8 min read

David McMahan is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College and author of Rethinking Meditation: Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds (2023) and The Making of Buddhist Modernism (2008).

Conducted by Adam Liddle, a Postdoctoral Associate at the Contemplative Sciences Center and the Associate Editor for the Journal of Contemplative Studies.

JCS: In light of your new book, Rethinking Meditation, what is contemplation and how do you understand contemplative practices?

David McMahan: When I hear the word contemplation, it is very, very broad and can mean just being attentive to something or pondering something deeply, and contemplative practices I see as more systematic efforts to harness attention for a particular end. Those ends are going to be of course really different depending on what cultures we find them in and what traditions—philosophical, religious, secular— we find them in. There are a huge amount of activities that can fall under that category of contemplative practices. You might do a contemplative practice to relieve stress but you also, if you’re a medieval Taoist, might be doing a contemplative practice that involves very complex visualizations of the interior of your body and connecting them with the exterior landscape or trying to cultivate a new kind of immortal self within. There are all kinds of things that I think could fall under this category. I’m interested in those contexts and how they shape what the practices are and how the practices conform to particular understandings of what human beings are, what life is, what consciousness is, and so on.

I’m really interested in how traditions change, adapt, and take on new forms in various cultural contexts.

JCS: Thanks for that! This leads to our second question; how do contemplative practices intersect with your research? What research are you working on now (obviously you just published this book)? And how is it relevant to Contemplative Studies?

DM: I’ve been focused mainly on Buddhism, and in my research, I started out looking at early Mahayana literature in Sanskrit. The focus on modern issues was a side project that ballooned into something much bigger, and it became what everybody wants me to talk about. So, it ended up taking a bigger and bigger portion of my career to talk about Buddhist modernism and things like that. Broadly, I’m really interested in how traditions change, adapt, and take on new forms in various cultural contexts. I’ve found meditation to be a really salient example of that, and after looking at this broad phenomenon of modern and contemporary forms of Buddhism, I started to zero in on one of the particular aspects of that which is contemplation-slash-meditation. I think that’s a fascinating subject because these are practices that began in a very countercultural setting. As far as we understand it, people were rejecting mainstream values of the time and foregoing having families and children and ultimately attempting to transcend the world altogether. Now the descendants of those practices are things that people use to function better at work or to have better sex or to have better relationships with their spouse. It’s really fascinating that that could happen, and it’s a fascinating trajectory if you trace some of the threads through the history of Buddhism up to the contemporary period. I think now is a pivotal time in the history of Buddhist contemplative practices because they’ve been cut loose from the Buddhist tradition itself and have taken on lives of their own in very different institutional contexts.

JCS: I’m interested in this connection between where you started your studies looking at early Mahayana sources and where you’ve come to. I think what you do well in your book is to bring these two into conversation. I wonder if you could speak more on that and why it’s important. What are we to gain from studying the history of contemplation while living in the present day where these traditions have been cut loose from Buddhism and are being used in all these different ways? What do we gain by looking back and grounding ourselves in those traditions or being in conversation with them?

DM: On the one hand, I think it’s cool that these practices have reached a much wider audience and that they’ve in many cases been offered to the wider public by Buddhist teachers themselves. On the other hand, there are the possible disadvantages that they can be trivialized and commodified. I think looking at the history, looking at where they’ve come from, looking at the uses to which they’ve been put before they were a way to be more efficient at work is useful and helpful to people who really want to pursue [these practices] on a deeper level than just managing their stress or something like that.

Now is a pivotal time in the history of Buddhist contemplative practices…

JCS: What excites you about the future of Contemplative Studies? What’s emerging in the field? What’s advancing in the field that you’re really geared towards? What might you be doing next? And what are you excited about that other people are doing?

DM: I’m appreciative of the current intellectual milieu in a number of different areas. When I was an undergraduate, I majored in philosophy and psychology, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed by psychology. At that time, it was because [psychology] was still under the influence of behaviorism which saw consciousness as this black box you could not deal with. We needed empirical evidence. A lot of psychology at that time seemed to involve making animals do weird things and cutting up their brains and things like that. So, it was a little grizzly. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to use the term consciousness and to think about the mind and to think about what’s actually happening [there]. That’s important to the field. The way I dealt with that at the time was that I veered more over towards my philosophical studies, and I was particularly drawn to phenomenology which does have a way of talking about experience in a very direct way. Now, in cognitive science and neuroscience and philosophy, people are interested in the mind again. People are interested in consciousness and asking the big questions about consciousness, which I find exciting. Also there’s just a lot more material that’s available right now through which to think about these things. I think about the 84,000 Project: we have this huge literary tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that still has so much untapped material that nobody outside of that Tibetan context has been exposed to. It seems like there could be a lot more raw data coming in to think about contemplation. That is, of course, true of many different traditions as well. Even a hundred years ago, you couldn’t really ask big cross-cultural questions about how to relate different practices that may have developed independently in different times and places. Now we’re starting to have such comprehensive access to a lot of different literatures and traditions, and so that’s possible. 

