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FYI: Interface of Linguistics & Buddhism/Any Interest?

Author: Michael Aceto

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics

FYI Body: Dear Linguists,

This initial note is an effort to gauge the interest of linguists who might
wish to participate in an interdisciplinary project that crosses the
perceived divide between Buddhism and science. The general project I
envision is an effort to bring the discipline of linguistics in contact
with the millennia of works by Buddhist scholars and the science writing of
contemporary researchers from other disciplines. In the last 20 years,
researchers have been exploring the common ground between the sciences and
Buddhist traditions and have found that they are compatible in many ways.
E.O. Wilson (1998: 58) writes that science is an “organized, systematic
enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the
knowledge into testable laws and principles.” Wallace (2003: 8) notes,
“Buddhism, like science, presents itself as a body of systematic knowledge
about the natural world, and it posits a wide array of testable hypotheses
and theories concerning the nature of the mind and its relation to the
physical environment.” This type of work, though only in its infancy as a
scholarly endeavor, has been performed brilliantly for neurobiology by
Varela et al. (1993), deCharms (1997) and Hayward & Varela (2001); for
astrophysics by Mansfield (1995); and for quantum physics by Wallace
(1989), Ricard and Thuan (2004), and Zajonc (2004). The discipline of
psychology is represented by works such as Galin (2003). Works by the HH
the Dalai Lama et al. (1993, 2005) and Hayward (1987) discuss the
intersection of Buddhism and science in general. These works demonstrate
that the Buddhist contemplative tradition and its millennia of writings
often can be harmonized with modern scientific research paradigms. The
aforementioned works are my models for the unexplored terrain between human
language and the Buddhist contemplative tradition.

Currently, I am working on a paper that examines several fundamental
characteristics of human language and finds that they have analogues in
Buddhist thought and writing. For example, the inevitability of language
change resonates with the principle of impermanence; the arbitrary
relationship between sound and meaning in all human languages reflects the
emptiness principle and its correlates of componential analysis (here
“emptiness” refers to the observation that nothing comes into existence by
its own power and that variance and change is at the heart of all
constructed phenomena); and the interdependence or non-separateness of all
constructed phenomena corresponds well with the observation that all human
languages are in contact with other languages and can potentially be
changed by any other language. Interdependence is also reflected in the
fact that the innate human ability to acquire any human language must be
synchronized with a specific speech community or communities. Since so
much Buddhist writing and teaching focuses on the nature of the human mind
it is my feeling that many more topics will reveal themselves as we
familiarize ourselves with the literature.

I am envisioning a future conference at which scholars interested in
similar science/spiritual interfaces would gather to discuss this common
ground. Within this conference would be a section on Buddhism and
language/linguistics, an area of science neglected at previous conferences.
With the help of a research assistant I am beginning to identify potential
sources of funding for this conference that I would like to organize in
two-three years. Out of that meeting, an edited collection of the papers
presented would hopefully emerge. For a model, see Wallace (2003). Often
science and spirituality are seen as at odds with each in academia as well
as in the general public. The research I am proposing would build bridges
between what are often seen as diametrically opposed approaches to human

To express interest in this project does not require that you are a
practicing Buddhist in any way, though a familiarity or interest in
familiarizing yourself with some Buddhist writing (primary and/or secondary
sources) is necessary. This first note is an effort to see if there is any

If you are interested, please write me at the e-mail address below.

Thanks for your time.

Michael Aceto
Associate Professor of Linguistics
Dept. of English
East Carolina University


Dalai Lama et al. 1993. MindScience: An East-West Dialogue. Wisdom

Dalai Lama. 2005. The Universe in a single atom: The convergence of
science and spirituality. New York: Morgan Road Books.

deCharms, Christopher. 1997. Two Views of Mind: Abhidharma & Brain
Science. Snow Lion Publications.

Galin, David. 2003. “The concepts “Self,” “Person,” and “I” in Western
Psychology and in Buddhism.” In Wallace 2003, pp. 107-142.

Hayward , Jeremy W. 1987. Shifting Worlds, Changing Minds: Where the
Sciences and Buddhism Meet. Shambhala.

Hayward , Jeremy W. and Francisco J. Varela. 2001. Gentle Bridges:
Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind. Shambhala.

Mansfield, Victor. 1995. Synchronicity, science and soul-making.
Chicago: Open Court.

Ricard, Matthieu and Trinh Xuan Thuan. 2004. The Quantum and the Lotus: A
Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet. Three Rivers Press.

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch 1993. The embodied
mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wallace, B. Alan. 1989. Choosing reality: A contemplative view of physics
and the mind. Boston & Shaftesbury: New Science Library.

Wallace, B. Alan, ed. 2003. Buddhism & Science: Breaking new ground. New
York: Columbia University Press.

Wilson, E.O. 1998. Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Knopf.

Zajonc, Arthur, ed. 2004. The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with
the Dalai Lama. Oxford University Press.

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