BG 104: Enlightenment for the Rest of Us

Episode Description:

Shinzen Young joins us again to discuss the possibility of a new way to deliver classical enlightenment to the masses. He discusses the classic delivery systems, which included monastic and lay life. He then builds on that to show a hybrid two-fold delivery system that would incorporate his artificial intelligence system with virtually led home retreats. This Home Practice Program is what is currently being offered at

Finally Shinzen discusses the “crowning glory” of his mission to unify Western and Eastern technologies, and that is to help nurture the emergence of a “neuro-scientific paradigm for classical enlightenment.” This paradigm could help lead to the emergence of technologies which have the potential to bring classical enlightenment to the masses and hence make large-scale social and individual change. Though Shinzen doesn’t think he’ll see these changes in his own lifetime, he does believe that he can do a lot to help train the future scientists who will.

This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Listen to part 1, Shinzen Young: The Hybrid Teacher & part 2, Building a Dharma Successor.

Episode Links:


Shinzen: So, if you look at the delivery system for enlightenment as it has existed say in, well, pretty much around the world in general, and specifically within Buddhism, there’s two delivery systems: one is for the full-time renunciant, and the other is for the householder.

Vince: Right.

Shinzen: So the full time renunciant: you shave your head, you got the orange robe, you got the begging bowl or whatever the equivalent of that is in your culture, and theoretically you are a full-time meditator/meditation teacher; otherwise, why do it? Well, of course we know, unfortunately, that in Buddhist Asia, in fact, the reasons that people become monks and nuns are usually other than [laughs] to become a full time meditation practitioner and teacher …

Vince: [laughs] Right right.

Shinzen: … It’s other things: it’s to get an education, it’s to get social status, it’s to get food, it’s to get somebody to take care of you, it’s because your parents pressured you, it’s because of this, it’s because of that.

Vince: Right.

Shinzen: But, theoretically, the renunciate life – sanyasa as they call it in the Hindu tradition or ????? as they call it Japan, (‘leaving the home’) – that is essentially supposed to be for that individual, a delivery system for enlightenment. But since most people don’t take that lifestyle, then there is the other delivery system: the householder’s practice. It has two components: you come to a retreat centre where you do practices sustained for periods of time – days, weeks, months – you have interaction with teachers for that time, then you go back to your householder’s life, do a day to day practice of some sort. So, it’s a rhythm of retreat and self-practice. The retreat’s done for extended periods of time in the centre. So, that’s the delivery system for the householder.

Now, I think both of these delivery systems are good and are needed; however, it does occur to me, if I think over the whole world: how many people, if they knew about the mindfulness practice, would take it on if there was nothing getting in the way of them doing that whatsoever? I ask myself, how many people are we talking about worldwide? Well, let’s talk about what gets in the way of people doing it. What gets in the way of people doing it is, they’re not monks and nuns, so they have to go to the householder’s delivery system. Now, there is nothing to stop them from doing day to day practice, they can get CDs, they can read books, etc. But, how about the retreat practice? And, how about the input from teachers that comes at the retreats? Well, most people don’t live close enough to a centre to visit for even one day, so there are geographical barriers: they have to travel. Most people have families, most people have jobs. Leaving your job, traveling, paying for your food and lodging at a retreat venue, etc. etc. all costs money, and it can cost a lot of money.

Vince: Yeah, no kidding!

Shinzen: In North American, it can cost a lot of money and money is, right now, getting tighter and tighter. Well money gets tight, money gets loose; that comes and goes as the decades and centuries unfold, but the fact is, there are significant financial barriers. There are definitely social barriers, in that your family doesn’t want you to leave: they don’t want you to leave for even one day! There are professional barriers: how much time you’re gonna take off work…

Vince: Sure.

Shinzen: … to do these intensive retreats? You have to have a pretty special job to be able to do this. There can be health barriers: a lot of sick people in the world could use this practice; need this practice; aren’t in a position to use this practice because they are housebound, or they are encumbered in some way; but, that means they cant get to the retreats. And, there is a huge population of people that could benefit from this practice but they can’t get around so easily; in fact it’s a very natural cohort to reach, a very natural population.

So I ask myself, how many people worldwide, if they knew about this practice, if they had none of these issues—the travel issue; the money issue; the time off work issue; the time-away-from-family issue; the health issue; and, let’s take another issue: the philosophical issue of, well, does this agree with my religion etc. etc.? Well, I already told you I’ve got a neutral-secular vocabulary. So if the philosophical, cultural, religious issues are now non-issues; if all of the above are not issues, how many people worldwide would do this practice if they knew about it? Well, a helluva lot more than are doing this practice!

Vince: Yeah, a lot more.

