The changing engagement between psychology and Buddhist thought

In the course of the 20th century psychology went through several transformations. By comparison traditional Buddhism remained relatively stable. How then can we understand the engagement between the two?

Mindfulness and the relationship with Buddhism
How stable are our understandings of mind?

In the Western history of Buddhism, theory and practice have been relatively stable during the twentieth century. New Buddhist movements emerged during this time, but traditional schools demonstrated surprising continuity. Yet, since 1900, psychology has undergone radical transformations. Which has led to changes in both mainstream and peripheral approaches. Against this backdrop, the engagement between Buddhism and psychology appears transient. That the perceived utility of Buddhist thought and practice is dependent on the current configuration of psychological approaches. Looking back into the history of Western academic engagement with Buddhism in the 1910s, we see an openness to Buddhist knowledge. An acceptance that traditional texts were able to offer insight into the ‘scientific’ understandings of the mind.

Research into the history of the West’s engagement with Buddhism and meditation led me in pursuit of a book written by Caroline Rhys Davids in 1914.1 I haven’t yet tracked down a copy of this work. But several published reviews can be found through resources such as Google Scholar. Without careful reading of Davids’s treatise, I wouldn’t wish to suggest it was representative of any or all of Buddhist psychology; that’s not my point. Instead, the reviews of her work appear, in some quarters, to accept that Eastern understandings of mind might be able to contribute to Western scientific knowledge. In one such appraisal, Walter Clark from the University of Chicago wrote in 1916:

The study of Buddhist psychology is of much interest to us because of the fact that it gives us a carefully worked out analysis of mental phenomena from the point of view of an entirely different “tradition of thought.” Its parallelism to and difference from our own psychological thinking opens up many problems which are of the utmost importance in the study of thought in general.

Walter Clark2

pile of assorted title book lot selective focus photograph

Clarke’s review indicates apparent scholarly respect for Eastern sciences of mind. Suggestive of the potential for collaborative rather than appropriative perspectives of Buddhist understandings. There have been several Western scholars that demonstrate an appreciation of traditional (Eastern) forms of psychology, but these are found in the humanities rather than the sciences. A scientist investigating traditional meditation methods rarely links their work to underlying Buddhist concepts, citing relevant texts.

By drawing attention to the evolving nature of psychology, it is a reminder that Western science is in a state of flux. That what counts as ‘scientifically validated’ psychology today, could be washed away by a new ‘post-cognitive’ movement. Conversely, traditional Buddhist thought and practice have a core of knowledge that extends back hundreds and occasionally thousands of years. In this regard, Buddhist writings on mind, consciousness, and meditation are an underutilized resource in the study and use of meditation technologies.



1 Buddhist Psychology: An Inquiry into the Analysis and Theory of Mind in Pali Literature. By Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1914. 212 pages.

2 The emphasis is mine. Clark, Walter E. “Buddhistic Psychology.” (1916): 139-141.

This post is an edited version of an article published in the science of meditation blog from January 2020.

Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Private research of how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

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