Speaker: Shinzen Young

The Role of Compassion on the Spiritual Path

Shinzen Young is an American mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant who frequently uses concepts from mathematics as a metaphor to illustrate the abstract concepts of meditation and who is building a bridge between contemplative practice and hard science. His interest in integrating meditation with scientific paradigms has led his teachings to be popular among academics and professionals, and has resulted in collaborations with neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Vermont in the burgeoning field of contemplative neuroscience. He is working on various ways to bring a secular mindfulness practice to a wider audience across faith traditions using revamped terminology and techniques as well as automated expert systems.

But if one were to ask Shinzen how he describes himself, he might, perhaps, 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.”

When addressing his listeners, Shinzen infuses his words with the same wit and warm sense of humor, never losing touch with his own brand of charismatic serenity. Clarity, too, defines his address, as do allusions to Western science and mathematics, alongside unexpected metaphors such as a hockey stick hailing from his current home state of Vermont and plastic laughing Buddha dashboard tchotchke bobbing on a spring (for the latter, as well as a reference to the seventeenth-century Anglo-Irish thinker Robert Boyle, watch this excerpt of one of Shinzen’s talks called The Spring of the Void).

Shinzen Young was born as Steve Young in Los Angeles, California. His parents were Jewish. While in middle school, he became fascinated with Asian languages and cultures. After graduating from UCLA as an Asian Language major, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin's Ph.D. program in Buddhist Studies. In order to gather materials for his doctoral dissertation, he ordained and spent three years as a Shingon (Japanese Vajrayana) monk at Mount Koya, Japan starting in 1970. There he received the name of Shinzen, and afterward he trained extensively in each of three additional Buddhist traditions: Vajrayana, Zen, and Vipassana, as well as in Native American traditions.

It was upon his return to the United States that Shinzen’s interest in dialoguing Western and Eastern science developed; today, much of his thoughts in this vein can be found on his blog, where reflections on mindfulness, compassion, and positive behavior give space to William James, Bertrand Russell, David Hume, and the Grateful Dead. There, readers can also begin to begin to build their own lived practices with reference to tools like Shinzen’s formulation of the Five Dimensions of Happiness and techniques called Focus on Feel and Nurture Positive.

Today, Shinzen Young is well-known not only for his particular way of combining Eastern and Western science and thought traditions, but also for his categorical, systematic approach to meditation, which he has applied in the form of many publicly available teachings and resources. His recent book, The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works (2016), is a guide to meditation that integrates discussions of universal religious insights, meditation techniques, and aspects of the lived and meditation experiences with emerging neuroscience research.

Working lucidly with terms such as “mindfulness,” “self,” and “enlightenment,” Shinzen Young is able to make key concepts accessible and think-able to his students. Shinzen’s unique system of mindfulness, Unified Mindfulness, includes, among other work, resources such as an elucidation of basic mindfulness, categorical articulations of thoughts and emotions, and various techniques such as those integrating the physical senses and “flow states.” As Shinzen puts it, enlightenment is attainable by any human being.

Shinzen runs phone-based monthly retreats through his Home Practice Program and hosts phone-based weekly life practice calls through the Life Practice Program, opening up his teachings to a global public. For access to this content, see Shinzen’s Five Ways to Know Yourself, one of many articles and videos made available as resources on his website. (Interviews with Shinzen can be found on YouTube, as can an extensive collection video talks featured on his Youtube channel.)

What flows through and continuously surfaces in Shinzen Young’s work and writings is a consistent reference to positivity. For, as Shinzen explains, it is when we begin to find that our own being is instrumental to bringing good into the world that we know that the practice is finding its own success. That, like the experience of emptiness that Shinzen likens to “the spring of the air" when he quotes Robert Boyle, is something that he puts forth for us to know, leaving us with tools that may help us to perhaps some day find our way to it ourselves.

Join us in conversation with this gifted teacher who is both erudite and accessible!

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