Wallace sees common ground between Buddhist introspection and Western science

Alan Wallace, one of the preeminent Western scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, stressed the importance of introspection as a mode of academic inquiry in the first annual Mary Interlandi ’05 Lecture on Contemplative Studies on Monday night.

Wallace’s lecture, “Observing the Mind: A Buddhist Approach to Exploring Consciousness,” focused on the interface between traditional Buddhist methods of introspection and conceptions of the mind, and the modern Western scientific approach to neuroscience and physics.

This unique interdisciplinary fusion reflects Wallace’s diverse background. He spent 14 years training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama, before studying physics at Amherst College and earning a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford.

Wallace called it “socially irresponsible” to isolate the academic studies of science and religion, which are often regarded as disparate disciplines.

Both deeply philosophical and profoundly pragmatic, Wallace’s speech emphasized the fruitful implications of studying the contemplative mind, both from a third-person and from a critical first-person perspective.

The critical first-person perspective is typically neglected by science because the modern scientific paradigm reveres absolute objectivity and impersonality, rendering the subjective “taboo,” Wallace said. This subjective method would include critically examining one’s own experience during meditation as a form of academic study.

Wallace fervently argued that this type of subjective, introspective study of the contemplative mind is vital, when coupled with the more traditional third-person mode of scientific research. Furthermore, Wallace said this type of contemplative study should be worked into the formal American higher education system.

He cited his personal hero – 19th century American psychologist and philosopher William James, who said that an education that improved the individual’s ability to maintain sustained, voluntary attention would be “the education par excellence.”

Wallace spoke about a groundbreaking study he is currently leading, which he said will “scientifically prove meditation’s fruitful effects” through assessing changes in the brain functioning and behavior of subjects who meditate intensively every day for an entire year. Wallace spoke with a high regard for this type of empirical scientific study, but simultaneously noted that this study would only be proving a fact that “Buddhist monks have known for 100 generations already.”

Audience members reacted very positively to Wallace’s lecture, and most stayed throughout the lengthy question and answer session.

“I really thought it was brilliant, his idea that you should train your introspective skills before you can study (the contemplative mind),” said Joshua Bocher ’08.

Pablo Gaston ’05 reacted similarly. “He raised some really interesting questions I had really never thought about before, in terms of using introspection as a tool,” he said.

Interlandi, who died in 2003, showed a great passion for contemplative studies, and wanted to create a concentration in the field. She studied Buddhism, feminist theory and eastern philosophy while at Brown, according to the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life’s Web site.

Professor of Religious Studies Hal Roth, who had Interlandi as a student in RS 88: “Great Mystical Traditions of Asia,” said, “When the funds came up, (Wallace) was the first person I thought of.” The lecture, in addition to a two-day meditative retreat led by Wallace last weekend, was made possible both by the Interlandi family and by the Francis Wayland Collegium for Liberal Learning, with support from the Chaplain’s Office.

Roth, who has spearheaded a movement to establish contemplative studies as a concentration after Interlandi’s death, said he would like to sponsor at least one such retreat and lecture in contemplative studies every year at Brown. Brown’s contemplative studies program recently received a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, which will help make this goal possible.

Roth said he was moved by Wallace’s lecture, particularly its emphasis on incorporating contemplative studies into the setting of the prestigious American university.

“I liked the way he phrased the dangers we face as a global society, and the importance of integrating the third person and first person critical modes of study,” he said.

Wallace, for one, seemed equally excited by Roth and his mission to bring a contemplative studies program to the University. “I’m very impressed by what’s happening here at Brown,” he said.