The Zen of Filmmaking: A Balance of Heart & Mind

by Xuan Vu © 2006

Chapter IV: Pre-Production Research

:: Brief History of Zen
:: Zen Philosophy
:: Psychology of Zen
:: The Causes of Suffering in America
:: The Beat Zen Movement
:: The Psychological and Neurological Benefits of Meditation
:: Summary

The term Zen has become adopted by American colloquial language over the past several decades as an adjective connoting a fresh, carefree, and peaceful nature or attitude. Its common usage to describe things or people in this sense has led to the popular trend to want be “Zen” amidst the turmoil of everyday life in America. The pop culture surrounding this traditional Japanese Buddhist practice demonstrates its appeal to the average modern American: Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls, has been known to apply Zen techniques in his coaching agenda as a way to enhance his players’ cohesion as a team.(1) Brad Warner, a hardcore punk bassist as well as a Zen priest, has applied it to the “Art of Making Monster Movies.”(2) There is even a beauty salon run by Japanese hair stylists called “Zen Hair” on Commonwealth Avenue, the name of which is clearly used as a marketing tool, appealing to those who are in tune with this recent fad. The application of Zen to such disparate realms of interest is indicative of its popularity. But what does this term actually mean and how has it been applied to improve American life?

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Brief History of Zen

Originally called Ch’an Buddhism, the Zen tradition began during the T’ang dynasty in the sixth-century CE,(3) when an Indian Buddhist scholar named Bodhidharma brought the Buddha’s teachings of meditative concentration to China,(4) where the practice was merged with the Taoist theory of yin and yang.(5) According to the early Chinese Buddhist tradition of Northern Ch’an, which was established by a man named Shen-hsiu (605-706 CE), the main goal of a practitioner was to reach Enlightenment by transcending the natural human tendency to perceive the world with a “defiled mind,” consequently achieving a “pure mind.”(6) For 1,200 years, Ch’an spread and developed in many parts of Asia, including Korea, where it is known as Son; Vietnam, where it is called Thien; and Japan, where it received its presently most familiar designation as Zen.(7) It was due to the influence of a famous Japanese Zen practitioner, Daisetz T. Suzuki, that this tradition became popularized in America in the 20th-century, flourishing as it had in Asia.(8)

Zen, literally translated from Japanese, means meditation. It is a state of mind in which one’s sense of being is completely intertwined with the rest of the world, transcending any notion of a separate self.(9) To be Zen is not to think in terms of categories, distinctions or concepts. In fact, it entails not thinking at all. One can arrive at such a state of mind through dedication to the practice of Zen meditation.

Was the tradition concerned with improving an individual’s psychological experience? Says one Zen student about the “Four Noble Truths,” the Buddha´s first teaching and one of Buddhism’s central doctrines: “[It is] a brilliant exposition of human psychology about the nature of desire and point of view.”(10) The Four Noble Truths refer to the actual state of reality—the state that one comes to realize through an understanding that suffering is real, that suffering is caused by desire and ignorance of the nature of reality, (11) that it is possible to end suffering and its causes, and of how to end suffering.(12) The meditative practice of Buddhist traditions serves to facilitate one’s development towards the end of suffering, which means that its ultimate goal is to improve the lot of human existence.

More specifically, Buddhism’s characteristic focus on the mind has led to its lack of emphasis on the body, which gives its goal a more psychological orientation. According to Alan Wallace, co-founder of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization working to establish a mutually-beneficial dialog between Buddhists and neuroscientists, “Buddhism recognizes that many difficult outer circumstances are uncontrollable and at times unavoidable, especially in terms of making it less prone to afflictions regardless of one’s environment.”(13) Since one cannot necessarily control the external physical world, Buddhism allows one to control one’s internal, mental world. Buddhist meditation, then, is essentially a psychological practice. Wallace goes on to say that “Buddhist contemplatives have observed the mind for centuries yet found no theory of the brain.”(14) In other words, the Buddhist tradition lacks any definitive claims on the biological or physiological components of experiential phenomena. Instead, unlike the time-honored Western dichotomy between the mind and the body, or more recently, the mind and the brain, Chinese Ch’an Buddhism distinguishes between two aspects of the mind: the defiled mind and the pure mind.(15)

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Zen Philosophy

The defiled mind is equated with conceptual thinking and the reason for all suffering. It is the mind that we ordinarily use in our everyday experiences. It refers to:

…the activity of mind which conceptualizes, judges, distinguishes subject from object, hates, craves, and constructs the conceptual framework within which we categorize our perceptions and experiences [and therefore] seems to correspond roughly to the Western notion of the mind.(16)

According to Shen-hsiu, the founder of the Northern Ch’an line, “…sentient beings undergo suffering…because their defiled mind obstructs Suchness.”(17) This obstruction comes from attachment to things, to concepts, and to what is perceived, “while [mis]taking the discriminated world for the true nature of ‘what is’.”(18) As Westerners, we have been conditioned to become dependent on such misconceptions: “We forget who we are as we do our work and live our lives. We lose ourselves in the doing and to the goal. Western society encourages this and rewards us highly.”(19)

