Buddhism for me is like food I ate for ten years, for a long time as a monk, and the food you eat goes to your bones and stays there, so in that sense it’s inside me, it’s not that I wouldn’t be identified by Buddhism but it’s there, a part of me … Buddhism has this emptiness and in opposition to it the ‘is-ness’, but the zero concept – there’s nature, there’s the whole existence of the universe but that itself for me is a part of the zero.
The South Korean poet, who studied as a Buddhist monk for a decade before rejoining secular life, is considered a favorite for the Nobel Prize — with authors like beat icon Allen Ginsberg and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh having written forewords to his books of poetry.
Photo of Ko Un by AFP/Getty Images
Holding Life Consciously: The Artistry of Bridging the Sciences and Humanities Through Focused Attention and Open Awareness
by Krista Tippett, host
Considering light as both particle and wave. (photo Wylie Conlon/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
I’m not sure I’d seen the words “physicist” and “contemplative” in the same sentence many times, much less found them together as descriptors of the same person, before I spoke with Arthur Zajonc on “Holding Life Consciously.” (His name reflects his father’s Polish origins, by the way, and rhymes with “science.”) As a professor of physics at Amherst College, his research interests have ranged from the theoretical foundations of quantum physics and the polarity of atoms to the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. He also has a long-time contemplative practice and is a leading figure among academics exploring the relevance of contemplative traditions for higher education. And even when he is discussing elemental questions of science, he is likely to invoke ideas of the 18th-century literary figure Goethe, or the 20th-century scientist/philosopher/educational innovator Rudolph Steiner.
Writing that, I realize how erudite and perhaps abstract it might sound. In fact, being in Arthur Zajonc’s presence is as calming and grounding as it is intellectually intriguing. He has acquired an amazing range of tools across an adventurous 40-year career that explores human knowledge and human being in all their wholeness. Yet his tools and ideas are remarkably accessible — “sensible,” in fact, a word he uses often. He paints a manageable picture of how human life itself — lived fully and held consciously — compels us to integrate qualities of thought and mind that our culture often holds apart. We ourselves and everything around us have an interior as well as an exterior — and we can explore both with due vigor. Life as well as science has both an experiential, intuitive context and an objective, factual basis — and surely we must take all of this seriously if what we are really after is truth that matters and knowledge that serves.
Arthur Zajonc finds a favorite example of this layered nature of reality in the elemental substance of light. As we’ve explored a number of times here at On Being, the scientific debate over whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved in the 20th century with the unexpected conclusion that it is both. I’ve always pointed to this as an intriguing example of how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true — a lesson straight from life that the answers we arrive at depend on the questions we are asking.
But Arthur Zajonc takes this debate and its implications to yet another level. Whether light is a particle or a wave, he points out, is still not the whole story of light; those of us who live in a world of light and darkness live in our experience of it, not in a perception of particles and waves. Goethe defined color, evocatively, as “the deeds and sufferings of light” and insisted that light and color have sensory and moral effect as well as physical properties. And surely it is not insignificant, and also worthy of investigation, that light is a primary spiritual metaphor across the centuries and across traditions.
Rudolf Steiner explored this idea, beginning from a scientific perspective, in the late 19th and early 20th century and has been a formative thinker for Arthur Zajonc. Here again, he is drawn to the integrated approach — and the experiential application of ideas — of Steiner, who founded the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland, which continues to flourish across the world. Waldorf Schools are probably the best-known fruit of his philosophy. These schools intentionally cultivate the wholeness of the humanity of a child: intellectual, practical, ecological, musical, and spiritual.
Zajonc’s own life experience has been recently reshaped by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He has seen the progression of this illness in other members of his family, and so has some understanding of what is ahead. This is at one and the same time a source of grief and a continuation of the adventure Arthur Zajonc has long been on — to explore what holding life consciously means, now with a progressively debilitating condition. He tells me:
“There are two main types of meditation and both of them are part of my life, which one is a concentration and the other is what I call open awareness. It’s a very open presence.
In the concentration phase, tremors actually worsened.
You have a line of poetry or from scripture or an image and you bring your full undivided single-pointed attention to that content. But as we’re straining mentally to do that, the hand begins to tremor more. And then when you release the image and become very still and quiet and open yourself wide, the hand slowly calms to the point where indeed your whole body feels at ease and the tremor disappears. Interesting…
I can see that the mind and the body are so delicately attuned to one another that these practices affect the Parkinson’s state itself. … So here’s the question I pose to myself. Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s on the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest. … And I’ll keep you posted as to whether that comes out all right or not.”
