Mind over matter

A Jewish Buddhist who was "turned on to science by a priest," Shinzen Young believes ideas can change history.

Shinzen Young 521 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Shinzen Young 521
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
The idea that Buddhist meditative practices can be mated with science to save the world may seem farfetched, but this is exactly what American Jew-turned-Buddhist monk Shinzen Young is striving to achieve. A self-professed former “wimp,” the accomplished meditation teacher relates his story with astonishing eloquence and focus, considering that at the time of the interview, he is suffering from pneumonia. In the same condition, he recently led an intensive daylong workshop of guided meditation and lectures at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on how Buddhist practices may be cross-fertilized with science.
Born Steve Young to a Los Angeles Jewish family, he had a traditional Jewish upbringing; his mother was the executive director of their local synagogue, and the family was close to their rabbi.
So what brought him to Buddhism? Samurai movies. A year after his bar mitzva, he became fascinated by Japanese culture. He decided he was going to become “the expert” on the country and, at the ripe age of 14, had the insight that mastering the language was the key to understanding a culture. So he attended Japanese school.
His language-learning snowballed when he realized he couldn’t fully understand Japanese culture without understanding China, and his parents dutifully hired a Chinese tutor. He then realized that he would have to understand Indic civilization if he truly wanted to understand China, and so his obliging parents hired him a Sanskrit tutor too.
He laughs that in the same way Jewish parents like to boast about “my son the lawyer,” his parents were proud to brag about “my son the Asian language scholar.” When it came to graduation, the Japanese school honored its only non- Japanese student as valedictorian.
He went on to become an Asian language major at UCLA, including a stint in Japan as an exchange student. During his time there, he wanted to participate in all aspects of Japanese culture, including the Buddhist temple, though meditation was not yet on his radar. He emphasizes he was not a good candidate for meditation, dubbing himself “a wimp by birth, physically, sort of a kvetcher who was very emotionally agitated.”
However, he sensed that the Buddhist monks “had a secret they would share with me, but they wouldn’t force on me, and that secret allowed them to be amazingly happy.” Thus, a seed was planted.
He continued on to Buddhist studies at graduate school in the US, which took him back to Japan for research. He intended to become an academic, but several things changed his direction.
For one thing, the monks refused to teach him, or even talk to him for his academic purposes. They said they would not glorify his intellectual ego or let him learn about meditation for intellectual purposes. It was their way or the highway – he would have to become a Buddhist monk.
He decided to give it a shot for two reasons. First, he didn’t want to “return to the US in disgrace.” The second reason ran deeper. His graduate adviser and hero Richard Robinson, who Young says possessed “a titanic intellect,” died after being burned in a tragic accident. The incident made Young question “what good is all that intelligence under these circumstances?”
This was when the first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths hit home for him – the unavoidable phenomenon of suffering. It brought him to consider the meditation practice because it claimed to cure suffering, and to bring happiness independent of conditions. These factors combined brought him to the monastery, where he stayed for three years, was ordained as a monk and acquired the Zen name Shinzen – Shin meaning “truth,” and Zen meaning “goodness,” which he says represent the two sides of the practice.
By the time he left the monastery, his interest had moved from academic studies of Buddhism to topics he describes as more “far out.”
YOUNG BELIEVES that mindfulness does not necessarily have to be connected to faith.
“Buddhist meditation techniques are parve [neutral],” he says, adding that Jewish tradition is being revived through contact with Buddhism.
Ironically it was an Irish Catholic priest who led him to this discovery. At the end of his time in Japan, he spotted the redhaired priest on a retreat, the only other foreigner there. His initial reaction was, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s in for!” To his surprise, the priest sat down and began to meditate like a Zen master. The two soon became friends, and Young learned that Father William Johnston had been practicing Zen for years as part of an attempt to understand Japanese culture, in the framework of a wider Christian-Buddhist dialogue.
Young realized that what he was experiencing was part of a much bigger picture that included Christian, Islamic and Jewish meditative traditions. Though the lifestyle and traditions of each religion are different, he found that the experience of the contemplative meditative paths was remarkably similar, with parallel patterns in these traditions’ classic texts: “These were worlds that never touched before. This indicated to me that there was something universal in the meditative path.”
While he believes that there is much “superstition and manipulative magic” in Kabbala, for example, he says that if you know where to look, there are several diamonds. He found parallel formulations in traditional Judaism and in what his teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi teaches.
For instance, in Kabbala, if one is able to experience bitul hayesh (the annihilation of one’s “somethingness”), one can experience how the world arises moment by moment from the divine nothingness – briya yesh me’ayin – which is a central goal of Jewish mysticism. This is virtually identical to what Roshi teaches, without any knowledge of Jewish mysticism.
Roshi’s formulation is that if you “love the small self to death,” then you can see where that self comes from, moment by moment. The primordial nothingness polarizes and creates a cleft between affirmation and negation. Shinzen compares this to tzimtzum in Kabbala, whereby the forces of hesed (love) and gevura (restraint) vibrate malchut (world) into existence.
This leads to another central goal in Judaism – shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid, meaning a continuous direct experience of God. This takes place partly through daily customs, but according to Young, mediation takes this one step further. One can experience an actual bitul (cancellation) of the somethingness of the self, which Buddhism calls “no self.”
