Non-duality of William James

by Jonathan Bricklin, editor

A review by Jerry Katz

Eirini Press is a new publisher of nonduality books, filling the niche of the Western contribution. Sciousness is their only title at this time. If Sciousness exemplifies, in both content and design, the quality of their forthcoming books, Eirini Press is positioned for serious success.

Beyond “The Varieties of Religious Experience”

Those who have enjoyed James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, will discover what James could not talk about in that series of lectures: the truth of “pure experience” or nondual awareness. The following quotation is an example of about how far James could go in “Varieties” toward approaching nonduality:

“It is evident that from the point of view of their psychological mechanism, the classic mysticism and these lower mysticisms spring from the same mental level, from that great subliminal or transmarginal region of which science is beginning to admit the existence, but of which so little is really known.”

“Varieties” was a series of lectures delivered in 1901-1902. In 1890, James first suggested the nonduality thesis but did not develop it until 1904. This book collects James’s nondual writings published during 1904 -1905, with short writings from 1890 and 1912. The intended audience is students, scholars, readers of Western philosophy as well as followers of the literature of nonduality.


If sciousness sounds to you like “suchness,” that’s the point. James recognized that nondual experience knows no “with-suchness,” only suchness, or pure experience, or the essence of Zen. Con-sciousness is suchness accompanied by the sense of “I,” or a “me,” a “myself.” A great effort is made in this book to describe the “I.”

Radical Empiricism

James called his nondualism radical empiricism. His empiricism is radical because it absorbs what is directly experienced and ALL that is directly experienced, including unifying experiences and nondual experience.

He brought ordinary empiricism up to speed by showing that nonseparateness is to be included, along with separateness, along with collectionism and abstraction as part of a description of reality.

In that effort, James brought Rationalism down to earth by showing that nonseparateness, unity, or Truth is not a separate order of reality eventually requiring corrective agencies of unification.

A Definitive Anthology

In Sciousness, Jonathan Bricklin has constructed a definitive anthology that conveys completeness and unity in the presentation of William James’s nondual expression. This work is driven by intellectual argument and is based in James’s confession of nondual knowing. It is elevated by elements of charm and poetry which arise out of the anthology’s design and the writings by all the three authors. Most importantly, this work is founded in Bricklin’s understanding of what nonduality is.

This is mainly a collection of James’s writings. The book opens with its crowning achievement, without which James’s nondual writings on their own would not likely be published for a broad audience of philosophy and spirituality readers. The book’s crown is Bricklin’s article, Sciousness and Con-sciousness, which introduces and analyzes James’s nondual work, making it readily understandable.

The article is followed by six writings by James. The book ends with an article on radical empiricism by Theodore Flournoy, one of the few contemporaries of James who understood and appreciated his thesis, and which served in its day as a crowning (if little known) achievement on behalf of James.

Thus the anthology is balanced: James’s writings are located centrally, flanked the writings of Bricklin and Flournoy. The entryways of the book consist of the preface, in which Bricklin elegantly delivers the nugget that James prepared the way for quantum theory expositions on nonduality and for Western seekers, students, and teachers of nonduality; and six pages of an Eastern nondual confession by Seng-t’san (Sosan), Third Zen Patriarch. The exit is a quotation by Rilke.

Zen meets William James

The Seng-t’san selection, On Believing in Mind (Hsin-Hsin-Ming), is a bowing to the East prior to the reader’s turning to the West. Most readers and knowers of nonduality will be led into the Western mode of nondual writing through the Eastern description: “All things are the same at their core / but clinging to one and discarding another / Is living in illusion.”

Or is it as simple as a bow and a turn to the West? In this book, East and West are not so separate. The turn is not from East to West, but from an emphasis on Eastern to an emphasis on Western thought and influence. Bricklin points out that D.T. Suzuki alerted his teacher Kitaro Nishida to James’s writing and Nishida used James’s phrase “pure experience” in his scholarly writings intended to bring East and West closer. Suzuki himself is well known as a bringer of Zen to the West. Martha Ramsey has pointed out to me that Zen and Buddhism rode into Western minds and hearts upon literary steeds of Romantic and American Transcendentalist traditions. Bricklin himself extracts the Zen nature of James’s nondual writings and in the process he uses a Zen which itself was probably influenced by William James. That is, a Zen that is perhaps thinly infused by James is brought to today to explain James.

Show me the nonduality

How nondual was William James? That’s what today’s audience wants to know. People today can read a few words and detect whether someone is speaking with authenticity or parroting someone else. Listen and decide for yourself:

“If the passing thought be the directly verifiable existent which no school has hitherto doubted it to be, then that thought is itself the thinker, and psychology need not look beyond.”