Who Was the Buddha? The Story of a Human Being Like You and Me
by Toni Bernhard, guest contributor
An image of the Buddha is carved into a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat in Thailand. (photo: McKay Savage/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The name Buddha means “awakened one.” This is the story of how a young man became the Buddha. As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.
The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom in northern India. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son’s desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived. He even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn’t experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.
When Siddhartha was nine years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.
One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.
Compassion Is a Skill to Be Developed Through Practice
by Krista Tippett, host
Matthieu Ricard looks on as Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point to children in Vancouver, Canada. (photo: Linda Lane/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
The title we’ve given this week’s show, “The ‘Happiest’ Man in the World,” is slightly tongue-in-cheek. It appeared in a British newspaper after the publication of scientific study results on Matthieu Ricard’s brain. He dismisses this label and has issued many good-natured disclaimers. We’ve revived it here, however, because of the lovely way in which Matthieu Ricard fills that phrase with a whole new range of savvy, satisfying meaning.
I certainly found myself identifying with Ricard’s descriptions, in his own writing, of his youthful, worldly-wise dismissal of “happiness” as a goal. I too was dismissive, well into adulthood, of the very word “happiness” and its overwhelming associations with the dream-come-true state that ends movies, for example, or the happiness as “having it all” American way.
But Matthieu Ricard puts words to what I’ve learned as I’ve grown older. He accomplishes that as much with his ideas as with his presence. He is a slightly incongruous yet wholly comfortable Frenchman swathed in the lavish gold and red of Tibetan monastic robes, with practical shoes beneath. He is at once sophisticated and mischievous, intellectual and childlike — something, that is, like his teacher the Dalai Lama. It was a privilege to experience them both at a series of gatherings in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were in conversation with Nobel laureates, scientists, social activists, and educators. We converted a tenth-floor suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, aptly named and somewhat surreal, into a production suite for this interview, which you can view as well as hear on our site.
I am fascinated by the way in which science is interwoven with Matthieu Ricard’s life story as well as his current work with the Dalai Lama and his very definition of the spiritual quest. He is one of those so-called “Olympic meditators” — people who have meditated tens of thousands of hours and whose brains have been studied and yielded important new insights into something called neuroplasticity — the human brain’s capacity to alter across the life span. This is a fairly recent and fairly dramatic — and not uncontroversial — discovery that came about as a result of research involving the Mind and Life Institute — a fascinating dialogue with scientists from many disciplines that the Dalai Lama has been hosting for many years.
Matthieu Ricard actually began his life as a molecular biologist, working with a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris. His decision to leave France for a Buddhist monastic path greatly perplexed his father, Jean-François Revel, a philosopher who was a pillar of French intellectual life. But as he describes in a literary dialogue with his father that was published as The Monk and the Philosopher, Tibetan Buddhism was less of a departure in his mind than in his father’s.
He had become drawn to the spiritual masters, who would later become his teachers and eventually his peers, leading lives of integrity. And there was a very personal, full-circle integrity in his love of the natural world that had manifest itself in part in biological research — and in his appreciation for Buddhist spirituality as a life shaped by what he describes as “contemplative science.” I am utterly fascinated by the echoes between science and spirituality that Matthieu Ricard has continued to pursue and that we discuss together in this show.
Will neuroscience one day be able to not merely describe the movement of neurons and brain chemistry but add its own vocabulary to the meaning and nature of human consciousness, as related to or distinct from the brain? And how can we not be fascinated by the evocative echoes between the way quantum physicists have come to describe energy and matter and the way Buddhist philosophy has always described the interconnectedness and impermanence of human experience and all of life? Our understanding of the intersection of mind, life, body, and however you want to define the human spirit continues to unfold and develop, and is one of the most intriguing frontiers of this century.
