Choosing Reality

An interview with B. Alan Wallace about Buddhism, science, and the nature of mind

Buddhism is a rich spiritual and religious tradition that is growing rapidly around the world. Here in the United States, it’s practiced by a small but growing minority. The practice of mindfulness meditation, not necessarily associated with Buddhism, but generally so, is also growing rapidly in terms of being included in various schools as an aid to learning and personal peace. And, of course, yoga and ideas about karma and rebirth are becoming widespread in many parts of the US.

B. Alan Wallace is a scholar and practitioner of Buddhism since 1970. He has taught Buddhist theory and meditation worldwide since 1976. He devoted fourteen years to training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and was ordained by the Dalai Lama. He later went on to earn an undergraduate degree in physics and the philosophy of science at Amherst College and a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford. He has written numerous books, including Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind (1989), The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness (2000), and most recently Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice (2011).

Wallace founded and runs the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which also runs meditation retreats in Phuket, Thailand.

So Wallace is well-versed in both eastern and western traditions. It seems to me that meshing the spiritual insights of East and West with the more recent tradition of western scientific inquiry is perhaps the most promising route to an integral and forward-thinking worldview today. I’ve written in the past about the need for western science to become less dogmatic and to expand from its overly materialist worldview. I’ve also written about the need for Buddhism to expand and grow from its traditional roots by, in particular, embracing the insights of an evolutionary worldview that takes time seriously. My feeling is that there is real potential in this ongoing discussion.

What follows is an email interview with Dr. Wallace on these issues and more.

Why is Buddhism important in today’s high-tech world?

The growth of scientific knowledge and technology since I entered my adult years in 1970 has been phenomenal. Never in human history has there been such an expansion of human knowledge and power over the external world. But during this same period, the human population has doubled, due to human exploitation of the natural environment, the wildlife population of the planet has been reduced by half, and global warming is now imperiling human civilization and the ecosphere at large. In the meantime, before 1970, most of the income gains experienced during economic expansions accrued to most of the people, so that the bottom 90 percent of earners captured at least a majority of the rise in income. But during the 1990s and early 2000s expansions, the huge majority of income gains went to the top 10 percent, and from 2001 to 2007, 98 percent of income gains accrued to the top 10 percent of earners. This wild inequality in the distribution of wealth has gotten so out of hand that the 85 richest people in the world own as much as the 3.5 billion of the poorest, while almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.

In short, during the same forty years that human knowledge of the physical environment, biology, sociology, and economics has increased at an unprecedented rate, modern civilization seems hell-bent on destroying the ecosphere, global economics, and civilization at large. This indicates to me that our knowledge and power over the outer environment has not even remotely been matched by our knowledge of the human mind, human vices, the inner causes of suffering, and the inner resources of the human spirit. Buddhism highlights three fundamental toxins of the mind—greed, hostility, and delusion—and for all the information at our disposal, made so readily available through the internet, human civilization has not evidently made any progress in diagnosing or treating these afflictions, let alone explore the resources of the human spirit in terms of virtues such as compassion, wisdom, generosity, patience, and inner contentment. If our high-tech world doesn’t balance knowledge of the external, physical resources of our environment with knowledge of the internal, psychological and spiritual resources of the human mind, then I fear human society will continue on its present course of self-destruction.