BG 102: Shinzen Young: The Hybrid Teacher

Episode Description:

Shinzen Young, professional meditation instructor and geek-extraordinaire, joins us today to share his unique journey as a contemplative. From discontinuing his PhD studies to become a full-time shingon practitioner to taking up Japanese Zen and finally discovering the mindfulness practices originating from Theravada Buddhism, Shinzen has gone deep with several contemplative techniques.

In addition to his training in the contemplative traditions of the East, Shinzen took time to train himself to become a relatively qualified mathematician and scientist so that he could one day be poised to bring together the best of the East (contemplative practice) with the best of the West (the scientific method). The hybrid of which, he thinks will yield a comletely unique fusion. Listen in to hear more from this incredibly gifted and incredibly geeky meditation teacher.

This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Listen to part 2, Building a Dharma Successor and part 3, Enlightenment for the Rest of Us.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn. I’m very excited to be joined today by a fellow named Shinzen Young. I’m going to have him talk a little bit about his background in a minute so all I’ll say really is that he’s a Mindfulness Instructor and that he’s also a person who‘s been impacted by some of the best of both the Eastern and Western worlds. And, from what he was saying when we spoke earlier before the show, he’s really been influenced by some of the best of the West, which he considers mathematics and the scientific tradition and he’s also been really influenced by the contemplative technologies of the east.

Thank you again Shinzen for taking the time to join us.


VINCE: So, I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your background and also about this interesting East & West combo.

SHINZEN: Well, I was born in LA in 1944, so I’m pretty old, and when I was about 14 years old my best friend in what in those days was called Junior High, now would be called Middle School, was 3rd generation Japanese American. And, he used to take me with his family to see Japanese Samari movies and that instilled a kind of fascination with Asian culture in my young and impressionable mind.

Now this of course is—we’re talking about the 1950’s here. And, this was a time before interest in Asia was a cool thing. It was very weird and esoteric and geeky to be—nerdy actually I guess would be the term, to be involved as a teenager in those kinds of interests. But It just grabbed me. And I discovered that there was an alternate school system for Japanese American kids that met in the afternoons and on Saturdays where they were taught Japanese language and Japanese culture so I started to go. So the upshot was by the time I graduated from Venice High, I had also graduated from soltel Japanese languages. I’d grown up bilingual and bicultural in Los Angeles. And so went to UCLA as an Asian language major—They sent me to Japan, which was of course was terrific because I could already speak language as a foreigner. I encountered Buddhist monks, they seemed to have a secret that they would happily share with you but would never impose upon you. And that left an impression on me. So when I returned to the US and graduated from UCLA and was Looking for a graduate school, I decided to go to the University of Wisconsin to do a PhD program in Buddhist studies because they had a strong emphasis on Asian languages and I was always good at Asian languages. In addition to the Japanese, I managed to pick up Chinese and Sanskrit along the way, etc.

So, I thought I’d go for Buddhist Studies. It will keep me in Asian culture and I could use my language skills and get a degree. So, I completed my course work, they sent me back to Japan and the idea was I was supposed to spend a year there and research a school of Japanese Buddhism that had not been looked into very much by Westerners and write a PhD thesis about that school. The school is Shingon, which is Japanese Vajrayana; a practice related to the Tibetan practices not in the sense that it comes from Tibet but in the sense that both the Tibetan Vajrayana practices and Shingon go back to a common Indic ancestor.

So, that was going to be my specialty. But when I got there, they wouldn’t teach me anything, because essentially they said well this wasn’t just for your intellectual curiosity this is a practice and if you want to practice it as a personal transformation path we’ll teach you but won’t teach you anything just for your own intellectual curiosity. So, they sort of turned my motivations around and I ended up staying for 3 years at Mt Koya, which is the headquarters for that. And also during that period of time spent some time in Zen temple, Zen monastery in Kyoto, so I got the Japanese Vajrayana, which sort of represents the link end of Buddhist history as far as India goes. And then, I got Zen which is a hybrid of Mahayana and sort of Chinese culture and Chinese spiritually which in a sense, in terms of its Indic origins, goes back to a period earlier than Vajrayana.

So then, I had those two influences on me and I had lost interest in the academic study of Buddhism. I was interested in the practice of meditation and I thought, well, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to just devote my life to practice.