The central modes of thought that have become so highly valued in Western society, mainly Cartesian rationality and the Christian God, further promote false thinking: “The dualism of Christianity and of rationality splits the world and us with it into what we metaphorically call “parts,” keeping these parts separate in our consciousness, and keeping us alienated from ourselves, others…and the physical world.”(20) These values are part of the foundation for the Western misperception of reality, and consequent suffering, since things are not actually distinct entities in themselves but are inseparably connected to one another.(21)

One can arrive at such an awareness of reality through dedicated and disciplined practice of Zen meditation, which is what Buddhism proposes as the way to end suffering: “Zen clears our way to the reality of things. It dissolves the subject-object, inside-outside dualism of the rational, logical Cartesian ego, and lets us see the world as if we were one with it instead of split off from it, and thus outside it.”(22) It is the adherence to a practice of sitting and breathing, which brings us back into the present moment, that takes us out of the delusion of separation from the world and away from our preoccupation with time.

Buddhism has always emphasized the importance of practical experience, “[challenging] people to examine and re-examine their own most cherished assumptions about the nature of reality.”(23) In the representative texts of the Chinese tradition, Ch’an masters describe their experiences in “vivid and personal” language.(24) They do not come to their conclusions about the nature of reality “through the observation of the behavior of others, or from the observation of patterns in nature, patterns in history, and so on. Rather, their descriptions [of reality] are tied to certain experiences of the Ch’an masters.”(25) Such dedication to the practice does not come easily to the average American, but its promise to relieve suffering makes it worth the effort. Says one meditation practitioner, “I thought: ‘Wow, this is really difficult, and I want to leave most of the time.’ But I know this is the only hope for me—to really find what I’m looking for…which is really freedom.”(26) Americans, like the Ch’an masters, have found the power of ritual enactment in Zen.

Once one has arrived at this freedom, one can be said to have achieved a pure mind, also known as “Awakening” or “Enlightenment.”(27) This true, or “original,” mind is considered by the Ch’an masters as having “nothing to do with sensory realms…It responds to worldly activities, it is in accord with the illumination [of each thing], it is calm and self-functioning.”(28) The nature of this mind stands in contrast to the defiled mind, as it “cannot be grasped conceptually, [transcending] all limits, measures, names, traces and comparison.”(29) It perceives reality as it truly is: an interconnected network of relationships from which nothing stands distinct.(30)

Such a view of reality is conducive to the Western need for a release from the deceptions of dualistic thinking, a need for what Buddhists have termed “non-attachment,” which calls for the practitioner to let go of any attachments to inherently discriminative concepts, categories and things.(31) This aspect of American Zen Buddhism “[imparts] a profoundly refreshing sense of wholeness to a culture in which the spiritual and the material, the conscious and the unconscious, have been cataclysmically split.”(32) Indeed, the word Zen means “that concentration or absorption in which you are one with everything, in which there is no subject-object distinction.”(33) The Buddhist concept of emptiness contends that the existence of all phenomena depends on this “wholeness” or unity and is therefore inextricably linked to it. Because of such dependence, each thing is empty in and of itself. This doctrine of dependent origination maintains that everything is shaped and affected by everything else in a continual process of change, having no independent being.(34)

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The Psychology of Zen

The Causes of Suffering in America:

How has this traditional Eastern Buddhist practice become so popular in a Western society in which reason, dualistic thinking and, most importantly, the individual are so highly valued? Indeed, Zen’s rise in popularity within the past half century followed shortly after Americans’ marked disillusionment with Western values in the 1940s and 1950s. Romantic thinkers, sociologists, and meditation practitioners alike have pointed towards modern ideals as the cause of suffering in America. How does the modern condition explain the appeal of Zen meditation to Americans? In what ways has this practice helped to alleviate modern suffering? An examination of the causes and effects of the modern condition in America and an investigation into the psychological and neurological effects of Zen meditation in diminishing the effects of modern suffering on American practitioners provide interesting answers to these important questions.

It is important first to examine the state of medical practice in the West. In contrast to the emphasis placed on physical wellbeing, Western medicine has paid little attention to the psychological needs of Americans. The minor place that psychology and the other “soft sciences” hold alongside the myriad physiological disciplines in Western medicine shows that the West is in desperate need of revamping this field. According to Dr. Brundtland, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), “it is not logical for mental health to be so marginalized. For years there has been enough knowledge about mental illness to reveal similarities with the issues and structure of physical health.”(35)

Yet, relatively minimal efforts have been made to relieve the mental pain of Americans, who continue to experience psychological problems. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “22.1 percent of Americans ages 18 and older—about 1 in 5 adults—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.”(36) Of this number, 9.5 percent have a depressive disorder while 13.3 percent have an anxiety disorder.(37) Such disorders can lead to devastating consequences, such as suicide. NIMH estimates that “more than 90% of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder.”(38) It is therefore in the nation’s interest to reevaluate the health concerns of Western medicine as well as analyze the causes of such problems and find a solution.

