Vipassana teacher Shinzen Young discusses pain, procrastination, and enlightenment for everyone.
At the age of fourteen, Steve Young, a Jewish kid growing up in Los Angeles, saw a samurai movie. It triggered in him an interest in Japanese culture and language that eventually led to his enrollment in an alternative school system for Japanese-American children. From then on, he grew up “bilingual and bicultural.” When he reached high school, to deepen his understanding of Japanese culture, Young felt he needed to understand its Chinese influences, so his parents hired a Mandarin language tutor. When he learned of the influence of Indian culture on Chinese culture by way of Buddhism, he moved on to Sanskrit, and asked his parents for another tutor.
As an undergraduate at UCLA in the mid-sixties, Young focused on Asian languages and studied abroad in Japan. He enrolled as a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin’s Buddhist Studies Program, finishing his Ph.D. course work in just two years. Upon returning to Japan to do research for his dissertation on Japanese Vajrayana, or Shingon, he found that the masters wouldn’t teach him unless he took on Shingon as a practice. In 1970, he was ordained as a Shingon monk at Mt. Koya, Japan and given the name Shinzen.
Shinzen returned to the U.S. in 1974, and encountered Vipassana meditation practice through Bhante Rahula, Bhante Punnaji, and U Silananda while living at the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles. Later, in the mid-eighties, Shinzen began to study with Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi of the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in southern California, and has been his student ever since. His practice is a peculiar mix of Vipassana and Zen, using the methods of both to develop a unique meditation practice intended to be easily accessible to all.
Shinzen Young sat down with his student Polly Young-Eisendrath, a psychotherapist and author, at her office in Montpelier, Vermont this past February.
You seem especially able to reach people who have resisted learning to meditate or have tried and failed. What’s your secret? I view each person who comes to me as capable of classical enlightenment, at least the initial stage.
What do you mean by “classical enlightenment”? If I were forced to give a short description, I would say it is knowing for sure that there never has been a thing inside you called self. Enlightenment is not a peak experience. It’s a permanent shift in paradigm that deepens day by day.
You bring a distinctive orientation to Vipassana teaching—Vipassana with a Zen flavor. I wonder if you could speak about the dialogue between Zen and Vipassana in your own life and in your teaching. My approach to meditation is built on three things. The first is the Buddha’s discovery that concentration can be used as a microscope to tease out the components of our subjective experience; I take that from Vipassana. The second is Sasaki Roshi’s unique reformulation of the Buddhist concept of annica—or impermanence—as expansion-and-contraction. And the third is my own discovery of how to coach people interactively during their meditation, using a decision tree that customizes the guidance based on their moment-by-moment experience. [See practice at bottom.]
Decision tree? Yes. A decision tree is a method of determining the best thing to do next, depending on particular outcomes. When I guide people while they’re meditating, I frequently ask questions about what they’re experiencing. This allows me to spot openings and to modify my guidance to take optimal advantage of the openings in the moment.
Some people might think your approach sounds mechanical. And in fact, I’ve heard Zen teachers, on several occasions, imply that Vipassana meditation—with its emphasis on analysis—creates a separation between the observer and the observed, increasing the sense of a witnessing self. What would you say to that criticism? I believe that each approach to practice has characteristic weaknesses and strengths. Teachers should be able and willing to discuss both. It is true that initially in the Vipassana practice, one may have to develop a sort of witness that oversees the meditative process. I compare this to putting up a scaffolding in order to build a building. Sensory clarity and equanimity are the “building”—the ultimate goal. At some point, the clarity and equanimity should become so habitual that they seep around the edges and dissolve the scaffolding of this “observing self.” The fact that this does not always occur could be looked upon as a characteristic weakness of Vipassana practice. But Vipassana also has a characteristic strength: it gives a clear and systematic way to track each moment of experience so that nothing can slip through the cracks. I know people who have practiced Zen for many years. They can sit perfectly motionless for hours on end, but with the mind wandering grossly. On the other hand, there is a certain bouncy aliveness to the Zen style of liberation. In Vipassana, we teach people to contact impermanence in their sense gates. In Zen, they teach people to express impermanence in everything they say and do.
In many lineages of Buddhism there is a strong belief that one should stay with a single teacher in order to fully deepen one’s practice. Then there are people, like you, who encourage their students to go on different kinds of retreats with different teachers. What’s your view of this issue? I think that some people are naturally poly-spiritual and some people are mono-spiritual. Mono-spiritual people develop overt or subtle conflicts if they go with different teachers or approaches, whereas poly-spiritual people get an immediate sense of the complementary. I’ve always been poly-spiritual. There’s never been anything I did with anybody that didn’t seem immediately to complement what I had done with everybody else. But that’s my personality type. As far as my students go, I ask them to decide for themselves which type they are and to act accordingly. This perspective seems to resolve the classic conundrum of “one deep hole versus many shallow ones.”
I should also say that when I encourage students to explore other teachers, I’m careful to give them a framework that reduces possible confusions and conflicts. I point out that there is a common thread that passes through all forms of mindfulness. Every style of mindfulness meditation is designed to develop two basic skills: sensory clarity and equanimity. The styles differ in regard to which aspects of sensory experience are emphasized and in regard to what focusing strategies are employed. As long as a student views the practice as the development of the generic skills of sensory clarity and equanimity, there shouldn’t be too much confusion.
While many people consider science an obstacle to spiritual practice, you consider it complementary. Why? For one thing, I like science. It’s fun for me. Science has beauty, depth, power, and practical utility. I believe that the two most impressive discoveries of our species are the Eastern method of meditative exploration and the Western method of scientific exploration.
Some people claim that meditation and science have mated, but I think they are just starting to date. I believe the true mating will occur sometime later in this century and will give birth to a world-transforming paradigm shift. The Dalai Lama has, in essence, called for such a mating to take place.