Likely Stories: Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright

Mar 8, 2018

Interesting, informative marriage of Buddhism and psychology.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

My interest in Buddhism dates back a couple of decades before my graduate studies, which included a wide-ranging look at Buddhist imagery in James Joyce.  I find much of Psychologist Robert Wright’s survey in Why Buddhism is True stimulating and endlessly fascinating. 

In the “Note to Readers,” he concisely separates several areas of inquiry into five neat packages.  He first says, “I’m not talking about the ‘Supernatural’ or more exactly metaphysical parts of Buddhism—reincarnation, for example, but rather the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy”; second, “there’s no one Buddhism, but rather various Buddhist traditions, which differ on all kinds of doctrines”; third “I’m not getting into super-fine-grained parts of Buddhist psychology and philosophy;” fourth, “‘true’ is a tricky word;” and fifth and finally, “Asserting the validity of core Buddhist ideas doesn’t necessarily say anything, one way or the other, about spiritual or philosophical traditions” (xi-xii).  This two-page note shows this marriage of Buddhism and psychology is precisely the book I have been seeking for a long time.

I have so many annotations and marginalia it will be difficult to sort out some of the core ideas Wright addresses.  Here is a timely example.  Robert writes, “Technologies of distraction have made attention deficits more common.  And there’s something about the modern environment—something technological or cultural, or political or all of the above—that seems conducive to harsh judgment and ready rage.  Just look at the tribalism—the discord and even open conflict along religious, ethnic, national, and ideological lines.  More and more, it seems groups of people define their identity in terms of sharp opposition to other groups of people” (18).

Wright attended a week-long meditation camp to sharpen his core ideas of meditation.  He writes, “focusing on your breath isn’t just to focus on your breath.  It’s to stabilize your mind, to free it of its normal preoccupations so you can observe things that are happening in a clear, unhurried, less reactive way” (20).  By “things that are happening”,” he means feelings inside your mind, such as sadness, anxiety, joy and so forth. 

Wright talks about feelings extensively.  He asks the reader, “Have you ever been visited by the fear that something you said to someone had offended her?  And has this person ever been someone you weren’t going to see for a while?  And has it been the case that you didn’t know her very well, it would have been awkward to call her or to send an email to make sure you hadn’t offended or to clarify that no offense was meant?  That feeling itself […] is perfectly natural” (34).  Shortly after reading this chapter, I bumped into an old friend I had not seen for decades.  As we talked over coffee, I toyed with the idea of apologizing for an unfortunate remark long ago.  I decided to mention the incident, but she had entirely forgotten all about it.  She said with a laugh, “We were kids!  It is inconsequential.  Forget about it.”  The relief I experienced was wonderful.

Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True is an amazing journey into mind and experiences.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!