Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment

From one of America’s greatest minds, a journey through psychology, philosophy, and lots of meditation to show how Buddhism holds the key to moral clarity and enduring happiness.Robert Wright famously explained in The Moral Animal how evolution shaped the human brain. The mind is designed to often delude us, he argued, about ourselves and about the world. And it is designe...

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Title:Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment
Author:Robert Wright
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Edition Language:English

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment Reviews

  • Brian Bergstrom

    This is a truly remarkable, fantastic book. It is one of those rare volumes that will turn your head inside out and leave you seeing the world differently, not because he (or it) is extreme, but because reality is extreme; he is sewing together science and philosophy and offering readers a breathtaking tapestry for their consideration. Briefly, his argument is that our minds are populated by evolved psychological adaptations that were naturally selected for their adaptive utility, NOT for seeing

    This is a truly remarkable, fantastic book. It is one of those rare volumes that will turn your head inside out and leave you seeing the world differently, not because he (or it) is extreme, but because reality is extreme; he is sewing together science and philosophy and offering readers a breathtaking tapestry for their consideration. Briefly, his argument is that our minds are populated by evolved psychological adaptations that were naturally selected for their adaptive utility, NOT for seeing the world objectively. And especially when it comes to our feelings and emotions, our minds often saddle us with perceptual and conceptual distortions that lead to unnecessary suffering. This state of affairs, as revealed by psychological science, aligns well with Buddhist renderings of the human predicament, and (even more remarkably) psychological science is also showing that the Buddhist prescription of mindfulness meditation can indeed help alleviate much of this suffering. Mindfulness meditation works as a kind of cognitive exercise (a kind of mental resistance training), that over time affords us distance from the tumultuous workings of our mind and allows us to see things more clearly (which often drains anxiety and anger of their motivational power) and helps foster our ability to chart where our mind goes next. Not only does mindful distance get us closer to the Truth (or at least further from delusion), but Wright argues that it can also bring us closer to moral truth, enhancing our capacity for responding in idealistically ethical ways.

    And that's just scratching the surface. The deeper details, duly contemplated, will leave readers enchanted (head often spinning, occasionally agitated). Robert Wright has always had a keen ability to integrate disparate ideas in science and philosophy (stepping back to view things in wider perspective than the original scientists whose work he builds upon) and this book is a gem that will not disappoint those who enjoyed his earlier books (e.g. The Moral Animal, Nonzero, The Evolution of God), especially his dry wit, everyday-guy accessibility, pragmatic reasoning, and clear writing.

    As a psychology professor who teaches courses in evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and psychology of religion, I'm in something of a unique position to review the work. Certainly I can say that Wright's command of the subject matter, ranging from evolutionary psychology to abstruse Buddhist philosophy, is excellent. (Experts in those fields will find details to quibble about, of course, but Wright does his homework and--to his credit--modestly concedes that his interpretations are his own best renderings. And they are good renderings.)

    I think everyone should read this wonderful and important book. I worry that many will be put off by the title alone. I worry that those conversant with the subtleties of Buddhist thought will not invest the time and effort to grapple with the subtleties of psychological science and evolutionary biology (and vice versa). It IS a book that, I think, requires more of a cognitive commitment from readers than others. But it will reward all who do. Whether readers come away in general agreement with Wright or not, I don't think it is possible to read the book and come away WITHOUT a better understanding of yourself and a better appreciation what it means to be human. That alone makes it an engine of insight.

    (Thank you to NetGalley for the advance review copy!)

  • Mehrsa

    I've read every book Wright's written and all have been fantastic. This is my favorite. It's the perfect book for the cultural moment we're in. Forget the title--it's misleading. The book is a nice primer on meditation and evolutionary theory with some helpful insights. Basically, our brains are not wired for peace and happiness--only to propel our genes forward. There's a yearning for more programmed into us and the only antidote is mindfulness meditation. I've read a ton of evolutionary theory

    I've read every book Wright's written and all have been fantastic. This is my favorite. It's the perfect book for the cultural moment we're in. Forget the title--it's misleading. The book is a nice primer on meditation and evolutionary theory with some helpful insights. Basically, our brains are not wired for peace and happiness--only to propel our genes forward. There's a yearning for more programmed into us and the only antidote is mindfulness meditation. I've read a ton of evolutionary theory and a bunch of buddhism lite, but this one is exactly the synthesis I've been waiting for (without knowing it). It changed the way I think about meditation and my thoughts and feelings. Read it and pass it along. We all need this book right now or we're going to nuke ourselves off the planet or otherwise destroy it through greed in no time.

