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Why Buddhism Is True book summary

Why Buddhism Is True book cover

I'll preface my notes by saying that I've gone through a 10 day Vipassana retreat (similar to the author's own experience) where I pretty much spent all of my waking hours just meditating. We would also have evening discourses, where we were given more insight into the Buddhist teachings, and why meditating in this way is so useful as a way to alleviate the "suffering" that is life.

Having already had first hand experience of meditating in this way, as well as listening to the discourses, I already knew a lot of what the author tries to convey in this book. I had also taken Robert Wright's Princeton MOOC on evolutionary psychology and Buddhism about a year ago. I therefore wasn't new to the concepts in this book, and this served more as a reminder of all that I had already learnt in the past.


  • We are the product of natural selection. This includes our brain and how we think.
  • It served us well in the past (we're alive today!) but may not serve our best interests today, in our modern environment (e.g. abundance of easy calories).
  • We don't have control of what we think of as "ourselves". If you think you do, try to stop thinking of a blue cat for 30 seconds - did you succeed?
  • Current theories suggest there is no one control center for our brain - it's made up of a number of modules. The way subconscious thoughts become conscious thoughts are through feelings. These feelings don't necessarily represent or reflect thoughts / actions that are good for us in today's modern world.
  • There may be reason to believe that the more we pander to certain feelings, the stronger these get over time. The opposite may also be true.
  • There's therefore benefits to trying not to react to feelings, and trying to dissociate from them. This allows us to be a 3rd party observer to what's causing these feelings, thus giving us breathing room to decide whether they are stemming from a place that's true and helpful to us.
  • One way of practicing this is through Vipassana meditation.
  • Don't think of enlightenment as a goal in itself, but more as a direction you're heading towards as you practice mindfulness and compassion.

Evolutionary psychology and why we're not designed to be perpetually happy

  • We were “designed” by natural selection to do certain things that helped our ancestors get their genes into the next generation—things like eating, having sex, earning the esteem of other people, and outdoing rivals.

    1. 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 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.
  • 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.

  • Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, has said, “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” What he meant is that if you want to liberate yourself from the parts of the mind that keep you from realizing true happiness, you have to first become aware of them, which can be unpleasant.

Meditation allows us to cultivate distance

  • This is something that can happen again and again via meditation: accepting, even embracing, an unpleasant feeling can give you a critical distance from it that winds up diminishing the unpleasantness.

  • Imagine if our negative feelings, or at least lots of them, turned out to be illusions, and we could dispel them by just contemplating them from a particular vantage point.

What are feelings? Can we trust them?

  • Feelings are designed to encode judgments about things in our environment. Typically these judgments are about whether these things are good or bad for the survival of the organism doing the feeling (or their kin).

  • So we could say that feelings are “true” if the judgments they encode are accurate—if, say, the things they attract the organism to are indeed good for it, or if the things they encourage the organism to avoid are indeed bad for it. We could say feelings are “false” or perhaps “illusory” if they lead the organism astray—if following the feelings leads to things that are bad for the organism.

  • Shouldn’t our feelings direct us toward things that are good for the organism? They should, yes. But here’s the thing: natural selection designed our feelings in a particular environment—an environment with no junk food, an environment in which the sweetest thing available was fruit. But in a modern environment, which features the achievement of culinary science known as “empty calories,” these feelings become “false,” or at least not reliably true; they sometimes tell us something is good when it’s not good for us.

  • This is a reminder that natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.

  • ...our assumption that people give much thought to us one way or the other is often an illusion, as is our unspoken sense that it matters what pretty much everyone we see thinks of us. But these intuitions were less often illusory in the environment of our evolution, and that’s one reason they’re so persistent today. In the environment of our ancestors it wouldn’t have been pointless; in a hunter-gatherer society, you’re pretty much always performing in front of people you’ll see again and whose opinions therefore matter.

