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Contemplative Studies: Prospects for a New Field

by Harold D. Roth - 2006

We have reached a moment in history when it is time to reenvision certain basic aspects of the existing models of teaching and research in higher education in order to foster a deeper knowledge of the nature of our existence as human beings in a world that is intricately interrelated on many levels. This article suggests that one way to accomplish this is to develop a new field of academic endeavor that takes account of the emerging scientific work on the neurological foundations of the concentrated and relaxed states of mind attained by meditation and by a variety of other human endeavors, and applies them directly to our lives. It is important that we do not study them only as objects divorced from our own experience, but bring our own subjectivities directly into the equation. The field I am proposing, "contemplative studies," would bridge the humanities, the sciences, and the creative arts in an effort to identify the varieties of contemplative experiences, to find meaningful scientific explanations for them, to cultivate firsthand knowledge of them, and to critically assess their nature and significance.


At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Our scientific knowledge of how the world works has never been stronger, but our ability to use it to transform our lives to create greater personal and social harmony remains relatively weak. We can use our technology of the outer world to treat previously incurable diseases, but our mastery of the "technology" of the inner world is so rudimentary that we can barely con­tain the passions that lead us to destroy the very human life that we, par­adoxically, struggle so hard to preserve. We have become the masters of third-person scientific investigation, but we are mere novices in the arts of critical first-person scientific investigation. We have never known more about how the mind works, yet our ability to apply this knowledge to our own experience has not been correspondingly developed.

One of the principal reasons for this paradoxical situation is that we have largely ignored the careful, systematic, and scientific investigation of contemplative experience from a combined third-person and first-person perspective. What I am proposing is the development of a new field of academic endeavor, “contemplative studies,” that would advance precisely this kind of combination. We have already begun working on such an end­eavor at Brown University, and I will describe some of our work to this point and its theoretical basis.


The Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University is a group of about twenty faculty members with diverse academic specializations who are united around a common interest in the study of contemplative states of mind. We are currently working to establish a new undergraduate concen­tration in contemplative studies to coordinate students' academic and per­sonal study in this area. In this new concentration, we are proposing a systematic study of the underlying philosophy, psychology, and phenom­enology of human contemplative experience. We will focus on many of the ways that human beings, across cultures and across time, have found to concentrate, broaden, and deepen conscious awareness as the gateway to cultivating their full potential and to leading more meaningful and fulfilling lives. We will study what this group of experiences entails and how to crit­ically appraise them, how to identify them in literature and the arts, how to experience them ourselves, and how to apply them to our daily lives.

The proposed concentration would bridge the humanities, the sciences, and the creative arts in an effort to identify the varieties of contemplative experiences, to find meaningful scientific explanations for them, to cultivate firsthand knowledge of them, and to critically assess their nature and sig­nificance. It would result in a comprehensive understanding of the newly emerging field of the study of higher forms of consciousness.

I will describe the basic parameters of contemplative studies, as we see it, and discuss some of its implications. Given the extant structures of North American academic departments of psychology, religious studies, philoso­phy, neuroscience, biology and medicine, music, theater arts, and others that teach subjects directly relevant to contemplative studies, it might be more advantageous for those of us working in them and who have a com­mon interest in studying contemplative experience to join together and establish a new academic field that would be modeled on that of the inter­disciplinary area studies departments, such as my own department of East Asian studies.

These departments coalesce not around a common academic discipline defined by its subject and methods, but rather around a common academic interest. Thus, the common academic interest in East Asian Studies is the study of the cultural traditions of the nations of East Asia, and they are studied from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, such as language and linguistics, history, economics, political science, philosophy, and religious studies. The new field I am proposing would, in an analogous manner, combine a variety of disciplines from the humanities, the sciences, and the creative arts around the common academic interest of studying the nature and implications of the range of experiences attained through practices of contemplation.

I will focus principally on presenting the elements of the new under­graduate concentration we are proposing, but I ask the reader to keep in mind the larger question of whether such a concentration might be the beginnings of a new interdisciplinary field.


Contemplative practices abound in societies around the world and through­out history, and they are an important part of the very fabric from which people build meaningful lives. While various methods to attain contempla­tive states of consciousness can be found in such religious practices as chanting, prayer, ritual performance, and meditation, such states can also be found in a wide variety of nonreligious practices, such as music, dance, drama, poetry and prose, painting, sculpting, and even mindful observation of the natural world.