“…things and thought are not at all fundamentally heterogeneous, but are made of one and the same stuff, a stuff which one cannot define as such, but only experience, and which one can call, if one wishes, the stuff of experience in general.”

“I believe that consciousness, as it is commonly represented, either as an entity, or as pure activity, but in any case as fluid, unextended, diaphanous, devoid of all content of its own, but directly self-knowing – spiritual, in short -, I believe, I say, that this consciousness is a pure chimera, and that the sum of concrete realities which the word consciousness should cover deserves a quite different description.”

“The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the `pure’ experience. … If the world were then and there to go out like a candle, it would remain truth absolute and objective, for it would be `the last word,’ would have no critic, and no one would ever oppose the thought in it to the reality intended.”

“The instant field of the present is always experience in its `pure’ state, plain unqualified actuality, a simple that, as yet undifferentiated into thing and thought, and only virtually classifiable as objective fact or as someone’s opinion about fact.”

Here James is on verge of refining “pure experience” into “pure silence:”
“Whatever differing contents our minds may eventually fill a place with, the place itself is a numerically identical content of the two minds, a piece of common property in which, through which, and over which they join. The receptacle of certain of our experiences being thus common, the experiences themselves might some day become common also. If that day ever did come, our thoughts would terminate in a complete empirical identity, there would be an end, so far as those experiences went, to our discussions about truth. No points of difference appearing, they would have to count as the same.” Thirteenth century mystic Jnaneshvar (translated by Swami Abhayananda) echoes:

After such a discourse,
That speech is wise
Which drinks deeply of silence.

James’s approach was soft

James did not confess his knowings and leave them at that. Not without lengthy philosophical explanation and demonstration. Rather than simply state the way things are – and he knew – he would soften his confessions with phrases such as, “I believe,” “I conclude,” “I should like to convey,” “I feel,” “I say,” “I am convinced.” If someone uses those phrases today, they are deemed halfway up the mountain, even if they are not. “James theorized about pure experience sciousness more than he described instances of it,” Bricklin writes.

Were James preaching to a congregation, the language would have been different. There is a sense that James wanted to simply be the preacher and tell it the way it is: In this passage he comes close: “I am as confident as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking (which I recognize emphatically as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing.” Here too: “While still pure, or present, any experience – mine, for example, of what I write about in these very lines – passes for `truth.’ The morrow may reduce it to `opinion.'” However, James asserts that this knowing of `truth’ is valid: “When the whole universe seems only to be making itself valid and to be still incomplete (else why its ceaseless changing?), why, of all things, should knowing be exempt?”

There’s a sense that James wants to leap from declaring his confidence to declaring the truth that he knows. In fact, Bricklin leaps for James – or let’s just say he infers — wonderfully and memorably in his article.

The limits of philosophy

James called philosophy an “ugly study” since if offered no “sublime and simple” Ultimate Reality. Bricklin says, “James never developed his philosophy of pure experience sciousness beyond brief passages and essays. To do so would have made it ugly.”

William Samuel, who wrote and taught during the 60s-80s, was himself blunt about philosophy: “God would be a sadist if one’s saving grace depended on a detailed knowledge of philosophy. What kind of god would require continual delving into the abstruce and arcane lore of mysticism or metaphysics as a passport to a Reality that is already ONLY and unchallenged?”

The limitlessness of philosophy – direct path

William James offers a direct path nondual teaching. Dennis Waite says in his book Enlightenment, The Path Through the Jungle, that the direct path begins “with one’s own experience, and tests one’s assumptions against the simplicity of this experience in the moment. It examines the world, body and mind, showing through one’s experience how they are nothing other than the awareness, which is the Self.” Self is James’s “pure experience.”

Waite says “The direct-path approach is characterized by an uncompromising, logical approach to the truth (and is) most suitable for those of a philosophical bent.”

Waite quotes Sri Atmananda, a teacher of direct path in its purest form: “(the direct path) is removal of untruth by arguments, leaving over the Truth absolute as the real Self.”

Though I would not call James’s writings the purest direct path teaching, they are historically significant and wondrous to read, considering the the audience for whom they were intended.


In the 60s and 70s, many seekers of spiritual truth learned about mysticism and found affirmation of their nondual intuitions within William James’s book, The Varieties of Religious Expression. Now we can discover that James was a nondualist afterall. Sciousness is a superb anthology, the best possible book imaginable for the discovery of the nondual William James.

by Jonathan Bricklin, editor

One thought on “Non-duality of William James

  1. Pingback: on ‘Sciousness’: nondualism and William James | my mind on books

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