Book notes: Why Buddhism is true—Robert Wright

Why Buddhism is true

Are you seeking truth or are you seeking happiness ? Are they the same things. These are the questions the book tries to explore. The arguments get repetitive and rhetorical at some point.

On feelings and natural selection**

Ultimately, natural selection care about only one thing. And that one thing is getting genes into the next generation. The feelings that guide us through the day have their origins in natural selection. They are not designed to give us a true view of reality. Our brains due to natural selection are designed to delude us. But understanding the ultimate source of your suffering does not, by itself help very much.

One of the Buddha’s main messages was that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing—the next powdered - sugar donut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online promotion. We overestimate how much happiness they will bring.

Why pleasure fades

The design philosophy of natural selection is

  1. Achieving goals should bring pleasure, as humans (and animals) tend to pursuer things that bring pleasure.
  2. The pleasure should not last forever. To increase the chances of getting the genes for e.g. from sex there needs to be incentive to keep doing it.
  3. Animals brain should focus more on (1)—the fact that one will get pleasure on finishing a goal, and not on (2) —that the pleasure will dissipate shortly after.

Natural selection wants us to be productive not happy and the way to make us productive is make the anticipation of pleasure a strong feeling but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.

(He uses some experiment on Monkeys to prove the above point ^^).

Knowing the truth

Knowing the truth about your situation, at least in the form, that evolutionary psychology provides it, does not necessarily make your life any better. In fact it can actually make it worse. You are still stuck in the natural human cycle of ultimately futile pleasure seeking—the “hedonistic treadmill” —but now you have a new reason to see the absurdity of it. In other words you see a treadmill designed to keep you running without getting anywhere—yet you keep running.

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and discomfort of being ruled by them”

TLDR: The truth won’t necessarily set you free.

  • Buddhism is full of paradoxes but so is Modern Physics.*
  • Mindfulness meditation is a pared down version of Buddhist meditation.

One of the take-home lessons of Buddhist philosophy is that feelings just are. If we accepted their arising and subsiding as part of life, rather than reacting to them as if they were deeply meaningful, we would be often be better off. Learning to do that is a big part of what mindfulness meditation is about.

One way to define true and false as they apply. To feelings: if they feel. Good but lead us to do things that are not really good for us then they are false feelings.

Levels of Delusion

  1. Our feelings were not designed to depict reality even in our “natural” environment.
  2. The fact that we are not living in a “natural” environment makes our feelings even a less reliable guide.
  3. Underlying it all is the happiness delusion. As the Buddha emphasized , our on going attempts to feel better tend to involve an over estimation of how long better is going to last. Whats more when better ends it can be followed by worse—an unsettled feeling, a thirst for more.

Feelings were designed fo them to follow you, it is difficult. To analyze them.

Natural selection does not care about your long term happiness.


  • Viewing your feelings mindfully, while on a meditation cushion can make you. Better at viewing them mindfully in everyday life, which means your life will be less governed by misleading feelings.
  • It makes you more attuned to beauty.

Pure enlightenment could be like an asymptote in mathematics, something you can get closer and closer to but never quite reach.

On controlling your self

Society and the system control a big part of your “self”.

Thoughts think themselves.

Your motivations can arise from the subconscious but the brain makes up a believable story for why it is “true”.

Module theory of the brain

Brain consists of different modules that control different actions. No single module is the CEO. Our conscious mind is a module but it cannot always control our actions. Modules trigger feelings that we react to,. Feelings are the message between modules.

Reason can only play a role in a decision only by influencing the ultimate motivator: feeling.

Reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will—A.O. Hume

Plato invoked the metaphor of a charioteer (the rational self) keeping horses (the unruly passing) under control. This might not be accurate.

Different kinds of meditation: Zen, Vipasana and Tibetan

Fighting Urges

The basic idea is to not fight the urge to, say, smoke a cigarette. It just means you don’t try to push the urge out of your mind. Rather, you follow a mindfulness technique that you’d apply to other bothersome feelings—anxiety, resentment, melancholy, hatred. You just calmly examine the feeling. What part of your body is the urge felt in? What is the texture of the urge? Is it star? Dull and heavy? The more you do that the less the urge seems a part of you; you have exploited the basic irony of mindfulness meditation: getting close enough to feelings to take a good look at them winds up giving you a kind of critical distance from them, their grip on you loosens; if it loosens enough, they are no longer part of you. The acronym used for this technique is called the RAIN. R - Recognize your feeling A - crept the feeling rather than drive it away I - Investigate the feeling and its relationship to your body N - stands for non identifcation or non attachment.

Specialness of self

We need to reject the core evolutionary value of the specialness of the self. Indeed, there’s probably never been a time in human history when this rejection was more vital. But we don’t want to reject what is also in a sense a value of natural selection’s: that the creation and sustenance of sentient life is good.

This is my main contention with Buddhism, the alternative theory is maybe we all need to believe each one of us is special and then maybe one of will do something really stupid or spectacular that will solve our problems at hand and keep pushing us forward.

Enlightenment is not a state, its’ a process.