SYMBOLIC SYSTEMS 17 (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
Locations: Arroyo House, Wilbur Hall, and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Carmel Valley, CaliforniaInstructor's Office: 460-040C (Margaret Jacks Hall, lower level)
Course blog: http://symbsys17.edublogs.org
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.
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:
Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz at Wisconsin and their colleagues measured brain activity in Tibetan Buddhist monks who were experienced meditators. They found that the monks, when asked to meditate on “"unconditional loving-kindness and compassion” showed very strong gamma wave synchrony, a marker of conscious awareness, and also heightened activation in the left prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in positive emotions. The effect was dramatic: a 30-fold increase in gamma wave measurements over student controls.2 Recent research has shown that some of the effects of meditation can be achieved by novices as well.3
Sara Lazar at Harvard and colleagues found that Buddhist practitioners of insight meditation showed “increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input” compared to nonmeditators.4
Matthew Lieberman at UCLA and colleagues found that “mindfulness” techniques such as meditation, which are aimed at helping people “pay more attention to their present emotions, thoughts and sensations without reacting strongly to them” have a calming effect on the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in emotional processing.5
Unpublished data collected by Bruce O'Hara and colleagues at Kentucky reportedly show that meditation by novices improves mental acuity more than the fabled “power nap”.6
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
costs (transportation, meals, and lodging) will be covered by
the University for up to 15 students, including the excursion
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 IThou.org 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.
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.
Thursday, May 7, 7:30-9:30 pm, Arroyo Lounge. Science and Spirituality. Film: What the BLEEP Do We Know? (2004, 108 minutes, ZDVD 9431). From the website: “Starring Marlee Matlin and 14 Scientists and Mystics. Exploring the worlds of Quantum Physics, Neurology, and Molecular Biology in relation to the spheres of Spirituality, Metaphysics and Polish weddings. Part documentary, part drama, part animation. How does it all fit together???”
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
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
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 (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119728939/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0).
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 (http://www.bu.edu/av/core/csf/Long-term_meditators_self-induce_high-amplitude_gamma-synchrony.pdf); John Geirland, “Buddha on the Brain”, Wired, 14.02, February 2006 (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.02/dalai.html); 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 (http://brainimaging.waisman.wisc.edu/~lutz/Meditation_Neuroscience_2005_AL_JDD_RJD_2.pdf.).
3Antoine Lutz et al., “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise”, PLoS One, March 2008 (http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0001897).
4William J. Cromie, “Meditation Found to Increase Brain Size”, Harvard Gazette, January 23, 2006 (http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2006/01/23-meditation.html). See also Sara W. Lazar et al., “Meditation Experience Is Associated With Increased Cortical Thickness”, NeuroReport, 2005 (http://entas.ucsd.edu/~pineda/COGS175/readings/Lazar.pdf).
5Quotes are from Melinda Wenner, “Brain Scans Reveal Why Meditation Works”, LiveScience, June 29, 2007 (http://www.livescience.com/health/070629_naming_emotions.html). 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 (https://www.rgs.uky.edu/odyssey/winter07/meditation.html)
7Allison Aubrey, “Science Explores Meditation's Effects on the Brain”, NPR, July 26, 2005 (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4770779)
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 (http://www.cpsphd.edu/dp_rosch%20meditation-mind.htm).