Awakin Calls » Shinzen Young » Transcript
Shinzen Young: The Role of Compassion on the Spiritual Path
Guest: Shinzen Young
Host: Rahul Brown
Moderator: Nipun Mehta
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways . Awakin calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of Service Space. A global platform founded on the simple principle, that by changing ourselves we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us.
Rahul: Good morning. Good afternoon, and good evening everyone. My name is Rahul and I'm really excited to be your host for our weekly Global Awakin Call. Welcome and thank you for joining us. The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold the space. Today our special guest is Shinzen Young. Thanks again for joining today's call. Let's start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into the space.
Welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call, today in conversation with Shinzen Young. As an all-volunteer-offering, each Awakin Call is a conversational space that is co-created by many invisible hands. In a few minutes, our moderator Nipun Mehta will begin by engaging in initial dialogue with our speaker, Shinzen Young. And by the top of the hour, we'll go into a Q&A and circle of sharing, where we invite all your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue right now, so at any point you can hit star six on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us at email@example.com or submit a comment or question via the webcast form, if you are listening online via live webcast.
Our moderator today is Nipun Mehta. Nipun, of course needs no introduction as the founder of Service Space. He's been a visionary behind the popularization of giftvism and gift ecology through a myriad of online and offline experiments as well as his prolific public speaking and service engagements around the globe. He's been the recipient of numerous awards from luminaries ranging from Wavy Gravy to the Dalai Lama. And yet his humble mission in every moment remains to bring 'Smiles in the world and Stillness in his heart.' Nipun is actually stepping away from anchoring a retreat this morning to join us today and will now introduce our guest Shinzen and get the ball rolling on this conversation. Nipun, thanks for all you do and over to you.
Nipun: Thank you. Thank you Rahul. I'm very excited about this call. As a lot of you may already know, Shinzen Young is an American mindfulness teacher who is building a bridge between contemplative practice and hard science in very interesting ways. You know, the line I really love that stood out from his bio is: "if you were to ask him to describe himself, he might say something like this -- I'm a Jewish-American Buddhist teacher who got turned on to comparative mysticism by an Irish-Catholic priest. And who has developed a Burmese-Japanese fusion practice inspired by the spirit of quantified science."
So that's a fantastic statement about him. Shinzen Young was born as Steve Young in Los Angeles, California. While in middle school, he became really fascinated with Asian languages and cultures and went on to graduate from UCLA as a Asian languages major. But soon after, while he was actually gathering material for his dissertation at University of Wisconsin in the Buddhist studies Ph.D program, he ordained and spent three years as a Shingon monk in 1970. And that of course ended up changing his life. And he received a name while he was there-- of Shinzen and afterwards trained extensively in three other Buddhist Traditions -- Vajrayana, Zen and Vipassana, along with Native American traditions as well. I recently read one of his books "The science of Enlightenment" and was just really deeply moved by his penetrating insight. And as he would say, his calling to take the mist out of mysticism. So Shinzen, it is genuinely an honor to have you on this call and to be in conversation with you. Thank you and welcome.
Shinzen: Thank you, and I'll reflect those sentiments back. This is my favorite thing in the world -- is to be able to talk to people about these areas that have been so passionate for me all these years and decades. So thanks for the the bully pulpit from which to do my favorite thing.
Nipun: Thank you. There are so many places to start a conversation with you, but I really want to start -- just to give more context -- with your early years. When you were 14, from what I understand, you saw a Samurai movie and that really got you interested in the Asian culture. You subsequently enrolled in Japanese class and started learning Mandarin and Sanskrit, while you were in high school. So my question really is what was it that drew you to Asia, outside of that movie? What, you know, were you finding there that you weren't able to get here? And what what was that affinity that kept, you know, kept you going back?
Shinzen: You know, that's a really interesting question. And to be honest, I'm not quite sure. I'm not sure that I can really rationally explain it. So what is now called Middle School used to be called Junior High School. Some people on this call may, if they're from the US, may remember, when that was the case. So I was in junior high school and my best friend was what is called sansei -- that means third-generation Japanese-American, and we were friends because we had interests in common. Japan was not one of them. You know, he just happened to be Japanese-American. So his family, his parents are what would be called nisei or second-generation, meaning that his grandparents came directly from Japan. So he had a grandmother that stayed there that actually didn't even speak English. And the parents could sorta understand Japanese, because you know of their parents, you know the grandparents.
So they used to go see Japanese movies every Friday at a little theater in Downtown LA. And one Friday, they invited me to go with them. So Japan and things Japanese were not something I was attracted to at that time. In fact, if anything to be honest, I was probably repelled. When I was born, my dad was off fighting Japan in the Pacific. I was born during World War Two. I'm that old! Although there wasn't any prejudice in my family, “things Japanese” and in general “things Asian”, were not considered cool. If you didn't grow up in post-war US as a kid, you don't quite realise the enormity of the culture shift that has occurred in North America, but I lived through it. And it was not a cool thing at all to be interested in Asian stuff. It marginalized you, made you a weirdo.
So anyway, I was not particularly interested in going with them to see Japanese movies. And this another thing -- our neighbor had been a POW of the Japanese during World War Two. And so we'd heard, you know, not very nice stories about how he was treated. So I would say my general attitude was I mean certainly not racist, but not particularly attracted. But I didn't want to be rude or whatever. So, okay, sure. We'll go see a Japanese movie.
Now, at that time, if you wanted to see a movie made in Japan in Los Angeles, you had to go to a little theater in Skid Row. You'd have to walk over Darrell X and be accosted for a handout, etc. And as a fourteen-year-old, that's already like scary. So you have to go downtown and it's a little teeny theater that was showing these Japanese movies. So okay, we go. It's a double bill. The first is a love story set in modern Tokyo, and I'm just bored, but whatever. And second is a period piece, set in 18th century Japan.