In addition to being grounded in the philosophy, psychology, and ne-uroscience of contemplative experience as a third-person study, the pro­posed concentration will emphasize the critical first-person study that is often found in the musical, dramatic, and visual arts and in laboratory science courses. By critical, we mean that students would be encouraged to engage directly with these techniques without prior commitment to their efficacy. They would then step back and appraise their experiences to gain a deeper appreciation of their meaning and significance.

Students will learn to identify contemplative states of consciousness both as objects and subjects of study. They will be able to discuss and explore the nature of such contemplative experiences as mindfulness, concentration, intuition, tranquility, and "flow" as they occur throughout a wide variety of human endeavors, such as those represented by the subjects of instruction of our core faculty. It is through studying and experiencing the contem­plative aspects found in these various disciplines, through critically exam­ining their relevance and significance, and through applying them to their lives that students will discover fundamental dimensions of their nature as human beings. It is through this dual approach that students will learn how to cultivate the awareness of the present moment that is the heart of contemplative experience and the basis of compassionate action, and they will be able to understand its scientific basis and philosophical significance.

Current North American higher education is dominated by what we might call third-person learning. We observe, analyze, record, and discuss a whole variety of subjects at a distance, as something “out there,” as if they were solely objects and our own subjectivity in viewing them does not exist. Certainly there are exceptions to this; in courses in public speaking, studio art, theater, language acquisition, music, and all science class laboratories, including those in environmental studies, students combine third-person approaches with direct firsthand experience of what they are studying. But in the humanities, we tend to value third-person learning at the expense of all other forms.

Despite this limitation, when students are called upon to apply the ideas they are learning to their own lives, an entirely new dimension emerges that yields a deeper understanding of whatever they are studying. For example, when students are called upon to reflect on the various levels of formality that they use in speaking to the people they encounter during the course of a day, from roommates to professors, they gain a more immediate and thorough grasp of the early Chinese Confucian teaching of appropriate social rituals. Or when students are challenged to apply ethical and envi­ronmental theories to problems in their own life situations, they gain a much greater appreciation of what it means to live in a morally responsible way in the modern world. These are examples of what I mean by critical first-person learning, and this would be an important aspect of our pro­posed contemplative studies concentration and of the new academic field that could develop from it.

For the past six years, I have been teaching a course entitled Theory and Practice of Buddhist Meditation in which I have attempted to strike a bal­ance between third- and first-person pedagogies. This course meets for six hours per week instead of the usual three. Three hours are devoted to a weekly seminar in which we discuss various texts on meditation from the Buddhist tradition in India, China, and Japan; this is the third-person di­mension of the course. The course also includes a “meditation lab,” which meets for an hour on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In the lab, we ac­tually try out specific meditation techniques that are associated with the texts we are reading. For example, when we read the Theravada Buddhist Anapanasati Sutta (“Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing”), we try out tech­niques that are mentioned in this text, such as the counting of breaths and attending to the feeling of the breath at the tip of the nose. At the end of each lab, students have five minutes to write brief comments on note cards about their experience in this session. They can use these brief journal entries to monitor their development throughout the semester, and I can use them to do the same. Students are not graded on how they have developed during the semester, only on how often they have attended the labs, which is one element of their final grade. In Appendix A, I present selections from the course syllabus to illustrate this pedagogy.

I have found that the kind of combination of third-person learning and critical first-person learning exemplified in this course is much more ef­fective in developing students' knowledge of Buddhism as compared with the traditional seminars I have taught over the past twenty-five years. Nonetheless, as the reader will undoubtedly have already realized, this kind of critical first-person study has many detractors, most notably in religious studies departments throughout North America, where a rather extreme form of a particular social scientific critique is still dominant.

Religious studies is arguably the most conservative humanities field in North America when it comes to contemplative pedagogy, and there are historical reasons for this. Religious studies developed in the post-World War II period out of liberal Protestant theology, from which it differs on the significant point that unlike theology of any kind, it does not presuppose the truth of any particular religious system. Often misunderstood by the general public and by colleagues as advocating religions, religious studies departments are especially concerned with making it clear that they are not committed to the truth of any particular religious tradition—a position most certainly to be commended in a modern secular university.

