The Science of Enlightenment is Paving the Way for the Enlightenment of Science

I just finished listening to Shinzen Young’s The Science of Enlightenment audio CDs. I ripped all 14 CDs into MP3s, synced them to my iPhone and  listened at home, on the road, at the gym, and even at work. I have high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

(Tip: If you don’t care about the CDs and nifty packaging, you can download the Science of Enlightenment on iTunes for less than half of its original price).

Aside from being a Buddhist monk, scholar, meditation teacher, mathematician, and science geek, Shinzen is also a linguist, so he’s very particular and precise with his use of words, pronunciation, and diction (especially with foreign languages). He likes to define and clarify any ambiguity in the terms he uses in his discourses. He doesn’t go into too much philosophical conjecture and speaks in a friendly matter-of-factness tone. The more I listen to him the more I become certain that Shinzen Young is my kind of kick ass dharma teacher.

The Science of Enlightenment was originally published in audio cassette tapes in 1998. Sounds True published the unabridged audio CDs in 2005. So keep in mind that the recorded talks are more than ten years old (that’s ancient time in cyberspace). However, that’s one of the reasons why I find this series so compelling to listen to. Even though Shinzen delivered the dharma in his own contemporary style and science-based lingo, with the advancement in science, his style of teaching apply more today than when he made the recordings ten years ago.

Here is my review and summary of the breadth and depth of The Science of Enlightenment.

some equations on the Science of Enlightenment

Disc 1Extraordinary States Of Focus And Presence / Cultivating Concentration Power / Expanding The Scale Of Your Life / Meditation As Part Of All Activities / What Is A Meditative State? / The Physiological Effects Of Meditation / Meditating For Your Health / Common Misconceptions About Meditation / Happiness Independent Of Conditions / A Complete Experience / How Your Meditation Benefits Others / Developing True Friendliness And Compassion

Shinzen starts out by explaining what meditation is and the importance of developing high concentration. He discusses the psychological and physiological effects of meditation practice. For those who already have a regular meditation practice, specifically Buddhist Vipassana practice, there’s not much new information on this CD. However, this is an excellent introduction for those who are new to meditation. It’s also a good refresher course for those who have slacked in their meditation practice.

Disc 2The Meditative Core Of World Religions / Three Aspects Of Religious Experience / What Is Enlightenment? / A Link Among The Mystics / Hinduism And The Technology Of Concentration / The Perennial Philosophy / Focusing The Mind With Relaxation / The Lessons Of Effort And Equanimity / Your Wave-Like Nature / The Unified Vibration Of All Life / Changing Your Understanding Of Self / Happiness In The Midst Of Suffering

Here is where listeners will get a sense of the depth of Shinzen’s experiential and encyclopedic knowledge of the common threads of mystical traditions. He elaborates on the terminologies used in different traditions when describing states of consciousness, concentration, and spiritual experiences. He uses the words “waves” and “vibrations” in describing the Buddhist concept of “impermanence.” On my part, I find this description of impermanence as key to understanding its “tangible” and experiential aspects. More on this below…

Disc 3The Six Senses / Modes Of Thinking / Dimensions Of Emotions / Being Mindful Of Body Sensations / Noting The Quality Of Your Feelings / Insight And Purification / Acquiring Skill At Feeling / How Thoughts And Feelings Intertwine / The Self As An Interactive Wave / Meditation Teachers As Living Models / The Activity Of Personality / Untangling Your Negative Emotions / Wave/Particle Complementarity / The Moment Of True Peace

This CD is where Shinzen goes into detail in discussing the Vipassana technique, specifically “noting” meditation. Vipassana (or Mindfulness) meditation is a technique of teasing apart the strands of our sensory experience. Using clear science metaphors and with his proclivity for mathematics, Shinzen explains how the tangling of sensory components causes overwhelm, suffering, and produce a sense of self. He then elaborates on the Wave/Particle paradigm of describing our awareness and Buddhist concepts such as impermanence and nothingness. For example here’s how he describes “nothingness” or the activity of the “Source” using the wave metaphor.