SHINZEN: So I took a leave of absence from University of Wisconsin; never completed my PhD (I have all but dissertation degree from them) and one interesting thing that had happened during my stay in Japan is I met up with a Roman Catholic priest named Father William Johnston. He’s written a number of books. But, he’s a Jesuit and has done a lot to introduce Buddhist techniques of meditation into the Catholic world and therefore into the Christian world. But, we became very good friends and that extended my intellectual horizons because I came to realize that what I was experiencing in Buddhist practice was part of a much larger subset of world experience. Which was the world contemplative or meditative or, if you wish, mystical tradition. And I realized that “Oh My God” the same states that you go thru when you do Buddhist meditation are reported by St Teresa of Avila in 16th c Spain, they’re in certain parts of Jewish Kabbalah, they’re in Sufi masters like [inaudible] and so forth and it’s like suddenly I saw my Buddhist practice within a much larger framework. It was sort of like I got a periodic table of the elements—you know how exciting it is when you finally see—“Oh My God”, it all sort of falls into place you know these things that are related to each other and there is this larger picture. So due to that interaction with Fr Johnston, I came to see my Vajrayana and Zen practice mounted within Buddhism but then see Buddhism mounted within world mysticism.

That gave me a very broad perspective and also gave me a basis for feeling the connection to things like Christianity which, having grown up Jewish, I had no connection to. And, also a connection to the fact that “Oh My God” although it’s not much known in practice, you can find within Judaism descriptions of the states and experiences that happen as a result of Buddhist practice. And it’s not due to culture diffusion or influences. It is due to independent discovery because there is something universal about the path to enlightenment. Cultures and philosophical formulations, and techniques vary, but you can see there is a common under-current that cuts across all that. Well, that was very exciting and I credit Fr Johnston for that.

And then just before I left Japan, he came up to me, and he was all excited and he showed me this article. Now being a Jesuit, he was actually a professor at Sofia University, which is a Catholic University in Tokyo. And, as an intellectual, a Jesuit, he was excited about this article because what the article was about was the study of brain waves of meditators that was being done in Japan and actually had been begun by the Japanese in one of the Buddhist Universities before WWII. Komotau University. They were already looking into some of the central and peripheral physiological changes that take place as the result of Zen practice. And, in specific, he showed me an article that had actually been done in Tokyo University, which has become a classic article. It appears in Charles Tart’s book “Altered States of Consciousness” where they showed that Zen meditators never acclimatized to a new click stimulus that’s introduced would seem to be an objective physiological confirmation of the subjective claim of the meditators that each moment is completely fresh and new.

They showed a physiological correlate of that in the non-extinction of something called an “orienting response” which extinguishes in every normal human but not in these meditators. In other words, when something isn’t new anymore to you, you don’t have this orienting response. But, these Zen meditators always had. So, he thought—Wow how elegant is this. We’re using Science to validate the spiritual path. He thought that was very exciting. And this was just before I left Japan.

I read that article and it got me thinking—it’s like OK, my path started with a teenage fascination with Asian culture. I’m now a professional meditator. This is what I‘m going to do for my life. It seems to me that this is the best that Asia has to offer. You know, there’s art and there’s philosophy and there’s cuisine and there’s lots of cool things but when you get down to it, what has Asia done better than anyone else—in the world? It is the technology of internal psycho-spiritual exploration thru meditation—that’s like a pinnacle of human achievement. Once you really appreciate how systematic and in a sense, proto-scientific Asian meditation is in general, and most specifically, early Buddhism: Mindfulness. When you realize what an achievement this is it’s like you’re standing on this pinnacle that is a high point of human achievement relative to all of humanity—the whole world—All of our species’ history.

And, I felt I was standing on that pinnacle and really in a sense Asian culture didn’t have any more interest for me. So, I’m looking out and I say “Is there a comparable pinnacle somewhere else?”—something that some other group did that is comparable to this in the awesomeness of its depth and power. And, I see another peak. And that is the mixture of physical reasoning, mathematical reasoning, logical reasoning, skepticism, and experimentation. The west put that all together. Plus, a group cooperative culture where information must be shared. In other words, the Scientific Method and what it achieved. I look out and I say that’s comparable and if I look at all of humanity I see two peaks of the greatest intellectual achievement and the greatest relevance to the human situation: The eastern science technology of achieving well being independent of conditions, and the western science technology of understanding and manipulating conditions.

So, there’s this sort of Eastern science of understanding who we are at the psychological and deep spiritual level and achieving a happiness independent of conditions. And, there’s this Western science that understands how the natural world works and is able to manipulate conditions to achieve happiness dependent on conditions but a much more powerful one than anyone ever achieved before.