And I can still tell you, you could go to Wikipedia, if you want to find the series. It was called Hatamoto Taikutsu Otoko (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0164631/). It means the “Bored Banner-man.” Banner-men were master-less, were a certain kind of Samurai, not exactly a Ronin, but a certain kind of Samurai, let's put it that way. So "The Bored Hatamoto" was the name of this series and the actor had a Kabuki background. So it was one of those Japanese movies that was really highly stylized. I mean it was a movie with modern style acting, but there was a certain Kabuki-esque quality to it.
I was mesmerized and I can't tell you why. I was just mesmerized by the thought. I can remember the thought. The thought was -- well, these people are obviously human beings like me, but there was literally not a single cultural feature there. This is pre-modern Japan. There wasn't any cultural feature there that looked like anything I was used to. Their sexual dimorphism in the Japanese language, Japanese women talk one way, Japanese men talk another way, and there's a different body language associated with it. So the women were like -- (Shinzen speaks Japanese in a soft, gentle voice), and then the men were like (Shinzen speaks Japanese in a loud, tough voice). It's like, wow - men are men and women are women. And their costumes and their way of fighting. I had never seen a two-handed sword. You know, it's like that famous line about, "That's not a knife. This is a knife." I mean, that's not a sword, and this is a sword. Okay! And they did very stylized fighting sequences. Like I say, it was somewhat Kabuki-esque, and it was exciting, like nothing I had ever seen.
And then there were these weird cultural things. I'm getting a little teary actually, even now remembering this, all those decades ago, because it was such a strange thing. There would be this sudden galvanizing of my interest. So there's one scene where one samurai does Jiu-Jitsu and he gets the other guy, you know in a submission hold. And you know, they had subtitles, right? Otherwise I couldn't follow it. For that matter, neither can my friend, if they didn't have the subtitles. So the subtitle was, "You're a samurai, you know what to do." And the guy just whips out a tanto and slits his own belly. Like wow? What world is this? They're human, but they might as well be from another planet!
And at the end, I just started to ask my friends parents a gazillion questions. Why did they do that? I'm actually getting a little emotional now. It was: why did they do that? And why did that happen? Because so little computed to the world of the US in the 50s. They would answer my questions and then they took me out to Little Tokyo -- the Japanese area in Downtown LA. So in those days no one but Japanese and Japanese-Americans would be walking the streets of Little Tokyo. And I was this 14 year old white-bred. They taught me how to order food in a Japanese restaurant. They taught me how to eat with chopsticks. Most people didn't know how to do that in those ages. It was suddenly this incredible cultural adventure. And then I started go every week.
Then I found out there's a Japanese-American parallel school system, it parallels US public school and it's like Jewish school, like Cheder for Jewish kids, you know, be it in the afternoons or on Saturday and so forth. So I started to go to Japanese school. Now I was behind, obviously, but I eventually caught up. So I had this privilege of growing up not just bilingual but bicultural, without leaving Los Angeles.
That led to where I couldn't really understand Japan, unless I understand China. So my parents dutifully got me a Mandarin tutor. And then I'll never really understand China, unless I understand the influence from India, that was through Buddhism. So my parents dutifully got me a Sanskrit tutor, and I was off and running. And I did horribly in school. I failed everything. At Venice High, I was, you know, a marginalized nerd. But at Sawtelle Japanese Language Institute, I was the class valedictorian. And I don't know why. I mean I've had Japanese people tell me I was a Japanese woman in a former life. That's you know, that's sort of from that culture etc. I'm not saying I believe that, but it is rather strange.
Nipun: Yeah, and you ended up going back many times and Japan ended up being very formative for you, particularly the hundred day Zen Retreat that you did there? You said by the last day of that hundred days Zen Retreat: “I was on the verge of fainting from sheer physical intensity.” And yet I think that retreat ended up giving you a completely new look on life? And that was in Japan as well, right?
Shinzen: Actually, both were two different retreats. But the fainting thing was on a seven-day retreat. I later did a hundred day retreat.
Nipun: Okay. So you almost fainted on a seven-day retreat, but you're like -- I'm going for the hundred now! Can you speak a little bit of pain. One of your books is titled "Natural Pain Relief" and you've done so many rather intense and arduous experiments and gone through so much of pain. How would you describe pain to a layman and its larger role on the spiritual path?
Shinzen: Sure. So this of course comes directly out of those experiences of being forced to go through some pretty intense significant discomfort because of old-school monastic training in Japan. I sometimes jokingly call it ‘Samurai boot camp.’ In that book I've got a few stories about that kind of thing. But the one thing I would say is -- after the fact, it's sort of fun to talk about these intense training experiences you've had, but there is a problem with that. So let me, just by way of preface to your question say, if you hear someone talking about what they did at an intense zen retreat or in a shamanic ordeal or something like that, the tendency is to think -- well, if that's what you have to go through to get enlightenment or happiness independent of conditions, what have you, find your true self...if that's what I have to go through, I think I'll wait for another life, you know? Because that sounds like a bit much.
So the problem with talking about these, sharing these kinds of stories is people think it's very irrelevant to their concerns. But actually it's directly relevant. Most people on this call are not going to go to a monastery. But almost every one of them will have the monastery come to them, in the form of something that is going to happen, that is every bit as intense, as what anyone ever put themselves through, in terms of traditional training. Life does that, life is just a telephone call away, life is just a banana peel away.
I walk out the door, I slip. I’ve injured my back and now it's chronic pain for the next 20 years. That easy. So learning how to deal with discomfort in general, not just pain, but more broadly physical discomfort of any sort, and actually not just physical discomfort but emotional or mental discomfort -- sooner or later, everyone has to face this. So it's good to know some things when that happens. I mean: sure, if the doctors can cure it, fine; if they can mask it with the palliative care, fine. But that's not always feasible. So sooner or later, you're going to encounter physical discomfort.
