Mrs. Rhys Davids' Dialogue with Psychology (1893-1924)
By Teresina Rowell Havens

Philosophy East & West
V. 14 (1964)
pp. 51-58

Copyright 1964 by University of Hawaii Press





    "THE BUDDHIST CONCEPTION Of consciousness is, I venture to think, better understood as a mental electrification of the organism than in terms of any other natural force." [1]

    This was written forty years ago, before electroencephalograms had been heard of. The author, Mrs. Caroline Rhys Davids, was both a student of psychology and a pioneer translator of early Buddhist texts from Paali into English. The passage quoted above illustrates two characteristics of her early scholarly work: (1) her concern to find the most precise available equivalent in the scientific thought of her own time to convey various aspects of the Paali Buddhist view of how the mind works; and (2) the extent to which she was ahead of her time.

    It often happens that a scholar's work will be ignored for many years and then suddenly become relevant to the concerns of a much later epoch. It is the thesis of the present article that this has been true of Mrs. Rhys Davids, and that the time has now come when her earlier work can enter into a fruitful dialogue with the thought of our age.



    The cultural time-gap was complicated in her case by personal problems. For one thing, her time failed to provide a community of scholars--Orientalists or others--interested in psychology who might have taken her hypotheses seriously enough to undertake to disprove or to modify them in scholarly debate. For another, her most creative period was over before many Western psychologists and psychotherapists had come to be interested in what they could learn from Buddhist approaches to mental and emotional processes. Unfortunately, or so it appears from our present perspective, Mrs.




Rhys Davids herself moved during the 20s from her early interest in the psychological to a preoccupation with the psychic, inspired by the death of her only son in the First World War, This interest led her to stress texts dealing with clairvoyance, clairaudience, and communication with "other worlds" to a degree unacceptable to the predominant Western academic frame of reference, at the time she was writing and now, (We need not speak of circles interested in ESP and psychical research, since they did not and do not impinge heavily on the academic world.) Her interest in these directions took such an increasingly predominant place in her later books that scholars could no longer take her conclusions seriously. This led to the ignoring also of her earlier, more scholarly studies in Buddhist psychology.



    Since most of this early solid work was as editor and translator of Paali texts, it is chiefly in Introductions and footnotes that her ideas may be found, Regarding the early awakening of her psychological interest, the following note appears in the Introduction to A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics:

Even a superficial inspection of the Manual should yield great promise to anyone interested in the history of psychology. When... my attention was first drawn to it... by Professor Rhys Davids, I was at once attracted by the amount of psychological material embedded in its pages.[2]

    In a series of long introductory essays in each successive volume of Kindred Sayings[3] and Gradual Sayings,[4] she relates her detailed study of technical Paali terms to her broad interests in the workings of the human mind, Western as well as Eastern. This feeling for wider implications is reflected in the following query from her Introduction to Buddhist Psychology:[5] "How far does the greater richness of Buddhist intellectual nomenclature correspond to a greater manifold in modes of knowing or of knowledge?" In other




words, does a distinction of terms for which we have no equivalents indicate potential levels of inner experience of which we are unaware? Could a Westerner experience these subtleties if he pursued Buddhist training? Supposing that he did experience distinctions of psychic reality corresponding to the terms in question, how could he translate them into English or communicate them verbally to a person whose culture has no words for them? One of the best examples of this kind of problem is the still-vexing term jhaana, which has suffered through a series of mistranslation such as "trance," "ecstasy," "musing," etc. The difficulty lies deeper than the merely verbal. Is it possible that no adequate English term has been found because we have no precisely equivalent discipline in Western religious tradition?

    These are the kinds of questions which interdisciplinary research today could begin to answer by combining the resources of Western psychology, anthropology, and linguistics with both Paali expertness and living Buddhist experience. This collaboration seems more feasible, now that subjective data are becoming recognized by some scientific psychologists in the West as proper material for investigation.