  • Shilpi Gowda

    For the first time ever, as soon as I finished this book, I returned to the beginning and began it again.

  • Darwin8u

    ― Philip K. Dick

    For years I've told people I was a Zen Mormon. More as a way to squirm into the edges of LDS cosmology, and less because I was practicing anything really approaching a hybrid of Buddhism and Mormonism. But I've always been attracted to Buddhism, like many Westerners before me. I'm thinking of Herman Hesse, W. Somerset Maugham, Jack Kerouac, and Peter Matthiessen. I've always been attracted to the intersection of cultures, ph

    ― Philip K. Dick

    For years I've told people I was a Zen Mormon. More as a way to squirm into the edges of LDS cosmology, and less because I was practicing anything really approaching a hybrid of Buddhism and Mormonism. But I've always been attracted to Buddhism, like many Westerners before me. I'm thinking of Herman Hesse, W. Somerset Maugham, Jack Kerouac, and Peter Matthiessen. I've always been attracted to the intersection of cultures, philosophies, etc. So, I guess it is natural for me to be attracted (if somewhat lazily) to Western Buddhism, Zen gardens, and the potential of mediation.

    I'm also a big, nerdy fan of Robert Wright. I've read most of his books. It is probably easier to just post the one book of his I haven't read, rather than list the ones I have.* I enjoy Wright's evolution from Evolutionary Psychology to Buddhist writings. I think the premise of Wright's book is mostly correct. There is something that evolution has burdoned us with, that meditation (specifically Mindfulness Meditation) and Buddhism can help us with.

    The books title, I should note here, IS a little off putting. I think Wright almost meant it as a joke (with a hook of truth). It comes across like some Mormon, Southern Baptist or Jehovah's Witness tract; a bit evangelical. But Wright is not just trying to convert the reader (and he's not exactly NOT trying to convert the reader either). He lays out pretty good arguments about how Evolutionary Psychology and behavioral psychology show (lots of caveats, obviously the mind is complex and not everyone agrees with everything) that a lot of our feelings, motives, choices are built on genetic coding which might actually make us unhappy, unhealthy, etc. The Buddhists seemed to have climbed that mountain before us. Wright seems less of a philosophical or religious Buddhist and more of a pragmatic Buddhist. I think his time studying how religion, the mind, behaviors, etc., have evolved over time has also provided him with ample evidence about how these traits that were evolved to help our more primitive selves reproduce, survive, etc., don't always help us in a modern age that includes HR departments, Facebook, politics, etc. Buddhism, Wright would argue, can help untangle some of these evolutionary knots.

    So? What does this book mean for me? Someone who calls himself (mostly in jest) a Zen Mormon who has spent exactly 10 minutes mediating in a half-assed way? Well, I'm thinking of hooking up with a local Buddhist/Meditation group and giving Mindful Mediation a try. I'm pretty chill, but I think mindfulness can only help. I'm also not above exploring truth beyond my own familiar cosmology. When I told my wife and kids of my plan, they did laugh however. My wife suggested meditation might not be easy for me, given my competitive nature.

    : "You can't win at meditation."

    : "Sure you can, isn't enlightenment basically winning?"

    : "Yeah Mom, the Buddha definitely won."

    : "See?"

    My daughter, laughing, said the closest I've come to meditating was my nightly scalding bath, with headphones in my ears, a cold diet Dr. Pepper, and candy. She thinks anything that would help me unplug one or two of my sensory addictions might not be a bad thing. I agree. It is worth a shot.

    * I haven't read

    .

  • Ken

    In book titles, the sub-title after the title is a popular but often unnecessary thing. In this case, it's necessary.

    is very much indeed about

    .

    Especially the science. Or so it struck me, who at times grew impatient with the science aspect. Frankly, I was much more engaged by the Buddhism part of the book--Wright's experiences, chiefly, and his attempts (in Buddhism, there can be nothing but attempts) to explain the

    In book titles, the sub-title after the title is a popular but often unnecessary thing. In this case, it's necessary.

    is very much indeed about

    .