Shinzen: An order of magnitude, two orders of magnitude, three orders of magnitude more, I would guess. So, how about enlightenment for the rest of us? Now, of course the optimal delivery system is the one I just described, where you have the teacher in the home who develops, through artificial intelligence with a back-end memory, a relationship with you. That I’ll be able to give people within a couple years, but how about right now? Well, once again, let’s talk about science, okay? Let’s talk about math, actually: my favorite topic.

In mathematics, one is often interested in what might be called the limiting case of something. Once again, those of your listeners who are somewhat mathematically inclined will immediately appreciate what this means…

Vince: They know who they are! [Laughter]

Shinzen: The limiting case: how small can something be, and still be ‘A?’ So, the householder’s delivery system is a rhythm of day to day practice and periodic intensive retreat. How small can something be, and still be a ‘retreat?’ How small can day-to-day practice be, and still count? What’s the limiting case where it will still work, given that most people don’t have a lot of time, and can’t really leave, family, job, where they live, etc. etc.? So, it occurred to me that the limiting case for day-to-day practice, if you did it every single day, ten minutes, but ten solid minutes—that’s the limiting case of course, we’d like you to do an hour, two hours—but, if you did real formal practice for ten minutes each day, and it was quality, and I have a way of assuring quality, several ways actually. So: assuming that claim is true—that there is a way of assuring that it will be quality –if they could do ten minutes each day, okay, that, I think summed over months, years, and let’s be honest, decades, that would be a limiting case of your daily self-practice.

What’s the limiting case of a retreat? Well, I would say that you would have to do four hours of unbroken practice with the potential of, or input of a teacher, and from group interaction, and social bonding and group discussion. But, that can be delivered by telephone with a conference call. So, I got this idea: let’s offer people, every month, five conference call retreats on the second weekend of every single month. They can go to our website, and they can choose one of the five depending on what their interest is—they are all independent. And, we send them the relevant readings to prepare and they get a conference call number and an access code. They call in, and I figured out a schedule where I could have all the elements that are present in an on-site retreat including, if need be, the possibility of one-on-one interview with a teacher. I figured out a way that that could all be packed into four hours, and I call it the home practice programme.

Vince: And that’s what’s on, right?

Shinzen: That’s up and running, has been for a couple years, and it works like a charm.

Vince: This is your bridge to get to the augmented…

Shinzen: Well, the idea is that they do both; that they would have the home practice programme for the social dimension of the thing; but, for the raw skill set, they would have virtual Shinzen.

Vince: Gotcha.

Shinzen: Or virtual whoever, because the content could be anybody’s voice. If you don’t like my voice, it could be some well-spoken British lady that you prefer to be your teacher [laughs] …

Vince: Right, right.

Shinzen: It could be any avatar you want. Once we create the software. And it could be in any language.

So, anyway, I’ve got two delivery systems: one that involves a bonding and a networking amongst neighborhoods—because people come in to listen together—and among communities worldwide, and that’s the home practice programme. And that delivers the retreats and gives a chance for people to talk live with other practitioners and with teachers.

And then I’ve got the automated system that supports people and can give them those hours and hours of quality personal time, because it has a back-end database. It remembers every single thing you did, in every practice session. It has an artificial intelligence in it that develops a relationship with you over the years, comes to know you –it’s very high-end AI [Artificial Intelligence] –comes to know you; it addresses you by name; it alludes to your former successes, and challenges, and issues; and, interactively coaches you in working.

So, now I’ve got a twofold delivery system, one that’s based on real-time social interactions, and one that’s automated. So, that’s the home practice programme, and that’s up and running, totally up and running. And that’s been proven to work.

I know when I talk about telephone, at home, people think, “telephone? At home? Retreat? At home? I have to go away to a centre!” You know, there are these concepts of well, “that doesn’t compute,” but when people actually do it, it’s sort of like one of these “Duh! Of course! So natural! Why didn’t somebody think of this before” kind of thing. So that’s up and running. The automated instruction and support will be up and running in hopefully a year or two. So now I’ve got this integrated formulation in modern language, I’ve got this comprehensive but unified suite of tools that I call ‘The Five Ways,’ and now I’ve got two modern delivery systems.

I mean, I still do the older householder practice delivery. I still run residential retreats: all over the country people come spend a week, so I do the residential. But this other thing is also cool because the home practice programme, anyone in the world can get started at any time, and the expenses are minimal to zero. If you really don’t have any money then we won’t charge you for it at all. You don’t have to pay travel, and you don’t have to pay for lodging. You know most people can afford the whopping 20 bucks, but for those that can’t – maybe you are in Africa, that’s a lot of money—so, whatever, down to nothing.

