Zen Brain, Selfless Insight

The Buddhist Channel, Dec 1, 2007

UPAYA Institute and Zen Center to offer revolutionary program on neuroscience and Zen, with core researchers from the Mind and Life Institute, from January 16-20, 2008

Santa Fe, New Mexico (USA) -- Popular and scientific interest in the relationships between Buddhism and neuroscience has dramatically increased, accompanied by the publication of both theoretical proposals and new laboratory investigations relating Buddhist practice to the brain.

In this important retreat/seminar, Joan Halifax Roshi and four renowned scientists who have contributed to this growing field of research and are all long-term Zazen practitioners, will interactively share their perspectives on what has specifically been learned about Zen practice and the brain, how this research is relevant for practice, and how experienced practitioners can help sharpen the research questions being explored.  During the retreat, discussion will be integrated with sitting meditation practice throughout each day.

Clinical neurologist and neuroscientist James Austin, M.D. will provide an overview of  brain structure and physiology with high theoretical relevance to understanding many of the phenomena of Zen practice.  His books, Zen and the Brain, and Zen-Brain Reflections, have been an extraordinarily rich source of hypotheses for neuroscientists who study long-term meditators.  Dr. Austin will also provide retreat participants with a new speculative neuroscientific account of “what may have happened 2500 years ago under the Bodhi tree,” as well as information to help retreat participants appreciate how the tools and methods of modern neuroscience can contribute to our understanding of the transformative processes of Zen practice.

Clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscientist Al Kaszniak, Ph.D. will describe recent research in his laboratory focused on emotional response and emotional regulation in long-term Zen and Vipassana practitioners.  His presentation will explain how emotion can be studied through both behavioral and psychophysiological research technologies, and will address the potential relevance of this research for understanding the cultivation of compassion in Zen practice.  Retreat participants will be encouraged to reflect on how the experiments described relate to their own experience in practice, and propose ways in which future research might more accurately capture this experience.

Psychology graduate researcher and cognitive/affective neuroscientist Jason Buhle will present the results of his recent research on attention in Zen meditators, and describe new studies using neuroimaging technology to measure brain activity during practitioners’ performance of specific attention tasks.  His demonstration of these tasks will aid participants in examining the relevance of attention experiments for understanding their own practice experience, and in suggesting ways to enhance this relevance.  His discussion of neuroimaging technologies (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging: fMRI) will also aim to sharpen the ability of participants to discern among neuroimaging-based claims that they encounter in the scientific and popular press.

Pathologist and biomedical scientist Neil Theise, M.D. will explain how complexity theory has provided a new approach for understanding complex biological processes, and how complexity theory has intriguing relationships to Buddhist metaphysics.  He will also provide a perspective for understanding how various practices, including meditation, may work at the physiological level in neuronal, neuroendocrine, and cellular process relevant to disease, healing, and regeneration.  His discussion will encourage the contemplation of how new models in biology may help to bridge Euro-American medicine and the understanding of bodily phenomena from Asian traditions.

Joan Halifax Roshi will both guide meditation practice periods throughout the retreat and provide reflection upon the relationships of scientific approaches described each day to Zen tradition and practice.  Roshi will help participants in contemplative exploration of the interrelationships of Zen and science, and in consideration of how scientific perspectives and research may contribute to the evolution of Zen as a living and changing tradition.

In discussion during scientific presentations, and in the closing Council Circle at the end of the retreat, participants will have opportunities to contribute to the formulation of research hypotheses that will influence how the nascent relationship between Zen and the human sciences develops into the future.

For more information or to register online:
Limited registration; early registration advised.