    Although her times were not ripe for this sort of dialogue, Mrs. Rhys Davids realized in her work of translation that technical psychological terms--on the English as well as on the Paali side--are part of a system with certain assumptions about the nature of mind. Therefore, if the translator is to communicate with Western readers, she must know, not only what a given technical term means in Paali, but also the technical connotation of its English equivalent in current psychological systems. Hence, Mrs. Rhys Davids dug into British psychological works to ascertain as far as possible the exact connotations of such terms as "cognition," "sensation," "feeling," "perception," and "faculties."[6] Many footnotes and entire articles were concerned with working out the closest equivalents for such terms as "vi~n~naana," "indriya," "aayatana," "upaadaana," and the like. At the same time, she was extremely careful to avoid premature parallels. For example, in discussing the technical meaning of ruupa^m she notes:

    Ruupa.m would ... appear at first sight to be a name for the external world or for the extended universe, as contrasted with the unextended, mental, psychical or subjective universe. Personally I do not find, so far, that the Eastern and Western concepts can be so easily made to coincide. It will be better before, and indeed without as yet, arriving at any such conclusive judgment, to inquire into the application made of the term in the Manual generally.[7]




    She explored the backgrounds of psychological inquiry in ancient Greece as well as in pre-Buddhist India in order to evaluate the significance of the Buddhist discoveries. For example, she considers the's analysis of types of sensation to be "... the first academic formulation of a theory of sense which ancient India has hitherto produced for us. There is no such analysis of sensation ... put forward in any Indian book of an equally early date."[8]

    She quotes from Siebeck's Geschichte der Psychologie[9] concerning Empedokles' theory of sensation or sense-cognition, and observes that Demokritus regarded all sensation as either bare touch or development of touch--a view which, she notes, "is borne out to a great extent by modern biological research." [10]



    As she dug deeper into both the technical Buddhist analysis of states of mind and the over-all system behind it, she was struck by the paradoxical truth that Buddhism stresses conscious will, attention, feeling, choice--"just those mental activities ...which seem most to imply a subject, or subjective unity who attends, feels, wills and chooses. And yet this same philosophy is emphatically one that attempts to 'extrude the ego.' "[11]

    It is this psychologizing without a psyche that impressed me from the first, and seemed to bring the work, for all its remoteness in other respects, nearer to our own Experiential school of and since Locke, than anything we find in Greek traditions.[12]

    And if there was one thing which moved the Master to quit his wonted serenity and wield the lash of scorn and upbraiding, it was just the reading into this convenient generalization of mind or personality that "metaphysical concept of a soul, mind-atom, or mind-stuff," which is put aside by the modern psychologist.[13]

    This vehement, almost violent anti-substantialism of early Buddhism stimulated her to look into Aristotle's De Anima in order to contrast his notions of "soul" and "substance" with the Buddhist. Her subsequent reflections, as set down in the Introductory Essay prefacing Buddhist Psychological




Ethics,[14] can only be summarized here. (The Buddhist Manual was probably written during Aristotle's childhood.)

    Aristotle, in applying his theory of mind as a potential "form" which energizes the body, went far "to resolve mind into phenomenal processes."[15] "But he did not, or would not, wrench himself radically out of the primitive the Buddhist dared to do."[16] Hence, Greek thought remained "saturated with substantialist methods"[17a] and passed them on to the medieval world strengthened by the "animistic standpoint" of the Patristic Christian philosophy.

    Modern science, however, has been gradually training the popular mind to a phenomenalistic point of view, and joining hands in psychology with the anti-substantialist tradition of Hume.[17b]

    Mrs. Rhys Davids then proceeds to consider a deeply-ingrained tendency of the human mind which lends support to the "philosophical elaboration of soul-theory into Substantialism," namely, the tendency to subsume the particular under the general:

    That is to say, this perceiving and judging, by way of generalizing and unifying, is the only way by which we are able to master the infinite diversities and approximate uniformities of phenomena ...Knowledge groups all phenomena under a few aspects of all but supreme generality....