So I like to speak of it a little more broadly than just pain. I just say physical discomfort -- it is too hot, it is too cold, you're hungry or thirsty, what have you. You know, we could generalize it further to mental and emotional, but actually it turns out that if you understand the physical, you also understand the mental and emotional. I'll explain what I mean in a minute. So in traditional trainings, both in Native cultures and in Eastern and Western monastic asceticism, and so forth -- you voluntarily, you know, expose yourself to certain discomfort. So in my case they insisted that I sit perfectly still for an hour in the Full Lotus, you know? And I was not very flexible, so that very quickly turned into pretty intensive discomfort.
Okay, so news you can use! I'd like everyone on this call to listen carefully because it will be relevant to your life and to the lives of people around you. So as you mentioned, my approach to practice is profoundly informed by what I call the spirit of science. So science is about creating very clear descriptions and powerful methods, powerful procedures.
So let's say that you have physical discomfort of some sort or another. What are the basic sensory dimensions involved in that experience? Well, you might tend to think it's the physical discomfort, it's the pain in my knee. Let's just, without loss of generality, we’ll say you're sitting there, you're meditating and your knees hurt. So you've got that local intense physical discomfort. That is certainly one of the sensory components. Is there anything else?
Well, yeah, actually that discomfort in that local area might be spreading very subtle cringy types of sensations more broadly through the body. So although we tend to think the problem is that one local pain, in fact, in addition to that, you might detect a spreading of that. And subtle can be significant. If it's a mild sort of cringy type thing, but it's over your whole body. Well, that could be a significant component. So one dimension is the local intensity, second dimension is the global spread that you may or may not detect. That's another dimension.
Well, how about your mental reaction in real-time? Moment by moment, to that discomfort? Well, that has two components, visual thought -- mental image and auditory thought --mental talk. So you are making a comment about it -- oh no and it's not going to go away! And you have some image of how horrible it is. When my dad died of lung cancer, I had this image of this monster biting him, and I realized oh, it's not for nothing that they call it cancer, which is the Latin word for crab. Like the claw, right? But I had that image and that image was part of what made it disconcerting. So you have mental image, mental talk. What else?
Well, you could have what I call “Emotional Body Sensations” -- the bodily component of the experience of fear -- irritability, impatience, teary-poor-me -- you could have up to a half dozen helpless flavors. You could have two, three, four, five, six distinct emotional flavors in the body, that are being triggered by the physical discomfort.
So this is a very rich cocktail. You’ve got the local impact of the pain, you've got the global impact of the pain. You've got your image reactivity, the talk reactivity, and your emotional body reactivity. So by what mathematical function do we calculate your aggregate suffering? I'm going to suggest that if you can experience all of the above with mindful awareness, that there will be a dramatic reduction in perceived suffering.
So I'm going to define mindful awareness as having three attentional components -- concentration power, sensory clarity and equanimity. Look around the world -- you'll find that all forms of meditation, either implicitly or explicitly, involve those three attentional skills. If people want detail on this...But I mentioned, you know, good news, bad news. I'm very scientific about things, so in science, it's not as simple as you might like. You know, they might want a one-word answer. Well, I could give you a one word answer, but it's not going to help you. You need details.
I've got an article on the internet, about 80 pages, called: “What is mindfulness?” and I explain the mechanism whereby those three skill will dramatically reduce suffering. But I can give you sort of the top page summary. Let's say that you're on max. Which we’ll say is 10. So you have 10 units of local pain, 10 units of global spread, 10 units of disconcerting mental image, 10 units of negative mental talk and 10 units of emotion in your body. So by what mathematical function do we calculate how bothersome this is? I'm going to suggest that if you've trained yourself into the core attentional skills I’m mentioning, as I say you can read the 'what is mindfulness' article for the detailed mechanism. But if you train yourself in those skills, your experience will be just what is -- 10 plus 10 plus 10 plus 10 plus 10. Now that is 50. However 50 pounds, although it's a schlep, people can handle that. However, most people have not trained themselves deeply in those skills, so those components cross-multiply with each other. They reinforce each other, creating an illusory impression, that you're suffering at the level 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10. That's a hundred thousand. So when the person is saying to "how much suffering?" -- “It's a 100,000. Kill me!” Actually, it's only 50. That's why we call it the "miracle of mindfulness". 100,000? Very hard to bear. 50? You can do it, but furthermore, what happens is...There's more.
When you bring that mindful awareness to these sensory components, they begin to flow and there's actually a kind of joy, that I call the “visuddhi-rasa”, the “taste of purification.” It actually takes on a positive. I have this friend who is Native American. I've known him for decades. I want to ask him, "Why do you do the sun dance?” It makes Zen training look like something for wimps, because the sun dance is getting close to real world torture. Anyway, I knew him well enough that I could ask him that question. "Why do you do this ceremony?" He said, "I get a spiritual high that lasts all year."
Now I understood what he was saying. That's what I'm calling the taste of purification. Not only do you get this reduction of suffering but you get a sense that because of the way I'm experiencing this moment right now, limiting forces, what we call samskaras -- you're probably familiar with that term -- the limiting forces from the past are getting broken up. And each moment in the future is going to be just a bit more joyous. That's the taste of purification. That's the executive summary!
Nipun: What that reminds me of is a one word response in the Q&A section in that very document I remember reading. The question was "how do you define equanimity?" and you gave a beautiful, and I thought an unusual, one word response: "love". I want to zoom in a little bit on love, on this spirit of service, on this idea of a Bodhisattva.