VINCE: Right

SHINZEN: So I’m looking out and I say OK, I’m understanding and a technology that allows for an understanding of self and a well being independent of conditions on one hand. And, this other peak, an understanding of the natural world and a technology that allows us to vastly increase our ability to manipulate conditions. (Ha Ha) And, be happy that way.

What if these could get together?

VINCE: Right

SHINZEN: What if they mated? Is that possible? If the best of the east and the best of the west were to produce a hybrid child of some sort which we of course we can’t imagine how a hybrid is going to turn out. But there is something called Hybrid Vitality. The history of science itself shows this over and over again. You’ll have two seemingly unrelated sub fields that suddenly find a common basis. And, that becomes, standing on the common basis, a third new development takes place.

My Favorite example of that is, ok—look at the history of math. Essentially, prior to the 16th century you’ve got algebra—which is the study of number and operations. Then you’ve got Geometry, which is the study of space and configurations and there was some back and forth between them and sometimes they helped each other and sometimes they sort of hindered each other if you know much about the history of math; I won’t go into the details. There was some back and forth. But then, Descartes, [Pierre de] Fermat, discovered this very close link between equations and curves in space which is now called pre-calculus—but was at one time called analytical geometry. That connection, that sort of natural mating of geometry and algebra produced the basis for a new direction—calculus.

Vince: Right

SHINZEN: Leibnitz, Newton they come in—they can graph functions. Now you can talk about integrating under the curve, and you can talk about taking the derivative at a given point and we’re off into differential and integral calculus and then that gets generalized to real analysis, complex analysis, vector analysis, functional analysis, topology and we’re off and running in a whole new direction of mathematics. So I asked myself if the power of analysis and topology came about in some sense through the mating of algebra and geometry. What kind of power would come out of the best of the West and the best of the East? So I thought, OK, I’m Going back to the West, I know I’m going to meditate, and I know time will pass, and I know there’s a pretty high probably that with the passage of time, I’ll get better and better at meditation and at some point I’ll be a Pro. At that point, I’d like to also be at least a really good amateur player of science because I think that these guys should be talking to each other and maybe they will some day and I’d like to be a part of that.

So that’s what I did—on my own. I used my meditative skills to train myself in the sciences—self-taught. By the way, I have absolutely no natural ability for quantitative thinking—math. I failed all my high school algebra, geometry—just straight out “F”. The only F I ever got at UCLA was the only science course I ever attempted which was astronomy 101 and on the second week the professor wrote “This is Newton’s Law F=MA (force is proportional to acceleration. Mass being the proportionally constant)” and I knew that was algebra and I knew I couldn’t do algebra so I just took my F. So I have no abilities in this what so ever but I wanted to know it because I thought it was important.

There was one thing I did have ability in—I had ability in meditation.

VINCE: Right

SHINZEN: I mean meditative skills can be used to transcend conditions but they can also be used to improve conditions—one condition meaning, “Can you do math problems?” So I used my meditation skills to overcome my natural lack of ability and my belief system about that so anyway the upshot of all of that was I lived at a Center of United States, I was practicing meditation. People started to come, wanting instruction in meditation. And, I started to instruct them but I noticed that I was initially instructing in the Zen way but I had been trained in Vajrayana, which is sort of the last development in India. I was teaching Zen because it was what I was familiar with through Japanese culture and it was popular and also—well it represented Mahayana Buddhism—ok sort of an earlier period of Buddhism. It’s Again an Example of hybrid. Right? It’s the mating of Mahayana spiritually from India with the Confucian work ethic and the Taoist philosophy of oneness—put those all together and you’ve got Zen and Confucian ritualism at that kind of thing.

So anyway, I was sort of teaching within that context but at the Center where I was at which still exists—International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles California— true to its name had representative of all three vehicles there.

And I noticed the people teaching mindfulness seemed to be getting results better and faster and attracting more people and they didn’t have a lot of the problems associated with Zen and Vajrayana. To do Vajrayana you have to sort of visualize the deities of another culture ok? And Jung said that could be could be very harsh on a person. I don’t exactly agree with Jung. But not everyone wants to participate in the archetypes of another world. To do Zen, as I was teaching it at that time, we were chanting in Japanese, eating with chopsticks, whacking people with sticks. It’s a very different cultural experience.

But the Mindfulness people were able to extract what they were teaching from the cultural matrix and make it very American and very approachable and that made sense to me in terms of—pragmatism.

