Why Buddhism is True

Our editor-in-chief, Melvin McLeod, talks to evolutionary psychologist and the author of “Why Buddhism Is True,” Robert Wright.

Melvin McLeod
22 September 2017
Buddha photo: © Liewluck / Dreamstime. Darwin photo: Paul D Stewart / Science Photo Library.

Melvin McLeod: Your new book, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, is getting more mainstream attention than any other Buddhist-oriented book I can think of. Were you consciously trying to reach people who would normally turn their nose up at a book about Buddhism?

Robert Wright: I wanted to show people that the Buddhist diagnosis makes sense from a modern point of view. It is compatible in many ways with modern psychology and evolutionary psychology. It makes perfect sense in light of the modern understanding of the evolutionary process that created us.

There are many people who are resistant to Buddhism — perhaps because they think it’s unscientific. I hope my trying to place the practice, philosophy, and psychology of Buddhism in the context of modern science will help make it more credible in the eyes of people who are currently suspicious of it.

Tell us about your background as a Buddhist practitioner.

Since college I tried to meditate every once in a while, but I never had what I considered success. Finally, in 2003, I went to a one-week silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. That kind of flipped the switch. By the end of the week I felt much more appreciative of beauty, much less judgemental, and much calmer. I did another retreat in 2009, and since then I have been pretty consistent in my mindfulness practice.

So what have you discovered that Buddhism is right about?

In 1994, I wrote a book about evolutionary psychology called The Moral Animal. That project convinced me that natural selection did not design us to be lastingly happy. It did not design us to always see the world clearly. In fact, evolutionary theory predicts that if certain illusions help genes get into the next generation, then those illusions — about the nature of the self, and about other people and other things — will be favored by natural selection.

In my study of evolutionary psychology, I came to appreciate three things about the human condition: that, by its nature, happiness tends to evaporate; that in many ways we don’t see ourselves or the world clearly; and that, by nature, we are not always morally good, even though we’re good at deceiving ourselves into thinking we’re moral people.

I see Buddhist practice as, in some sense, a rebellion against natural selection.

Buddhism claims that these three things are connected. It says the reason we suffer, the reason we’re not enduringly satisfied, is that we don’t see the world clearly. That’s also the reason we sometimes fall short of moral goodness and treat other human beings badly. I was naturally interested in this proposition, given my background in evolutionary psychology.

What I’m arguing in this book is that looking at Buddhism through the lenses of modern psychology — and evolutionary psychology specifically — tends to validate Buddhism’s claims. When we look at the subtle ways natural selection has built illusion into us, that tracks the two most fundamental Buddhist claims about our illusions, namely that we fail to see the truths of not-self and emptiness.

Buddhism, of course, is not primarily a philosophy or description of reality. It is a pragmatic path whose goal is to lessen suffering and increase happiness. Where does Buddhist practice fit into this?

I see Buddhist practice as, in some sense, a rebellion against natural selection. That’s not to say we reject all the legacies of natural selection. Natural selection gave us the capacity for love and compassion. But I think it’s useful to think of Buddhist practice as saying to natural selection that we do not have to accept your agenda — we can rearrange the priorities.

Evolutionary psychology has given us a pretty good diagnosis of the problem. It has illuminated what is unfortunate about human nature. But it doesn’t offer any sort of prescription. It doesn’t tell us what to do about it.

Buddhism does offer a prescription. It offers a regime of practice grounded in philosophy that addresses the problems evolutionary psychology reveals.

My own experience is in mindfulness meditation in the Vipassana, or Insight, tradition. I have found it well-suited to responding to the challenge that evolution presents us with. Mindfulness meditation lets you get a different vantage point on the various parts of the mind that evolution has left you with. It gives you the opportunity to change your relationship to them.

For me, meditation has been a kind of magical tool.

I saw how this works one morning when I was on my first retreat. I had had too much coffee and I had this very tense feeling in my jaw that overcaffeination can bring. It was a feeling of stress and discomfort. I was meditating, and rather than running away from this feeling I started observing it, without fearing or indulging it. That gave me a certain critical distance from it, and suddenly I wasn’t suffering anymore. I had distance from it and it wasn’t a problem anymore.

For me, meditation has been a kind of magical tool. I saw in that first retreat that Buddhists have an actual tool for dealing with the problem. And what really enriches meditation for me is that it’s not just a therapeutic or self-help tool. It is grounded in a philosophy and view of psychology that I think are fundamentally true.

One thing I’m trying to drive home in the book is that this technique is ultimately connected to deeper spiritual and philosophical exploration. What I mean by that is looking at something you would have previously considered as part of yourself, and seeing that it is not necessarily part of you. That is an incremental movement toward the esoteric-sounding concept of not-self.

Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True
Robert Wright.

