Robert Wright’s Buddhism
This weekend I began reading Robert Wright’s new bestseller, Why Buddhism Is True. So far, it’s quite enjoyable, and I’m learning a lot. Wright says in the beginning that his book does not explore the religious and metaphysical claims of Buddhism. Rather, he’s interested in it from a naturalistic point of view. That is, he focuses on Buddhism as an applied philosophy of life, specifically on Buddhist meditation techniques. Wright has been meditating for many years now, and says it has improved his life greatly.
By “true,” Wright means that, in his words, “Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” His approach is not to convert people to Buddhism — it is not clear from the text, at least as far as I have read, that Wright would describe himself as a Buddhist — but rather to share therapeutic insights from Buddhism.
For me, it’s a source of frequent pleasure in reading this book to see how consonant much of Buddhist teaching is with Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This is not true theologically, to be sure, but I find that I keep coming across things in the book, and thinking, “But we have that in Orthodoxy too.”
Wright talks about meditation as a way of becoming aware of ones desires — desires that cause suffering. Desires — feelings — are not a reliable guide to reality, according to Buddhism (on Wright’s account, anyway). Wright talks about why natural selection has set us up to desire certain things in certain ways, but also why fulfilling desire can never satisfy us for more than a brief period. This is especially exacerbated by the modern environment, for reasons Wright explains. Finally, pursuing happiness is one certain way never to achieve it.
All of this is shared with Christianity, at least in theory. As I read the book, I’m also reading it as someone who knows Dante, and who was liberated from his own suffering by reading the Divine Comedy. That’s a book that defines sin, as Augustine does (and as Eastern Christianity does to a great extent) as disordered desire. From what I can see so far, Buddhism is about learning how to separate oneself from one’s desires, and not to be mastered by them.
Again, this is all in Christianity. Wright discusses Buddhist meditation techniques for dealing with these things, and it’s instantly striking to me how much it’s like Orthodox hesychasm, a mystical prayer tradition that has no real counterpart in the Christian West. Wright’s book is helping me to understand better the meaning of a phrase one often hears in Orthodox circles: “Orthodoxy is really an Eastern religion.” What it means is that the texture of Orthodox spirituality has more in common with the mind of the East than the mind of the West. I don’t want to say much more about this now, because I’m still reading the book. But I will say that many of the things Robert Wright found in Buddhism to help him deal with his own struggles I have found in Orthodox Christianity, especially with the Jesus Prayer — and I am eager to share that knowledge with other Christians. There is a wealth of spiritual wisdom — practical things, things that you don’t have to be a monk to do — that can draw you much closer to God, and towards the inner stillness that all of us need, especially in this busy, loud age.
The Orthodox writer and broadcaster Kevin Allen explains here many of the points of commonality between Eastern Christianity and other Eastern religions, and where Eastern Christianity differs. It reminds me of something Kyriacos Markides wrote — I believe in this book — that dissatisfied Westerners who go in search of spiritual depth in contemplative Eastern religions would be startled to learn that there is a similar mystical tradition within Christianity … but it is best articulated in the Christian East.