I should say as a preface that one of the things I need to work on is my tendency to be snarky about things that may be exactly what someone else needs, but that just don't appeal to me where I am right now. Having said that, I expect that there will still be some snark below, but be assured that prior drafts were much worse.
My main criticism of this book is that, in the service of making the case that Buddhism (or a subset of it) is compatible with science (or a subset of it), the book presents superficial, and in some cases misleading, pictures of both.
Also the author drops a lot of names, which always annoys me. :)
If you haven't read the book yet, and are curious about Buddhism or doubtful that it could be true, I certainly wouldn't discourage you from reading it! And you might want to read it first, and then come back and read this after, so that my problems with it don't color your own reading of it.
Now, onward to the content!
Here is a sentence that captures in extremely compact form some of the things that I would critique in this book:
"From the perspective that Einstein considered the truest perspective—the point of view from no particular point—feelings don’t even exist, and so essence doesn’t either."
Pretty much everything here is questionable.
It rests on the notion that Einstein's physics is based on some "point of view from no particular point"; but this is exactly backwards. The theory of Relativity came out of considering what it would be like if every measurement were seen as relative to its particular reference frame (point of view), and all reference frames were basically equal; there is no special Absolute, no "from no particular point", no "truest perspective".
Even if Einstein's physics had included some "view from no particular point", I think we know enough about Einstein the person, to be confident that he would never have thought that in "the truest perspective", "feelings don't exist". Because feelings obviously do exist, and any perspective that says that they don't, is wrong, and therefore not "truest".
Feelings may be helpful or unhelpful, rational or otherwise, and so on; but they certainly exist.
I found the treatment of "feelings" in the book to be problematic in general. In places they are rather casually identified with the Buddhist categories of clinging and aversion and attachment, but to my mind that is a mistake. Certainly some feelings are feelings of aversion or attachment, but others are just feelings; the cool of water, the joy at beauty, normal hunger and thirst, and those can exist just fine without our clinging to them, or to their absence.
The book's argument moves from noting that our feelings aren't always reliable guides to right behavior (which is perfectly reasonable), and that Buddhism counsels not clinging to them or fleeing from them but just letting them be (also fine) to suggesting that feelings don't actually exist, and that people further along the Buddhist path will have fewer of them.
That last thing, I think, is confused in an important way. Elsewhere in the book, the author devotes a longish section to the worry that if Buddhist practice causes people to have fewer feelings, they will do less to help make the world a better place. We get somewhat wince-inducing sentences like
"If full-on enlightenment means you quit making value judgments of any kind and quit pushing for change, then count me out."
to which (and I'm guessing it's because early readers expressed concerns about that sentence) is attached a long footnote about how other people have worried about this, too, and after all
"[T]here are people who follow the Buddhist path pretty far, and become happier people, with more equanimity than they had before—and this equanimity does indeed diminish their passion for making the world a better place."
(Are there, really? People who were doing good in the world, took up a Buddhist practice, and stopped doing as much good? I'd have to see some evidence for that; if true, I'd say they were Doing It Wrong. On the other hand, if they did more good in the world, but just didn't have as much "passion", how is that a problem?)
He concludes that, oh well, most people aren't advanced enough in Buddhism to have become sessile nihilists, and the few that have at least aren't out there making things worse, so maybe it's okay.
Which seems like small comfort indeed!
The answer to this concern seems very simple to me, and given the author's friends and credentials, it seems odd to me that he doesn't mention it. Maybe I'm wrong, but...
Zen masters in stories are always saying things like "Chop wood, carry water", and "When hungry eat; when tired, sleep". No master ever says "Because I do not feel aversion for hunger, I do not eat; because I do not cling to cooking, I do not chop the wood."
The author appears in places to be claiming that the only reason for doing anything is that we have an aversion to the way that things are now, and we cling to the idea of them being different, and so we take an action to make a change.
But the point of all these stories is that that isn't it. I eat when I am hungry because that is the thing I do when I am hungry, not because I think or feel "oh, no, I am hungry again, I'd better eat!". The monk chops the wood so the fire can be made and the dinner cooked, not because they cling to and identify with and obsess about the shape of the wood, or the making of the fire. It is just the thing that needs to be done.
We work to save all sentient beings because that is the thing that we do; we work to feed the hungry because that is what we do when people are hungry, just like we eat to feed ourselves when we are hungry. It's not because we cling to not-hunger, or because we feel aversion for hunger; it's just because it's what one does naturally.
Someone far along the Buddhist path will not be burdened with aversion and clinging, and that can mean that they will be more, not less, effective in making the world a better place.
In the inner rather than the outer world, the author notes that having fewer bad feelings is good, but we don't want to have fewer good feelings! And that in fact meditation seems to help him enjoy the beauty of nature, while letting him be grouchy less, so maybe it somehow reduces bad feelings more than good.
Here, too, I think the answer is that meditation and Buddhist practice aren't about reducing "feelings" per se, at all; they are about reducing clinging to feelings (and to everything else).