“…when we have this unblocked experience of the six senses and they produce their wave, this actually is not the complete experience of the Source. There’s one final step in the reduction. And that takes place when the waves cancel out. And there is a moment of true peace. Not peace in the sense that the mind has stopped thinking. But peace in the sense that all of the expansive and contractive forces that can create this or any universe have come together. And in their coming together they have drawn the richness of this and all conceivable universes, drawn them back into a state that is a cancellation of positive and negative. So it is a kind of nothing, but contains all the positive and negative. So it is at the same time, an everything.”

Very geeky, no? 🙂

Disc 4 Global Relaxation Meditation / Free-floating Awareness Meditation

This is a guided meditation focusing on relaxation and free-floating awareness. Very refreshing and relaxing.

Disc 5Meditation As Inner Catalyst  / Paradigms Of Purification / Relieving Friction Among The Senses / The Paradox Of Complete Experience / The Technique Of No Technique / Strategies For Increasing Awareness / Classic Objects Of Meditation / Focusing On Feeling And Thoughts / Fixation And Driveness / Observing Your Thoughts / True Peace Of Mind / Contacting Your Fundamental Confusion / Samadhi Through The Senses

Here the discussion continues with the different objects of meditation, and meditation as a scientific paradigm. Shinzen expounds on thought (or thinking) as one of the six senses and introduced the concept of insight and purification. Those who are familiar with Theravada practice will recognize this as a generalized contemporary discourse on Visuddhimaga (Path of Purification).

Disc 6Thinking Process Meditation / Clarifying Meditation

I haven’t tried this meditation, yet. But it’s good to know that this option is available whenever I feel like it 🙂

Disc 7The Pathless land / Three Layers of Consciousness / The Creative Nature of Impermanence / Relating to Your Intermediate Realms / Relating to Your Intermediate Realms / The Ascent of St. John of the Cross / The Oblique Path of Shamanism / The Body of the Absolute / Fundamentals for Your Practice / Impetus to Follow the Path / Momentum and Maintenance / Liberation vs. Entertainment Meditation

This CD is one of my favorites in this series. This is the part where Shinzen talks about his “three-layered cake” metaphor of consciousness and how different people traverse the spiritual path in an infinite number of vectors. This is a contemporary discourse on the Buddhist teaching of Trikaya (or three bodies)–nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, and dharmakaya.

In this talk Shinzen criticizes the spiritual materialism which is rampant in New Age circles and religious faiths. A good portion of the discourse is on the dangers and pitfalls of the Intermediate Realm of Power–the layer of the subconscious, unconscious, and archetypes–where the weird stuff (ie, apparitions, psychic powers, demons, gods) arises. Unlike other meditation teachers who avoid talking about their inner experiences, Shinzen openly shares his own visionary encounters. However, he makes no claims on the objective nature of his experiences. He’s humble enough to label his visionary experiences as “hallucinations” no matter how realistic and insightful they were from his subjective point of view. Shinzen also shares some interesting stories of paranormal phenomena he witnessed, but cautions the listeners on exploring the horizonal dimensions of the archetypes. He highly recommends to get enlightened first before mastering the Intermediate Realms of Power.

Shinzen makes it clear that what he’s teaching is a “liberation-oriented” meditation as opposed to “spiritual entertainment.” So he emphasized practice with enlightenment as the ultimate goal; to use illusion to be free from illusion.

Disc 8Impermanence As A Facet Of Insight / Suffering And No-Self / Are The Mountains Moving? / The Guises Of Impermanence / Sensing The Vibrations Of Your Body / The Ultimate Inner Massage / The Taste Of Purification / The Marathon Monks Of Mt. Hiye / Digesting Karma / Merging Spirit And Matter / Impermanence As A Unifier / The Activity Called “You”

I just love listening to Shinzen’s discourse on impermanence. It’s different from other discourses I’ve heard before. Maybe because Shinzen uses contemporary and scientific metaphors which appeal to me. Just by hearing him describe impermanence as vibrations, waves, expansion, and contraction enabled me to improve on my meditation practice. Since then I’ve learned to ride the waves of subtle vibrations like a newbie surfer.

