Why Buddhism Is True Summary

Sud Alogu
9 min readMay 20, 2021

Why Buddhism is True by Wright is about how the central insights of Buddhism with regards to habits and pleasure has been corroborated by modern scientific evidence.

Evolutionary psychology is described as the study of how the human brain was designed-by natural selection-to mislead us, even enslave us. Natural selection has its virtues, and being a product to evolution does not damn you to a life of slavery, but in the end, natural selection is a “blind” process that only cares about getting genes into the next generation.

Buddhism teaches that pleasure is fleeting, and this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied. The reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure.

Natural selection doesn’t care about happiness, it only cares about productivity (multiply genes). It gives us pleasure that is strong and long lasting. Buddhism solves this problem with mindfulness, a solution that brings happiness and clarity of vision.

Meditation is often pursued for therapeutic reasons (stress reduction) but meditation is deeply spiritual and can transform the way you see the world.

Why would natural selection design organisms to feel pointless discomfort? A good reason is that it was not always pointless. In the environment of our ancestors, you are always performing in front of people you repeatedly see, so their opinions are important. Being stressed about things that have no immediate danger to you, such as perceived social opinion, was evolutionarily adaptive.

Social anxiety is a product of our ancestral environment. Low social status and few friends cut our chances to spread our genes

When he taught his students, the Buddha divided experience into five aggregates.

the physical body (called “form” in this discourse), including such sense organs as:

  1. eyes and ears
  2. basic feelings;
  3. perceptions (of, say, identifiable sights or sounds)
  4. “mental formations” (a big category that includes complex emotions, thoughts, inclinations, habits, decisions)
  5. “consciousness,” or awareness-notably, awareness of the contents of the other four aggregates.

The Buddha ran down this list and asked which, if any, of these five aggregates seem to qualify

as self. In other words, which of the aggregates evince the qualities you’d expect self to possess?

What qualities would you expect self to possess? What did the word self mean to the Buddha?

He then went through the other four aggregates, one by one. “If feeling were self, then feeling would not lead to affliction,” and you’d be able to change your feelings by saying “May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus.”

But, of course, we don’t ordinarily have this kind of control over our feelings-hence the tendency of unpleasant feelings to linger even though we’d rather they didn’t.+ So feeling, the Buddha concludes, “is not-self.” So too with perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. If none of these things are under our control, then how can we think of them as part of the self?

One way to interpret what the Buddha has said is that we have no self. But if there’s no self, then what is the nature of the “he” that is liberated after all the things that aren’t self have been disowned? Who is doing the disowning?

One common Buddhist response is that the deepest sense of the self doesn’t exist.

Did that clear things up? Probably not.

How about this less formal formulation of the same basic idea from a Buddhist teacher: “You’re real. But you’re not really real.”

The Buddha’s discourse on engagement suggests an appealingly simple model: liberation consists of changing the relationship between your consciousness and the things you normally think of as its “contents”- your feelings, your thoughts, and so on. Once you realize that these things are “notself,” the relationship of your consciousness to them becomes more like contemplation than engagement, and your consciousness is liberated. And the “you” that remains-the you that, in that first discourse on the not-self, the Buddha depicts as liberated-is this liberated consciousness. Why Buddhism is True, Wright

Nearly half a millennium after Montaigne died, science has validated the logic behind his perhaps too modest remark: “I consider myself an average man except for the fact that I consider myself an average man.” Why Buddhism is True, Wright

Wright cites different studies that show that human beings misperceive their own abilities, we even think we are better than average at not being biased that we are better than average.

If the conscious self isn’t a CEO, directing all the behavior it thinks it’s directing, how does behavior get directed? How do decisions get made?

A common answer from evolutionary psychology is that the mind is “modular.” 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. And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part. A speculative but promising theory according to Wright.

Do you tend to follow the crowd or take the road less traveled? Correct answer: It depends!

A study in the Journal of Marketing Research showed that preferences to be alone or with people was influenced by the time of movie people immediately saw beforehand. Horror movies made people want to see others, while Romantic movies made people want to seek intimate company.

You know the old saying about Zen meditation, Tibetan meditation, and Vipassana meditation? Well, no, you probably don’t. It’s a saying that’s meant to capture the difference between these three Buddhist contemplative traditions-Vipassana, with its emphasis on mindfulness; Tibetan, which often steers the mind toward visual imagery; and Zen, which sometimes involves pondering those cryptic lines known as koans. Here’s the saying: Zen is for poets, Tibetan is for artists, and Vipassana is for psychologists.

Why Buddhism is True, Wright

Mindfulness allows you to observe how your mind functions, and you can confirm scientific observations with your own personal observations about how thoughts come and go.

You don’t choose to buy things because you go through a series of logical questions. An experiment done at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT gave people real money and offered them different things to buy: wireless headphones, an electric toothbrush, a Star Wars DVD, and so on. As these people were shown each product, and then its price, their brains were being scanned.

The researches were able to predict whether someone was going to purchase something by observing which part of the brain got more active and which got less active.

None of those parts were associated with rational deliberation. For example, the nucleus

accumbens, which plays a role in doling out pleasure and gets more active when people anticipate rewards or see things they like. The more active the nucleus accumbens while subjects were looking at a product, the more likely they were to buy it.

