If the dialogue between Buddhism and American intellectuals like Owen Flanagan is part of a fashionable trend, then it has to be one of the longest lasting fads in history. Henry David Thoreau published the Lotus Sutra in the first issue of The Dial in 1844. William James was absorbing Transcendentalist ideas at the family dinner table, where his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson often held court. Later in life, James’s friend and neighbor was a Scholar of Sanskrit and his friendly rivals on the faculty at Harvard, Josiah Royce and George Santayana, were dabbling in Buddhism. (The Theosophical Society was also “channeling” Buddhism in the 1870s and 1880s, while a kind of proto-New Age occultism was all the rage in the parlors of Boston.) Chicago held a Parliament of World Religions in 1893, bringing Zen Buddhism from Japan and the Theravada tradition from Sri Lanka. Such was the intellectual climate in William James’s America.
Now, almost exactly one century after James’s death, he might be astonished to find that scholars are debating the convergence of relativity theory, quantum mechanics and brain imaging technology with Buddhism’s anti-essentialism, its anti-metaphysical stance, and its denial of what we’d call the substantial (Cartesian) self. If Alan Wallace is right, William James’s work is not only still relevant to this ongoing dialogue, it’s just what the Doctor ordered.
There are a few technical glitches in this video from Oxford. In fact, most of the Q&A portion at the end has audio only. Also, Alan Wallace is not the most prestigious name in the field. However, he’s probably one of the biggest William James fans I’ve ever encountered and he does a pretty good job of explaining the importance of the first-person perspective or direct phenomenological investigations – as opposed to behavioral or neurological studies, which are indirect, third-person investigations. He thinks that all three should be employed in what he calls “a three-dimensional science of the mind”. Wallace also spends some time connecting this approach with various kinds of flourishing, connecting it with ethics and he engages with a list of possible objections to this Jamesian, introspective approach. You’ll quickly notice that Wallace’s lecture is only one of a dozen videos recorded that day in Oxford.
“A general stance of Buddhism is that it is inappropriate to hold a view that is logically inconsistent. This is taboo. But even more taboo than holding a view that is logically inconsistent is holding a view that goes against direct experience.” — The Dali Lama
Image Note: “Introspective” by Bayo.