  • If you accept the idea that many of our most troublesome feelings are in one sense or another illusions, then meditation can be seen as, among other things, a process of dispelling illusions.

  • We were built by natural selection, and natural selection works to maximize genetic proliferation, period. In addition to not caring about the truth per se, it doesn’t care about our long-term happiness. It will readily delude us about what does and doesn’t bring lasting happiness if that delusion has propelled our ancestors’ genes forward. In fact, natural selection doesn’t even care about our short-term happiness.

  • One thing all feelings have in common is that they were originally “designed” to convince you to follow them. They feel right and true almost by definition. They actively discourage you from viewing them objectively.

Cultivating mindfulness

  • Mindfulness and concentration are such important Buddhist aspirations that each constitutes one of the eight parts of the Eightfold Path that a deeply committed Buddhist is supposed to tread.

  • ...cultivating mindfulness may require first cultivating concentration. That’s why the early part of a mindfulness meditation session typically involves focusing on your breath or on something else.

  • The five “aggregates” that, according to Buddhist philosophy, constitute a human being and that human’s experience are roughly: (1) the physical body (called “form” in this discourse), including such sense organs as 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); and (5) “consciousness,” or awareness—notably, awareness of the contents of the other four aggregates. The Buddha runs down this list and asks 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? Which in turn raises the question: What qualities would you expect self to possess?

  • We could try to link the idea of self to the idea of control... but running through the list, it is not evident that we can control any of the 5 aggregates fully.

  • Remember that feelings are designed by natural selection to represent judgments about things, evaluations of them; natural selection “wants” you to experience things as either good or bad. The Buddha believed that the less you judge things—including the contents of your mind—the more clearly you’ll see them, and the less deluded you’ll be.

  • 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.

Who or what is it that controls our body?

  • The split-brain experiments powerfully demonstrated the capacity of the conscious self to convince itself that it’s calling the shots when it’s not.

  • ...the actual brain machinery that translates incentive into motivation is the same regardless of whether you’re consciously aware of the incentive and consciously experiencing the translation; so maybe the conscious awareness doesn’t really add anything to the process. In other words, maybe it’s not so much “conscious motivation” as “consciousness of motivation.” With or without conscious awareness, the same physical motivational machinery seems to be doing the heavy lifting.

  • If that's the case, why have conscious reasoning at all? From natural selection’s point of view, it’s good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. So whenever your actual motivations aren’t accessible to the part of your brain that communicates with the world, it would make sense for that part of your brain to generate stories about your motivation. Of course, coherence of motivation, though a desirable quality in a friend or collaborator, isn’t by itself decisive. If someone has clear and consistent goals but always fails to reach them, or fails to contribute much to team endeavors, or doesn’t keep promises, he or she won’t be overloaded with friends and collaborators. So you would expect us to tell (and believe) not just coherent stories about ourselves but flattering stories about ourselves.

  • ...kinds of stories we tell about ourselves can also vary across cultures. Along some dimensions, Asians, on average, do less self-inflating than Westerners; along other dimensions—notably “collectivist” virtues, such as loyalty to the group—Asians tend to do more self-inflating than Westerners. Still, the basic pattern of self-inflation holds worldwide, and that’s particularly true when it comes to ethical virtues such as fairness; on average, people think they’re morally above average. This is an especially important piece of self-flattery, because it helps fuel the self-righteousness that starts and sustains conflicts, ranging from quarrels to wars.

  • 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? An increasingly common answer within the field of psychology, especially evolutionary psychology, is that the mind is “modular.” In this view, 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.

  • “Whichever notion you happened to be conscious of at a particular moment is the one that comes bubbling up, the one that becomes dominant,” writes Gazzaniga. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world going on in your brain, with different systems competing to make it to the surface to win the prize of conscious recognition.”

  • “In the end, if it’s true that your brain consists of many, many little modules with various functions, and if only a small number of them are conscious, then there might not be any particular reason to consider some of them to be ‘you’ or ‘really you’ or your ‘self’ or maybe anything else particularly special.”