But this neutrality of commitment has been transformed into a thor­oughgoing social, political, and philosophical constructivism that is reductionistic and thus negates the possible epistemological value of any type of religious experience. Its goal is to demonstrate how the theories and in­sights that religions often assert on the basis of religious experience are false and can be reduced to some combination of objective factors that are readily observable from the outside. Religious experience, so their arguments go, cannot possibly justify religious truths for two basic reasons. First, since, according to the unexamined Neo-Kantian presupposition, all experience is determined by preexisting ideas—intellectual categories created by reli­gious dogma and by various social and political forces—to use religious experiences to establish the truth of the ideas that created them is totally solipsistic.1 Second, in light of the fact that there are many competing truths based upon subjective experience, we can never adjudicate among them in an unbiased fashion. We therefore are forced to study them from the outside, and they must, of necessity, be reduced to the only forces we can study: the social, political, and historical. Hence, to be neutral in stud­ying different religions necessitates analyzing them from the position of an outsider, a critic. Religious experience, which is a primarily internal mode of cognition, can never be truly examined, and all truth claims must be re­jected as ultimately unprovable because they are based upon subjective experience.

Recently, Alan Wallace (1996) has studied the development, use, and misuse of science in the modern world and proposes that the reductionism that currently dominates the humanities is a species of what he deems “scientific materialism,” the doctrine that scientific methods can uncover all the underlying essential elements of the universe, which are objective truths that exist totally independent of the observer.2 A corollary of this position is the complete removal of the subjective from consideration, as if the em­pirical observation, the analysis of data, and the creation of theories that are the basis of science take place without any human input.

While scientists must, of course, strive to remove subjective bias from their empirical methods and analyses, to strive to explain the universe while omitting from consideration the very subjectivities who perceive and ex­plain it seems unsatisfactory. As many ancient Taoist and Buddhist works recognize, the universe is both physical and psychological. Rather than live in a universe of independent objectivities, we inhabit a world of interlocking subjectivities, which we fail to recognize at our own peril. Theoretical phys­icists are now perhaps the most advanced among scientists in recognizing this principle, and many have concluded that the theories they have forged about the underlying structures of the universe are human-created con­structs, “intelligible accounts of empirical evidence,” that should never be reified into ultimate truths (e.g., atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons—now quarks and other subatomic particles—all designed by the human mind to account for empirical data).3

The reductionism that currently dominates religious studies depart­ments throughout North America is a species of the fundamental misun­derstanding that unbiased study of religion and human spirituality must be conducted exclusively as a study “from the outside,” one that writes off subjective experience as a valid source of understanding. In many ways, it is analogous to the behaviorist reductionism of B. F. Skinner and his contemporaries that was so in vogue some 50-plus years ago. This sought to reduce human mental activity to observable behavior that could be modified through external means. “Who needs consciousness?” one of my behaviorist psychology professors once boasted, “I can create the behavior I want by using rewards and punishments.”

This is not to say that such third-person approaches are completely de­void of merit in studying religion. Quite the contrary, they provide inval­uable knowledge about the social, political, and historical forces that combined to influence religious authors and to create the intellectual mi­lieus for their audiences. Nonetheless, to reduce the epistemic value of religious experience to only these forces ipso facto denies some very rich sources of possible knowledge and insight into human nature, and the nature of the world, that have the potential of effecting the kind of positive change I would argue is essential to the advancement of human knowledge.

As a means of counteracting these reductionistic and externalizing tendencies in studying religion, I am proposing a balanced approach that gives equal weight to third-person and critical first-person methods. First-person approaches involve direct personal experience of whatever one is studying—in other words, subjective experience. By critical, I mean to say that one is testing the truths that one is investigating through empirical experience rather than accepting them as true based on faith. By contrast, in many forms of first-person learning in the contexts of religion, one must suspend critical judgment and believe in the truth of one's tradition. There is an important place for this form of "committed" first-person learning, but I agree with my religious studies colleagues in concluding that we should be careful to not require that kind of commitment from any of our students in a secular university. But why not allow them to get some first­hand experience of a religious practice—such as meditation in a secular context—in which the need to believe is removed, in which all they need is to be willing to conduct simple observations in the only laboratory that we carry with us wherever we go: our own consciousness? I certainly think it deserves a place alongside traditional third-person learning.


