Sunday, May 18, 2014

Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice by B. Alan Wallace

B. Alan Wallace is among the foremost practitioner-teachers of Buddhism today. He reports “while brought up in a Christian household, and even though I found great meaning in the teachings of Jesus, some of the church’s doctrines made no sense to me”. (Kindle Locations 71-72). He grew up in California, Scotland, and Switzerland. He started as an undergrad at UC San Diego and then he transferred to Göttingen in West Germany, moving from an ecology major at UCSD to a primary interest in philosophy and religion at Gottingen, where he studied the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism. Then, instead of finishing his degree (great message for the parents, no doubt), in 1971 (I’m just transitioning from high school to college), he heads to Tibet. For the next 13 years he studied and meditated in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in India and Europe, and he came to serve as a translator for the Dalai Lama. After this phase of his life, he returned to academia to complete a degree at Amherst College in physics and philosophy of science. After another meditation retreat, he entered graduate studies in religion at Stanford University. He completed his doctorate, focusing his studies on “the interface between Buddhism and Western science and philosophy”. (B. Alan Wallace website). Since then he has taught, written a number of books for both academic and popular audiences, and he continues to teach meditation. Having read several of his works and now in the midst of listening to podcasts of his meditation retreats, I find him one of the most intriguing, no-nonsense, and persuasive teachers of Buddhism active today. 

This book, his most recent “academic” book (2011), addresses topics important to him. One of the attractive aspects of Buddhism to me and to many others, especially those of us coming from Western traditions, is its radical empiricism and willingness to undergo scrutiny. Wallace scrutinizes the Buddhist tradition, but the main target of his skepticism is Western materialism. Wallace is especially critical of academic psychology for its abandonment of the legacy of William James, who valued and promoted introspection as important source of data about the mind. (Indeed, James is obviously in intellectual hero to Wallace, as well as a great many others—including me.) Instead of following the lead of James, psychology turned to Watson’s behaviorism (no mind, just observable behavior), which was wedded to the ideas of 19th century physics. Wallace is uniquely qualified to challenge the citadel of materialism from his background in physics and philosophy of science combined with his experience in Buddhism. 

While critical of Western materialism (we’re just stuff & consciousness a mere by-product of brain activity), Wallace unabashedly asserts the traditional Buddhist view, which includes an emphasis on mind and consciousness as more than just brain activity and where the paranormal (not magic) exists. Wallace makes these assertions as one who has been on the other side of reality from the majority of Western scientists and philosophers who adhere to the simple materialist paradigm. Wallace also notes the importance of ethical behavior in Buddhism and its effect on our perception of the world. This, too, contrasts markedly with the value-free attitude of Western science. Wallace discusses phenomena like “the placebo effect”, which Western science shunts aside without addressing the implications that physically inert substances can effect with body when combined with the non-physical world of information (even false information). Many in the West know to reject Descartes’s dualism of mind and body, but they attempt to go around it by going all body, no mind. But mind—as in the form of information—is a part of our reality. 

In addition to criticizing the materialists, Wallace also criticizes those who sell “mindfulness” as simply the practice of observing what passes through the mind. This is not Buddhism. Buddhist mindfulness involves mindfulness of right conduct, effort, and livelihood, among other things. It’s not just “whatever”, but an attempt to monitor the contents of the mind. 

All of this simply touches the surface of all that Wallace addresses and argues. His appreciation of the history and enterprise of Western science, Western philosophy and psychology, and traditional Buddhism make him a formidable author. Yet, for all of the depth of his analysis and argument, the book is well written and argued so that it’s easy to follow. In short, he’s an outstanding teacher whom I can’t recommend highly enough (this comes from listening to his podcasts as well). If you want to come into the deep end of the pool, you not find many guides as worthwhile as Wallace.