Many rabbis who practice meditation are Buddhist-trained, he says, explaining that in terms of practice, Buddhism is much more systematic than other religions. Indeed, Johnston told him before he left Japan, “Now that I’ve been practicing Zen meditation all these years, I realize, finally, it really is possible to be a Christian.”
Young has been to Israel twice to run retreats through Tovana Insight Meditation Society, and was pleasantly surprised by how well-received meditation was by the full spectrum of Israelis. Given the social fragmentation here, he was delighted to see that Tovana had managed to find a middle path that made it possible for secular, new age and Orthodox Jews to participate.
JUST BEFORE Young left Japan, Johnston read about scientific research on meditative states: “Science, which has been looked upon as an enemy of religion, was confirming certain claims of spirituality.”
Young decided to study science so he could participate in the dialogue as an equal. He attributes the move to Johnston: “I’m a Jewish Buddhist who was turned on to science by a Roman Catholic priest.”
According to Young, “meditation is what the East developed better than any other region, making world class discoveries.” In the West, he continues, the same systematic approach was applied to the physical world, and it developed our modern sense of science, which is of worldwide significance. He deduces that if the two cross-fertilized, it could change the course of human history for the better.
He discovered that many were thinking along similar lines at major universities – for instance, at the University of Vermont, where he is now researching mindfulness for pain management and other clinical applications, and at Harvard Medical School, where he is using meditation to try to understand the wiring of the human brain.
His “happiest thought,” as a professional meditator and semi-professional scientist, is to be a shadchan, or matchmaker, for the best of the East and West. So he has attempted to analyze Buddhist practices critically to see if it is possible to eliminate all cultural and religious aspects and still have a core that “delivers the goods.”
Having removed potentially contentious doctrines that he doesn’t see as essential to the effects of Buddhist practice, such as reincarnation and gods, he has concluded that it is possible to cut these factors and still have something quite powerful.
THIS IS where mindfulness – a central tenet of Buddhist meditation used increasingly in Western psychology – comes in. The Israeli Center for Mindfulness, Science and Society (MUDA) and the Unit for Applied Neuroscience at the IDC, in collaboration with Tovana, invited Young to run a day of guided meditation and lectures on the subject.
He defines mindful awareness as a skill set consisting of concentration power, sensory clarity and equanimity. Concentration power is the ability to attend to what you deem relevant. Sensory clarity is the ability to untangle the components of a given sensory experience, and equanimity means not interfering with the rising and passing of sensory experience.
At the workshop, he introduced his method of teaching meditation, in which the meditator mentally labels his or her moment-to-moment experience, using categories of “visual” for images, “auditory” for sound and “body” for physical sensations. The exercise, Young says, increases sensory clarity and encourages development of equanimity by separating out feelings and distinguishing them. Each category is then further divided into three classifications. For example, visual experiences are divided into “see in,” to describe a mental image, “see out” for an image of the physical world and “see rest” for the absence of an image. The same goes for auditory experiences and body sensations. In his manual “Five Ways To Know Yourself,” he subdivides further.
Continued practice, he told participants, reduces suffering due to physical and emotional causes, while elevating fulfillment from the pleasant sides of life. It also provides self-insight at all levels and can lead to positive change in objective behavior.
During the sessions, he alternated between telling the meditators to focus on just one category, and being open to all simultaneously.
Bringing it back to his mission, he told participants that mindfulness was easy to parallel with science.
“Among all the ways in which modern culture may change Buddhism, I believe the impact from science might turn out to be the most significant. Science could rigorize and extend the basic conceptual model of Buddhism. Based on that new paradigm, technologies could be developed that vastly accelerate the process of enlightenment,” he says.
His great vision, “techno-enlightenment,” is that as science comes to a deeper understanding of mindfulness, it will be made readily available to large numbers of people worldwide fairly quickly, dramatically altering the course of human history. This vision includes a dramatic reduction in all forms of conflict, inequity, crime, addiction, terrorism and environmental degradation; and a dramatic increase in global human flourishing. Some might call it tikkun olam – the Jewish ideal of repairing the world.
THE MUDA center aims to promote dialogue between contemplative traditions and science, to explore how meditation could be better understood by scientific methods and how it could be used in clinical practices and education. The center strives to become an academic scientific umbrella to grassroots organizations, and eventually to bring mindfulness into the area of conflict resolution.
The head of MUDA, Dr. Nava Levitt-Binnun, says children are very receptive to mindfulness practice, particularly at a young age. There is a south Tel Aviv school that has incorporated the practice with excellent results, she affirms, showing that it reduces violence and increases grades, and that children report they are happier.
Mindfulness practice develops skills related to attention and emotion regulation, which she stresses are important skills for children to have when going through 12 years of school, and later challenges.
She advocates that mindfulness practice should be taught early on and maintained throughout the school years.
“It also develops greater resilience, more positive emotions, greater empathy and compassion,” she says. “By teaching children this practice in the first years of school, we can increase their resilience, increase their attention and self-regulation skills and help them develop into happier, more caring individuals. I think that the education policy makers should focus on developing these skills as a priority.”
It seems as though mindfulness could pervade every aspect of life, improving personal relationships, road rage, workplace behavior and so on. Indeed, Levitt-Binnun affirms that there is mindfulness-based therapy that covers a wide spectrum of issues, including problems between couples, depression, stress, disabilities, chronic pain and cancer.
Our generation touts social media as the revolutionary achievement that changed the world. Perhaps mindfulness will be the next groundbreaking coup. As Young says, only time will tell.