There are a number of important reasons for bringing contemplative ped­agogy into the North American academy. To begin with, as I have stated, a great variety of contemplative practices have been developed in societies around the world and throughout human history, and they have been a significant source of knowledge about human nature and consciousness. For example, in South and East Asia, the major meditation traditions of Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism have concentrated on the introspective examination of the mind in all its aspects and have developed a consid­erable sophistication in the unbiased investigation of subjective experience.4 Indeed, some modern scholars, such as B. Alan Wallace and Francisco Varela, have concluded that these investigations constitute a valid science of the mind.5

In the West, we find not only traditional mystical thinkers who have devoted their lives to contemplative explorations in Christianity (Meister Eckhardt, Theresa of Avila), Judaism (Abraham Abulafia, Moses Hayim Luzzatto), and Islam (Al-Halaj, Ibn-Arabi),6 but also philosophers and sci­entists who have been exploring various aspects of contemplation for over a century. Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed a phi­losophy of the nature of subjective experience called "phenomenology," and included the practice of “phenomenological reduction” as a specific technique to aid introspection.7 William James, the father of modern psychology, pioneered the search to identify all psychological states, in­cluding those that arise through contemplative practices.8 More recently, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has persuasively argued that many cultures create activities, from religion to sports, to deliberately induce the concentrated state of mind that he refers to as the “flow condition.”9 There is also a growing body of literature on the application of the “introspective science” of the Asian meditation traditions to Western psychotherapy, pioneered by such psychologists as Mark Epstein and Harvey Aaronson.10

During the past four decades, as neurological research on the mind has grown, a considerable portion of this research has been devoted to iden­tifying the physiological substrates of various mental states that arise through meditative practices derived from Asian meditation traditions.11 Health practitioners have made increasing use of contemplative practices in all aspects of the treatment of disease and disorder.12 Cognitive neuroscentists have examined the impact of meditation on the development of positive emotions such as compassion.13 Physicists have also entered the picture with research on the role of observer on the observed, of sentience on the insentient world, and on the problematic relationships between the ontologies of the Asian meditative traditions and such new paradigms as quantum mechanics and string theory.14 These sources indicate that there is an extensive and serious scientific interest in the investigation of contem­plative states of mind and a growing body of research in their methods and effects. This provides the scientific foundation of an attempt to further develop this body of knowledge by promoting the new academic field of contemplative studies.


In its most essential aspects, a concentration in contemplative studies would consist of three fundamental and complementary goals: (1) developing a third-person philosophical and scientific understanding of the variety of con­templative experiences; (2) developing critical first-person understanding of the great variety of ways that these contemplative states are attained through religious practice, through the creation and appreciation of literature and art, through dramatic arts and music, and through a number of other human endeavors; and (3) examining the influence of contemplative experience on physical and mental well-being and on the cultivation of an ethical life.

In an effort to achieve these goals, the proposed concentration would be grounded in a required sequence of two semester-long seminars. In the first, Introduction to Contemplative Studies, students would explore the philosophical and scientific understanding of contemplative states and the methodologies for attaining them found primarily in the world's con­templative traditions. The course would, in effect, present the basic pa­rameters of what some are now calling “contemplative psychology” and of what might be called “contemplative neuropsychology.”15 Appendix B contains the syllabus for such an introductory seminar on the foundations of contemplative studies that I have proposed to the dean of the College Office at Brown University.

The second seminar in the sequence would take the knowledge of con­templative experience gained in the first seminar and investigate how such experience can be created in a wide variety of human endeavors found in literature, the creative and dramatic arts, and music, and how they have been applied in the medical and psychiatric fields. Entitled Exploring the Contemplative Life, the seminar would be taught by various members of the core faculty in order to explore with students the contemplative di­mensions of their work. One core faculty member would take responsibility for the overall coordination of the course, including scheduling and eval­uating the students' work. Ongoing critical first-person investigation of contemplative practice would be an integral part of both these seminars.

We would also require that students complete an additional ten courses drawn from offerings from throughout the larger university curriculum that are relevant to the study of human contemplation in its varied forms. Such a concentration would include three major tracks: (1) Humanities— the study of the role of contemplation in philosophy, the major religious traditions of the world, in world literature, and in a variety of other related disciplines; (2) Science—the study of human consciousness and of the na­ture and significance of the varieties of contemplative experience found predominantly in neuroscience and psychology; the study of consciousness and culture; the applications of contemplative experience in heath and healing on both individual and community levels; and (3) Creative arts—the study of the role of contemplation in the visual and fine arts, creative writ­ing, and in the various performing arts of dance, drama, and music.