    Especially the science. Or so it struck me, who at times grew impatient with the science aspect. Frankly, I was much more engaged by the Buddhism part of the book--Wright's experiences, chiefly, and his attempts (in Buddhism, there can be nothing but attempts) to explain the religion (which isn't a religion so much as a paradox).

    Speaking of, if you read this book, prepare for the paradoxical. Not even Buddhists can agree on Buddhism--and I mean Buddhists from the same branch (be it Mahayana or Theravada or Zen or whatever other sub-categories there might be... and there might very well be).

    But back to science, is it that important that Buddhism's precepts be "proven" by science or, more sketchily, by psychology (which, like Buddhism, can be pretty paradoxical itself)? Wright seems to think so. He is in argument mode here, out to show that the "weird" parts of Buddhism are a lot less weird than first glance would lead you to believe.

    Me, I'm not worried about such truck when it comes to

    philosophy. But I had no choice but to be here. Meaning: move over Siddhartha. Make room for Darwin. Lots of natural selection, because natural selection works against Buddhism which works against natural selection.

    And lots of talk of modules here, too. Good grief. Modules? Something to do with adopted behaviors. Somewhat like the lecture hall in Psych 101, I dozed a bit but kept hearing the word. Like a mantra, maybe. Om... module.

    Happily, Wright sees Buddhism-style thinking as the only hope for an increasingly hopeless world. He never mentions He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Neither the one in Washington nor the one in Korea, but both could use a healthy dose of meditation and soul-searching, if there be one to search:

    The poisonous tribalism Wright sees Buddhism as an antidote for works not only from an international standpoint but from an

    national one. I mean you, red state and blue state where never the purple shall meet. So here's one science quote I

    like that might apply:

    The answer, of course, is it would change the question entirely, just as Buddhism does.

    Hoo, boy. Giving up feelings is a hard thing to do. Which is why you best get meditating. Another hard thing to do. But look at how far we've come taking the easy way out by ignoring self-awareness and catering to our desires.

    Kind of like the band playing on as the

    took on Atlantic, in its way.

  • Murtaza

    Growing up I always had a problem reading philosophy books, which often seemed to be written in a way that made them deliberately obtuse and inaccessible. For that reason I was really glad when I discovered the writing of Will Durant, an early 20th century writer who became popular for revisiting the arguments of the great philosophers in a clear and unpretentious language. It struck me as a very American thing to do, and I think with this book Robert Wright does much the same thing with Buddhis

    Growing up I always had a problem reading philosophy books, which often seemed to be written in a way that made them deliberately obtuse and inaccessible. For that reason I was really glad when I discovered the writing of Will Durant, an early 20th century writer who became popular for revisiting the arguments of the great philosophers in a clear and unpretentious language. It struck me as a very American thing to do, and I think with this book Robert Wright does much the same thing with Buddhist philosophy.

    The book traces through the core teachings of Buddhism and how they relate to evolutionary biology, which is Wright's area of expertise. Many of our ingrained yet seemingly irrational social behaviors (i.e. flying into a rage while driving, gorging on sweets past the point of hunger) are evolutionary remnants from the time we lived as hunter-gatherers or in small tribes. While once useful these behaviors and feelings are not actually good for us today living in a modern society, nor are they good for what evolutionary biology gears us towards: protecting and spreading our own genes. Since feelings are in some sense a means of getting us to do what's good for us, these behaviors and emotions could be said to correspond to what Buddhists call "false" feelings. This was an interesting hypothesis and is clearly a product of Wright's own expertise in this field.

    Much of the book also deals with Wright's own journey as a Buddhist, and he provides many helpful tips about both meditation and mindfulness. Among these are:

    1) Consciously recognizing that your mind is wandering during meditation is actually a good thing, because it shows that you aware of the moment, which is the first step towards mindfulness.

    2) Rather than you creating them, "thoughts think themselves" in your mind. They try to draw you into embracing them, but you are neither their slave or master. Once you become aware of that, it is easier to dismiss the ones you don't want or that are harmful to you. For example: frivolous thoughts during meditation or anxious ones when you have no reason to be unhappy.