I was actually looking online and I saw your video. You were very close friends with Leonard Cohen and he was also a student of Sasaki Roshi, and you gave this beautiful explanation of his song Love Itself. "Then love itself, love itself has gone." Can you share a little bit about -- What is this kind of love? What is its role and how has that played a role in your spiritual journey, and how does service show up on that path?
Shinzen: Yes. Of course, words can be used in different ways. When I was describing equanimity in terms of love, I was being poetic. If I were to be more prosaic to write an essay, or more scientific, I would say equanimity is the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without push and pull. It's an ability to not interfere with the flow of what you see, hear, and feel on the inside and on the outside. So physical sight, physical sound, physical type body sensations, mental image, mental talk, emotional type body sensations. When you have the ability to allow those to come and go without even subtly coagulating their intrinsic fluidity, that's equanimity.
So the reason I described it as love is, if you think about what happens at the pinnacle of physical love between partners, there is a moment or a duration where there's nothing you need to change whatsoever about your partner. They are the very archetype of primordial perfection. So there's no need to push or pull. You are 100% open to that person. So open to that person that you become that person.
People often ask me because they perceive that we're living in "troubling times", I hear this phrase a lot in my community and they say "Shinzen, what do you think we should do in troubling times?" Actually all times are troubling times. It's just sometimes are troubling for certain people and other times are troubling for other people. It's a general question to which I do have a general answer which is "love deeply and act effectively".
"Love deeply" is equivalent to enlightenment. You're asking about the relationship between liberation and service, and this is a huge, important area because the liberation without the service is not really a complete path, at least as I was taught by all my teachers, both in terms of what they told me and in terms of what I saw them doing. I had role models.
Liberation, even profound liberation without service, I would say, is an incomplete path. Service without liberation, or at least without allocating a reasonable amount of time and energy towards liberation, can lead very quickly to what I call the three "outs": burn out, bomb out, freak out. You see people who only have a service path and don't have a sadhana. They don't have a systematic practice path. They get subject to the three outs. Their energy is drained. They become depressed and hopeless.
The freak out is the worst -- they become distorted and often become themselves the abuser. It can happen really easily. It's a very slippery slope. From "I represent the religion of love” to “but there's these others that oppose my religion, and they're dangerous, and we need to do something about them. Maybe we even have to -- I don't know -- launch an inquisition against them." Pretty soon on that slippery slope -- where you entered the monastery to become the monk of the religion of love, you end up torturing the heretics. It's a very slippery slope. That's what I call freak out. You actually become distorted yourself. And your responses are less than optimal or in the worst case you just become part of the problem. It's important that people not just do service.
One of the Berrigan brothers, I think, said -- "Don't just do something, stand there!" The balanced path has them both. So what's the relationship? Liberated consciousness allows you to experience in each moment of life what I call amor primero: "love first". Now, by that I don't mean thoughts about love or even the emotion of love. I'm talking about love itself, what Leonard called love itself.
Let's just take an example. How do you know the current president of the United States? How do you know who the president is and what that person is doing? That, this is not some rhetorical question. It's literal. How do you know? Well, maybe you watch television, so you see that person with your eyes, you hear that person, but even if, and then when you see that person, hear that person physically, you may have some emotional sensations. And you may have what you're feeling in your body and you have some mental comments maybe in your head, reacting to that and even if you're not looking at that person or hearing them physically you think ah, that's the president and he's doing this or that. Maybe some people on this call like the current president, maybe some of them don't like him. But one way or another, whether you like or don't like, even when you're thinking about that person and having emotions about that person, everything that I just mentioned comes up as sensory experience, in the moment, second by second. You have mental image or physical sight, you have mental thoughts or physical sound, you have your body emotional reactions, that, that's how you know who is the president of the United States.
In fact, that's how you know anything, about anything in this world or any conceivable world -- you know it through sensory experience. Those that have trained contemplative skills, which I define as elevating your base level of concentration, clarity and equanimity. Base level means how clear, concentrated, equanimous you are in daily life, when you're not particularly trying to be that way. It's like exercise, it elevates the quality that then is there. You don't have to be pumping iron to be strong, the strength is there for you all day.
So, meditation, or contemporary practice, or mindfulness -- I tend to use those words synonymously, which I can explain if you're interested -- but in any event, if you have brought those attentional skills to a critical base level, then as soon as you think about a person or anything, as soon as you see them, hear them, physically touch them, have an emotional reaction to them -- the first thing you experience, a thousand times a day, is the formless womb moulding that person into existence, as an act of pure Cosmic Love. And, this isn't an idea, it's not a wishful thinking, it's not emotion, it's not a thought, its intrinsic in your sensory experience. You couldn't get away with it, away from it, even if you wanted to. Christians used to call this “The practice of the presence of God.” Brother Lawrence talked about this, a very interesting 17th century Carmelite French lay brother. Anyway, you can't leave church anymore because, or you don't go to church anymore. You don't need to go to church anymore, because you can't leave. Everything is here. So your senses are now spiritualised.
So, so, in the instant of perception, of say someone you don't like, for just a second you don't have that reaction of not liking them. Before you have that reaction, you tangibly, irrefutably, experience the source manifesting them. And then you have your reaction, which may be to act effectively. If you don't like that person, then you figure out what we're going to do to get rid of them, whatever. But preceding each moment of acting effectively, is a moment of loving deeply, that optimizes, big-picture-wise, our efforts to service and it's a direct reminder constantly of service. Because it's pretty natural to want to help out, if you're, in each sensory moment, reminded that you are a “adelphos”-- you share the womb. The Greek word “Adelphos” meaning brother or sister, as in Philadelphia. It means adelphos. Sagarba in Sanskrit is the direct cognate -- you share the womb, you share the source of everything that is, that you perceive on the inside or outside, you share that source. And so you're constantly reminded of the sorority and fraternity of the so-called others. And therefore helping out is natural. So my Zen teachers, their take on compassion or service, which they emphasized very strongly, was that it's a consequence of enlightenment.
