Buddhism on the Brain

11 November 2022

On campus and off, Carleton students and graduates are gravitating toward both the study and practice of mindfulness.

illustration of the buddha

Among the welcome returns-to-normal in the wake of the pandemic, one stands out for Carls who are interested in meditation and its Buddhist roots: this fall, Carleton’s Global Engagement program in India is returning to Bodh Gaya.

Bodh Gaya is the town in northern India where, sometime in the 5th century BCE, a young nobleman from a kingdom in what is now Nepal meditated beneath a pipal tree. As he sat, he had a profound insight into the nature of human suffering and how one could examine one’s mind and then change one’s life in hopes of transcending it. He gathered disciples and passed on his wisdom. The Buddha-way grew dominant for a while in India, and spread in all directions: eastward to China, Japan, and Korea; southward into Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia; northward into the Himalayas; and westward into Central Asia.

Since 1979, Carleton students and others have traveled to Bodh Gaya to spend a semester practicing Buddhist meditation with recognized masters, studying the faith with academic experts, and doing fieldwork on independent study projects rooted in what they’ve learned. The program, founded by Antioch College and taken over by Carleton in 2016, had to shut down in 2020 and was moved to Thailand in 2021; but this fall, students will once again walk in the literal footsteps of the Buddha.

Bodh Gaya isn’t the only Carleton resource for understanding and practicing the Buddhist path, of course. The college has been offering curricular Buddhist studies since 1960, and options for various modes of meditation cropped up and grew not long after. But increased stress on college campuses has accelerated interest in the subject. Research from the youth-focused, mental-health nonprofit Active Minds, for example, found that 80 percent of college students experienced a negative impact on their mental health during COVID-19, with anxiety high on the list of complaints from respondents.

This new reality, coupled with a growing focus in the media and elsewhere of the benefits of “mindfulness” (secular and non-secular), has resulted in a student body that is increasingly interested in traditions and disciplines that help people plug into the present moment and experience the spaces between their thoughts and themselves.

illustration of a waterfall

Buddhist studies came to Carleton
in 1960 with a Yale-trained assistant professor of religion named Bardwell L. Smith, who was also an Episcopal minister. Smith’s main interest was Japanese religion, but he was knowledgeable in the religious cultures of China, India, and Sri Lanka, as well. During his career, he brought senior Buddhist teachers to campus—including a monk from Sri Lanka and Dainin Katagiri Roshi, former head of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center—to give students a sense of how Buddhist teachings are embodied in real lives. (As part of a class he taught, Katagiri required students to rise early every day to meditate, which met some resistance from sleepy Carls.)

In 1989, Roger Jackson, a scholar who specializes in Tibetan Buddhism who also practices the religion, became the religion department’s South Asian and Himalayan specialist, with Smith handling China and Japan. With Smith’s retirement in 1995 and Jackson’s in 2016, other scholars have taken over. Today, Asuka Sango, a specialist in Buddhism and its relation to medieval Japanese politics, teaches introductory Buddhism courses and covers Japanese religion in general. The department’s South Asian specialist is Kristin Bloomer.

When Jackson was teaching, he also offered optional meditation sessions to his students. “I did it because it struck me early on that Carleton was not a quiet place,” he says. “Everybody’s yapping all the time, and students needed sit-down-and-be-quiet time. Finding a quiet place on campus to hold these meditations was something of a challenge—but eventually we found the wrestling rooms in West Gym. There was a bit of a smell occasionally.”

In 1996, Jackson, his wife, Pamela, and a group of friends founded the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center, which is still going in a second-floor space on Division Street. And when, in 1997, Carolyn Fure-Slocum ’82, a United Church of Christ minister, became the college’s chaplain, Buddhist meditation found another champion.

“I was a religion major at Carleton,” Fure-Slocum says, “and Bardwell Smith, as an active Christian and also an active meditator writing about Buddhism, showed me that you could hold your own religion dear but at the same time learn and grow from other traditions.” She went to India in a now-discontinued study program and got to know the late Eleanor Zelliot, a Carleton historian of India who practiced vipassana meditation, a form mainly cultivated in Southeast Asia that emphasizes insight into the way the mind works.