Reducing clinging helps with appreciating good feelings like beauty, because it quiets that voice that is bemoaning in advance the fact that the beauty is fleeting, and vainly wishing it would stay longer. And it helps in dealing with bad feelings because it helps us stay at just "owch", rather than "owch that hurts, argh why won't it stop, I hate pain, what if it hurts forever!?!?".
Okay, so that's that. :) Then there's the "and so essence doesn't either" part.
The book spends quite a lot of time on "essence". The idea is that one of the main ways that our senses (or our minds) fool us, is that we "see essence" in all sorts of things. It's not obvious to me just what this is referring to, and there's a footnote that acknowledges the obscurity in a way, by explaining that the meaning of "essence" in the book doesn't correspond completely to how either psychologists or Western philosophers use the term, but instead is "focusing more on people's 'sense' of essence" (where "sense" is both in quotation marks, and in italics), "-- a sense that may be highly implicit". He refers to "seeing essence-of-wonderful-daughter" when he looks at his daughters (and worries, as above, that attaining enlightenment might mean not seeing that anymore).
Now I myself have a wonderful daughter, and a wonderful son, but when I look at them I don't see some abstract concept involving essence-of-something; I just see them. And they are wonderful!
My impression is that the author's bringing up this notion of "essence", as a sort of pre-Renaissance Luminiferous Aether, lets him more easily make sense of the various Buddhist claims about emptiness, about things not really existing, or not really being what we think we are. By first saying that we see Essence in everything, he can interpret those statements as saying that things are empty of Essence, and that they aren't what we think we are because they don't contain Essence, and so on.
And this is very plausible, since Essence isn't a thing at all, so if Buddhism says that things have no Essence, it's true!
Unfortunately (or fortunately), I don't think it's that easy. It's not just that a chair doesn't "contain essence-of-chair"; it's that what we call a chair isn't really a thing at all, in the way we tend to assume. "Chair" is just a convenient label that we use. There's some heavy stuff here, both in the Diamond Sutra's constant repetition of phrases like that, and in the modern physics sense that the only underlying "real thing" is the Universal Wave Equation, and everything else is just convenient but inaccurate shorthands. See also Wittgenstein on language as pragmatically-useful symbols that we make at each other, rather than some magical "correspondence to reality".
And in the more human realm, if I look at someone and think "oh, there is that mean guy", just realizing "oh, the mean guy doesn't contain essence-of-mean-guy!" isn't going to help me as much as realizing "oh, that's just a person like me, who is sometimes mean; like me!".
It's possible, of course, that all this is exactly what the author means by "essence", and I'm just finding the abstraction to be unhelpful and distracting in getting there; maybe someone else will find it helpful.
The same general concern applies to "the modular model of the mind", which the author discusses at some length. It's a moderately interesting model itself, but it's just a model rather than a theory, in that it gives us metaphors and ways of thinking about the mind, but doesn't really make any predictions.
It's in the book here because one thing it proposes is that we think of the mind, not as a single unified thing, but as set of "modules" that have different goals and roles. It's subtler than, but I have the impression similar to, Freud's ego, id, and superego; and very reminiscent of Minsky's Society of Mind.
The author connects this not-unified model of the mind, to the Buddhist idea of not-self, the notion that the self, as a unified self-originating ongoing entity, doesn't exist. The suggestion is that this is compatible with science, because science also says at least that the mind isn't unified, because modular model.
But again I don't think this quite works. The Buddhist teaching isn't just that the mind isn't unified. The mind doesn't exist as a set of distinct "modular" self-originating ongoing entities, either. Exactly what the Buddhist teaching of not-self means, and how it relates to subjective consciousness (my own favorite quandary) is a deep mystery, and just "it's like there are a bunch of different modules" doesn't really seem germane.
And in fact his fondness for the module theory seems to get in the way of the author's understanding; here as in some other places in the book, he is like the visitor who gets a lap full of tea because his cup is too full for any more to go in:
'In fact, the modular model of the mind has led me to attribute less agency to thoughts than some meditation teachers do. Though these teachers are inclined to say that “thoughts think themselves,” strictly speaking, I’d say modules think thoughts. Or rather, modules generate thoughts, and then if those thoughts prove in some sense stronger than the creations of competing modules, they become thought thoughts—that is, they enter consciousness.'
He can of course think that if he wants to, but from the point of view of Buddhist work, it seems like a step backwards: now rather than just realizing that the mind is empty, he's going to have to realize that all of these modules he's convinced himself of, and the metaphorical competition between them, are empty also. Better to have skipped the module stuff altogether, I tend to think.
I don't mean to say here that the book is all wrong, or bad. The basic point, that both Buddhism and science tell us that our feelings and thoughts and reactions to things aren't always correct or optimal, and that there are things we can do to improve them, is a good one. But I found the specifics a bit off, not really accurate readings of either the Buddhism or the science, and because of that not especially compelling.
So probably it's good that I pretty much already agreed with the basic conclusion. :)