Nipun: If 'm not mistaken, in Buddhisms, there are these two ideas -- one of an Arahant, who is somebody who's completely awakened and free from all defilements, and another of a Bodhisattva, who sort of delays one's awakening in service to other people. Can you share some insight on to the Bodhisattva path and service rendered there? And how is an awakened person not a Bodhisattva, I suppose, because they are already in service? But perhaps they're not going as far as a Bodhisattva? Just some clarification around that would be helpful.
Shinzen: Sure, so you'll recall that I was trained in Buddhist scholarship.
Shinzen: And you know, we use this word “sanskara” or habit force. So I have the Habit force of a Buddhist scholar. So if you ask me a question like that, I'm very tempted to give you a little lecture in the history of Buddhism. Let me explain why. To put it bluntly, the distinction you're now making, is part of propaganda that was formulated by Mahayana Buddhists. And it's not nearly as fundamental, as almost every book on Buddhism would lead you to believe. Okay, maybe that's not what you expected to hear.
Nipun: No, no. Sure. In your book, “Science of Enlightenment,” you shared an example of someone who you consider to be a bodhisattva, someone who has insight into liberation, into cessation, but also cultivates a lot of different kinds of virtue, in what you call the "intermediate layer". So it seems like there is a distinction around this deep sense of service, coming from this deep love, that you described.
Shinzen: Well, there can be a distinction, but the way it's formulated in the Mahayana scriptures, it's really grossly exaggerated. But it's true that you have these different practice types and some people may be more called to service than others. But Buddhist textbooks lead you to believe that there are, sort of, these two fundamentally different approaches. And that's actually an optical illusion and an artifact of Buddhist history. In other words you'll often hear people say: oh you practice mindfulness, well that's associated with Theravada Buddhism, that small vehicle, that's not a path of service. They'll, because of your lineage, they'll make that assumption. So, I'm just reacting to the fact that these over simplified formulations can be distorting.
It is true, however, that some people are more naturally called to service than others. That is true. From that perspective, we can say that there is a distinction. What I am reacting to is the assumption that that is in some way, correlated with your practise lineage, which is what the standard books on Buddhism make it sound like. That has not been my experience.
Zen is technically the great vehicle. Technically Mahayana. But I found a lot of Zen teachers that were not so much into Zen. And Vipassana is technically Theravada, technically Hinayana, and I found a lot of Vipassana teachers who were very much into Zen. So I am just saying that let us not go the over-simplified route.
But you are right, broadly speaking, some people are more pulled than others. And part of that, and I think what you are asking is that -- well, what makes the difference. Some of it might be their own personality. But a lot of it has to do with indoctrination and role models. So I was indoctrinated by my teachers with the notion that a complete path involved service in liberation. I heard that over and over again. So that's a kind of indoctrination. I have that kind of indoctrination. And I think that was a good thing. To be indoctrinated.
My very first meditation teacher had a picture of the Buddha on his wall. He was a Japanese university professor. But it wasn't the seated Buddha that you usually see. He was walking. Walking down the mountains into the city. And the picture was called "Shussan Shaka" and in Japanese that means "The Buddha leaving the mountain". My teacher would always point out to me, "Shinzen, I know you want to go deep in meditation. And you want to have this experience and that experience. But in the end it is going to be about leaving the mountain. As a liberated person. Or perhaps going back and forth. From marketplace to the mountain etc. Maybe simultaneously. It is going to entail both.” So that sort of perspective was repeated over and over again. Secondly it was explained to me -- the mechanism how I will be reminded of service. Which is when I finally did have liberation, I would always be experiencing myself and the other coming from the source. And therefore I would always be reminded. So I got a certain perspective.
But probably more important than that indoctrination, was the role model.
I saw it, time after time after time, across cultures, across gender, across everything -- what do people do when they become free? I could give you lot of great stories about what I saw, but basically what I saw was -- Here is the person that is just available to the public all day.
I saw it in a woman named Nicola Geiger, who was a German American living in Japan. Worked largely in a Christian tradition, but she got enlightened during World War II, by being tortured and raped. By both the Nazi and Russians. But she had been trained in meditation. She was twenty something at that time. So instead of being destroyed for life, she was empowered for life by those Schindler List-type experiences. I met her in Japan, and she was working for Amnesty International, for human rights in South Korea, which at that time was when Kim Dae-jung, was in prison. And the human rights situation was very bad and she was friends with Kim Dae-jung. And she was working at Amnesty International. And you think someone who had been through that kind of experience, of being a victim of political abuse, and the last thing in the world, they want to do is -- to have people they care about in that situation, right? But of course the liberation balanced it. She was quite joyous.
So love deeply. But she was acting effectively. She was sneaking stuff into South Korea. It was real, like spy stuff. It was amazing. So what does this person do? By the way, Kim Dae-jung eventually was freed and became the first democratic president of South Korea. What did she do? She would sit there all day. She lived in Kyoto, capital of Japan. And a sequence of people would come into her room. Every kind of person you could imagine. Japanese, foreigner, some criminals and Yakuza , all the way up to eminent masters and Catholic priests. She would interact with these people, giving them what they need, one after another after another.
And then I saw the same pattern with a Chinese master I lived with -- he just sat in his office. And this one comes with this problem and this one comes with that problem. And some he could help in a service way. Others he would help in a deep way. So I got to see what a functioning Bodhisattva is like. And so the combination of the indoctrination plus the role model. Plus my own deepening experience from meditation to where I too started to experience that true love, in real time -- that's what caused the integration for me.
Nipun: That is beautiful. Thank you for sharing that.