Sari Nusseibeh Discovers God in Cambodia
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom, Cambodia (photo: Ran Phang/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh comes from one of the oldest families on record in Jerusalem. His Muslim ancestors have been in the Holy Land since at least the seventh century. Earlier this year, Nusseibeh traveled to Cambodia where he glimpsed inside another ancient civilization. And it was there, as he tells it in the audio link above, that he had an epiphany about God:
“One thing that struck me was the four faces in many of the gates that were on those temples of Buddha. I was asking the guide what they stood for. He said, “Care, compassion, charity, and equality are the four faces of Buddha in those temples. And as he said them I just felt, to me, this is God. And I’m not a Buddhist.”
Listen to more of our interview with Sari Nusseibeh in this week’s show, “The Evolution of Change.”
Danish Filmmaker Spends Year in Wisconsin Documenting Contemplative Neuroscience Research with Children and Vets in “Free the Mind”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
For the past year, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo has been trailing neuroscientist Richard Davidson at his lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Best known for studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks, Davidson’s research has shown that meditation can literally change the brain.
He’s the featured guest in our show titled “Investigating Healthy Minds.” While producing it, we were looking for sound that would illustrate some of his point and discovered Ambo’s yet-to-be released documentary, Free the Mind, contained a few audio clips that would help bring Dr. Davidson’s work to life.
In 2010, Ambo set out with her family from Denmark to document Davidson’s newest research with pre-school children and war veterans. We emailed her to learn more about her film, and her motivations for making it.
I met Richard Davidson for the first time in 2009 when he was in Massachusetts for a conference on mindfulness. I was there to look for a scientist who would be a good main character for my film, so I sat through four days of talks given by different experts in the field, and I immediately knew that Richie would make a great character when I saw him on stage. He is a very playful and curious scientist, and it’s easy to tell that he is very visionary.
What inspired you to make a film about him? How and why is Richard Davidson’s work personally meaningful to you?
The reason why I wanted to make a film on Richie’s work is that he is personally invested in his research. He is a meditator himself, which to me makes him interesting as a researcher on a very deep level.
Richie knows that meditation works for him, but he really wants to know how and why it works. He has his own bodily experience with meditation, which I believe gives him the tools to ask the relevant questions on a scientific level. To me it’s also crucial that Richie works with rigorous scientific methods and that he also publishes studies that show that meditation does not work for everyone. This makes him reliable and trustworthy to me.
Another good trait in Richie is that he is not afraid to ask some of the questions that may not be popular in meditation research like: How many of the people who take a mindfulness class actually stick to the training one year or 10 years later?
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what kind of practice do you do? How has meditation shaped your own life (and brain)?
About six years ago I suddenly started to have panic attacks and it was very scary and disturbing. I went to my doctor and she wanted to medicate me, but I had a strong feeling that medication was not the right treatment for me. I felt that I had to find a way to work my way through this crisis with all my senses open, not closed.
By coincidence I heard about mindfulness meditation and I took an eight-week course in Copenhagen. It helped me a lot to just accept things as they were and not try to shove down all the uncomfortable emotions. But I also felt very strongly that something was physically changing in my brain as I practiced. I got very curious about what was actually happening to me on a scientific level, so I decided to look into this through my work as a filmmaker.
I still meditate every day. I practice different kinds of meditation -– lovingkindness, open awareness, body scan, and sound meditations. It’s funny because in my work as a documentary filmmaker I often struggle with accepting reality as it is; I can’t control what happens when I shoot and this is both the best and worst about working with reality. But the way I see it, meditation is very much about being in the present moment and experiencing it fully without wanting to change it -– and this is really helpful to remember in my job. In many ways my meditation practice helps me to stay open towards any changes that may occur during shooting and just go with whatever happens.
You traveled inside this emerging world of contemplative neuroscience during the filming process. How did your understanding of contemplative neuroscience deepen or change?
In the beginning of my research process, it was very important to me that the meditation form being studied was mindfulness, so I was a bit thrown off when I found out that one of the experiments that I was following for the film had changed into being about a specific breathing technique and yoga, which was not Buddhist based.
This was an experiment with vets who suffer from PTSD and they go through a seven-day workshop. I was worried that just sitting down breathing would be too subtle to make interesting cinematic scenes with the vets, but it turned out that the breathing activated all kinds of emotions that came out during the workshop. This made the study very suitable for the documentary film, and I realized that the contemplative practices all stand on a pretty similar ground so they produce some of the same effects too. It’s not so important whether it’s Buddhist or not.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process. How long did you document Richard Davidson and his research? What aspects of his research did you look at? What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
I went to Madison three times to prepare for the shooting and make sure that we were all on the same page and then I brought my husband and two kids for six weeks in the fall of 2010 where I did almost all of the scenes for the film. I was in India briefly with Richie to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then back again in Madison in the spring of 2011 to do the very last scenes for the film.