Medical experts have theorized that the cause of American’s poor mental health lies in the characteristically stressful Western lifestyle. According to the WHO, urbanization, which “is accompanied by increased homelessness, poverty, overcrowding, disruption of family structure, and loss of social support,” has contributed to the rise in stress-related mental disorders.(39) A common manifestation of stress is anxiety, which usually leads to depression. Ron Kessler, PhD, Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, states that “with the uncertainty of the future and fewer family and community ties to help deal with problems…more people become anxious, breeding secondary depression.”(40) Another factor involves the nature of rapid change in capitalistic societies, which causes insecurity and unpredictability.(41) According to the NIMH, “major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and established market economies worldwide.”(42) The high expectations that accompany “the Western drive for money and success” also add to the problem:(43) “People now expect to have jobs, enough money to go to a dinner and movie, and many kids expect to have a cell phone in high school and a car at graduation.”(44) With so many concerns cluttering the average American’s mind, it is no wonder that psychological issues have become rampant throughout the nation.

In speculating about the sources of modern suffering experienced by Americans, many experts and intellectual thinkers have also pointed to capitalism as the leading cause. According to Dr. Brundtland, one factor contributing to the prevalence of suffering in America is rapid change and absolute freedom, which are characteristic of capitalistic societies: “[P]eople exposed to rapid change have to cope with insecurity and unpredictability…Most of us – at times – are overwhelmed by the challenges of multiple choices. We find them hard to handle.”(45) Such a fast-paced nature and the freedom to choose anything may leave Americans with a sense of utter helplessness and confusion, the central characteristics of the modern condition, which is the state of suffering that comes from living in modern society.

This state seems to have been the case for Americans going back 50 years ago. According to Erich Fromm, a well-known American psychotherapist in the mid-20th-century, the American emphasis on autonomy was “unwanted,” and the “alienated individual” wanted nothing more than to gain security in an unstable world.(46) Unable to find such security, they choose to put an end to their weak and fragile existence. According to statistics from 1950, those falling within the age group of 5-44 “accounted for 44 per cent of cases of suicides.”(47) The absolute freedom promised to all Americans far from empowered the individual; rather, it exposed their vulnerability under the pressures of an ever-changing modern society.

Unfortunately, even now America lacks the stability needed to sustain its citizens’ mental wellbeing. Statistics from 1995 show that “the total number of youth suicides is increasing…[with youths] accounting for 53 per cent of the suicides,”(48) as compared to the aforementioned 44 percent in 1950. Also, according to the WHO, in 2001, “mental illness, including suicide, account[ed] for over 15 percent of the burden of disease in established market economies, such as the United States.”(49) Mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are widespread, and the majority of Americans affected by such illnesses fall within the adolescent to young adult age group. For example, Dysthymic disorder, or chronic, mild depression, “often begins in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.”(50) Bipolar disorder typically begins in individuals in their early twenties.(51)

In the year 2000, “suicide was the third leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds.”(52) In an effort to explain this trend, Dr. Brundtland has stated that “an increasing number of young people find it impossible to live in our modern world.” The adolescent age group is typically correlated with the stage of development in which one attempts to “find oneself.” With the American emphasis on personal autonomy and individuality, individuals in such a stage are highly susceptible to developing psychological disorders. Lacking a definitive sense of self in a complex modern world, these mentally-afflicted individuals at times cannot cope and resort to suicide to end their suffering.

The American individual’s lack of a communal sense, also typical of capitalistic society, is another reason for modern suffering. In his analysis of the effects of capitalism on individuals, Fromm indicates that “human beings, thrust out of their traditional bonds with one another by the rising forces of capitalism, gradually found themselves deprived of meaning and goals.”(53) He argues that “the problem of Western man [is] a spiritual crisis, arising from a lack of purpose other than a desire to escape insecurity and aloneness.”(54) With the importance placed on the individual as the defining entity, the collective is relegated to a secondary realm, leaving the individual feeling weak and isolated.(55) Not surrounded by a support network that reinforces the individual’s identity and purpose, the individual arrives at the conclusion that he has no purpose.

Such a state of mind was observed by the famous French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917),(56) who coined the term anomie as the mental condition plaguing Westerners living in modern societies. Anomie refers to an individual’s sense of meaninglessness due to a lack of societal norms or standards.(57) In societies with simple economic systems where workers perform similar tasks and work towards the same group-oriented goals, such standards typically defined the individual’s role in society. In societies with more complex economic systems, such as capitalism, the individual no longer serves the collective and instead works towards his own ends. The irony, and source of inconsistency, is that individuals in this system depend on each other even more. However, the individual cannot see this since the levels of integration and interdependence can only be observed on a grand scale. The individual interacts with many different people in a variety of contexts and therefore takes on a variety of social roles. With the emphasis on the individual as the creator of his own identity, the individual finds himself at a loss in an attempt to define his true self, having such a selection of roles—which are sometimes at odds with one another—to choose from.

