Photo from Tassajara website
(1 unit, S/NC only)
Arroyo Residential Seminar: Buddha Brain - Meditation, Religion, and Science
Sponsored by the Learning Expeditions Fund and Residential Education at Stanford
Spring Quarter 2008-2009, Stanford University
Instructor:  Todd Davies
Excursion Assistant: Aaron Qayumi

Meeting Times:  Excursion from noon on Friday, May 8, until approximately 6 pm on Sunday, May 10, 2009; plus pre-trip events and meditation instruction as listed below.

Locations: Arroyo House, Wilbur Hall, and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Carmel Valley, California

Instructor's Office: 460-040C (Margaret Jacks Hall, lower level)
Phone: x3-4091; Fax: x3-5666
Email: davies at
Office Hours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays 10:30 AM - 11:55 am

Course website: (this syllabus)

Course blog:

This version: April 30, 2009  - watch here for updates

Prerequisites: Admission to the course by the instructors' permission; see "Admission to the Course and Excursion" below.

Course Overview:

Through pre-trip events and a two-night excursion to a renowned Zen Buddhist monastery, this seminar will explore the relationships between the practice of meditation, spirituality, and the human mind. This set of topics makes connections between the focus of Arroyo House (Symbolic Systems and Related Majors) and forms of human activity that are usually thought of as quite different from cognitive science. I hope that this will inspire students to think more broadly about the relationships between religion and conscience experience, on one hand, and the scientific study of brain and behavior on the other.


Studies from the 1960s showed that Zen Buddhist meditation (zazen) produces electroencephalograph (EEG) alpha wave measurements associated with waking relaxation.1 Recent research has explored other effects that meditation and the mental practices that characterize it have on the brains of meditators. For example:

These are just a few examples drawn from a large and growing field of study. The number of published papers numbers in the thousands,7 inspired in part by scientists such as the neurologist James H. Austin and the cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch, both of whom practice meditation.8 In general, scientific investigation has affirmed and elaborated upon the reports of long-term meditators that the practice changes their awareness and helps them cope with negative emotions. The more profound experience of “enlightenment” associated with Buddhism in particular, however, remains beyond scientific validation. The scientific study of meditation and of Buddhism raises profound philosophical questions about how much religious and felt experience can be characterized objectively. For the scientifically minded, however, the findings of neuroscientists and psychologists provide fresh reasons to explore this ancient practice.

The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (Zenshinji) is affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center, founded in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and his students, in the Soto Zen tradition of Buddhism established by Dogen Zenji in 13th-century Japan. Tassajara is a renowned monastery, located in the Ventana Wilderness east of Big Sur, which opens its practice to guests in the late spring and summer of each year. The area surrounding the monastery was devastated in the Basin Complex Fire of July 2008, but the Zen Center survived and will be reopening this spring for guests.

A visit to Tassajara is an immersive experience in the culture of Soto Zen Buddhist meditation. The primary method is seated meditation (zazen) in a meditation hall (zendo), but Zen practitioners also practice walking meditation (kinhin). Tassajara hosts teachers from other traditions as well, including Vipassana/insight meditation and Tibetan Buddhism.


Students should set aside $20 from their own funds for the excursion for incidental expenses.  If this presents a serious hardship and you are accepted into the course, you should email Todd with a request for supplemental funds.  All necessary excursion costs (transportation, meals, and lodging) will be covered by the University for up to 15 students, including the excursion assistant. 

Admission to the Course and Excursion:

There are 14 spots available to applicants.  Applications for enrolling in the course will be done in rounds.  The first round is only for Arroyo residents.  Later rounds will be held only if spaces remain to be filled after the first round. 

Arroyo residents who want to take the course should send an email message with a simple statement of interest in the course (e.g. "I am interested in taking Symbsys 17") no later than 5 pm on Wednesday, April 8, 2009.  If the number who indicate an interest is 14 or less, then all those who have done so will be accepted into the class. If the number is greater than 14, a procedure will be announced on the evening of April 8 for determining the class list.  If the class does not fill up in the first round, applications will be opened to students who are not residents of Arroyo.