    3) Accepting and analyzing your feelings or temptations about something are a means of truly "owning" them and then deciding whether you want to accept them or not (again, you don't have to).

    4) Declining to satisfy your temptations is a means of reducing their hold over you in the long term, as it gradually weakens the temptation-reward circuit in your brain.

    Wright also briefly discusses some of the more blissful and you could say "supernatural" experiences that he has had while on the Buddhist path. Like writing about how a piece of cake tastes to someone who has never eaten one, this is a difficult thing to do and in a sense it is not really possible to convey in text to someone a thing that they just have to experience. He seems to be aware of this and the book is written in full humility about the limitations of text. It was interesting to me to contrast some of the teachings of Sufism, which I'm more familiar with, with the ideas that animate Buddhist meditation. While there are areas of crossover and perhaps the ending point is similar, I think that they are genuinely different paths.

    All in all this was a rewarding book and the product of a deeply humane and thoughtful mind.

  • Roy Lotz

    A far more accurate title for this book would be

    . For as Wright—who does not consider himself a Buddhist—admits, he is not really here to talk about any form of traditional Buddhism. He does not even present a strictly “orthodox” view of any secular, Western variety of Buddhism. Instead, this is a rather selective interpretation of some Buddhist doctrines in the light of evolutionary psychology.

    Wright’s essential message is that the evolutionary process that sh

    A far more accurate title for this book would be

    . For as Wright—who does not consider himself a Buddhist—admits, he is not really here to talk about any form of traditional Buddhism. He does not even present a strictly “orthodox” view of any secular, Western variety of Buddhism. Instead, this is a rather selective interpretation of some Buddhist doctrines in the light of evolutionary psychology.

    Wright’s essential message is that the evolutionary process that shaped the human brain did not adequately program us for life in the modern world; and that mindfulness meditation can help to correct this bad programming.

    The first of these claims is fairly uncontroversial. To give an obvious example, our love of salt, beneficial when sodium was hard to come by in natural products, has become maladaptive in the modern world where salt is cheap and plentiful. Our emotions, too, can misfire nowadays. Caring deeply that people have a high opinion of you makes sense when you are, say, living in a small village full of people you know and interact with daily; but it makes little sense when you are surrounded by strangers on a bus.

    This mismatch between our emotional setup and the newly complex social world is one reason for rampant stress and anxiety. Something like a job interview—trying to impress a perfect stranger to earn a livelihood—simply didn’t exist for our ancestors. This can also explain tribalism, which Wright sees as the most pressing danger of the modern world. It makes evolutionary sense to care deeply for oneself and one’s kin, with some close friends thrown in; and those who fall outside of this circle should, following evolutionary logic, be treated with suspicion—which explains why humans are so prone to dividing themselves into mutually antagonistic groups.

    But how can mindfulness meditation help? Most obviously, it is a practice designed to give us some distance from our emotions. This is done by separating the feeling from its narrative. In daily life, for example, anger is never experienced “purely"; we always get angry

    something; and the thought of this event is a huge component of its experience. But the meditator does her best to focus on the feeling itself, to examine its manifestation in her body and brain, while letting go of the corresponding narrative. Stripped of the provoking incident, the feeling itself ceases to be provocative; and the anger may even disappear completely.

    Explained in this way, mindfulness meditation is the mirror image of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In CBT the anger is attacked from the opposite side: by focusing on the narrative and subjecting it to logical criticism. In my experience, at least, the things one tells oneself while angry rarely stand up to cool analysis. And when one ceases to believe in the thought, the feeling disappears. The efficacy of both mindfulness meditation and CBT, then, is based on the interdependence of feeling and thought. If separated—either by focusing on the feeling during meditation, or the thought through analysis—the emotion disappears.

    This, in a nutshell, is how mindfulness meditation can be therapeutic. But Wright wants to make a far more grandiose claim: that mindfulness meditation can reveal truths about the nature of mind, the world, and morality.