Another aspect of Durkheim’s theory of anomie is the feeling of personal insufficiency. This state occurs when there are inconsistencies between cultural values and the actual experience of a member of that culture.(58) Western societies are fundamentally egalitarian nations, in which all men are supposedly created equal and have the same opportunities for success. The inconsistencies arise when members of such societies do not or cannot meet this idealistic expectation of success due to the lack of equality that they think is guaranteed them in a fundamentally egalitarian society. In actuality, equality is not a guarantee but a presupposition. According to Durkheim, individuals suffering from such societal discontent go through different stages of mental turmoil, including anxiety and depression and culminating in what he called “anomic suicide,” a choice one makes to end what one considers to be a meaningless existence. As already indicated, such a phenomenon is still occurring a century after Durkheim’s account of the modern condition, and, according to the aforementioned statistical data of suicide rates, is gaining momentum.

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The Beat Zen Movement:

Despite the increasing number of suicides, however, some Americans have sought safer alternatives to help them in their pain, acting in accord with Max Weber’s contention that humans “are motivated by a desire to escape from suffering and make life meaningful.”(59) During the 1950s, there arose a countercultural movement in America in which modern sufferers attempted to break the chains of the modern condition. This movement was known as the Beat Zen movement, which was “a younger generation’s nonparticipation in “‘the American Way of Life,’ a revolt [that turned] away from it to find the significance of life in subjective experience rather than objective achievement.”(60) In a case study of a Japanese Zen center in the San Francisco Bay Area (designated the “Pacific Zen Center”) during this movement:

…sixties youths…rejected the successful professional careers and settled family lives their parents prized…Disillusioned with such work on countercultural grounds, these youths left college to take up the pattern of unskilled part-time or temporary labor and service work that [then predominated] among Zen students.(61)

No longer confined by the psychologically harmful shackles of their parents’ values, these members put their trust in Zen to provide them with mental respite.

Members of the Beat movement indicate that this disillusionment with Western values was the initial reason for their interest in Buddhism. In the aforementioned case study, the American Zen students, who were “typically college-educated young adults from upper-middle-class backgrounds,”(62) echoed the sentiments that Durkheim had related half a century earlier regarding the issue of inconsistency. According to one member:

…the model person was someone who enjoyed a lot of external success and acted to get that. It was someone who was kind and thoughtful of others, too, but that was secondary…I felt pulled between ambitions to succeed and meet certain intellectual and cultural standards besides, and to be able to get along with people and be decent.(63)

Here, the American ideal of individuality and self-promotion comes into conflict with the value of living in harmony with others, which is only secondarily emphasized. Such tensions cause the individual to become confused and distraught over how to conduct one’s behavior in order to be individually successful as well as socially cooperative. Disillusioned with “the Western drive for money and success,”(64) one member indicated that “the problem came from my feeling of being special and feeling the other person as being other, instead of our being together in a situation.”(65) According to this account, Americans in the 1960s beginning the practice of meditation feel the need to cultivate the value of the collective over the individual, denouncing the cornerstone of modern society.

Though the need for transcendence of the self has always been particularly unfulfilled by the American emphasis on the individual, another trend of Zen practice occurred in America for which the search for the self has been the primary motivation. In a way addressing Durkheim’s first concern for the ambiguous nature of identity in his theory of anomie, meditation practitioners of the 1970s have pointed to more self-related reasons for their attraction to the promises of Zen to alleviate modern suffering. In a survey of 230 people conducted in 1978, by Joseph B. Tamney, Professor of Sociology at Ball State University, 40 percent of the respondents indicated that the reason for their meditation practice was “to get in touch with my inner self.”(66) Another 32 percent of the participants said that they began meditating in order “to gain control of my self.”(67) Such a focus on grasping the true nature of the self and being able to control it demonstrates the need of Americans in the 1970s to resolve the issue of having a multiplicity of roles from which to extrapolate an authentic identity.

However, as we will see later in this investigation, this focus on the self is contrary to the purpose of Buddhist practice. In fact, this self-centered mindset has been recognized by recent Western research to exacerbate modern suffering, “compound[ing] negative emotions.”(68) According to Stephanie Rude, PhD, Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Texas, “A depressed person may make himself feel worse by interpreting his suffering as meaning he has failed in some way [while] a trained Buddhist monk might choose to see his suffering as an inevitable part of being human.”(69) By thinking that one’s suffering is a personal issue instead of a universal human condition, one blames oneself for one’s failings and fuels the internal inferno of suffering.

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The Psychological and Neurological Benefits of Meditation:

The question remains, then, whether or not Zen has been able to deliver on its promise of releasing practitioners from suffering, a question that drives recent research by psychologists and neuroscientists on the effects of Zen meditation on its practitioners.

The practice of Zen meditation has proven to provide practitioners with a method for gaining control of one´s mind, thereby effecting positive changes within one´s body. Contrary to the Cartesian mind-body duality typical of Western thinking, Western cognitive neuroscience now recognizes that “the mind is not just a program in the brain, but that its processes are distributed throughout the body.”(70) The mind has now become inextricably linked to the body, affecting it and being affected by it in turn.

