Summer is when time slows and there are comings and goings, family reunions and outings. It seems that the days are longer, and there is more time, to read, and to just be.
This might be a delusion, but for one, I was able to make some headway in my summer reading: Why Buddhism is True, (WBIT) (2017) by Robert Wright. And I was able to watch a hindi play by Naatak called Rashomon, based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In the Grove.” And listen to a lecture by Joshua Pollock at the Commonwealth Club called The Heartfulness Way: Heart-Based Meditations for Spiritual Transformation. The connections between these surprised me.
Rashomon, the 1950 Akira Kurosawa classic film, had been about multiple, contradictory and self-serving perspectives of a single event. This film had been a bit difficult to watch, with Toshiro Mifune as a bandit who raped a woman and murdered her husband. The adaptation of the Japanese play by theater group Naatak, directed by Savitha Samu, was similarly disturbing in its unflinching depiction of sexual violence. The wife, played by Ekta Brahmakshatriya in the play, was given a far more assertive persona than the simpering Machiko Kyo, the filmic counterpart of 70 years ago. The salience of this story over more than half a century is interesting, and not just from the perspective of the contemporary moment of #metoo.
And that brings me to Robert Wright, and his book WBIT. This exceedingly well researched and thoughtful book is full of references from Buddhist texts, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience research as well as the personal meditative experiences of the author. Our capacity for self-delusion, or at least the inaccuracy of our senses seems to provide a rational within Buddhism for the Rashomon effect.
Wright’s book was very helpful in understanding common Buddhist concepts such as of ‘emptiness’ and ‘not-self,’ of identifying the difference between Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the self, as well as the variants within Buddhism such as Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. The book can help you understand the hedonic treadmill, the nature of dukka (sorrow), and the irresistible allure of a powdered donut. The antidote?
We’ve heard it before. Meditate. Repeat.
Wright argues that Western Buddhism, as the author refers to the more secular version practiced by many Americans, has been sanitized of the more supernatural and disgusting aspects. Rarely, Wright points out, are we encouraged to meditate on the blood, pus, and feces as traditional Buddhism suggests. “What is presented today as a ancient meditative tradition is actually a selective rendering… in some cases carefully manicured.” Wright points out that not all those who identify as Western Buddhists accept reincarnation, for instance. Yet, this secular or science-based perspective comes at a cost, he claims. “Science brought about the disenchantment of the world, draining it of magic.”
A good story needs a villain. In traditional Buddhism, there are hungry ghosts, and the dastardly Mara, the nemesis of the Buddha, perpetually trying to tempt the Buddha by sending beautiful maidens to disturb his meditation. Wright settles on natural selection as the villain; why we have such trouble resisting tribal thinking or a powdered donut. Our intense emotions that have been hardwired into us by evolution, are, in fact, delusions.
“These feelings — anxiety, despair, hatred, greed — … have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without. And if you think you would be better off, imagine how the whole world would be. After all, feelings like despair and hatred and greed can foster wars and atrocities. So if what I’m saying is true — if the basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion — there is value in exposing this delusion to the light.”
Besides a delightful analysis of why the Matrix (1999) is the ultimate Dharma film, Wright raises some provocative questions. Does meditation make you happier? Inasmuch as you realize that your feelings are unreliable guides to your wellbeing, and are fueled by (that enemy!) natural selection, and because meditation affords clarity of vision, the answer is yes. Can meditation cause you to love your children less? Perhaps meditators can love them with less attachment, and love orphans and other people’s children more, he offers. Are all meditators good people? Apparently not. When meditation is twinned with dharma, a number of moral and ethical precepts, a clarity of vision allows for more moral outcomes. But meditators are fallible, and bad behavior can coexist with meditation, as recent accusations of misconduct at Shambhala International attest. (#metoo).
While Wright refers to an Insight (or Vipasana) Meditation retreat, Joshua Pollock follows the path of Raja Yoga, as laid down by Swami Vivekananda. In his talk, he refers to mindfulness meditation as being not about controlling the thoughts, but gently observing them. His discussion of pranahuti, yogic transmission during meditation and reference to direct experience rather than knowledge were especially interesting. You can hear Joshua Pollock’s lecture online.
Wright makes a compelling argument that the world is moving towards a single brain, and that tribalism, with its variants of identification with religion, nation or ideology, is the threat that could eradicate sentient beings from this planet. The entire world would be better served if people would meditate, see our interconnectedness more clearly, and save ourselves from our delusions such as our individual specialness. Oh, and let go of the notion that fulfilling our desires will make us happy.
Feeling rebellious? Go against natural selection.
“Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and… its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important,” claims Wright.
Meditate on that.
Geetika Pathania Jain is the Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. (Or at least she is under that delusion.)