To gain an appreciation of the breadth of the field of contemplative studies, students would be required to take at least two courses in each track. To gain an appreciation of the possibilities for depth of re­search in contemplative studies, students would be required to focus on one track in particular and ultimately write a senior capstone research project on a subject primarily within that track.

Although many of these courses will be those taught by the core faculty and thus contain contemplative elements, some will not be. They will be made relevant to the concentration by the particular focus the student chooses. For example, a student might focus on the study of the physiology of contemplative states of mind in a course on neurophysiology. As the con­centration evolves, we would hope that more faculty members would become interested in teaching courses that include a contemplative component and courses explicitly devoted to the study of human contemplation.


Our proposed concentration would draw on the considerable expertise and interest of this initial core group of faculty at Brown University. Out of this group, we would generate a foundation of core courses, although students would also be encouraged to take courses relevant to the concen­tration from throughout the university. Core courses are those that contain a significant discussion of contemplative experience, the varieties of its expression, and its underlying nature. In the course list presented next, those with an asterisk [n] feature a critical first-person component. Related courses are those that are relevant to developing an understanding of the nature and implications of contemplative experience, but will not neces­sarily contain explicit contemplative material. Both categories of courses are listed. The particular course offerings that any given institution of higher learning will be able to include in a contemplative studies concentration will vary depending on the courses that are available, given the current constellation of the faculty. I present what we are including at Brown Uni­versity as an example of what can be done—not by any means a precise list of courses that must be included in a new field of contemplative studies.



Courses that consider contemplative experience as attained through religious practice



JS 198: Mysticism and Community: Tales of the Hasidic Masters and Their Followers


RS 81: The Hindu Tradition

*RS 88.018: The Foundations of Chinese Religion

*RS 88.023: Great Mystical Traditions of Asia

*RS 188.018: Theory and Practice of Buddhist Meditation

RS 188.001: Music, Drama, and Religion in India

*RS 137.003: Buddhist Psychology


Courses on the nature of the human mind as it is envisioned in both Western and Non-Western cultural traditions



AF 115: Afro-Caribbean Philosophy


CL 99: Concepts of Self in Indian Classical Literature

SA 191: Advanced Sanskrit: Readings in Classical Indian Philosophical texts


EA 0188: Directed Readings in Chinese Thought: Chuang Tzu



PL002: Mind and Matter

PL008: Existentialism

PL 175: Epistemology

PL 177: Philosophy of Mind


AC 161.06: H.D. Thoreau and His Heritage

AC 190.06: Transcendentalism in Action: Emerson and Whitman


ED 081: Poetry in Service to the Schools and the Community


CO 143.01: Critical Approaches to Chinese Poetry

CO 161.01: Theory of Lyric Poetry

CO 141: Studies in Drama: Japanese Theatre from Dengaku to Botoh

CO 071: Introduction to Japanese Literature


Courses that concentrate on scientific explanations of the human mind and its cognitive functioning, both on an individual and cultural level



PY0030: Personality

PY 0182: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion


*CG00011: Perception, Illusion, and the Visual Arts

CG0138: An Ecological Approach to Perception and Action


AN118: Japanese Culture, Society, and Performance

AN0131: Religion and Culture

AN0153: The Ancient Body: Past Ideas about Human Physiology

*AN0281: Performance Theory


PY001: Elementary Psychology

PY105: Music and Mind

PY107: Psychological Theory


CG001: Approaches to the Mind

CG008: Meaning and Thought

CG042: Human Cognition

CG044: Perception and Mind


BN001: The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience

BN105: Cognitive Neuroscience


Courses that study the role of contemplative experience in the creative arts



*EL 100: John Cage Seminar: Mind, Methods, and Materials

*EL 100: Deep Ecology and Textual Forms

*EL 100: Buddhism and Creative Practice

*EL 176 Still and Moving Minds: Contemplative Practice in Literature

*EL 176 Section 10: Poetry, Mind, and World, Outside and Inside


*TA 32: Creative Collaborations

*TA 33: Mande Dance, Music, and Culture

*TA 127: Non-Western Theatre and Performance

*TA 128.008: New Works/World Traditions


*EA 0126: Japanese Prints, Contemplation, and Engagement



*UC0054: An Introduction to Contemplative Studies UC170: Transformation of the Research University

These are our projected courses at this point. Even a perusal will show that our humanities offerings are quite plentiful in comparison with those in the sciences and creative arts; this is not something we advocate—we would prefer greater balance—but it is a reflection of the current state of our work. Once the concentration becomes established, we hope that new courses will be developed that fill in currently neglected areas and others that develop from the synergy of the divergent perspectives represented in our group. We also project a number of additional continuing offerings.