    But, after all, this is only the ideal method and economy of intellect. The stenographer's ideal is to compress recorded matter into the fewest symbols by which he can reproduce faithfully.... Psychology teaches us to distinguish our fetches of abstraction and generalization for what they are psychologically-i.e. for effective mental shorthand.... The philosophical concept of the One is pregnant with powerful associations. To what extent is it simply ... a mathematical symbol in a hypothetical cosmos of carefully selected data, whence the infinite concrete is eliminated lest it "should flow in over us" and overwhelm us?[18]

    Here Mrs. Rhys Davids has anticipated the approach of several contemporary Western writers to an understanding of the functional anti-conceptualism of Zen. How many obscure scholars may have received stimulation from her introduction to the it is impossible to guess, but it did not enter into a stream of dialogue, partly because neither the philosophy of process nor phenomenological psychology (i.e., concerned with the




subject's own experience as starting point) had yet come into prominence. Had she been writing today, she might have found a parallel to the Buddhist approach in Harry Stack Sullivan's and other contemporary psychologists' protests against what they consider the out-dated notion of an inner psyche. For Sullivan, "personality" or "individuality" is a hypothetical entity postulated to account for dynamic interpersonal processes and relationships.[19] Mrs. Rhys Davids called attention to this problem---common to Buddhism and to nineteenth- and twentieth-century psychology--of distinguishing between a metaphysical concept of the soul and a functional phenomenological one. She noted that Ward had revived the concept of an Ego or Subject- of mental states, and that all psychologists, even Hume, find it necessary to assume some sort of a mind or conscious subject as a psychological but not a metaphysical concept. In much the same way, she pointed out, Buddhists use the following terms as convenient fictions:[20]

    attabhaavo---selfhood or personality, for which Buddhaghosa himself half apologizes;
    ajjhatika^m---belonging to the self, subject;
    citta^m, mano, and ui~n~n~aanam---"the mind" or "thinking."

    In order to avoid the use of "attaa" (Paali for "aatman," which carried the implication of a permanent, static entity outside of causal relations), they were careful, especially in the nominative case, to use the expression "svaya^m" (this one). In oblique cases, "attaa" was usually retained, as she herself noted in a footnote.[21] This fact becomes of significance for Mrs. Rhys Davids' later reversal of position. In her later works,[22] she picked out a number of references to "attaa" in the accusative or other oblique cases and re-translated it as "The Self," "Soul," or "God Within," whereas she or other translators had previously rendered it as a simple reflexive. How did this change in her emphasis come about?



    We have seen with what open eyes the youthful scholar confronted the full contradiction or paradox involved in the Buddhist position. As she grew older, however, this dialectical "psychologizing without a psyche" no longer




seemed to her to do justice to the positive side of the Buddhist path. Confronted at once by the negative anti-becoming formulae of later Singhalese monk-editors and by the impressions of Schopenhauer and other Western thinkers that the Buddha taught "negation of the will to live," Mrs. Rhys Davids felt a mission to publicize the great emphasis which she discovered in early Buddhist texts on spiritual growth, stirring up energy, "making-become" a desired state of mind, etc.

    Her favorite tool in this connection was the unearthing of what she called "left-ins": fragments which betray an orientation clearly distinguishable from that of the later monastic editors, and which therefore may be presumed to be remnants of an "original gospel." This is a legitimate device, if properly used, familiar in the "quest of the historical Jesus." With its help, Mrs. Rhys Davids unearthed considerable evidence that the term "becoming" (bhava), later "blacklisted through the growing vogue of monkdom," had originally had a positive connotation. She adduced such terms as

    bhabba -- "bound to become" (=Sanskrit bhavya) ... somewhat parallel to the English-Christian idiom of a man who is "saved";
    bhavasuddhi -- "salvation in (or of, or by) becoming."[23]

    These "left-ins" carry weight because they are not merely isolated fragments, but can be correlated with such key parables as the Hen and the Chicks which stress the disciples' potential for spiritual breakthrough. Mrs. Rhys Davids' labors up to this point provided basic foundations for the recognition that, for Gotama, the self was a process. Even T.R.V. Murti, although he disagrees with Mrs. Rhys Davids' later revival of a Great Self, should acknowledge the debt to her pioneer efforts implicit in his conclusion: "The Real, for Buddhism, is Becoming."[24]