Nipun: Shinzen, one particular thing that I appreciate about what you are doing and what you might frame as "taking the mist out of mysticism", is speaking to the universality of this - you also have this portal called Unified Mindfulness, that is one of your big aims. In Buddhism, there is this idea of "stream entry", the experience of "no mind", but you find references to it in the Kabbalah, in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, in St.Teresa of Avila -- in a way, all faiths are talking about it.
So you are really pointing to this interfaith element of awakening. You have studied a lot of faith traditions, and found a lot of commonality. So a) my first question around that would be, what really got you interested in interfaith? And b) what do you see the potential of that going forward? In the typical scenario, we see many conflicts around faith but you seem to be pointing at something much more hopeful.
Shinzen: Yes. Well, that's a really juicy question. If you get a bunch of theologians together, they'll probably argue. But if you get contemplatives, from say a half dozen traditions, and they're experienced in that tradition of contemplation, they probably won't argue. They'll sort of understand each other. That tells me that there is a contemplative core in each religion. Depending on history and other cultural factors, sometimes that contemplative core is quite dominant. Other times it's there, but marginal. Sometimes it was there in the past and then died out for various reasons.
To see the unification, I don't look to the doctrines for the concepts because that's high reads. You get lost very quickly in contention. I look to how a contemplative practice is done or was done. That’s where you see the commonalities. So, once you know how to look for that, it’s pretty easy to get a unified perspective on things. So, that’s sort of how I go about that.
I wouldn't say that there's necessarily surface agreement, philosophically or culturally, among the religions of the world. You have to go sort of into a more specialized world within that religion. You go to what are the meditative experiences of the contemplative within that tradition? And that to me would represent the essence of that tradition. It also represents the essence of all humanity, inside and outside of religion. It's the spiritual essence of things that can be pretty much summarized by -- a dialectical process of getting over yourself, letting go of the world, complemented by refining yourself and serving the world. Doing that in progressively more radical levels. That's the contemplative core that you'll find everywhere. So, once you start looking to that, you have harmony.
Nipun: In your experience in working with contemplatives, do you find a lot of reason for optimism or do you feel there's more work to be done? Because this seems so important in terms of alleviating, even if it is just as the surface level, some suffering in the world. So from your lens, what are you seeing in terms of that unity? Are more people gravitating towards the contemplativeness, engaging in more dialogue or it's been more of the same historical patterns?
Shinzen: I would say, good news, the former. More people are engaging in that kind of dialogue. So, you know the U.S. baseball player, Yogi Berra, was famous for these malapropisms. These things that he would say that were sort of cute, but didn't work quite logically, right? So, one of his things was: I never make predictions, especially about the future.
So I would not, for a moment, have a prediction as to what's going to happen on this planet in the next few decades or the next century or so. Many factors enter it. I know a lot of people are sort of worried, hence the phrase -- times of trouble. To be honest, my gut tells me to be optimistic. What I see and you sort of mentioned it, is that, yes, on the surface, there is a lot of contention, but there's this slow, architectonic, continental drift occurring. We're, by the contemplative practices, we are penetrating into the mainstream of all human cultures.
[Line breaking up. Shinzen is re-dialing]
Nipun: We have a whole bunch of questions and comments that have come in online and the phone queue is open, if you'd like to ask a voice question. You can do that by hitting *6. Rahul, what stands out for you in this conversation?
Rahul: Well, it's interesting to me the degree to which I really sense this deep realized experience with which distinctions are made, as he kind of dives into these subjects. There's an element of sort of cutting away, maybe the dogma that one might hear from a tradition, but you can only do that authoritatively when you sort of pass through and experience it. I think that's pretty remarkable.
There are also some pretty interesting comments that were coming in online through the web chat. One of them is Ragu's which particularly stands out. So he says, "For long, any active compassion I've done would always leave me with a sense of inadequacy. Even if I fully address someone's current suffering. This was a result of realizing that teaching someone how to fish is only marginally better than giving that person a fish. Any source of external empowerment, however sophisticated it may be, have limitations in addressing the human beings the real cause of suffering. I was suffering my compassion and didn't know what to do about it. As I became more consistent in my Vipassana practice, I continue to discover the depths of my ignorance and more subtle sources of my suffering. At some point, I felt the natural compassion towards my own ignorance. That seemed to help me a lot. I felt the compassion is a form of understanding that one can give to oneself and others. It is in the understanding of the nature of particular source of ignorance. Just knowing why we suffer through a particular type of ignorance immediately reduces the intensity of that suffering. It's this insight I now carry in being compassionate towards others.”
He goes on to talk more about this, but it's very much in line with what Shinzen was saying around this sort of multiple streams of suffering across mind and body and emotion. Sort of, actually being at a 50 level but cross multiplying into a 10,000 level, if we're not aware and equanimous with how we're actually experiencing those moment to moment. It was pretty noteworthy.
[Shinzen is redialed in.]
Rahul: You're really a person who has done a lot to bridge science and spirituality, and I believe that you've even said that the next Buddha could manifest as a team of scientists or in particular neuroscientists. Which implies a bit of optimism about where science in general is heading. So I'd love to hear about what gives you hope around the innovations that have been occurring in science and technology and what really it is that holds the potential downsides at bay?
Shinzen: The downside, being the downside of science and technology?
Shinzen: Its potential to mess us up. Yeah.
Shinzen: I was very influenced by Leonard Cohen's teacher, who formulated everything in terms of expansion and contraction. So I was saying, you know the Yogi Berra thing, I never make predictions especially about the future, but it does seem to me that there's this glacial shift on the planet whereby, without people quite noticing and without people really resisting or pushing back, contemplative practices are beginning to perfuse the institutions of human cultures all around the world.