I had decided to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience because I think it’s important for everyone to know about these alternative ways to work with our health. I think that a lot of people get turned off if they feel that this film is too academic for them so I chose to make it a case-based story where we follow three characters that go through studies set in Richie’s lab.
Two of them are vets and one is a five-year-old child. What I really like about the studies that these two extremely different groups go through is that they are very similar; they all learn to concentrate and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. So the story that I would like to tell is that essentially all human beings are alike even though we seem very different on the surface. We are all just trying to achieve happiness. The good news is that we can work intentionally towards that goal because our brains are plastic and we have the potential to change all through life.
What did you see on the ground while filming that made a lasting impression on you? Is there a particular story or experience that stands out?
I really like some of the more poetic moments in the film. One of the vets sits in his own thoughts halfway through the workshop and then he says, “I’ve just come to the realization that I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back. I’ve just been kind of here.” This guy has stopped making plans for his life, but at the end of the workshop he starts to talk about running a marathon!
Another moving moment is when a vet says that he used to be a kid who was smiling all the time for no reason and now he’s grown cynical and closed off and he never smiles. At the end of the workshop, he has a smile on his face during a meditation.
The little kid in the film, Will, also has a wonderful scene in the film when during class the kids are talking about how to make a plant grow. The other kids say “sun, soil, and water” but Will says “love” in a clear voice “because if you don’t love it, it won’t grow!” These are all little steps that the characters take on their journey that I feel incredibly privileged to be witnessing through my camera.
Free the Mind is slated for release in the spring of 2012.
Buddhist Priests Training for Aerial Attacks (1936)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
In Alan Taylor’s excellent kick-off to his 20-part series on World War II for The Atlantic’s In Focus blog, he included this striking photo with the caption:
Buddhist priests of the Big Asakusa Temple prepare for the Second Sino-Japanese War as they wear gas masks during training against future aerial attacks in Tokyo, Japan, on May 30, 1936.
You best be checking out the other 44 photos of life before the war on their site.
A Twitterscript of Richard J. Davidson Interview
by Susan Leem, associate producer
The Dalai Lama and Dr. Richard Davidson trade smiles during the first day of the Mind Life XIV Conference at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India on April 9, 2007. (photo: Tenzin Lhwang/AFP/Getty Images)
Richard Davidson is best known for peeking into the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks. With brain neuroimaging, he is trying to understand how their contemplative practices change a human brain — functionally and structurally. We’ve wanted to speak with the neuroscientist for several years now, but it wasn’t until Krista spoke to him at Emory University last fall that we were able to schedule an interview.
Early in his career, Davidson was discouraged from doing this work by his advisors, who feared he wouldn’t find any results. His research has implications not just for practitioners of Buddhism, but also for improving the learning and social behavior of school children. His most thrilling finding is that our brain is more flexible than we realize, even in adulthood.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
- As we get set for interview w/ neuroscientist Richie Davidson, enjoyed @SmithsonianMag’s “Top 10 Myths about the Brain”http://bit.ly/kqRdG7 24 May
- Krista is now interviewing neuroscientist Richard Davidson (of @DalaiLama fame)! We’ll be live-tweeting for the next 90 mins. #meditation 24 May
- You might know Davidson for peeking into the brains of Buddhist monks http://bit.ly/kLdczm 24 May
- @Wisc_CIHM he studies “healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, forgiveness and mindfulness” http://bit.ly/jrMxc4 24 May
- As a kid he was a ham radio operator. And now he studies “contemplative neuroscience.” 24 May
- Davidson’s been on our radar ever since speaking during HHDL’s visit to Emory last year http://bit.ly/izyTdE 24 May
- His friends and colleagues call the Professor “Richie.” 24 May
- “What modern neuroscience is teaching us is that there is a lot of neuroplasticity (in the brain), and change is possible.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “It’s not the genes are unimportant, it’s just that they’re much more dynamic than we previously understood.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Contemplative Neuroscience—the study of the impact of contemplative practices on the brain.” -Professor Davidson 24 May
- “The Dalai Lama challenged me, he said why can’t you use technological tools to study kindness and compassion?” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “I committed to doing everything I could to put compassion on the scientific map.” -Richard Davidson. 24 May
- 6 emotions studied: Happiness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, and Surprise. “This is the best you can do with Western Psychology?”-Davidson 24 May