Disc 9The Formless Womb / Pondering The Obvious / The Pairs Of Fundamental Forces / Daidic Models In Western Philosophy / Mystical Judaism / Rising And Passing In Buddhism / Participating In The Activity Of The Source / The Polarization Of The Whole Universe / The Zero That Is Everything / Cessation Of Thought And Feeling / What Will You Do When The Earthquake Comes? / Being The Master Of Every Situation

More excellent discourse on impermanence, Nirvana, and why Joshu Sasaki Roshi‘s (Shinzen Young’s teacher) metaphor of expansion and contraction is an important breakthrough.  Shinzen also discusses the Dyadic Models (e.g. Ying and Yang) as opposed to Dualistic Models (e.g. Good vs. Evil) of spirituality. Very conceptually handy.

Disc 10Breath Meditation / Sensory Field Meditation

In this CD Shinzen guides the listeners to develop the sensitivity to recognize the vibratory, expansive, contractive, and undulatory sensations of impermanence. For me, focusing on these sensations is like being massaged by a vibrating chair from Sharper Image.

Disc 11The Science Of Enlightenment / Three “Vehicles” Of Buddhism / Three Geographical Regions Of Buddhism / The Buddha And Asceticism / The Middle Way / Liberation And Responsibility

Although the title of the series is The Science of Enlightenment Shinzen makes it clear that the Buddhist methodology  is only “a science of enlightenment”, meaning that it’s only one of the methods among other mystical practices in the core of other religious traditions, not to mention that enlightenment can also happen in the secular domain, serendipitously, due to some statistical probability. However, according to Shinzen, Buddhist meditation (as originally developed in India) is the most refined and systematic of the liberation-oriented technology. I couldn’t agree more.

In this CD Shinzen wears a hat of a Buddhist scholar lecturing on the history of the three pillars of Buddhism (Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana). He cautions the listeners that he’s only giving a generalized account of the history of the different schools of Buddhism. For those who don’t know the distinctions of the different Buddhist traditions, this is an excellent rundown of the evolution of Buddhism up to the present period.

Depending on where your bias is among the different schools of Buddhism, you might get a bit rattled by Shinzen’s critique of Mahayana and Vajrayana. Remember that Shinzen is an ordained monk in the Vajrayana school–Shingon, Japanese tradition–so I think he knows what he’s talking about. In any case, I will leave this debate to Buddhist scholars. I’m just here to learn a liberation-oriented technology and practice with diligence 🙂

Disc 12The Complexities Of Zen / Soto Zen And The Relevance Of Sitting Practice / The Practice Of Rinzai Zen / Vajrayana Buddhism / Sexuality And Spiritual Growth / The Relevance Of Ritual / Three Styles Of Buddhism

This is the continuation of Shinzen’s lecture on the different schools of Buddhism. Very juicy.

Disc 13Universal Mystical Experience / Different Expressions Of Enlightenment / Origins Of Meditative Experience / The Power Of Ceremony / Internal And External Technologies / The Intersection Of Science And Spirituality

In this CD Shinzen gives his due respect to Shamanism and the spiritual experiences of early humans but he makes it clear that he doesn’t subscribe to the notion of the Noble Savage. No pre-trans fallacy here. He also starts his discourse on the integration of Science and Spirituality.