    One of the central ideas of Buddhism is that of “emptiness”: that the enlightened meditator sees the world as empty of essential form. The first time I encountered this idea in a Buddhist text it made no sense to me; but Wright gives it an intriguing interpretation. Our brain, designed to survive, naturally assigns value to things in our environment based on how useful or harmful they are to us. These evaluations are, according to Wright’s theory, experienced as emotional reactions. I have quite warm and fuzzy feelings about my laptop, for example; and even the communal computers where I work evoke in me a comforting sense of familiarity and utility.

    These emotions, which are sometimes very tiny indeed, are what give experiential reality a sense of essence. The emotions, in other words, help us to quickly identify and use objects: I don’t have to closely examine the computers, for example, since the emotion brings their instrumental qualities quickly to my attention. The advantages of this are obvious to anyone in a hurry. Likewise, this emotional registering is equally advantageous in avoiding danger, since taking time to ponder a rattlesnake isn’t advisable.

    But the downside is that we can look at the world quite narrowly, ignoring the sensuous qualities of objects in favor of an instrumental view. Visual art actively works against this tendency, I think, by creating images that thwart our normal registering system, thus prompting us into a sensuous examination of the work. Good paintings make us into children again, exploring the world without worrying about making use of things. Mindfulness meditation is supposed to engender this same attitude, not just with regards to a painting, but to everything. Stripped of these identifying emotional reactions, the world might indeed seem “empty”—empty of distinctions, though full of rich sensation.

    With objects, it is hard to see why this state of emptiness would be very desirable. (Also it should be said that this idea of micro-emotions serving as registers of essential distinctions is Wright’s interpretation of the psychological data, and is rather speculative.) But with regards to humans, this mindset might have its advantages. Instead of attributing essential qualities of good and bad to somebody we might see that their behavior can vary quite a bit depending on circumstances, and this can make us less judgmental and more forgiving.

    Wright also has a go at the traditional Buddhist idea that the self is a delusion. According to what we know about the brain, he says, there is no executive seat of consciousness. He cites the famous split-brain experiments, and others like it, to argue that consciousness is not the powerful decision-maker we once assumed, but is more like a publicity agent: making our actions seem more cogent to others.

    This is necessary because, underneath the apparent unity of conscious experience, there are several domain-specific “modules”—such as for sexual jealousy, romantic wooing, and so on—that fight amongst themselves in the brain for power and attention. Each module governs our behavior in different ways; and environmental stimuli determine which module is in control. Our consciousness gives a sense of continuity and coherence to this shifting control, which makes us look better in the eyes of our peers—or that’s how the theory goes, which Wright says is well-supported.

    In any case, the upshot of this theory still would not be that the self doesn’t exist; only that the self is more fragmented and less executive than we once supposed. Unfortunately, the book steeply declines in quality in the last few chapters—where Wright tackles the most mystical propositions of Buddhism—when the final stage of the no-self argument is given. This leads him into the following speculations:

    If our thoughts are generated by a variety of modules, which use emotion to get our attention; and if we can learn to dissociate ourselves from these emotions and see the world as “empty”; if, in short, we can reach a certain level of detachment from our thoughts and emotions: then, perhaps, we can see sensations arising in our body as equivalent to sensations arising from without. And maybe, too, this state of detachment will allow us to experience other people’s emotions as equivalent to our own, like how we feel pain from seeing a loved one in pain. In this case, can we not be said to have seen the true oneness of reality and the corresponding unreality of personal identity?

    These lofty considerations aside, when I am struck by a car they better not take the driver to the emergency room; and when Robert Wright gets a book deal he would be upset if they gave me the money. My point is that this experience of oneness in no way undermines the reality of distinct personal identity, without which we could hardly go a day. And this state of perfect detachment is arguably, contra Wright, a far less realistic way of seeing things, since being genuinely unconcerned as to whom a pain belonged, for example, would make us unable to help. (Also in this way, contra Wright, it would make us obviously less moral.)

    More generally, I think Wright is wrong in insisting that meditation can help us to experience reality more “truly.” Admittedly, I know from experience that meditation can be a great aid to introspection and can allow us to deal with our emotions more effectively. But the notion that a meditative experience can allow us to see a metaphysical truth—the unreality of self or the oneness of the cosmos—I reject completely. An essentially private experience cannot confirm or deny anything, as Wright himself says earlier on.

