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Spectrum » Books

Posted at: May 20, 2018, 2:09 AM; last updated: May 20, 2018, 2:09 AM (IST)

Basics of Buddhism explained

B L Chakoo

True is a tricky word, and asserting the truth of anything, including deep ideas in philosophy or psychology, is a tricky business. In fact, one big lesson from Buddhism is to be suspicious of the intuition that an ordinary way of perceiving the world brings the truth about it. Some early Buddhist writings even raise doubts about whether such a thing as ‘truth’ ultimately exists. On the other hand, the Buddha, in his most famous sermon, lays out what are commonly called ‘The Four Noble Truths’, so it’s not as if the word true has no place in discussions of Buddhist thought.

This is what Robert Wright writes at the very beginning of this exhilarating book. Wright has taught in the psychology department, University of Pennsylvania, and religion department, Princeton University, where he also created the popular online course ‘Buddhism and Modern Psychology’. Skeptical, Wright tries to proceed with ‘appropriate humility’ as he makes his argument that Buddhism’s ‘diagnosis of the human predicament’ is fundamentally true and correct, and that its prescription is valid and important.

Beautifully written and persuasively argued, Why Buddhism is True is the most accessible book on some of Buddhism’s extraordinary, even radical, claims. It details Wright’s straightforward, scientific interpretations of the fundamentals, found across the major Buddhist traditions, even if ‘they get different degrees of emphasis, and may assume somewhat different form, in different traditions.’ Steeped in evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience, Wright bridges in this captivating study the philosophical subtleties of Buddhism and brain science with ease.

A groundbreaking synthesis of the science of Buddhism, the book presents fascinating and lucid explanations of dukkha (commonly translated as ‘suffering’ or as ‘unsatisfactoriness’); anatta (non-existence of one’s self), the impermanence of the things we think of ‘as parts of the self’, and enlightenment that in the Buddhist sense has something in common with ‘enlightenment in the Western scientific world’. In fact, these explanations can let you experience your own feelings — love, anger, pain, sorrow, happiness or pleasure — with new sensitivity.

The book draws upon the latest research to show how to stimulate and strengthen your brain through meditative practices for more fulfilling relationships, a genuine spiritual life, and a greater sense of ‘inner confidence and worth’. This incisive book also investigates the American ‘obsession’ with the Buddha’s brain. His brain has become more than a philosophical and mysterious organ, acquiring a near-neuroscientific status.

Powerful, eloquent, spiritual and scientific, this book takes the understanding of Buddhism, Buddhist meditation and neuro-psychology to a new level. First five chapters — Taking the Red Pill, Paradoxes of Meditation, When are Feelings Illusions? Bliss, Ecstasy, and More Important Reasons to Meditate, and The Alleged Nonexistence of your Life — elucidate the power of Buddha’s mind and delineate complex concepts at the boundaries of current inquiry into the nature of Buddhism, its acquisition and use, its evolution. The three chapters, Mental Modules that Run your Life, Self Control and Encounters with the Formless, that follow are quite interesting and unique. Packed with personal anecdotes, private revelations and academic intelligence, these chapters, however, may not sit well with the book’s idea of scientific method in understanding Buddhist radical world-view and moral clarity.

The concluding chapters — The Upside of Emptiness, Nirvana in a Nutshell, Is Enlightenment Enlightening? and Meditation and the Unseen — shed new light on complicated ancient and multi-dimensional concepts as emptiness, nirvana, morality and free will while also offering the fullest picture yet of the origins of Buddhist meditation and xenophobia and true peace. These invite us to zoom in on the Buddhist approach which is to ‘maintaining equanimity, to preserving a sense of calm and well being [which] involves transcending both your natural aversion to unpleasant things and your natural desire for pleasant things’.

In brief, the book is a leading evolutionary psychologist’s visionary journey, a creative and compelling exploration of the Buddha’s mind. It offers you an insightful analysis of the impact of the Buddha’s brain on our contemporary understanding of identity, subjectivity, thoughts that bubble into consciousness, natural selection and optical delusion.

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