Robert White

‘Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness…
After all, feelings are the original motivators. Good and bad feelings are what natural selection used to goad animals into, respectively, approaching things or avoiding things, acquiring things or rejecting things; good feelings were assigned to things like eating and bad feelings to things like being eaten.’ (Why Buddhism Is True)

I was given this book to read, by a practitioner who had read the first chapter and then lost interest in it. Having read both the New Yorker review of the book (which, as the dharma friend I discussed it with and I agreed, seemed to miss so many points), and a (more palatable) rebuttal by the author in the New York TimesI was somewhat curious to read that actual book itself.
And… I found it to be a great exposition on evolutionary psychology, and how that has caused the brain to function in the way that it does, to our benefit and detriment. Alongside this, there is a good sense of how a meditation practice – Vipassana in the case of the author – can work to make ourselves aware of these mental formations and to sidestep or mitigate the less beneficial effects of them.
I can’t say that I enjoyed it much as a manual on Buddhism. There were many times I felt the author got stuck in words, mental constructs and definitions, and found myself wincing at how he characterised ‘illusion’, ‘essence’ and ’emptiness’, and talked of ‘disowning’ or ‘separating’ ourselves from our feelings, as if they were something we could put outside ourselves, when he was encouraging establishing a critical perspective on them. Even speaking of the ‘non-self’ seemed to be mired in intellectual exercise, while all the while pointing to the need for an experiential understanding rather than a mental one.
A typical frustration for me, as Wright discussed Buddha’s various pronouncements on ‘non-self’, was reading a quote from a modern-day Western scholar, introduced to propose a theory of the self, followed by Wright’s line, “Who knows, maybe that was the Buddha’s view of the matter. Maybe he wasn’t really trying to articulate a doctrine, but rather to draw you down a path.” Wright seems to be in thrall to current ‘skilled meditators’, and uses them as a lens to examine the potential inconsistencies of Buddhism as a philosophy, while trying to maintain the stance of an ordinary scientific kind of guy who happens to have noticed some benefits from his years of retreat practice.

I suspect I am not really the target demographic for the book, in that I am not very interested in what scholars have to say about Buddhism. I am certainly interested in how the latest science supports the truth of what Buddha awoke to, and my experience of practice has led me to trust most the accounts of those, in the past, and the present, whose experience has pointed them to the fundamental truth of things.

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