emotionally more sensitive, more happy and joyful. And I would say that one can respond to things in the world in a freer, more happy, more delightful way.””
  • “a bunch of highly interdependent systems is closer to unity than a bunch of noninterdependent systems. Indeed, one reason an organism is thought of as unified is that there is so much interdependence among its parts: kidneys, lungs, and so on. So it seems kind of strange to object to someone describing an apprehension of unity or oneness by saying, “No, no, you’re completely wrong; it’s actually interdependence and interconnection, not unity or oneness.” Don’t interdependence and interconnection point to unity and oneness? I mean, they’re not exactly the same thing, but isn’t it fair to say that the more interdependence and interconnection there is, the closer you are to oneness? And aren’t people who espouse the doctrine of emptiness basically saying that reality is pervaded by interdependence and interconnection?”
  • “our ordinary conception of the self as this distinct, sovereign thing is in some sense illusory: we feel a boundary that is not ultimately as real as we think, and moving toward the ultimate truth involves the dissolution of that boundary.”
  • “The word for greed refers not just to greed in the sense of thirst for material possessions but also to thirst in a more general sense: to any grasping attraction to things. And the word for hatred can mean not just negative feelings toward people but negative feelings toward anything—all feelings of aversion.”
  • “Then, in the next causal link, feelings give rise to tanha, to “craving”: we crave the pleasant feelings and crave to escape the unpleasant feelings. Let’s freeze frame right here, because this is where the action is. Here is how Bhikkhu Bodhi put it in a series of lectures he recorded in 1981: “It is here in this space between feeling and craving that the battle will be fought which will determine whether bondage will continue indefinitely into the future or whether it will be replaced by enlightenment and liberation. For if instead of yielding to craving, to the driving thirst for pleasure, if a person contemplates with mindfulness and awareness the nature of feelings and understands these feelings as they are, then that person can prevent craving from crystallizing and solidifying.””
  • “This has been the point of much of this book. The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings via tanha—via the natural, reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural, reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you. But if you observe those feelings mindfully rather than just reacting to them, you can in some measure escape the control; the causes that ordinarily shape your behavior can be defied, and you can get closer to the unconditioned. How Weird Is the Unconditioned?”
  • “You might say that the path of meditative progress consists largely of becoming aware of the causes impinging on you, aware of the way things manipulate you—and aware that a key link in that manipulation lies in the space where feelings can give rise to tanha, to a craving for pleasant feelings and an aversion to unpleasant feelings. This is the space where mindfulness can critically intervene.”
  • “You could say that enlightenment in the Buddhist sense has something in common with enlightenment in the Western scientific sense: it involves becoming more aware of what causes what.”
  • “In any event, the view from nowhere may be the pithiest way of describing what Buddhist enlightenment would be like: the view that carries none of my selfish biases, or yours, and that in a certain sense isn’t even a particularly human perspective, or the perspective of any other species.”
  • “For four billion years,”
  • “The subsequent expansion of our species’ social organization, from hunter-gatherer village all the way to globalization, was also likely, because cultural evolution, like biological evolution, has a powerful creative engine behind it.”
  • “religious, national, or ideological, but antagonism seems to have grown along many of these lines in recent years. What’s more, there seem to be some dangerous positive feedback loops: antagonism on one side creates more antagonism on the other, which creates more antagonism on the first side, and so on.”
  • “You could even view mindfulness meditation itself as in some sense a part of the natural unfolding of life, part of the ongoing coevolutionary process. Maybe, given the constraints under which this universe operates, the only way for complex consciousness to arise on this planet was for it to be warped in the process, distorted by the exaltation of self. And maybe, once social organization approaches the global level, the only way for complex consciousness to flourish on this planet—or even to survive—is for it to now be unwarped, or at least partly unwarped.”
  • “And then I lived happily ever after. Actually, no. Another line in that Foreigner song, right after “feels like the very first time,” is “like it never will again.” And, indeed, I haven’t had a meditative experience that joltingly powerful since then. My belief that I would be able to access this plane again and again and use it to orchestrate my own personal spiritual renaissance was naïve. So was my belief that I would quit beating up on myself, though the frequency and severity of the beatings seem to have fallen off a bit.”
  • “why they should meditate. I’d talk about lots of little moments of truth, and how cultivating those moments can turn someone into a happier, better person.”
  • “we live in a universe in which seeing the metaphysical truth helps you see the moral truth. There is a natural unity of enlightenment.”
  • “Then there’s the third leg of this alignment: our well-being. Happiness—the elimination or at least lessening of suffering, of unsatisfactoriness, of dukkha—tends to coincide with seeing the metaphysical truth and acting on the attendant moral truth. This too is a kind of alignment that, presumably, a universe doesn’t have to have.”
  • “It’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, that the world would be set up this way: that the path you embark on to relieve yourself of suffering would, if pursued assiduously, lead you to become not just a happier person but a person with a clearer view of both metaphysical and moral reality.”
  • “Well, in my case—and, as you will recall, I’m a particularly hard case—the answer is yes, it’s made me a little happier. That’s good, because I’m in favor of happiness, especially my own. At the same time, the argument I’d make to people about why they should meditate is less about the quantity of happiness than about the quality of the happiness. The happiness I now have involves, on balance, a truer view of the world than the happiness I had before. And a boost in happiness that rests on truth, I would argue, is better than a boost in happiness that doesn’t—not just because things that rest on truth have a more secure footing than things that don’t, but because, as it happens, acting in accordance with this truth means behaving better toward your fellow beings.”

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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