To foster the critical first-person pedagogy of the concentration and to promote the developing self-knowledge of the students, we propose offer­ing an ongoing contemplative practice seminar devoted to the practice and discussion of contemplative experience that will provide students continuity and integration across various courses. Contemplative practitioners from the core faculty, guests from the area contemplative community, and re­nowned scholars of contemplative studies and practitioners of the contem­plative arts will contribute to this forum. In addition, students will be given advice and support to explore on their own the life of the great variety of contemplative communities currently extant. We also envision that during their senior year, students will do a senior project in the particular subfield of their concentration and will participate in a biweekly contemplative studies forum in which they present their topics to one another and to the faculty. In the contemplative studies forum during the second semester, students will have the opportunity to present the final versions of projects.

There are many aspects of our proposal that still need to be worked out, and we plan to move forward in the coming year. I have presented these ideas not as a finished product, but as a work in progress to promote the development of the field of contemplative studies by stimulating discussion as to its nature and potential. Although I have focused here on establishing a new concentration in contemplative studies, I also wonder if the principles of this concentration could become the basis of developing a new interdiscipli­nary academic field. I wonder too about the benefits of and the detriments to bringing together scientists and humanities scholars to teach and do research in a new field like this. What kinds of new pedagogies and research would be fostered by having faculty come together to create such a field?

We have reached a moment in history when it is time to reenvision certain basic aspects of the existing models of teaching and research in higher ed­ucation in order to foster a deeper knowledge of the nature of our existence as human beings in a world that is intricately interrelated on many levels. This proposal for the development of a new academic field of contemplative studies is but one attempt to move in that direction. I would be remiss, however, especially in this venue, if I failed to point out that I believe that what I am proposing is very much in keeping with John Dewey's educational philosophy as it is presented in his Experience and Education. To sum up,

I have taken for granted the soundness of the principle that education in order to accomplish its ends must be based upon experience— which is always the actual life-experience of some individual.... There is no discipline in the world so severe as the discipline of experience subjected to the tests of intelligent development and direction.16

It is timely that we extend experiential learning to a new pedagogy of contemplative studies that balances traditional third-person learning with new critical first-person investigations.

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This course will examine the theory and practice of Buddhist meditation in historical and modern contexts. It is divided into three geographical units in which we deal with: 1. Original Buddhism in India and its continuation in the Theravada traditions of South and Southeast Asia and the modern West; 2. The Mahayana tradition of Ch'an Buddhism in China and the closely related Son Buddhism in contemporary Korea; and 3. Zen Buddhism in Japan. In each unit we read primary texts in translation that deal with various aspects of meditative and monastic practice in each of the traditions. In the Med­itation Lab, we try out a variety of concentration techniques used in the meditative traditions we are studying in the weekly seminar. For example, when we study Theravada Buddhism we will try their practices of sitting while counting breaths, or paying attention to the feeling of the breath on the nose, or following the rise and fall of the belly while breathing. While studying Ch'an and Zen, we might try the practice of “just sitting” while paying complete attention to everything that arises and passes away within our consciousness or we might try concentrating on a problem (koan), like Hakuin's famous “What is the sound of One Hand Clapping?”


This is the third version of a course on Buddhist Meditation that I initially developed under an American Council of Learned Societies Contemplative Practice Fellowship, one hundred of which have been awarded to American college and university teachers during the past six years. The course combines the traditional "third-person" learning of a weekly two and one-half hour seminar with the novel "first-person" learning of a Meditation Laboratory.

The point of the Meditation Laboratory is not to convert anyone to Buddhism: I never require that you believe in anything, Buddhist or oth­erwise. All I ask is that you approach the experience with an open mind and simply observe what is happening while you are meditating.

The modern Western academy is dominated by what we might call "third-person" learning. We observe, analyze, record, discuss a whole va­riety of subjects at a distance, as something “out there,” as if they were solely objects and our own subjectivity that is viewing them doesn't exist. Certainly there are exceptions to this: in Public Speaking, in Studio Art, Theatre, and sometimes in Music, Environmental Studies and other disciplines, students combine academic study with direct firsthand experience of what they are studying. But in general in the Humanities we tend to value "third-person" learning at the expense of all other forms. Despite this, I have found that when students are called upon, for example, to reflect on what a haiku poem means to them, that they derive a deeper understanding of it. And when students are challenged to apply Confucian ethical theories to problems in their own lives, they gain a much greater appreciation of what it means to be truly humane from a Confucian perspective.