The other thing is, that I noticed that the Mindfulness was very systematic. It was in fact algorithmic and as a budding math geek that appealed to me.

Vince: What do you mean by algorithmic?

SHINZEN: I mean that it can be taught as an algorithm. Do this, do this, this, do this, now this, this or this will happen. If this happens, do this; if this, do that, if this other thing happens keep doing what you’ve been doing until this other thing happens. In other words, you can loop and branch and optimize people’s experience with it.

So I was teaching and I thought I think I want to learn more about Mindfulness. So I started to go to mindfulness retreats in the classical traditions of Asia. Specifically the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition which you’re familiar with, which involves noting as the mindfulness technique and the yo ba can [inaudible] tradition, through mystical Inca which involves body sweeping primarily as its technique. So, I started to move more toward a mindfulness approach because I liked the way of working, specifically I liked the Mahasi way with noting although the sweeping is also a very powerful technology.

So, in any event I started to experiment teaching mindfulness as opposed to Vajrayana or Zen which were my actual lineages and it worked very well. It worked well in the sense of I could appeal to more people because we didn’t have the cultural baggage and I found that I could extract it from even the loaded spiritual vocabulary of the Buddhist religion. I could reformulate it in a modern secular vocabulary without losing any of the spiritual potential.

Vince: Could you give me an example?

SHINZEN: Yeah, the way I now formulate it, if I were to sort-of fast forward to what I do now, I say that: Mindfulness is a three-fold attentional skill set: the three components that we will train, with time, like we could train your body with various dimensions of your body, strength, definition, flexibility, we can train various dimensions of your attentional process. And the three components that we are going to train are:

Concentration power, which we’ll define as the ability to focus on what is deemed relevant;

Sensory Clarity, which you can think of as the ability to keep the components of your sensory experience separate in awareness. For example, when you have an emotion, instead of an emotion, you can break it down into a visual component: mental images, an auditory component: internal talk and a somatic component: emotional feeling. Keeping track of those components is sensory clarity.

And then a third skill set is called Equanimity, which is the ability to allow sensory experience to well up and subside without suppressing it as it wells up, and without inappropriately latching on, as it subsides.

So now I’ve defined a three-fold attentional skill set. Now we will apply this both to your subjective sensory experience and your objective sensory experience. But, when your concentration, your sensory clarity, and your equanimity reach a certain critical mass, there is a kind of quantum leap that occurs and ordinary experience becomes utterly extraordinary. And that utterly extraordinary is, around the world, is referred to as a spiritual experience but another way that we can describe it if we don’t like the word spiritual is we can just say it is what happens to ordinary sensory experience when those ordinary experiences are greeted with extraordinary base level of concentration, clarity and equanimity.

VINCE: Gotcha.

SHINZEN: So, this is completely secular language.

VINCE: Sure, sure

SHINZEN: But, what that extraordinariness is, is basically it all breaks up into vibrating energy and then that energy subsides into a timeless, spaceless, absolute consciousness called Nirvana.

But I don’t have to use the word Nirvana. I can just say that I’ll connect the dots for you. The more that you have concentration, clarity and equanimity the less your happiness will be dependent on conditions. Or put alternatively, the more you will be happy independent of conditions

And I can Connect the dots between those attentional skill components and

a. Your ability to experience physical discomfort without suffering
b. Your emotional ability to experience emotional discomfort without suffering (ha!)
c. Your ability to experience physical pleasure with enhanced fulfillment (ha!)
d. Your ability to experience emotional pleasure with enhanced fulfillment
e. And your ability to understand who you are
f. And your ability to make the behavior changes you need to make in your life

I can relate all of these to that attentional skill set directly. So, this gives a fully secular languaging of the path for both radically improving oneself and radically transcending oneself.


Shinzen Young

Shinzen Young is a Vipassana meditation teacher. Although Vipassana is traditionally a Theravada technique, Shinzen was originally ordained in Japan as a monk in the Shingon tradition. He has studied and practiced extensively in other traditions, including Zen and Lakota Sioux Shamanism.

He frequently uses concepts from mathematics as a metaphor to illustrate the abstract concepts of meditation. As a result, his teachings tend to be popular among academics and professionals. His interest in integrating meditation with scientific paradigms has led to collaborations with neuroscientists at UCLA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is working on various ways to bring a secular mindfulness practice to a wider audience, using revamped terminology and techniques and automated expert systems.