What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t

An author owns a snappy title, and then the snappy title owns the author. Robert Wright, having titled his new book “Why Buddhism Is True,” has to offer a throat-clearing preface and later an apologetic appendix, in order to explain exactly what he means by “Buddhism” and exactly what he means by “true,” while the totality of his book is an investigation into why we think there are “whys” in the world, and whether or not anything really “is.” Wright sets out to provide an unabashedly American answer to all these questions. He thinks that Buddhism is true in the immediate sense that it is helpful and therapeutic, and, by offering insights into our habitual thoughts and cravings, shows us how to fix them. Being Buddhist—that is, simply practicing Vipassana, or “insight” meditation—will make you feel better about being alive, he believes, and he shows how you can and why it does.

Wright’s is a Buddhism almost completely cleansed of supernaturalism. His Buddha is conceived as a wise man and self-help psychologist, not as a divine being—no miraculous birth, no thirty-two distinguishing marks of the godhead (one being a penis sheath), no reincarnation. This is a pragmatic Buddhism, and Wright’s pragmatism, as in his previous books, can touch the edge of philistinism. Nearly all popular books about Buddhism are rich in poetic quotation and arresting aphorisms, those ironic koans that are part of the (Zen) Buddhist décor—tales of monks deciding that it isn’t the wind or the flag that’s waving in the breeze but only their minds. Wright’s book has no poetry or paradox anywhere in it. Since the poetic-comic side of Buddhism is one of its most appealing features, this leaves the book a little short on charm. Yet, if you never feel that Wright is telling you something profound or beautiful, you also never feel that he is telling you something untrue. Direct and unambiguous, tracing his own history in meditation practice—which…

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