So I’ve got these two delivery systems: I’ve got a completely modern secular formulation, and I have this very flexible, but also very unified set of tools that I call ‘The Five Ways’—this is all described at So that’s sort of how technology has informed my way of presenting things, and I’m pretty satisfied with this.

There’s one more tier that would be the crowning glory of all of this, but I doubt that it will be achieved in my lifetime. My first tier was to develop a fully modern and secular vocabulary for the classical path to enlightenment. My second challenge was to develop a unified , but highly flexible, and therefore algorithmic, technique, focused techniques. My third challenge was to develop innovative delivery systems that could reach anyone in the world.

But the final challenge is a quantum leap. It’s seven orders of magnitude beyond what I’m now describing, and therefore it’s a program—not in the sense of a computer program, but in the sense of a program of scientific investigation—that will probably take a few generations of scientists to complete. But I’m at the beginning of that program, and some people listening this broadcast will probably play a significant role in the next step in that program. And that program is to find a neuro-scientific paradigm for classical enlightenment. So that means bringing neuroscience and enlightenment together.

As you know you’re in Colorado where the Mind and Life Institute is—Adam Angle and his people out there—they have just done this incredible job of bringing this notion that this could happen and creating sizzle all over the world, based somewhat on the charisma of the Dalai Lama, but also based on just the appeal of the notion. In other words, what the Mind and Life people do is, they’ve got the the Twin Peaks Model that I do—they came upon it on their own. I hit upon it 35 years ago. They see things exactly that way and they are making it happen.

Vince: Nice.

Shinzen: So, what I see happening is, that at some time—I should say, jumping a little bit here, but, there’s something called the Summer Research Institute that Mind and Life does. They bring together 120 young neuroscientists and foster their meditation practice, largely around the mindfulness tradition, which is the most proto-scientific, and also, actually, the original one that the Buddha, himself, taught historically. So, do the math: if we’re fostering hundreds of meditating neuroscientists, there is a high probability that a number of those will have, not just deep meditation experiences, but will come to classical enlightenment. And then they will ask themselves, what I believe to be the biggest question of all time as far as I’m able to see ‘all time’ which is pretty limited. Certainly the biggest question of our time, bar none, is when I moved from limited identity to unlimited identity, something dramatic, stunning, happened to my experience of self and world; therefore, something must have happened at a neuroanatomical level, somewhere, associated with this change. For me, personally, the question of all time, taking all time to be time so far, is, “what happened?” People are starting to ask this question. Jim Austin, someone I know, wrote the book, Zen and the Brain. He’s a neurosurgeon, went to Japan, did traditional Zen practice, had classical enlightenment, and asked himself, “Based on what I know of functional neuroanatomy, what happened?'”

The final tier on my agenda for rapid, radical, global improvement of the human condition, if I wanted to speak grandiosely…

Vince: Right [laughs].

Shinzen: …my vision of the coming of the Messiah, is not the coming of a person, which is a mythological coming of the Messiah; mine is a more rational vision of the Messiah, it’s the rapid spread of classical enlightenment to a significant proportion of the human population. That would bring about radical, global improvement in the human condition in general, and bring it about fairly rapidly, I would assume. So, in any event, if we have a scientific paradigm for classical enlightenment, then we can start to talk about—this is where everybody gets really weirded out because they immediately think of a million objections and they insult my intelligence by assuming I haven’t thought of every single one of those over and over and over and over again. Be that as it may, if there is a scientific model for how enlightenment works, that becomes a basis for innovative technology that can make it available to large numbers of people fairly quickly. So, as soon as I say this, I know the explosions that are going on in people’s minds about what about this, and what about that, and what about that and what about that, and I would very patiently, if we had about 2 hours, very happily go into each one of those “what about’s” because I have certainly heard them, thought about them, for years and years and years and I think that there are useful and true things that can be said about all those what about’s.

So that’s the final tier. And I can participate in that by talking about it; I can participate in that by training among my students, trying to include people that will be the scientists of the future, but of course in no way limiting it. But, let’s be honest, I present an approach, a language, that would tend to attract people that have a Math—well not a Math—but maybe sorta have this geek way of looking at things, but other people can relate to it too. So, I can talk about this vision. I can conjecture wildly about how it might come about, but that’s just wild conjecture. Mostly, I can foster enlightened consciousness in people, some of whom, in the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years will be researchers. The way imaging is evolving now, and the way the neurosciences are evolving and the way computational biology is evolving, an enlightened neuroscientist 20 years from now—a team of enlightened neuroscientists 20 years from now—with fairly moderate funding, if they were out of the box thinkers, could probably crack this nut. And they would be the first people in the history of the world to get both the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine and the Nobel Peace Prize for exactly the same achievement.


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.