Students who are registered for the course but who have not attended three or more pre-trip course events plus a meditation instruction, or who have not posted a pre-trip blog comment, by 11:59 pm on Thursday, May 7, will risk losing their spot to students who were not accepted into the course initially but who attend pre-trip course events.  If any spots open up after the class is filled, students who were not accepted initially will become eligible for these spots.  Priority for these additional spots will go to students who have applied for the course, and an ordered waiting list will be created if there are more applicants than spots in the course.

Course Requirements:

Requirements for the course consist of: (a) attendance at three or more course pre-trip events plus meditation instruction, (b) the full excursion, and (c) posting one pre-trip comment on a pre-trip event by May 8, and one post-trip comment from May 10 through June 10, each of 300 words or more, on the course blog.   As a substitute for one of the pre-trip events, you may view the film or films for a pre-trip event in the library. All films are on reserve and the call numbers are indicated below. Please send a statement to me indicating which films you have seen on your own in order to get credit for a pre-trip event. This must be received by Thursday, May 7, at 11:59 pm.


Meditation instruction and Pre-trip Practice

Everyone should practice meditation prior to the excursion. Meditation instruction for beginners is available through selections 5 and 6 under "Listening Station" at the Meditation House website (right sidebar). You should find a cushion or pillow to sit on prior to meditating.

For meditation practice, you may attend the sessions hosted by the Buddhist Community at Stanford on weekday mornings and Wednesday and Thursday afternoons in the Old Union, or meditate on your own. The Meditation House website is an online space for group meditation via the Internet.

Pre-trip events

The schedule below is tentative. Students must attend three pre-trip events in addition to meditation instruction prior to the excursion. The film descriptions below are culled from online sources. Call numbers refer to the Green Library Media Center catalog. All videos are on reserve in Green Library.


The trip to Tassajara takes about 3.5 hours from Stanford. We will leave at noon on Friday, May 8, and plan to arrive in time for the daily Zen meditation instruction at 4 pm. We will be back on campus by around 6 pm, Sunday, May 10, following lunch at Tassajara and a closing group discussion.

Apart from meditation instruction and meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), students will be free to spend their time as they like. The environment at Tassajara encourages quiet meditation and contemplation, and there are hot springs baths and hiking trails that can be explored. The expectation is that students will engage in some sessions of extended meditation, practicing the techniques they have learned about. I have some experience in walking meditation and can lead a group meditation walk.


1See, e.g. Akira Kasamatsu and Tomio Hirai, “An Electroencephalographic Study on the Zen Meditation (Zazen)”, Psychiatry and Clinical Sciences, 20(4):315-336, 1966 (

2 Antoine Lutz et al., “Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(46)16369, 2004 (; John Geirland, “Buddha on the Brain”, Wired, 14.02, February 2006 (; Antoine Lutz, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson, “Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness”, in Zelazo et al. (eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, Cambridge University Press, 2005 (

3Antoine Lutz et al., “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise”, PLoS One, March 2008 (

4William J. Cromie, “Meditation Found to Increase Brain Size”, Harvard Gazette, January 23, 2006 ( See also Sara W. Lazar et al., “Meditation Experience Is Associated With Increased Cortical Thickness”, NeuroReport, 2005 (

5Quotes are from Melinda Wenner, “Brain Scans Reveal Why Meditation Works”, LiveScience, June 29, 2007 ( See also Matthew Lieberman et al., Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli”, Psychological Science, 18(5):421, 2007.

6 Jeff Worley, “Meditate on This New Finding”, University of Kentucky Odyssey Magazine, Winter 2007 (

7Allison Aubrey, “Science Explores Meditation's Effects on the Brain”, NPR, July 26, 2005 (

8 See James H. Austin, Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, MIT Press, 1999, cited in Ibid. Also: Eleanor Rosch, “What Buddhist Meditation Has To Tell Psychology About the Mind”, American Psychological Association Annual Convention, August 23, 2002 (