Alternatively, the insula, which gets especially active when people anticipate pain and other unpleasant things. the more active the insula got when people were shown the price, the less

likely they were to buy the product.

Though weighing the pros and cons of a purchase sounds like a purely rational, even mechanical act, this experiment suggests that the way the brain actually does the weighing is through a contest of conflicting feelings. Even the factor of price-a purely quantitative index, the kind of thing that is easily fed into a computer’s decision-making algorithm-ultimately enters the equation in the form of a feeling, a degree of aversion.

Why Buddhism is True, Wright

If all this is true, why do spend so much time coming up with reasons for doing things? Is it just theater? One explanation is that we need to have justifications for our behavior for purely social reasons, so our brains figure out how to rationalize our decisions. If we get caught doing something, we need to have a good excuse.

We don’t always rationalize. Sometimes we consult the opinions of others. This is to make sure that we are not going to do something that will harm important people in our lives.

The more we consider the connection between reason and feeling, the dimmer the prospects seem for keeping our behavior under truly rational control.

All of this is very bleak. Thankfully, we have meditation to counteract all this arbitrariness.

Is “Self-Discipline” Really the Problem?

Any addiction (smoking, porn, chocolate) usually involves short term deliberation. With time, opportunities for gratification go up and less time is spent deliberating. Eventually the drive for immediate gratification becomes so strong that resistance becomes futile.

Enter the idea many are familiar with — self-discipline is like a muscle. This seems to be true.

if the part of you that’s arguing against indulgence prevails a few times-if it gets successfully “exercised”-its chances of success will be better next time, whereas if it loses a few times in a row, it will be headed toward a very long losing streak.

Why Buddhism is True, Wright

Early successes at self-discipline lead to more successes whereas early lapses lead to more lapses. If self-discipline is so good for the organism,you wouldn’t expect natural selection to allow a few early lapses to destroy self-discipline. Yet a few injections of heroin can be the end of a productive life. Why?

First, we must depart from the self-discipline-as-muscle metaphor.

Let’s translate the question into modular terms: after the module favoring indulgence wins a few debates, its strength grows to a point where countervailing modules don’t even bother trying to muster counterarguments. Why would natural selection design things that way, such that the winning module gets stronger and stronger?

Why Buddhism is True, Wright

Imagine someone who lived 20,000 years ago. Imagine that one of his modules (the libido) encouraged him to make sexual advances toward a woman. Another module warns him “maybe you will get rejected and humiliated.” Or, if she already has a mate, “What if her husband tries to kill you?”

If the first module wins, and the libidinous module was right (advances were accepted, sex ensues, and the husband doesn’t know), then the next time there is conflict between the modules, it makes sense to give the benefit of the doubt to the first module.

Bit of the advances had been rebuffed, or roughed up by the husband, then things would be different, the libidinous module will be given less power next time. And the module counseling restraint would gain more power (it was right the last time around).

In the modern environment, this module works different. A module that counsels watching porn can lead to sexual gratification, so this council will carry more weight next time even though porn isn’t enhancing your reproductive prospects (it may have the opposite effect). Or a module advises cocaine snorting and this gives you a boost in self-esteem. 20,000 years ago, this would have been the reward for impressing your peers, and you would have strengthened the module that urged you to repeat that behavior.

In the modern environment, gratification can reinforce behaviors that are different from the kinds of behaviors it was designed to reinforce.

It’s hard to imagine why natural selection would design a “muscle” called “self-discipline” in such a way that a few early failures lead to enduring impotence. But it’s easy to imagine why natural selection would design modules that get stronger with repeated success and why natural selection would use, as its working definition of success, gratification in one sense or another.

Why Buddhism is True, Wright


Judson Brewer created an approach (mindfulness meditation) to overcome addictions. Brewer also did studies that showed that meditation quiets the default mode network. He said the basic idea is to not fight the urge (smoke a cigarette). This is not to say that you follow the urge, but that you don’t try to push the urge out of your mind.

Rather, you follow the same mindfulness technique that you’d apply to other bothersome feelings — anxiety, resentment, melancholy, hatred. You just calmly (or as calmly as possible, under the circumstances) examine the feeling. What part of your body is the urge felt in? What is the texture of the urge? Is it sharp? Dull and heavy? The more you do that, the less the urge seems a part of you; you’ve 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.

Why Buddhism is True, Wright

Their grip on you loosens, and if it loosens enough, it ceases to become a part of you. An acronym (RAIN) is given to describe this technique.

First you Recognize the feeling. Then you Accept the feeling (rather than try to drive it away). Then you Investigate the feeling and its relationship to your body. Finally, the N stands for Nonidentification, or, equivalently, Nonattachment. Which is a nice note to end on, since not being attached to things was the Buddha’s all-purpose prescription for what ails us Brewer described this therapy as being about not “feeding” the urge to smoke. He said, “If you don’t feed a stray cat, it quits coming to your door.”

Why Buddhism is True, Wright

In the cigarette-smoking study Brewer conducted, this technique worked better than an alternative approach recommended by the American Lung Association.

Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.