- RT @FullContactTMcG: I’d be curious to know how we are re-wiring our brains with being becoming multitaskers with an inability to focus. 24 May
- @FullContactTMcG Will forward to Krista in the booth. Thanks. 24 May
- “The best way to teach compassion is to embody it. Through being that the individuals in the vicinity of that person will learn from it.” 24 May
- “That’s what’s so delicious about being in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The word ‘meditation’ in Sanskrit comes from the word ‘familiarization.’” As in familiarization with one’s own mind. -R. Davidson 24 May
- “There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices, understood to produce different effects.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Mindfulness—moment to moment non judgemental attention and awareness.” -Richard Davidson 24 May
- “Based on everything we know in neuroscience, change is not only possible, it’s the rule rather than the exception.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Our brain is continuously being shaped, we can take more responsibility for our own brain by cultivating positive influences.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Most people still don’t think of qualities like happiness as being a skill, that can be enhanced through training.” -R. Davidson. 24 May
- “(We need) a different conception of happiness, more enduring and more genuine, not dependent on external circumstances.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “In the Buddhist tradition there’s tremendously rich detail in the description of the mechanics of these (contemplative) practices”-Davidson 24 May
- “I think the messiness and embodied nature of modern life just produces an enhanced signal for our attention.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “In many ways my life has objective signs of busyness and stress, it creates more opportunities for kindness and compassion.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “(We have) no idea how the subjective quality of consciousness emerges from the physical stuff of the brain.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The idea of transformation meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The key to a healthy life is having a healthy mind.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The best way I can mentor and lead those around me is to embody these (mindful) qualities myself.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “In meditation you experience time slowing down because you can notice more things per discreet moment and you’re more open.” -R.Davidson 24 May
- ”(Re: the value of presence) If we’re multitasking, it’s being present with the multiple tasks before us.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- That concludes our interview with Professor Richard Davidson! Thank you for retweeting. 24 May
Ritual of Floating Lantern Offerings Honors Lost Loved Ones on Memorial Day (video)
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
“Ritual is something we use that moves us gently from one thing, one feeling, one experience, one mindset into another feeling, or experience, or mindset.” ~Rabbi Pearl Barlev
On this Memorial Day, an estimated 40,000 people will gather along the shores of Ala Moana Beach Park on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to participate in a Toro Nagashi, a “lantern offerings on the water” ceremony. It’s a way for the living to honor and remember lost loved ones.
Toro Nagashi is a Japanese ritual developed by the Shinnyo-en Buddhist order in 1952. The Memorial Day ceremony made its way to Hawaii in the late 1990s. Participants adorn floating paper lanterns with hand-written messages. And, at dusk, the lanterns are released into the water.
Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike take part in the Hawaiian ceremony, which is now in its 13th year. Where the Water Meets the Sky, the half-hour documentary featured above, offers a window into the lives of people who are drawn to participate.
The Toro Nagashi ceremony provides a way for individuals to publicly grieve a personal loss together with strangers, and to commemorate the links binding past, present, and future generations.
“The ancestors belong to a world beyond which we can imagine,” says UC Berkeley Japanese Studies professor Duncan Williams, who appears in the film. “And you use the lanterns to communicate to those who are in the other world.”
(photo: Alex Porras/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
About the image (top): A young girl holds a glowing lantern inscribed with messages to a mother. (photo: Ryan Ozawa/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Q:love your work krista tippett.
my mom's 75th birthday is this weekend, and i'm thinking about what i want to say to the family assemblage. I often find your guests and your insights moving and thought-provoking - makes me wish my connection to the local synagogue was as enlightening.
in any case, you had a guest on this past weekend a woman with lots of wisdom, and i wanted to read more about her and perhaps re-hear the segment, but can't find anything on your site - what's her name?
Thanks for writing to us. You may have heard Joanna Macy if your station was doing a pledge drive. The name of that show is “A Wild Love for the World” and you can find the all the details on our website.
Alternately, you may have heard Sylvia Boorstein in “What We Nurture.” We aired that show for Mother’s Day.
Nancy Rosenbaum, producer