The mental modules that run us

  • Observing feelings without attachment is the way you keep modules from seizing control of your consciousness.

  • Buddhist thought and modern psychology converge on this point: in human life as it’s ordinarily lived, there is no one self, no conscious CEO, that runs the show; rather, there seem to be a series of selves that take turns running the show—and, in a sense, seizing control of the show. If the way they seize control of the show is through feelings, it stands to reason that one way to change the show is to change the role feelings play in everyday life. I’m not aware of a better way to do that than mindfulness meditation.

How thoughts think themselves

  • Three Buddhist contemplative traditions:

    1. Vipassana, with its emphasis on mindfulness;
    2. Tibetan, which often steers the mind toward visual imagery; and
    3. 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.
  • There are three recurring themes here.

    1. First, these thoughts involve the past and future, not the present; the one thing you’re not doing while having these thoughts is paying attention to what’s actually going on in the real world at this moment.
    2. Second, all of these thoughts involve you. By default, we think mainly self-referential thoughts. This is unsurprising, given that natural selection designed the brain to focus on our interests (at least, our “interests” as natural selection defined them).
    3. Third, most of these thoughts involve other people. This too is unsurprising, given what social animals people are. Indeed, it turns out there’s a fair amount of overlap between the default mode network and what brain scans have identified as the “theory of mind network”—the part of the brain involved in thinking about what other people are thinking.
  • ...modules generate thoughts, and then if those thoughts prove in some sense stronger than the creations of competing modules, they become thought thoughts—that is, they enter consciousness.

  • So one of the ideas behind mindfulness meditation—that gaining a kind of critical distance from your feelings can give you more control over which you is you at any given moment—makes perfect sense in light of the modular model of the mind.

  • The guiding teacher for those two weeks was a psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk named Akincano Marc Weber. One night during a dharma talk, he said, “Every thought has a propellant, and that propellant is emotional.”

Self control

  • Feelings tell us what to think about, and then after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do. Over the history of our evolutionary lineage, thinking has played a larger and larger role in action, but the thinking has always had both its beginning and its end in feelings.

  • Another thing that can happen over evolutionary time is that feelings are assigned to more and more things. As our species became more complexly social, getting food and sex came to depend on navigating a social landscape, which included goals like forging alliances and being held in high esteem. So making friends and earning respect came to feel good, and being rejected came to feel bad. This in turn opened up new avenues of thought: figuring out why a friend turned on you, imagining ways to impress people, and so on. Still, this growing web of feelings and thoughts was a straightforward extension of the basic value system evolution built into us to begin with—a system that prized surviving and getting our genes spread.

  • ...in a modern environment, gratification can reinforce behaviors quite different from the kinds of behaviors it was designed to reinforce. There are two virtues of describing the self-control problem this way—as a module getting stronger and stronger rather than as some all-purpose muscle called “self-discipline” getting weaker and weaker. First, this perspective helps explain why the problem would be so treacherous in the first place. 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.

  • There’s an acronym used to describe this technique: RAIN. 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.

  • In principle, you can describe much of mindfulness meditation this way—as depriving modules of the positive reinforcement that has given them power. Because often when you mindfully observe feelings, you’re keeping the module that generated them from getting some sort of reward.

  • According to Buddhist philosophy, both the problems we call therapeutic and the problems we call spiritual are a product of not seeing things clearly. What’s more, in both cases this failure to see things clearly is in part a product of being misled by feelings. And the first step toward seeing through these feelings is seeing them in the first place—becoming aware of how pervasively and subtly feelings influence our thought and behavior.

The world is formless

  • Whichever term you use, the upshot is that, in the world out there, which seems so solid and so structured, so full of things with a distinct and tangible identity, there is less than meets the eye. This world of apparent forms is in some sense, as the Samadhiraja Sutra has it, a “mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition.” Or, as the Heart Sutra famously and pithily puts it, “Form is emptiness.”

