DDBC Hosts Master Class: Zen & the Brain

On the afternoon of 2 November 2007, Dharma Drum Buddhist College (DDBC) hosted an educational and inspirational speech, "Zen and the Brain", illustrating the relationship between neurological research of human brain and Chan (Zen) meditation. The event was held at Dharma Drum Mountain World Center for Buddhist Education in Jinshan Township, Taipei County.

The speech was honorably presented by Dr. James H. Austin, author of internationally renowned book, Zen and the Brain. The two-hour speech packed the hall, attracting over two hundred people.

Dr. Austin is a professor of neurology in University of Missouri Health Science Center and emeritus professor of neurology in University of Colorado Health Science Center. He has recently written the sequel, Zen-Brain Reflections, published in February 2006.

In the opening remarks, President of DDBC, Venerable Huimin, explained that "Chan is a good topic for DDBC whose teachings also feature in the combination of academic research and Buddhist study. This is why DDBC wants to host this particular speech."

"Actually, it's an old topic. About 106 years ago, Mr. William James had already picked this subject, called Religion & Neurology. People were shocked at the time because the term ‘neurology’ did not exist," Dr. Austin said to pinpoint the forerunner in the study.

Dr. Austin started by recounting how he first came into contact with Chan meditation and how he became a Chan practitioner, at which time he displayed his unique watch with no digital number but the word "Now" in English on it – reminding us of the importance of "focusing on the present".

"I encountered Zen during my first sabbatical in Japan. What first attracted me to it? I think it was the natural beauty of the Zen temples in Kyoto. I was also drawn to it because I saw that Zen had shaped the cultural life of Japan in many influential ways. Finally, there was the crucial factor: the opportunity to learn from the Zen Master, Kobori Roshi, a remarkable master whose presence communicated the essence of Zen, and with whom I could also converse in English."

Dr. Austin affirmed to skeptics that Chan meditation and neurological study do not go against each other, and in fact the meditation actually enhances the understanding and facilitates further neurological exploration and vice versa.

"Nothing in my previous medical or neuroscience training had prepared me for Zen. The challenge stimulated me to learn more. Before long, it was clear that whenever I could interrelate Zen and the brain, one was capable of illuminating the other."

The professor went on to say that there are no short answers to explain how meditation affects the brain psychologically. However, he agreed that gradual transformations only take place in the brain functions of persons who go on to engage in a long-range process of mindful self-discipline and introspection.

This involves a program of systematic training and it proceeds within a culturally acceptable and established meditative tradition. The professor praised DDM in Taiwan for having inherited the finest tradition of Chinese Chan and for providing a high quality Chan retreat center.

Dr Austin agreed that Chan meditation emphasizes on selflessness, or self-transcendence, which is desirable as well as difficult to achieve. He explained that "It is difficult to escape from the lifelong habits of our many-sided self. This is because some of our egocentricities are not only innate, but are habit - patterns that have hardened ever since we were infants. It is very difficult to reverse any conditioned behaviors that have had such a long head start."

Dr. Austin said that when one begins to walk the Zen meditative path with a sense of calmness and clarity, one would be increasingly brought to the direction of simplicity, stability, efficient action and compassion.

He summed up the importance of understanding Chan and the brain. "Chan training is an agent of character change – one that will point the whole personality in the direction of increasing selflessness and awareness."

(reported & photos taken by Jin Yang/edited by DDM Australia Editing Team)

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