Such is the experience of Zen meditation practitioners in their practice of zazen (za meaning to sit and Zen, as previously mentioned, meaning “that concentration or absorption in which you are one with everything, in which there is no subject-object distinction”(71) ). According to one student at the aforementioned Pacific Zen Center, engaging in this kind of practice is “not so logical. It’s more physio-logical.”(72) By bringing one’s attention to the present moment, to what is going on in and around one’s body, one merges the body and mind into a single cohesive whole, in the same way experts have come to realize that the mind cannot be separated from the body.

There have been many such parallels distinguished between Buddhist theories and neuroscience as a result of recent endeavors by Buddhist monks and neuroscientists to establish a collaboration between the East and West in formulating an integrative approach for American medicine and science. One such partnership is seen in the Mind & Life Institute, a non-profit organization founded by the Dalai Lama, Ven. Tenzin Gyatso, his neuroscientist friend, Dr. Francisco Varela, and an entrepreneur, Adam Engle. Together with other experts in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, they are working to overcome the major challenge to the compatibility of Buddhism and science: “The biggest obstacle…is that science is based on objective data that comes from rigorous research, and many Buddhist claims are subjective.”(73) In fact, the Institute’s self-proclaimed purpose is “[t]o promote the creation of a contemplative, compassionate, and rigorous experimental and experiential science of the mind which could guide and inform medicine, neuroscience, psychology, education and human development” by applying one of the “most powerful traditions for understanding the nature of reality and investigating the mind,” i.e. Buddhism.(74) The Institute acknowledges the importance of the subjective experience of meditation practitioners:

[T]here is increasing scientific interest…in understanding the experiential aspects of mental processes. For real progress to be made in this area….scientists must rely on detailed first-person reports about subjective experience. Yet exactly how such reports should be integrated into the conceptual framework and experimental procedures of mind science is still not clear.(75)

By utilizing centuries-old Buddhist theories in combination with practitioner’s practical meditation experiences, members of the Institute believe that Western science can arrive at a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon that has always occupied Western thinking: the human mind.(76)

In the 2004 conference of the Mind & Life Institute, the Dalai Lama and experts discussed the topic of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the way the brain can be shaped and molded according to both physical and mental experiences “by expanding or strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely engaged.”(77) A number of the Institute’s researchers have come to the conclusion that the activity of the mind plays a large part in forming the activity and makeup of the brain. Dr. Helen J. Jeville states that “Experience shapes human brain development and function,” while Dr. Evan Thompson reports that “mental training [is] reflected in changes to brain structure, function, and dynamics.”(78)

Modern science meets Buddhism at this particular juncture since Buddhism has posited this ability of the mind to affect physical elements for centuries: “Buddhism maintains that the mind is influenced by, and exerts its own influence upon, both mental and physical phenomena.”(79) Zen students themselves attest to the ability of their practice to influence their physical and mental states, defining zazen as “a psychosomatic (de)conditioning process that alters the student’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior by influencing the causal links between his physical and mental state, and the external situation in which he finds himself.”(80) Through dedication to the practice of meditation, practitioners learn how to control their mental activities, thereby inducing lasting changes in the brain.

How do these changes translate into the positive psychological transformations that one undergoes through Zen meditation? To begin to answer this question, we must return to the distinction between the defiled mind and the pure mind. Buddhism contends that it is the dualistic, categorical thinking of the defiled mind that obscures reality and leads to suffering. By perceiving the world in terms of concepts, one limits one’s experience of reality to those concepts. Unable to see reality for what it is, one becomes attached to concepts, such as the concept of the self as a separate entity from the world, and suffers from delusion:

When one reflects on self, the self becomes divided into an object of reflection and an observing subject. This yields relative self-knowledge, but the individual can never be identical with the mind/body patterns he or she identifies through reflexive discernment or with the perceiver who stands back from those patterns and reflects on them. Divided consciousness can never yield direct knowing, self-illuminating awareness, or self-existing wisdom.(81)

All suffering, including the modern condition, is essentially this delusion: the inability of the defiled mind to know reality as it truly is, which causes the many psychological disorders that plague American society.

The neurological components that correspond to this delusion are important structures that we rely on to survive in the world. James Austin, former Professor of Neurology and author of Zen and the Brain, has pointed to some of the correlations between neurological structures and the psychological components of the defiled mind. For example, the hippocampus, a region of the brain that organizes our memories of people, places and events, allowing us to function in society, contains what are known as place cells, which are essentially “egocentric” cells because they “[use] coordinates based on self-centred criteria.”(82) These place cells differentiate external physical things from one’s own body, “[reinforcing] the sense of a physical self.”(83) Furthermore, the parietal lobe, which is concerned with the exact locations of objects in space in relation to our bodies, “[registers] the precise positions of our bodies’ muscles, joints and tendons…[contributing] to our sensate constructs of a physical self.”(84) These components of the brain are responsible for giving us the sense that we, as individuals, are separate from the world, and therefore correspond with Zen Buddhism’s notion of the defiled mind.