“I realized that I wanted us to represent as many of the world’s religious traditions as we could.”
—Carolyn Fure-Slocum ’82

“I learned about a lot of different Buddhist traditions then,” Fure-Slocum remembers, “and when I began as chaplain, I realized that I wanted us to represent as many of the world’s religious traditions as we could, partly for the sake of students from those traditions and partly for the sake of all students’ search for meaning and purpose.”

Fure-Slocum made chapel services interfaith, welcoming different religious groups each Sunday. One Sunday per term, a Buddhist teacher would be invited: Roger Jackson to present Tibetan Buddhism, teachers from Twin Cities Zen centers, and other practitioners.

Today the chaplaincy has more Buddhism more often, specifically, Buddhist meditation every Thursday, led either by Jackson, by a Mankato-based Sri Lankan monk named Bhante Sathi, or by one of the students Fure-Slocum enlists as chaplain associates. There’s also Time to Meditate, 20- or 30-minute sessions of various meditation styles, led by associates. And Buddhist chapel services continue, once per term.

“There’s a real need,” Fure-Slocum says. “Carleton gets so busy and so intense. In the last 10 or 15 years in particular, students have really been looking for ways to center and calm the mind and the spirit.”

Gabe Keller-Flores ’15, who was already practicing Buddhism when he came to the college, led meditation sessions as an associate. “I think a lot of people just came looking for how any degree of mindfulness and calm could fit into a really busy life at Carleton,” he says. “They came with a clear recognition that their minds were really stressed, and they were just looking for some sort of relief. What I tried to show them was how you could put aside your thinking for a little while, or at least attempt to.”

Meditating for stress relief
is one thing; engaging with the long and complex history of Buddhism in all its varieties is quite another. It can be an eye-opening, even unsettling, experience.

illustration of the buddha's hand

“Everybody comes to my Intro to Buddhism class with their own ideas about what Buddhism is,” says Sango. “They’re very attracted to images of it as modern, scientific. What is meditation? Does it work? What does it mean to say that it works? I try to acknowledge these interests and also talk about why they have these images of Buddhism.”

She also exposes her students to how Buddhism is embedded in the cultures of Asia and how it has changed over time. One major shift in the religion can come as a surprise to students who think of Buddhism as straightforward and “scientific.”

Indian Buddhist thinkers elaborated the historical Buddha’s vision into a more complex system, the Mahayana, or “greater vehicle,” tradition. Mahayana Buddhism posits the existence of an infinite number of Buddhas, or “awakened ones,” throughout time, and of bodhisattvas, great beings who postpone their enlightenment until all other sentient beings can achieve it. The result is a pantheon of godlike entities and an intricate philosophy. The older Buddhism, known as Theravada (“teaching of the elders”), is dominant in South and Southeast Asia, while the “greater vehicle” spread to China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, where it gave birth to many sects, including Zen. In Tibet, the Mahayana flowered into a particularly rich, complex tradition. Another variant, Pure Land Buddhism, focuses on devotion rather than meditation and is the dominant form of the religion in East Asia.

“That’s always a very interesting discussion—what it means for religious tradition to evolve,” Sango says. “It’s not that the Mahayana is not legitimate, that it’s not Buddhism; rather, it’s a critique and a response to earlier ideas of Buddhism.”

Sango emphasizes that her students’ initial ideas about the religion aren’t necessarily wrong; they’re just partial, limited by the fact that the Buddhism practiced in the West—outside of immigrant communities—tends to be stripped of religious content, focused on psychology, and centered on meditation. “They may think that Buddhism lacks the things that make a religion a religion,” says Sango. “I remind them that in Buddhism, we have rituals. We have multiple gods. Many Buddhists never meditate. But I never tell them they’re wrong. I just tell them they need to examine their assumptions.”