    I also reject Wright’s claim that meditation can help us to see moral reality more clearly. By this he means that the detachment engendered by meditation can allow us to see every person as equally valuable rather than selfishly considering one’s own desires more important.

    Now, I do not doubt that meditation can make people calmer and even nicer. But detachment does not lead logically to any moral clarity. Detachment is just that—detachment, which means unconcern; and morality is impossible without concern. Indeed, it seems to me that an enlightened person would be even less likely to improve the world, since they can accept any situation with perfect equanimity. Granted, if everyone were perfectly enlightened there would be no reason to improve anything—but I believe the expression about hell freezing over applies here.

    Aside from the intellectual weakness of these later chapters, full as they are of vague hand-waving, the book has other flaws. I often got the sense that Wright was presenting the psychological evidence very selectively, emphasizing the studies and theories that accorded with his interpretations of Buddhism, without taking nearly enough time to give the contrasting views. On the other hand, he interprets the Buddhist doctrines quite freely—so in the end, when he says that modern science is confirming Buddhism, I wonder what is confirming what, exactly. And the writing, while usually quite clear, was too hokey and jokey for me.

    Last, I found his framing of meditation as a way to save humanity from destructive tribalism as both naïve and misguided. In brief, I think that we ought to try to create a society in which the selfish interests of the greatest number of people are aligned. Selfish attachment, while potentially narrow, need not be if these selves are in enmeshed in mutually beneficial relationships; and some amount of attachment, with its concomitant dissatisfactions, seems necessary for people to exert great effort in improving their station and thus changing our world.

    Encouraging people to become selflessly detached, on the other hand, besides being unrealistic, also strikes me as generally undesirable. For all the suffering caused by attachment—of which I am well aware—I am not convinced that life is better without it. As Orwell said:

  • Indran Fernando

    Even if this book has its occasional thought-provoking moment, my overwhelming reaction is shock at how fluffy and slipshod the writing is. It seems as if Wright submitted a rough draft to make some quick cash. (Why waste time on an editor--just throw a goldfish on the cover and wait for the Whole-Foods-goers to take out their mandala-adorned hemp wallets.) A promising book was undermined by the author's unwillingness to do research or teach himself about Buddhism or anthropology.

    Instead, he oft

    Even if this book has its occasional thought-provoking moment, my overwhelming reaction is shock at how fluffy and slipshod the writing is. It seems as if Wright submitted a rough draft to make some quick cash. (Why waste time on an editor--just throw a goldfish on the cover and wait for the Whole-Foods-goers to take out their mandala-adorned hemp wallets.) A promising book was undermined by the author's unwillingness to do research or teach himself about Buddhism or anthropology.

    Instead, he often takes the easy route by focusing on his own personality, his own anxieties & insecurities. This might have been okay if he had come across as a more likable person, but I felt trapped in a room with an uptight, narcissistic, falsely-modest bloviator. I'm glad to finally be liberated.

  • Toto

    Neither scientific, nor philosophical, nor in fact, enlightened, this book is the perfect example of facile thinking.

    You will say, I won't deal with the "supernatural" part of a religion, god, reincarnation and karma etc., but will riff only about what you like: mindfulness practice that helped you out of your southern baptist metaphysical prejudices;

    You will not question one iota of the theory of evolutionary psychology, or darwinism in general and claim that the buddhism you prefer is consist

    Neither scientific, nor philosophical, nor in fact, enlightened, this book is the perfect example of facile thinking.

    You will say, I won't deal with the "supernatural" part of a religion, god, reincarnation and karma etc., but will riff only about what you like: mindfulness practice that helped you out of your southern baptist metaphysical prejudices;

    You will not question one iota of the theory of evolutionary psychology, or darwinism in general and claim that the buddhism you prefer is consistent with darwinist natural selection, therefore (!) must be true;

    You will not engage with neuroscience or biology;

    You will not engage with cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims at the same goal but approaches it from a different angle, namely loosen the grip of feelings on behaviour;

    You will explain Hume and his theory of self in one paragraph;

    You will have endless silly examples of sugar covered donuts for quick and unhelpful examples of bad choices etc.;

    But you will publish this book with a straight face and probably go on talk circuits and make money off motivational buddhism. Wow! I like this buddhism a lot; it is SO easy. Count me in.

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