The third and fourth of the Four Noble Truths offer the individual a way to transcend the delusions of the defiled mind, to disintegrate the self, to see reality for what it truly is, and to cease the experience of suffering. Zen argues that this can all be done through the practice of meditation. During meditation, one is required to let go of conceptual thinking and simply concentrate on the breath, coming to a sense of the true nature of oneself: “By direct experience and self-observation, [Zen practice] aims to bring out the phenomenal qualities of physical posture and location, breathing, and states of mind that together make up ‘an assurance about who and what we are.’”(85) In his book Zen and the Brain, Austin describes the neurological effects of the practice of zazen:

A right-sided preponderance of cortical activity appeared in each of the cortical regions and was evident especially in the deeper regions of the parietal and occipital cortex, a finding corroborated by the fact that the controls showed higher oxygen metabolism over most left cortical regions.(86)

This finding can be explained by the fact that the left side of the brain is associated with categorical, or verbal thinking while the right side of the brain is associated with more holistic thinking.(87) Through the act of sitting and concentrating on the breath, the mind forces the brain to suspend the activities of the left hemisphere of the brain and allows the activities of the right hemisphere to take over, which is felt subjectively as a sensation of transcendence of the self and a union with the rest of the world.

As simple a solution as this may sound, the practice of Zen actually takes much time and dedication to acquire such a state of mind. Students at the Pacific Zen Center corroborate on this perspective, acknowledging that attaining the cessation of the self and consequent transcendent mental state that Zen offers “requires diligently meditating and practicing Zen according to its rules.”(88) One cannot simply sit and breathe a few times and expect any positive outcomes. In fact, researchers have found that there is a noticeable difference between the subjective experiences of beginning practitioners and those of adepts: “[S]hort-term compliance with a new meditation regime during the first three months correlates with introversion, suggestibility and neuroticism.”(89) Tiffany Reed relates her experience in beginning the practice of meditation:

There is a false reality about Zen solving all your psychological and emotional issues as a "quick fix". Not so!!! From my novice experience, and great delusion, Zen just brings up all those issues to the forefront of your reality and depending on how much you practice determines how quickly the stuff comes up.(90)

Clearly, it is not easy to release oneself from the negative effects of the modern condition and experience the positive effects of meditation; however, the more one practices, the easier it becomes and the more beneficial to one’s health it is: “[T]he long-term practice of meditation appears to produce more intense experiences of ‘joy’, ‘meaning’, ‘time’, ‘love’, and ‘awareness’.”(91) Meditation has been shown to “help counteract high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of an excessively stressed-out Western lifestyle.”(92) Among its many effects are the ones that have been observed in teens, who are at a particularly stressful stage in life. Diana Winston, a meditation instructor, has reported that, due to meditation, “one of her students confronted an eating disorder [and] another quit smoking marijuana.”(93) Meditation has also been credited with improving psychological health, reducing domineering tendencies, and inducing an improved sense of well-being.(94)

Such subjective experiences are substantiated by the physical changes that are found in the brains of long-term practitioners. According to neuroscientist Richard Davidson, “[T]he fact that monks with the most hours of meditation showed the greatest brain changes gives us confidence that the changes are actually produced by mental training.”(95) These mental and physical effects show the validity of Buddhism’s claim to relieve Americans of the suffering they experience from living in the modern world.

After years of dedication to the practice, one should be able to expel any notion of the self and achieve what Zen Buddhism calls the pure mind. This is the state of complete awareness of the nature of reality being an interconnected network of relationships from which nothing stands distinct. According to neuroscientists, “This novel state of consciousness… comprehends that all individual items and events share a vast interrelated field...unitary experiences can eventually lead to a state of undifferentiated oneness with consequent abolition of all boundaries of discrete being.”(96) On a physical level, the zazen posture, which causes abdominal breathing, “[diminishes] stimuli reaching the brain and cortical activity in itself…[resulting] in a softening or loss of the body’s conceptual image, position, and location.”(97) The promise of such a mindset is clearly one of the appeals of Zen to American practitioners because of their longing for a sense of communion with something greater than themselves. Such a perspective can be detected in the experiences of American meditation practitioners. According to one Zen student, “The difference between myself and other people isn’t so clear anymore. I’m beginning to accept the feeling of separateness that I’ve always had, actually, and seeing that that feeling doesn’t mean the condition of truly being separate.”(98)

This student raises an interesting point about the actual goal of Buddhism: Enlightenment does not mean an end to suffering but an awareness of the true nature of suffering. When one becomes aware of the sources of suffering, one is able to change the experience of suffering, not end suffering itself. It is essentially an acceptance of suffering, which allows for liberation or freedom from suffering. The student’s account corroborates this analysis: “But life is suffering. If we’re really trying to get rid of suffering, we’re not practicing Zen. We’re trying to end our life. Death is the only way out of it. Zen is a way of relating to that suffering…It’s about accepting the actual meaning of life and expressing it.”(99) This view implies that the life events of an Enlightened person do not necessarily differ from those of others but that his/her experience of those events is different.