  • Perception is an active, not a passive, process, a process of constantly building models of the world. That’s one reason different people see different things in the abstract ink blots used in Rorschach tests: our minds try to turn even the most ambiguous patterns into something that makes sense. We like to have a story about what things are and what they mean.

  • We build stories on stories on stories, and the problem with the stories begins at their foundation. Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, a tool for examining our stories carefully, from the ground up, so that we can, if we choose, separate truth from fabrication.

It's all about the story we tell ourselves

  • These “experiments” suggest that to see special items as having special essences is to have special feelings about them.

  • Anything that, by natural selection’s lights, is worth paying much attention to at all should, in theory, trigger feelings. And feelings infuse things with essence. At least, that’s my hypothesis—that the dampened sense of essence some meditators feel has a lot to do with dampened feelings.

  • Wine is an especially clear example of how stories inform our pleasures (“That was a very good year”), but Bloom thinks that, if you look closely enough, every pleasure has a consequential story behind it. He once said to me, “There’s no such thing as a simple pleasure. There’s no such thing as a pleasure that’s untainted by your beliefs about what you’re being pleasured by.”

  • Given that our experience of a bottle of wine can be influenced by slapping a fake label on it, you might say that, actually, there is a superficiality to our pleasure, and that a deeper pleasure would come if we could somehow taste the wine itself, unencumbered by beliefs about it that may or may not be true. That is closer to the Buddhist view of the matter.

Natural selection has implanted a false sense of justice in our heads

  • One reason I let myself off the hook is that I understand that the stress caused my bad behavior; it wasn’t the “real me” who did the bad thing. But with other people, I’m less likely to ponder that possibility. That’s what the fundamental attribution error is: I attribute their behavior to disposition, not situation; I locate the badness in them, not in environmental factors. Why would the human mind be designed to ignore or downplay situational factors when sizing people up? Well, for starters, remember that natural selection didn’t design human minds to size people up accurately. It designed human minds to size people up in a way that would lead to interactions that benefited the genes of the humans doing the sizing up.

  • One piece of moral equipment natural selection implanted in our brains is a sense of justice—the intuition that good deeds should be rewarded and bad deeds should be punished. So seeing evildoers suffer can give us the gratifying sense that justice has been done. And, conveniently, it’s our enemies and rivals who typically are guilty of doing bad things; when our friends and allies do them, they are likely just victims of circumstance and so not deserving of harsh punishment.

  • After all, one virtue of mindfulness meditation is that experiencing your feelings with care and clarity, rather than following them reflexively and uncritically, lets you choose which ones to follow—like, say, joy, delight, and love. And this selective engagement with feelings, this weakened obedience to them, can in principle include the feelings that shape the essence we see in things and people.

Everything is one. Enlightenment.

  • When you think about it, it makes sense that tanha (roughly translated to thirst / craving / desire) would be tied to our outer limits no less than to our core. From a Darwinian perspective, tanha was engineered into us so that we would take care of ourselves—which is to say, so that each of us would take care of the vehicle that contains our genes. And that vehicle stops at the skin, at the bounds of the body. It’s only natural, then, that tanha would reinforce a sense of the importance of those bounds, the bounds that define the zone of concern that natural selection assigned to it.

  • How does this experience imply a rejection of natural selection’s values? As we’ve seen, the experience involves a diminished sense of separation between you (or “you”) and the other people and things in the world. In fact, there’s such a sense of continuity between your “inside” and the world on the “outside” that you may start to see harming others as tantamount to harming yourself. In the fullest version of this experience, you start to doubt that there’s any real difference between their interests and yours.

  • The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment—with a capital L and E—on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on a not-so-distant day. Like today! Or, failing that, tomorrow. Or the next day. Or whenever. The main thing is to make net progress over time, inevitable backsliding notwithstanding.

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