JCS: What do you think we will gain from being able to have those cross-cultural conversations around contemplation? And, getting back to the initial question of how this will affect our understanding of contemplation in a broader sense, do you have any thoughts about where we’re going in terms of cross-cultural studies in Contemplative Studies? 

DM: One aspect of my shtick is to not be reductive about the mind and consciousness and the brain and not just see contemplation as a matter of getting the brain into a certain state that then can be viewed on a brain-scanning machine or something like that. You also have to pay close attention to the cultural context, to language, to convention, to tacit dimensions of experience that might be particular to a particular culture, and the only way you can do that is through study of literature, study of anthropology, sociological study, to excavate the human aspects of [contemplation]. I don’t think that should be done in place of some neurological work, I think they’re both important, but they both need to work together. So, in an ideal world, I would see that happening right now. I think there’s a little bit of a two camps mentality, but that’s why I like the idea of something like the contemplative sciences center as a venue through which these conversations can be brought together a little bit more systematically.

People are interested in consciousness and asking the big questions… which I find exciting.

JCS: I’m curious to hear more about the importance of cultural or social aspects of contemplative practices and traditions for science. What does thinking about these kinds of things bring to scientific study?

DM: There is just a lot that doesn’t show up on an imaging machine. And there’s a lot that is a little bit ambiguous still about the causal mechanisms for behaviors that psychologists sometimes study. Not necessarily [when they study] people in MRI machines, but [it is still ambiguous when psychologists] set up very contrived, artificial experiments and see if somebody will take a cookie after they’ve meditated for four minutes or something like that. All that, again, is useful but I think there’s been a bit of a crisis of replicability in psychology lately. A lot of these things need to be deepened a little bit, and there needs to be questions asked about just how particular certain kinds of psychological experiments are to particular cultures. There’s a general understanding that a lot of the conclusions and psychology that have been arrived at in recent decades are all from a pretty specific population of people: WEIRD people. What is that? Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. It’s good to learn things about WEIRD people, but often the language of psychology tends to be universalistic. And when we have something like the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that maps out all these possible psychological disorders, I think not enough questions are asked about whether something is particular to WEIRD people or is something that would transfer to people in India or Nigeria.

JCS: Thanks for unpacking that. We’d also love to hear about some of your favorite books are in relation to Contemplative Studies. What have you really enjoyed reading?

DM: I’ll take this in a very weird way because I’m assuming your readers probably have read a lot of academic books on meditation and so on. I would say James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Ian McEwan’s Saturday. All three of those books take place in a 24-hour period, and so what the author has to do is go deep into the micro nuances of the main characters’ consciousness moment by moment by moment as they’re walking around through the day and having experiences and in some cases, like Ulysses, it’s very strange and surreal. You’re not sure if something’s happening in a character’s imagination or if it’s really happening. It has a very dream-like quality. But in the other two, there’s a definite plot and you see what’s happening in the novel as you also see this very granular examination of consciousness through the mechanism of narrating a novel. Of course, in the early 20th century when this style of writing started, it was called stream of consciousness. This is akin to a Buddhist term,  citta-santāna or viññāna-sota, which literally means mind stream or flow of consciousness. It reflects a new way of thinking about the world that was emerging in the late 19th early 20th century. It reflected an increased this-worldliness, and so if we weren’t completely focused on other worldly matters, then let’s really dig deep into what this world is. And the way we access the world is through our senses, through our thinking, through our affective orientations, and so this is a literary tradition that just began to try to explore all of those in a detailed and nuanced way. 

JCS: Another question I have about that is how you talk about social imagination in your book: how have these books and this time period in American literature or Western literature affected where we are now in terms of the ways that we think about contemplation and consciousness?

DM: I think it created a disposition towards thinking about worldly matters. I talk in the book for instance about the ethic of appreciation, in which the appreciation of one’s life in the world becomes a kind of ethical value. When the first Buddhists, as far as we understand from the literature, were doing contemplation of the body or contemplation of eating or things like that – these very focused meditations on ordinary trivia of life – the idea was to become disenchanted with it and detach from it so that we can transcend samsara. The valuation of the ordinary things of the world has really shifted and that happened before the modern period. You see it in tantra in some texts, but it’s really taken off in the more this-worldly orientation of the contemporary West. Looking very closely at visual objects or listening very closely to sounds is thought to be a value in itself. If you’re not doing that, you’re missing life, so there’s an implicit valuing and appreciation of this life that becomes embedded in our understanding of contemplative techniques today. 

JCS: That’s really beautiful. Thanks so much David for talking with us!

DM: Yeah, it’s been fun.

What is Contemplation? is an ongoing series that interviews leading scholars in Contemplative Studies to address this driving question.