    But "becoming" without someone who becomes did not satisfy her for long. Increasingly, as the one-time pioneer grew older, she felt that Gotama's stress on "will" (albeit without a word for it) seemed to call for a "willer," which she then proceeded to find in the Paali texts by uncritically retranslating fragments out of context, translating reflexives as "The Self," and other arbitrary procedures. As this phase of her work has been demolished many




times, it is not necessary to deal with it further here, except to stress the fact that the one-sided conclusions of her later years by no means invalidate the "left-in" method of "higher criticism" nor the importance of continuing to seek further light on her question: "What did Gotama really teach?" Rich treasures still await a more scholarly and careful examination of early strata of the documents, especially if combined with the kind of dialogue between Oriental studies and contemporary psychology in which Mrs. Rhys Davids pioneered.






1.    Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Psychology: An Inquiry into the Analysis and Theory of Mind in Pali Literature (2nd ed., London: Luzac and Co., 1924),p. 16.

2.    Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids, ed., A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics of the Fourth Century B.C., being A Translation, now made for the First Time, from the Original Pali, of the First Book in the Abhidhamma Pi.taka entitled (Compendium of States or Phenomena) (1st ed., London: Royal Asiatic Society. Oriental Translation Fund. New Series. Vol. XII. 1900), p. xvi.

3.    Mrs. Rhys Davids, ed., The Book of the Kindred Sayings (Sa^myutta-Nikaaya),5 vols. Vols. I and II translated by Mrs. Rhys Davids; Vols. III, IV, and V translated by F. L. Woodward (London: Pali Text Society, 1917, 1922, 1925, 1927, 1930).

4.    Mrs. Rhys Davids, ed., The Book of the Gradual sayings (Anguttara-Nikaaya). 5 vols. Vols. I, II, and V translated by F. L.Woodward; Vols. III and IV translated by E. M. Hare (London: Pali Text Society, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936).

5.    Mrs. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Psychology, p. 120.

6.    Parallel research in the 1960s would find it necessary to re-examine such translations as "illusion," "repressionist," and other terms which have come to have a particular technical meaning in the Freudian system today.

7.    Mrs. Rhys, Davids, Introduction to A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics, p. xlii.

8.    Ibid., p. li. (Author's italics.)

9.    Hermann Siebeck, Geschichte der Psychologie (Gotha: F. A. Perthes, 1880), Vol. I, p. 107.

10.    A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics, p. lvi.

11.    Ibid., p. lxx. (Author's italics.)

12.    Ibid., p. lxxiii.

13.    Ibid., p. lxxi. (Quotation marks in text.)

14.    Ibid., pp. xv-xcv.

15.    Ibid., p. xxxviii, referring to Aristotle, De Anima, III, chaps. vii, viii.

16.    Ibid., p. xxxviii.

17.     Ibid., (two references.)

18.    Ibid., p. xl. (Author's italics.) She quotes the phrase "should flow in over us" from page 351 of the text following her introduction.

19.     Patrick Mullahy, The Contributions of Harry Stack Sullivan (New York: Hermitage House, 1952), pp. 16--22.

20.    A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics, p. lxxi.

21.    Ibid., note 3.

22.    See especially Mrs. Rhys Davids, Buddhism, Its Birth and Dispersal, Home University Library (London: Thornton Butterworth Ltd., 1934), pp. 70--82.

23.    Ibid., pp. 89-107. On pp. 99-100 she cites "bound to become" from Majjhima-nikaaya, i.104, translated in Lord Chalmers, Further Dialogued of the Buddha (London: Humphrey Milford, 1926), Vol. I, p. 73, p. 257, etc. Bhava-shudhi she cites on p. 100 from six of the A`sokan Edicts, references which she discusses in her Sakya; or Buddhist Origins (London: Kegan Paul. 1931), chap. XXIII.

24.    T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1955), p. 26. I am indebted to Miss I. B. Horner of the Pali Text Society, London, for calling my attention to this quotation.