This Buddhist Meditation course is an experiment in what I would call “critical first-person learning.” I say "critical" because in many forms of first-person learning in the contexts of religion, one must suspend critical judgment and believe in the various truths of the tradition. There is an important place for this form of "committed" first-person learning in our private lives, but we should be careful to not require that kind of commitment in a secular university. By contrast, in the “critical first-person learning” about Buddhist meditation we do in this course, the need to believe is removed. We will read and analyze a variety of texts on Bud­dhist meditation (“third-person learning”); we will observe how our minds and bodies work while trying out a variety of simple meditation techniques derived from these texts (“first-person learning”); and we will critically discuss these texts in light of our experiences in the meditat­ion laboratory. You will also be asked to keep a note-card journal on which you will record brief comments or observations at the end of every lab session.

Without a doubt, this kind of novel pedagogy is not for everyone. If, for any reason, there is a student who is unable to participate in the Meditation Laboratory, I will be happy to make arrangements for doing alternate work of equivalent value.


Prior full-semester coursework on Buddhism at Brown.


Regular attendance at seminar and meditation lab

Recording brief comments in a journal at the end of every lab session

At least two seminar presentations based on the readings

One 5-7 page paper on Indian Buddhist Meditation due on February 25.

One 12-15 page final research paper on a topic to be decided upon with the professor due on May 9.


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Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies


■ Throughout the course we will focus on identifying many of the methods that human beings have found, across cultures and across time, to concentrate, broaden and deepen conscious awareness.

■ We will study what these methods and experiences entail, how to critically appraise them, how to experience them ourselves, and how they influence the development of compassion and empathy, and health and well-being.

■ As we conduct such study, we will be adopting both third-person ap­proaches, which approach contemplative experience from a presumed objective position outside ourselves, and critical first-person approaches, which approach contemplative experiences from a presumed subjective position within them.

■ The former approach will be from the perspectives of philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, psychology of religion, neuroscience, and comparative religious thought, and it will be presented and discussed through lectures and seminars.

■ The latter approach will center on the well-developed techniques for the cultivation of attention and self-examination that are found in the Asian meditative traditions of Taoism and Buddhism. It will be pursued in weekly Meditation Labs as well as in weekly readings.

■ Taoist meditation will be based on the reconstruction of the tech­niques of the classical tradition developed by Professor Roth. Buddhist meditation will be based on modern practices.

■ Course readings will include primary texts that present the methods and results of contemplative practice and secondary works that discuss issues and critical methods in the philosophical and scientific under­standing of the results and significance of contemplation.


■ This course is usually taken in the second semester of the sophomore year (although upperclass students may be admitted in its initial offering) and necessitates a basic familiarity with some of the source material for the study of contemplative experiences. Therefore, the principal pre­requisites are three relevant courses to be drawn from the three basic areas of Contemplative Studies: Humanities, Science (especially Cogni­tive Science, Psychology, and Neuroscience), and the Creative Arts. See the forthcoming website for details.


■ Regular attendance at Seminar and Lab; attendance will be an im­portant factor in your final grade

■ Brief comments in a journal at the end of every lab session

■ At least two seminar presentations based on the readings

■ One 7-10 page Midterm Paper (topics to be handed out)

■ One 12-15 page Final Paper on a topic to be decided upon with the professor


BOOKS Required

■ Austin, James. Zen and the Brain. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.

■ Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

■ DeWit, Han F. Contemplative Psychology. Marie Louise Baird (trans.) Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1991.

■ Goleman, Daniel. The Meditative Mind. Putnam, 1988.

■ Lau, D.C., Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. London: Penguin, 1963.

Contemplative Studies 1807

■ Rosenberg, Larry, Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation. Shambhala, 1999.

■ Roth, Harold D. Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. Columbia University Press, 1999.

■ Varela, Francisco, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

■ Wallace, B. Allan. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness. Oxford University Press, 2000.


■ Davidson, Richard and Anne Harrington eds., Visions of Compassion. Oxford and New York, Oxford U Press, 2002. (selections)

■ James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Reprint, Touch­stone, 1997. (selections) Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are. Hyperion, 1995.