And since I take the contemplative or meditation experience to be that which points to the unifying core underlying all religions, that to me is a huge source of hope. So if we could somehow manage the next say hundred years without a catastrophic collapse of human civilization, if current trends, and I should say it's mostly being done under the name "mindfulness," this mainstreaming, but I use mindfulness meditation and contemplative practice as synonyms (I explain why in that document what is mindfulness). So meditation or contemplative practice is slowly spreading. In the US, for example, it's in the corporations, it's in the psychotherapy, it's in pain and addiction management, it's even in our military. Who would have ever thought that? So if that could go on for another century or two without a catastrophic collapse, we could be in good shape. But, of course, we may not have that century or two for slow diffusion to enlighten the planet. Once again, I don't know, I can't say.
But let's say that the window is closing, we'll take a pessimistic view that there could be a catastrophic collapse. Well, is there still reason to be hopeful? From my perspective, yes. And basically, I wrote the book "The Science of Enlightenment" about that perspective, that's what the book is about. Although, it contains, you know, other materials and talks about meditation in general and my life experience. But basically, the centerpiece of it, which comes at the end, is my happiest thought. And my happiest thought is that there are things about enlightenment that were not known to even the greatest masters of the past because there are things that can only be known through the lens of quantified science, neuroscience in specific.
So what's happening is, all around the world, and once again, this is not just the U.S. I have counterparts, we have counterparts in the People's Republic of China, for example, well, China, shouldn't call it the People's Republic but that's the full name. They research mindfulness just like we do. Even though it's a ostensibly anti-religious political philosophy that rules there.
So science is beginning to turn its lens towards what happens to people after decades of practice, at the level of neurological, neurophysiology and so forth. Now there's of course, contentious debate among philosophers as to what the relationship is between consciousness and the electrical chemical events that are correlates of consciousness. I'm not going to get into that debate, I think the question will resolve itself eventually. But, one way or another, undeniably there's some relationship between the electrochemistry of the central nervous system and what happens to people when they're very successful with contemplative practice. There's a relationship, we can see physical changes. As I say philosophers can argue about this but there's a relationship.
And my own experience as, at this point, a 50-year meditator, is that there has been a global change in the way that my perceptual and motor circuits work. It's global, it affects everything, not just one part and not just perception. It's also the movements, the how the speech self-organizes, how the body moves. Seems to me that there's been a global change in everything, in the way I see, hear, feel, in the way I move, speak and think. And that's got to be reflected in the physiology of the nervous system. But we at this point don't know what that is. And don't believe anyone who claims they do. The science of enlightenment is in its infancy. We're like Galileo showing the Doge of Venice a primitive telescope. And people realizing, 'Oh, my God, despite what the Catholic church and Aristotle said, the moon is not perfectly spherical. Here's an awareness extending tool, it doesn't distort anything and I look at the moon magnified and resolved with the telescope and it's not what everyone said it was.'
So our current neuroscience imaging technology, think of it as being like Galileo with his relatively primitive telescope. In order to develop a science of enlightenment, we need the Hubble Space Telescope. We need something, an imaging and computational capability that's orders of magnitude beyond what we now have. However, every neuroscientist I know believes that within probably just a few decades, certainly by the time we're well into the century, we'll have that capability. That will allow us to develop a science of enlightenment. And with science often comes technology.
So when I bring up this subject, people always say the same litany of things. But Shinzen have you thought about this? But Shinzen, have you considered that? But Shinzen, what about? Yabba, yabba, yabba. As if they think I haven't thought that all through? That I don't worry about all those yabba's every day? But the fact is, that even when I consider all of the possible problems, the net effect of having a techno boost to contemplative practice would be very, very positive on this planet.
Now, so, usually what people think is, 'Oh, Shinzen is saying we're just going to zap your brain and you're going to get enlightened.' No, hell, no! What have we done in the past? By we, I mean all the meditation teachers, ancient, modern, Eastern, Western. We've all essentially been doing the same thing for centuries and centuries. And what that thing is -- is we give people a certain map and vision, you may know the word darshana. We give people a certain vision so that they'll know what to look for and how to integrate things and how to interpret things, etc. Sometimes in the past that vision has been rather dogmatic but it need not necessarily be that way. So we give people, let's just say, I like the word vision from the Sanskrit darshana, a perspective on what's going to happen. And how to integrate it into something that's functional and fulfilling.
We give people that. What else do we give people? Well, we give people a practice, we give them at least one technique and we give them a structure, entailing retreats, life practice in between retreats, getting support, giving support, so forth, these sort of pillars. We give them techniques and a practice structure. And then we wait for time, nature, grace, evolution, call it what you want, to do its work. And that perspective that we gave people and the techniques and the practice structure we gave people are sort of like catalysts. They speed up a natural process, that's sort of waiting to happen anyway. You know that because some people get enlightened without meditating. It just happens. So it's just waiting to happen, from my point of view. So, me and other people in the field that are actually looking for a technology of enlightenment, we're not saying, we're going to replace a perspective, and we're not going to replace the work of the techniques and the practice. What we are looking for is if this perspective and these techniques and this practice structure are a catalyst that speed up a natural evolution, then maybe there's a technological catalyst that will speed up the catalyst.
So I can imagine what I call an ideal techno boost. It would facilitate all and only the positive effects that people have gotten in the past. And by facilitate, I mean make them happen much more quickly and much more easily. Now if you listen carefully, you won't go into the yabba yabba -- 'Shinzen, isn't there a certain amount of work you have to do?' I said facilitate all and only the effects of the past, all the effects of the past. So if some of those require a certain amount of time and effort, yeah, you're going to need some time and effort. But if weak…
You know, most people that start meditation don't continue with it. If everyone that started meditation, within say the first year of their practice were to experience the effects that I feel in my 50th year of practice and if they were able to integrate those, then everyone that starts meditation would finish meditation, become an enlightened being within a few years, and believe me, they would be as motivated as I am to spread it to others, and the planet could change globally and dramatically in the direction of human well-being. So we're looking for first the scientific understanding of what happens. And secondly a boost, the boost that's based on things that the masters of the past couldn't have known.
