The Authority of Experience: Essays on Buddhism and
Psychology. Edited by John Pickering. London: Curzon Press, 1997. Pp. 250. ISBN:
0700704558, US $22.95 [clothbound ISBN: 0700704507, US $42.00].
- Reviewed by
The dialogue between psychology and Buddhism is perhaps the longest and richest of
those between Buddhism and any western discourse. After D.T. Suzuki's initial presentation
of Zen in the light of his interest in western psychology, and Jung's enthusiasm, much of
the borrowing has been from Buddhism to psychotherapy; a pragmatic and practical borrowing
of techniques such as meditation. More recently as western philosophy and science have
been faced with uncertainty and relativity, the 'end of metaphysics', and the
deconstruction of logocentrism, Buddhism's own philosophy of dependent origination and
emptiness has come to resonate attractively with the postmodern condition. At the same
time the new hybrid discipline of cognitive science is attempting to find a rigorous
method of exploring consciousness, subjectivity and the phenomenological experience of the
world that it has finally understood cannot be omitted from a true and valuable science.
To this end, as the title of this collection states, there is in the West an interest in
yoking the authority of experience to the authority of science. Thus, cognitive scientists
are turning to Buddhism to explore and appreciate its long history of the exploration of
mind. It offers, in the words of John Pickering from another paper, "a rough
approximation of a phenomenological psychology founded on process metaphysics"
("Buddhism and Cognitivism: a Postmodern Appraisal," Asian Philosophy 5, no. 1
It is thus timely and pleasant to welcome a book of collected papers on this theme from
respected academic writers. Unlike most such collections which have arisen from colloquia
or conferences, these essays were specifically solicited by the editor in an attempt to
open up the dialogue between psychology and Buddhism in order to integrate qualitative and
phenomenological methods with those of cognitive neuroscience. The editor hoped to show
that "even though Buddhism and psychology may make different claims to authority they
can nonetheless be brought closer together within a systematic and realistic inquiry into
experience" (p. xiv). Despite this coherent plan and the editor's preface to each
individual essay (which helps to maintain the framework), this is still a somewhat
diverse, and at times, divergent selection of papers.
The book opens well with Eleanor Rosch's contribution, illustrating the intention of
the volume. She uses a Tibetan story to illuminate the difference between an alienated
understanding and an enlightened one. She shows that the idea of mind espoused by
cognitive science is that of samsaric mind experienced by beginning meditators. Further
meditative experience reveals glimpses of a different mode of knowing and being, a process
view of body, mind, emotions and interpersonal relations in which all aspects of
experience, previously treated as separate, are seen to form an integrated whole, in which
mind and body, cognition and emotion, perceiver and perceived, action and knowing, self
and world are no longer separate. She considers the implications of such a view for
psychology in the hope that, as such, a new mode of knowing is transformative to an
individual personally, and it can likewise be transformative to science.
From the Buddhist perspective, Padmal de Silva presents a remarkably clear and concise
portrait of Buddhist psychology, its relation to Buddhist philosophy and to western
psychology, and its possible integration with western psychology and more particularly
with psychotherapy. Herbert Guenther's essay begins by stating that the going is the way,
and it is, in some sense, a performative text. Through unexpected terminology and
avoidance of the commonly accepted translations, Guenther's exposition can lead to
illumination for those who have the stamina to stay the turnings and twisting of the
journey down unfamiliar routes, as long as they follow the Buddha's exhortation to
Strangely, since most of the published dialogue between Buddhism and psychology has
been concerned with the field of psychotherapy, this is not a strong section of the
present book. While Joy Manne's contribution testifies to the way Buddhism speaks to very
different psychotherapeutic approaches, its style as a book review sits somewhat
uncomfortably in the collection, as it relies so heavily on material outside the text.
From a more theoretical perspective, John Pickering's own contribution "Selfhood is a
Process" succinctly weaves together all the themes the book intends to address: the
manner in which Buddhism can help to enable a post-cognitive, postmodern approach to
science and psychology; embodiment and selfhood; and the reconnection of fact and value.
In the final section, Elizabeth Valentine considers private and public validation of
knowledge and the contribution of sensory experience, rational thought, and meditative
insight, as considered by both Buddhist and scientific epistemologies. She argues that
both conclusions and methods must be open to constant revision, and she ends with
Heraclitus' most Buddhist of observations that "all things flow; change is the only
reality." The last word goes to John Crook and is a plea for authenticity, even in
the face of unknowing.
There is much of value and enjoyment in this collection. Although, as mentioned, there
has been a fair amount published concerning Buddhism and psychotherapy, little has yet
appeared concerned with the more fundamental and theoretical questions that are
particularly addressed in this book, and it is all the more welcome for this. Sadly,
however, many misspellings and typographical errors mar the text. There are also
conspicuous errors of fact. In one essay it appears that the five skandhas are confused
with the six sense consciousnesses; reference is made several times to six skandhas. In
the same paper, a reference to "an unprecedented period of peace and harmony"
(p. 39) in Tibetan history between 900 C.E. and the Chinese invasion of 1950 is startling
to anyone versed in the subject. In another paper, an unelaborated reference to Naagarjuna
as "early Buddhist" (p. 190) is questionable, especially when it is followed by
a very monist and late Mahaayaana interpretation of his writing on the basis of a work
that is unreliably attributed to Naagarjuna, as the author admits in a footnote. If
western science seeks to benefit from Buddhism's long history of the phenomenological
exploration of consciousness, it must surely treat the facts of that discipline with as
much rigor as it asks of its own research.