■ Barnard, G. William, and Jeffrey J. Kripal, Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism. Seven Bridges, 2002.

■ Sekida, Katsuki, Two Zen Classics. Weatherhill, 1977 (selections).

■ Thompson, Evan (ed.), Between Ourselves: Second-Person Issues in the Study of Consciousness. Imprint, 2001. (selections)

■ Conze, Edward (trans.). Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra. Reprint, Vintage, 2001.


■ Baer, Ruth A. “Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual Review.” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10#2 (Sum­mer 2003): 125-43.

■ Barnard, G. William. “Debating the Mystical as the Ethical: A Re­sponse.” In Barnard and Kripal, Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism, 70-99

■ Bishop, Scott, Mark Lau, Shauna Shapiro, Linda Carlson, Nicole Anderson, James Carmody, Zindel Segal, Susan Abbey, Michael Speca, Drew Velting, and Gerald Devins. “Mindfulness: A Proposed Operation­al Definition.” In Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11#3 (Fall 2004): 230-41.

■ Brown, Kirk Warren, and Richard M. Ryan. “The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84#4 (2003): 822-48.

■ Davidson, Richard. “Towards a Biology of Positive Affect and Com­passion.” In Visions of Compassion, 107-30.

■ Nancy Eisenberg. “Empathy-Related Emotional Responses, Altru­ism, and Their Socialization.” In Visions of Compassion, 131-64.

■ Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10#2 (Sum­mer 2003): 144-56.

■ Kohn, Livia. “The Sage in the World: Mysticism and Moral Respon­sibility in Chinese Religions.” In Barnard and Kripal, Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism, 288-308.

■ Kripal, Jeffrey. “Debating the Mystical as Ethical: An Indological Map.” In Barnard and Kripal, Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism, 15-69.

■ Lazar, Sarah, George Bush, Randy Gollub, Gregory Fricchione, Guruchan Khalsa, and Herbert Benson. “Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation.” NeuroReport 11#7 (15 May 2000): 1-5.

■ Loy, David. “The Lack of Ethics and the Ethics of Lack in Bud­dhism.” In Barnard and Kripal, Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism, 265-87.

■ Lutz, Antoine, and Evan Thompson. “Neurophenomenology: Inte­grating Subjective Experience and Brain Dynamics in the Neuroscience of Consciousness." Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS), 10(2003): 21-52.

■ Lutz, Antoine, Laurence Greischar, Nancy Rawlings, Mattieu Riccard, and Richard Davidson, “Long-term Meditators self-induce high amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice.” Publications of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 101 #46 (November 2004): 16360-16373.

■ Preston, Stephanie, and Frans deWaal. “Empathy: Its Ultimate and Proximate Bases.” Behavioural and Brain Sciences. 25 #1 (2002): 1-20.

■ Shapiro, Shauna, Gary Schwartz, and Ginny Bonner.” Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Medical and Premedical Stu­dents.” In Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21#6 (1998): 581-99.

■ Thompson, Evan, “Empathy and Human Experience.” In James D. Proctor (ed.), Science, Religion, and Human Experience. Oxford, 2005.

■ Thompson, Evan, “Empathy and Consciousness.” In Between Our­selves, 1-32.

■ Wallace, B. Allan. “Intersubjectivity in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.” In Between Ourselves, 209-30.

■ Zahavi, Dan. “Beyond Empathy: Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity.” In Between Ourselves, 151-68.

■ Young, Shinzen, “How Meditation Works." (Shinzen.org).



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 9, 2006, p. 1787-1815
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12682, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 4:59:28 AM

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About the Author
  • Harold Roth
    Brown University
    E-mail Author
    HAROLD D. ROTH is professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Brown University. His research and teaching are in the field of Chinese religious thought, Buddhist studies, comparative mystical studies, and textual history and criticism. He is the author of two books, compiler and editor of two others, and author of almost forty articles in relevant scholarly journals. These publications include "Who Compiled the Chuang Tzu?" in Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to Angus C. Graham (1991), edited by Henry Rosemont, Jr.; The Textual History of the Huai-nan Tzu (1993); Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism (1999); “Bimodal Mystical Experience in the Qiwulun of Chuang Tzu” in Journal of Chinese Religions (2000); and “Four Approaches to the Study of the Laozi” in Teaching the Daodejing, edited by Gary DeAngelis (2006).
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