In other words, the pure mind is not actually separate from the defiled mind but, in fact, includes it. Though the goal of Zen meditation is to transcend the defiled mind, or the self, in order to awaken the pure mind, one cannot completely or permanently separate oneself from the world of conceptualization unless, as the Zen student puts it, one dies, because suffering is a fact of life. Thus, coming to a realization of the true interconnected nature of everything means that Americans understand the source of their suffering, i.e. the delusion of reality, allowing them to experience it in a less psychologically damaging way—but this does not eliminate the suffering. It means that they can see that they are not necessarily distinct from the rest of the world and that they affect, and in turn are affected by, the world, in the same way the mind affects and is affected by the body. Perhaps this aspect of Buddhism is the reason for Zen’s lasting success in America: Americans do not have to leave their Western society, wrought with so much suffering, in order to reach Enlightenment. They can do it right where they are, merging the Zen tradition with their American lifestyle in a complementary East-West relationship.

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Having found its way into the public eye in the 1950s during the Beat Zen movement, when the American disillusionment with Western values was at its peak, Zen has carved itself into the American woodwork and remains a trusted psychotherapeutic tool in diminishing the effects of modern suffering. Its effectiveness in psychological healing has caught the attention of the neuroscience community, which has been systematically investigating its neurobiological effects for the past decade. These effects clearly correspond to practitioners’ accounts of their own subjective experiences, giving credence to the Buddhist claim that meditation affects its practitioners in real ways. So long as these effects continue to give Americans a sense of reassurance that their individual mundane lives are actually interwoven into a larger, meaningful web of relationships, Zen should persist as an important influence on the American mind.