Illustration of a Buddhist stupa

The students who traveled to Bodh Gaya this fall are being exposed to a wide range of different Buddhisms in a comprehensive curriculum. Living together with instructors in the Burmese vihara, the guesthouse for Burmese pilgrims in Buddhism’s most important pilgrimage center, they commit themselves to observing Buddhist moral precepts, including no intoxicants and never telling a lie, and they give up phones and laptops.

But meditation is the touchstone. The 30 or so students rise early and meditate for an hour under the guidance of a senior practitioner. (In 11 weeks, they’re trained in vipassana with a Theravada teacher, then Zen and Tibetan meditation with respected teachers in those traditions.)

A full day of classes follows, then another hour of sitting at the end of the day. As C. Robert Pryor, the Antioch College professor who founded the program, puts it: “If you want to know what Buddhism is, you need to do what Buddhists do. It’s classic experiential education, but to that we added an interior part—serious meditation.”

For Arthur McKeown, associate professor of Asian studies at Carleton and the program’s current director, the experiential becomes transformational. “There’s the stress of being in India,” he says. “They’re learning how to meditate. They’re in the classroom. Those three factors create a feedback loop that transforms them. And once you can meditate in Bodh Gaya, which is a loud, intense, Indian city, you can meditate anywhere. The full range of life is there and then you’re immersed in it. You learn, okay, I need to let go of something, because the world around me is not going to change just for me.”

Bodh Gaya alums have gone on to pursue a variety of related callings.

Sacha Greenfield ’19 is living in the Los Angeles Zen Center as she works toward a PhD in physics at the University of Southern California. Graham Schneider ’12 spent several years in Myanmar teaching English and now teaches U.S. history, government, and economics at a charter school in Brooklyn, New York, while maintaining a Buddhist meditation practice. Caitlin McKimmy ’10, who is in the PhD program in the psychology and neuroscience department at the University of Colorado Boulder, is planning a dissertation on how to design an undergraduate course on the intersections of mindfulness, compassion, liberation, and social justice.

“If you want to know what Buddhism is, you need to do what Buddhists do.”
—C. Robert Pryor

Madeline Egan ’19 is studying to be a doctor of osteopathy. Already committed to spirituality and medicine when she entered Carleton, she majored in religion but also took pre-med courses and was a dedicated cross-country runner. Buddhism intrigued her and, per Roger Jackson’s suggestion, she applied to the India program. “It was right in my wheelhouse because experiential learning and religion were exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “I loved India right away. I was in awe of how open the people were, how everything was just so full of life and so vibrant.”

Egan had also come to India with a sorrow—the then–recent death of her grandmother, whom she calls her best friend. Meditation meant she had to sit with the sorrow and make some difficult discoveries. “You’re sitting with things about yourself that maybe you don’t like or you haven’t created space for,” she says. “You can’t go on social media and pull in other identities or put a fake sense of self out there. And I had to confront what death and dying means to me.”

Egan says her biggest realization was “being able to see myself clearly, almost from a third-person perspective.

“I realized that up to that point in my life I had placed a lot of my personal value in academics and athletics. I was letting all that go and just sitting with what it means to be human and to be present with myself. To realize that I have all these changing emotions: anger, sadness, grief. The only certain thing is that I’m going to die. And coming to terms with that leaves this subtle space in your life and in your mind. In that subtle space, there’s just so much gratitude and so much joy and so much vibrancy and humility.”

All the Bodh Gaya students pursue a thesis project, for which they travel somewhere, usually in India or Southeast Asia, for field research. Egan went to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s north Indian place of exile, to interview doctors and undergo treatment at the most important center of traditional Tibetan medicine in the world. Her topic: what is the role of meditation in Tibetan medicine?

What Egan learned not only capped off her Bodh Gaya experience, but in many ways summed up what Buddhism and meditation contribute to a liberal education of the mind and heart.

“The resounding answer I got from the doctors was: yes, we meditate! The heart and mind of the physicians have a direct impact on the patients they’re present with. I believe that the simple presence of another human can be healing or harmful. It’s hard, you know, to be gracious with ourselves and to open that space of acceptance for everything in our hearts and minds. But how can we even attempt to do that with someone else if we haven’t done it with ourselves?”

illustration of buddha's feet

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