Disc 14The Enlightened Scientist / The Human Significance Of The Impersonal / How Science Illuminates Meditation / A New Model For Enlightenment / New Perspectives On The One Reality / The Spiritual Themes Of Modern Physics / The Next Mode Of Human Awareness

This is the gist of the series: the cross-fertilization of the best of what the East and West have to offer to humanity. Shinzen offers a new model for Eastern enlightenment that is supported by the Western scientific paradigm. He calls for a cultivation of enlightened scientists. Take note that he’s not only asking for scientists who meditate. He wants a group of people who have PhDs and research experience who at the same time had experienced classical enlightenment and attain all the levels of samadhi. Here’s how he put it:

What we really need are individuals who understand both worlds really deeply…. I’m talking about people who could attain all levels of samadhi, have had deep enlightenment experiences, probably meditated for thirty, fourty, fifty years in a very disciplined way, on one hand, and have PhDs and research experience in the sciences on the other hand. And a third characteristic, are iconoclastic, are willing to see beyond the preconceptions of both traditional meditative practices and standard Western science.

What I think is needed, what I would like to see happen is, a generation of individuals like this appearing on this planet. Because ultimately, it has to be inside one person. The disciplines are too deep, they’re too subtle, for specialist in one to try communicate with specialist in the other using words. It’s very difficult. So I think what we need is a few dozen people that are really enlightened masters, number one, top notch scientists, number two, and willing to, as I say, willing to let go of preconceptions of both of those disciplines and look at something in a radically different way. And I think if we had several dozen human beings like that on this planet they could come up with some extraordinary new breakthroughs.

How cool is that?

According to Shinzen, his dream is to teach meditation at MIT. I hope that since he made these recordings he already had a chance to teach meditation at Ivy League schools. Shinzen should be invited to give a presentation on TED Talks. I share his passion for secularizing the dharma and making it more palatable to the scientific community.

Conclusion and Some Observations

Those who are familiar with Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychological Model will probably not find anything radically new on the Science of Enlightenment as far as broad integration is concerned. Wilber has been hashing out the integration of Western Science and Eastern contemplative disciplines for almost four decades now. However, I see Shinzen Young as one of those who are actually fleshing out the integration that Wilber has been calling for. He complements Wilber’s integration using his own style of integration. If Wilber is doing integration at the 10,000 feet level, Shinzen is doing it at the 1,000 feet level. Shinzen’s approach to secularizing the dharma and teaching Vipassana meditation–reworking the vocabulary, applying mathematical concepts, and using scientific metaphors–is, in my opinion, the best way of making it palatable for the scientific community and the academia.

Shinzen Young is one the most sane voices who are paving the way for the enlightenment of science. Since the publication of the Science of Enlightenment ten years ago, there already are promising signs that the cross-fertilization of Western science and Eastern meditative technology have been gathering momentum . One of the leading voices in the field is B. Alan Wallace (a Buddhist practitioner and scientist). See Wallace’s talk at Google: “Towards the First Revolution in the Mind Sciences“. On the more mainstream end, Sam Harris (a neuroscience researcher) is making noises about such integration. See Harris’s essays on the Huffington Post: “A Contemplative Science” and Shambhala Sun: “Killing the Buddha“.

As for Shinzen Young, he’s more active than ever and continues to refine his methodology . The most recent version of his secularized and science-based teaching can be found on his website, Basic Mindfulness.

However, one thing I noticed about Shinzen’s style of teaching Vipassana is that he doesn’t put emphasis on the Jhanas (as originally thought in the Theravada tradition), possibly because he doesn’t want to dwell on them or that he has not specialized in them. I assume that Shinzen’s goal is to make Vipassana meditation more compatible with Western Science, that’s why he prefers to focus on those teachings which could be easily translated into user-friendly scientific terms rather than teaching the jhanas as described in the original suttras of the Buddha. For those who are into more hardcore Theravada, I highly recommend checking out Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

The bottom line: Shinzen Young demystified the concept classical enlightenment, making “happiness independent of conditions” a realistic and tangible goal for people who choose to tread the path of liberation.

Thanks to Shinzen Young I now realize that my kind of practice is Vipassana, my proclivity is towards Theravada, and that, when I grow up, I want to become a hard-nosed rationalist Buddha.

UPDATE: 11/28/2009 – Here’s a video of Shinzen talking about the making of The Science of Enlightenment. I’m more impressed to learn that the whole audio series is from a spontaneous dharma talk. Looking forward to the book version!

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