Nipun: It's wonderful. Shinzen, we're at the end of the call. Do you have about five, ten more minutes? We have a bunch of questions from callers and we just want to kind of throw it out, if you have a few extra minutes.
Nipun: Okay, fantastic. We have one question from Jessica, who says, "You've been teaching mindfulness for decades. What advice do you have for professionals who are experiencing exhaustion, compassion fatigue and burnout?”
And related to that, we have a question from David K. from Northern California. He says, "Thank you for your observation on suffering, being experienced as either addition, multiplication or flow. While we can cultivate liberation on our own, often we encounter others who are deeply suffering without interest in that inner cultivation. So, yes, we can be present with the person and realize their profound presence before us, which helps us handle their suffering, but my question is, what may we do for the suffering person without using words to hold space for them, to provide some sort of hope, relief for them?" And in this context he says, "I deal with people suffering from trauma, ongoing visceral anxiety, where they're displaced and lose their housing. So this is very prevalent particularly in Northern California. So please share your intuition on how to be there for these beings."
So in a way both of those questions are sort of somewhat related. And Rahul, I'm just gonna, you might have a question in the queue, so I'm just going to pass it on to you before you can pass it on to Shinzen to take all of them and help us end the call there.
Rahul: Sure, we've had some people in the queue waiting patiently, so I'm just going to go the next caller.
Paul: My question is -- for people that find contemplation difficult, does you see a role for devotional practice?
Shinzen: So, my general recommendation is for people to do whatever works. I'm very pragmatic. So if you find that organized contemplative practice is not a strong draw, but the devotional practice is helpful? Sure, go for it. That's, that's pretty straightforward.
As far as the first question around burnout, I predictably have a pretty set answer to that. In Buddhism, they talk a lot about cause and effect. In other words, if you want certain effects, you need to create certain causes. So people are often rather short sighted, I have found, about things in general. I've always been a 'big picture' guy.
So what you want to be mostly thinking about is -- not so much, okay, what am I going to do this week or this month or even this year, to deal with this? It's what will be my rate of growth over my entire lifetime with regards to this issue. So, if a person establishes four things in their life, they have a high probability of being able to deal with the challenge that was mentioned about the burnout, compassion fatigue, and so forth.
So, I'm not so much going to say, 'Hey, this is what I think you should do today or tomorrow.' I'm going to say, 'Here's what I think you should do so that, in the course of your life, you become that extraordinary person that can serve optimally because they suffer minimally. So to become that extraordinary person that serves optimally because they suffer minimally... Now notice I said, this is an extraordinary person, they want a big effect, you have to have clear causes.
So four things. And these are the four pillars of a contemplative practice, both for a householder or a monastic. Do retreat practice. Need not be a week with a group. It could be a half day with yourself. A self retreat. We pipe in retreats, on the conference call service that we’re using for this, we have this home practice program, it's four hour modules. Anyone can do those. So do retreat practice.
Do life practice. I have another website that talks about what that is. That's systematically strategizing during the day how you're going to be practicing, in life situations. So do retreat practice. In between retreats, do life practice.
Get support. Have at least one competent teacher that's working with you, at least occasionally, to guide the big, the overall course of your practice.
And then give support. Now this segues into the third question about being with people who are suffering due to real world, real problems. Like the housing situation that was mentioned. So giving support. I like to think that each contemplative practitioner is a teacher, whether you think of yourself that way or not. I believe you are. So everyone's a teacher, everyone who practices, teaches because teaching has many levels. Sure you can give people techniques and help them apply those techniques to reducing suffering, elevating fulfillment, understanding themselves at all levels, making more skillful actions and a call to joyous service. You can teach people techniques and move them towards those goals. But teaching is bigger than that.
There's subtle service, subtle teaching, which is, the person mentioned already, which is being with that person in a certain way. So this then circles around to the first answer, which is if you want to become that extraordinary person, who can optimally serve because they minimally suffer, then the answer is the same, you have the highest probability of doing that if you establish the four pillars that I just mentioned: retreat practice, life practice, get support, and understand that you're giving support by the liberated state that you're in when a suffering person is in front of you.
Goes back to that thing of "amor primero" or "love first." Even in their suffering, they are coming from the source. And if you experience them that way, not as a thought or an emotion, but through your senses directly, you are subtly but significantly training the depth of their being into a different way of processing what they're going through. And the fact that you notice that impact, whether they do or not, becomes a source of fulfillment for you.
And then in terms of helping them at the material level, you do what you can do, you pull as many people out onto your boat from the sea of suffering as you can, but also understand you won't be able to “save” them, and you certainly don't want to jump out of the boat of liberation.
Rahul: Beautiful! Shinzen, thank you so much for all of this lived wisdom offered in such a digestible way. My privilege as the host is to ask you one final question, which is, how can we as the broader ServiceSpace community serve you?
Shinzen: Well it circles back to what I just said. I would say, establish and maintain the structure of a contemplative of practice. If you want the details, I've got an article called "Outline of Practice" that reviews the things I mentioned. It's four things, and I have websites for each one of them, but that's not hard to find. But it doesn't matter what organization or organizations you work with or what tradition or non-tradition you work with, one way or another, there are four pillars -- retreat practice, life practice, getting support for your practice, that means working with at least one competent guide, personally working with at least one competent guide, and then giving support to others, both in overt ways and and more subtle ways. I give a unified perspective on things, so anyone that has established those four pillars of practice doesn't just support my work, they are my work.
Rahul: Beautiful, well said. Thank you.
Nipun: Thank you, Shinzen.
Shinzen: Totally enjoyed it.
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.