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(1) See the article “Zen and the Art of Teamwork” by Ron Lieber and Rajiv M. Rao, which appeared in Fortune magazine on December 25, 1995. Lieber, Ron and Rao, Rajiv M. “Zen and the Art of Teamwork.” Fortune. 132 (1995). 6 Dec 2004 <>.
(2) Warner, Brad. Hardcore Zen. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003. 31.
(3) Watts, Alan. “Beat Zen, square Zen, and Zen.” Chicago Review 42 (1996): 49-56. 22 Nov. 2004 <>.
(4) This account is according to the legend of Bodhidharma, whose actual existence “is still a matter for some debate.” However, it is still “useful in our exploration of the origins of Ch’an.” “What is Ch’an?” CloudWater Zendo. 2000. 27 November 2004 <’an.html>.
(5) Though a fascinating topic, Taoist influences on the meditative tradition of Buddhism in China are too extensive to cover and therefore falls outside the scope of this paper.
(6) Zeuschner, Robert. “The understanding of mind in the Northern line of Ch’an (Zen).” Philosophy East and West 28 (1978): 69. 22 Nov. 2004 <>.
(7) “What is Ch’an?” CloudWater Zendo. 2000. 27 November 2004 <’an.html>.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Tipton, Steven M. Getting Saved from the Sixties: Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural Change. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982. 100.
(10) Tipton. 114.
(11) Watson, Gay. “Buddhism Meets Western Science.” Religion and the Brain 19 (2001). 8 Nov 2004 <>.
(12) According to Alan Wallace, “All Buddhist theories and practices are presented within the context of these four, namely the reality of suffering, the reality of the sources of suffering, the reality of the cessation of suffering together with its underlying causes, and finally the reality of the path to such cessation.” This interpretation will be clarified later in this chapter. Wallace, Alan B. “Afterword: Buddhist Reflections.” Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brainscience and Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1999. 153-4. 8 Nov 2004 <>.
(13) Ibid. 162.
(14) Ibid. 154.
(15) Actually, as Zeuschner points out, the Chinese character hsin symbolizes the human heart “and the Chinese associate both the affective and intellectual elements with the physical human heart.” However, for the purposes of making an East-West comparison, hsin is here translated as mind, which is the West’s closest interpretation of the meaning of this pictogram. Zeuschner, 78.
(16) Ibid. 69.
(17) Ibid. 71.
(18) Ibid. 73.
(19) Muller, Rene J. Beyond Marginality: Constructing a Self in the Twilight of Western Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998. 35.
(20) The “dualism of Christianity” comes from the belief that God is an external being, separate from oneself. The “dualism of rationality” comes from the belief that one can control the world through reason, “turning both person and world into things in the process.” Ibid. 64, 66.
(21) This subject will be explored in detail later.
(22) Ibid. 71.
(23) Wallace. 167.
(24) Zeuschner. 70.
(25) Ibid.
(26) The nature of this practitioner’s experience will be further explored later on in the essay. Myers, Randy. “Meditation techniques gain popularity—and teen adherents, too.” Faith and Spirit. 11 Oct. 2003. 27 Nov. 2004 <>.
(27) Zeuschner. 69.
(28) Ibid. 70.
(29) Ibid.
(30) According to James Austin, “This novel state of consciousness…comprehends that all individual items and events share a vast interrelated field.” Austin, J.H. “Consciousness Evolves When the Self Dissolves.” Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps. Ed. Jensine Andresen and Robert K.C. Forman. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2000. 228.
(31) Kenneth Inada describes this process as a “cutting off [of] the rise of attachment to the empiristic elements, for there are no separate or independent entities, no subject-object dichotomized ontologies.” Inada, Kenneth K. “The American Involvement with Sunyata.” Buddhism and American Thinkers. Ed. Kenneth K. Inada and Nolan P. Jacobson. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984. 81.
(32) Watts.
(33) Tipton. 100.
(34) Watson.
(35) Brundtland, Gro Harlem. “Mental Health in our World: The Challenges Ahead.” Address. Council for Mental Health Seminar. 11 Dec. 2001. 23 Nov. 2004
(36) “The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America.” National Institute of Mental Health. 2001. 23 Nov. 2004 <>.
(37) Ibid.
(38) Ibid.
(39) Zamora, Dulce. “Mental Disorders Common in America.” WebMD Feature. 5 April 2004. 23 Nov. 2004 <>.
(40) Ibid.
(41) Brundtland.
(42) National Institute of Mental Health.
(43) Tamney, Joseph. American Society in the Buddhist Mirror. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992. 89.
(44) Zamora.
(45) Brundtland.
(46) Lindholm, Charles. Culture & Identity. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2001. 128.
(47) Brundtland.
(48) Ibid.
(49) “The Impact of Mental Illness on Society.” National Institute of Mental Health. 2001. 23 Nov 2004 <>.
(50) “The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America.” National Institute of Mental Health.
(51) Ibid.
(52) Ibid.
(53) “ The Impact of Mental Illness on Society.” National Institute of Mental Health.
(54) Tamney. 121.
(55) However, one must note that Fromm believed “that the desired state of “well-being” involved the experience of the self as the separate entity it is,” which poses a seeming contradiction to the implications of his argument that the reason for modern suffering is a lack of community. Tamney. 122.
(56) Ibid. 58.
(57) For the following explanation of Durkheim’s theory on the differences between pre-modern and modern societies, I rely on Dr. Cecil Greek’s analysis. Greek, Cecil E. “Durkheim’s Anomie.” Criminological Theory Homepage. 8 Oct 2001. 7 Dec 2004 <>.
(58) For the remainder of this paragraph, I rely on Professor Greenfeld’s analysis of Durkheim’s theory of anomie. Greenfeld, Liah. Lecture. Boston University. Boston. 19 Sept. 2003.
(59) Lindholm. 60.
(60) Watts.
(61) Tipton. 103.
(62) Ibid.
(63) Ibid. 108.
(64) Tamney. 89.
(65) Tipton. 107.
(66) Tamney. 81.
(67) Ibid.
(68) Dingfelder, Sadie F. “Tibetan Buddhism and research psychology: a match made in Nirvana?” American Psychological Association Online 34 (2003). 8 Nov 2004 <>.
(69) Ibid.
(70) Watson.
(71) Tipton. 100.
(72) Ibid. 124.
(73) Marinelli, Lisa. “Dalai Lama Visits Whitehead Genome Center.” Broad Institute. 7 Oct 2003. 12 Nov 2004 <>.
(74) “The Mind and Life Institute’s Vision, Purpose and Mission.” Mind & Life Institute. 22 Nov 2004 <>.
(75) “Neuroplasticity: The Neuronal Substrates of Learning and Transformation.” Mind & Life Institute. 18-22 Oct 2004. 22 Nov 2004 <>.
(76) Though research by this institute has been primarily focused on the Tibetan meditative tradition, I am applying the data to the practice of Zen to provide a fuller account of the neurological effects of meditation on the practitioner, the result of which is not necessarily inaccurate since the fundamental purpose of all Buddhist traditions is the same: to come to terms with suffering and therefore end the experience of suffering. I have, of course, extracted the material that is most relevant to Zen practice.
(77) Begley, Sharon. “Scans of Monks’ Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning.” Science Journal. 5 Nov 2004. 20 Nov 2004 <>.
(78) “Neuroplasticity: The Neuronal Substrates of Learning and Transformation.” Mind & Life Institute.
(79) Wallace. 155.
(80) Tipton. 125.
(81) Welwood, John. “Reflection and presence: The dialectic of self-knowledge.” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 28 (1996): Abstract. 8 Nov 2004 <>.
(82) Austin. 212.
(83) Ibid.
(84) Ibid. 216.
(85) Tipton. 101.
(86) Andresen, Jensine. “Meditation Meets Behavioral Medicine.” Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps. Ed. Jensine Andresen and Robert K.C. Forman. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2000. 44.
(87) According to Andrew B. Newberg and E.G. D’Aquili, “the right parietal lobe is involved in the generation of a holistic approach to things and the left parietal lobe is involved in more reductionistic/analytical processes.” Newberg, Andrew B. and E.G. D’Aquili. “Neuropsychology of religious and spiritual experience.” Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps. Ed. Jensine Andresen and Robert K.C. Forman. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2000. 254.
(88) Tipton. 113.
(89) Andresen. 26.
(90) Reed, Tiffany. “RE: Documentary Proposal.” E-mail to Xuan Vu. 6 Dec. 2004.
(91) Andresen. 26.
(92) Ibid. 18.
(93) Myers.
(94) Andresen. 23.
(95) Begley.
(96) Austin. 228. Newberg. 253.
(97) Tipton. 125.
(98) Ibid. 110.
(99) Ibid. 114-5.

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