When you talk about the illusions we suffer from, it seems to me you’re talking mostly about strategies we use, perhaps for evolutionary reasons, that do not deliver what human beings really want out of life.

Yes, except they are not necessarily strategies we consciously entertain. You might say these behavioral strategies are implemented via features of our mind.

For example, when we have the intuition that the conscious self is the doer of deeds and the thinker of thoughts, that is part of a strategy in a certain sense. From natural selection’s point of view, it’s a useful intuition to feel you are in charge.

To take another example, if you see an enemy and perceive the essence of a bad person in them, that’s useful in Darwinian terms. It leads you to say negative things about that person, which is a good strategy to undermine rivals. That doesn’t mean you’re conscious that it’s a strategy. On the contrary, the strategy is more successfully implemented if you’re not aware that it’s a strategy — if you think that your rival is just a genuinely bad person. If you don’t know that the story you’re imposing on reality is a story, then the underlying strategy will be more effective.

Yet these strategies, while effective for the narrow goal of survival, do not serve our deeper needs as human beings.

The point is that these mental tendencies of ours, these evolutionary strategies, are not conducive to our enduring happiness and well-being. After all, natural selection doesn’t “care” how happy we are. The values implicit in natural selection don’t include our happiness. Our happiness is not high on natural selection’s agenda.

The overriding priority from the natural selection point of view is to get genes into the next generation. If the most effective way to do that is to make happiness something that evaporates as soon as we get it, then that’s the way life will be.

In fact, it seems to be the case that gratification is designed to evaporate so that we will keep pursuing it. We can’t be enduringly satisfied with just one meal or one episode of sex. If you imagine an animal that eats only one meal or has sex once, you’ll imagine an animal that’s not going to get genes into the next generation. Natural selection doesn’t care about our being enduringly contented. I think that is the beginning of explaining why the Buddhist diagnosis of the human condition is fundamentally on target.

Evolutionary psychology and Buddhism may describe our behavior in much the same way, but don’t they differ on the basic motive? In evolution, it is the maintenance of the species. In Buddhism, it is the maintenance of ego.

You mean that nourishing the illusion of an intact, solid self is what fundamentally drives our behavior, according to Buddhist thought?

Yes. That maintaining the illusion of ego — the sense of ourselves as a permanent, unchanging reality — is the basic cause of samsara and our suffering. It’s the second noble truth.

I would say that the view you just articulated fits very well within an evolutionary framework. Self-preservation is a term that you often hear in a Darwinian context, and in a certain sense that’s what you just described from a Buddhist point of view. That’s the point. We now know why we have this obsession. Ever since Darwin, it’s been clear why we have this obsession with self-preservation that Buddhism identified long ago and correctly cast suspicion on.

Evolutionary theory explains why maintaining the illusion of a permanent self would be a very deeply held, deep-seated quest. After all, this thing that is bound by my skin — this thing that is my body — is the vehicle for my genes. Naturally, I’m going to be very devoted to keeping it intact and favor the things that are conducive to its survival. Our tendency to be so obsessed with keeping the self and the body containing it intact, and our insistence on seeing the self as ending at the extremities of the body, make perfect sense in terms of natural selection.

Perhaps you’ve had a meditative experience when suddenly those bounds of self become more porous. Maybe it seems like a bird singing in the distance is actually a part of you — an experience I had on retreat that I describe in the book. I would argue that ironically the Darwinian framework underscores the validity of that experience. The experience of a greater self, or not-self, reminds us that the default perspective — that the self ends where my skin ends — is the product of a particular organic, creative process whose goal is not clear vision, not a clear perception of the world. Its goal is not truth.

Buddhism says we suffer because we try to struggle against or deny reality. So the antidote to suffering is insight or wisdom — experiencing reality accurately. In the basic teachings of Buddhism, that reality is described as the three marks of existence. These are impermanence, non-self, and suffering, or dukkha. All reality is said to be marked by these three qualities, and to deny them is illusion. However, for the purposes of evolution, denying these realities might be advantageous.

Totally, totally. A hundred percent. Denying reality helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation. Of course, seeing certain aspects of reality was clearly also advantageous, but at this deep metaphysical level, there was no payoff in seeing the picture clearly, and in some cases quite the opposite.

In terms of what has been conducive to genetic proliferation, it makes sense not to see and reconcile yourself to the three marks of existence. That’s the point. The point is that not seeing the truth can be conducive to genetic replication. That’s why we have so much trouble seeing it.

Yet from the Buddhist point of view, accepting these realities is the very secret to happiness, or at least not suffering.

Right. Of course, I don’t want to make it sound too easy. As you know, it’s not just about acknowledging impermanence, emptiness, and suffering, or understanding them intellectually. That alone doesn’t do it. That’s why there’s a whole practice associated with it. I mean, swimming upstream against the current of our evolutionary heritage is not going to be trivial or easy.




Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.