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Buddhist Geeks: Towards a Science of Enlightenment

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Buddhist Geeks has just uploaded a new video from their recent 2011 Conference. It features the full keynote address presented by Shinzen Young, a mindfulness teacher: Towards the Science of Enlightenment.

Shinzen presents a fascinating history of Buddhism as it travels eastward into China, and then finally Japan. But the story of Buddhism's doesn't end there. As the East met the West, Buddhism hopped over the seas from Japan and landed in California. The Buddhist Geeks Conference itself took place in Los Angeles, so it's appropriate to say that the contemplative frontier of consciousness has met the scientific-technological frontier of the West. The late Steve Jobs, a Buddhist himself, is case-in-point of this convergence.

So what happens when these two worlds collide?

Buddhism is, by its very nature, a kind of inner-science of happiness. It provides techniques (which can be shared) to create a subjective experience of happiness. It's very inward in its disposition. The image of the closed-eyed Buddha is an iconic representation of the East's inward orientation. Science, on the other hand, is collaborative and outward looking. If we were to really simplify the two: in contemplation you close your eyes and figure out what's going on within, in science you open your eyes and figure out what's going on from the outside. So, again we ask the question, what happens when you bring these two together?

For Shinzen, a subjective practice in collaboration with an objective science can do wonders. In particular, it can help us understand what the mechanisms for enlightenment, happiness, and well-being are within the brain. Shinzen's rather controversial idea is simple and may revolt some Buddhists and spiritualists: what if there can be a science of enlightenment? Can science discover the outer mechanisms for the inner transformation? He's quick to point out that this does not mean a total understanding of mystical experience or mindfulness. The Buddha often described that there are only inhibitors that block the recognition of Buddha-nature. So, for the scientist, it's a matter of finding what those blocks are and aiding the contemplative in lifting them.

The results? It could mean enlightenment for millions. Shinzen Young wittingly assures us that this is his "happy thought" for the future. It's not guaranteed. But it's something he hopes for and sees as a legitimate possibility.

But the convergence of science and meditation is not the end of it. Buddhism's meditative focuse has re-awakened the West's interest in contemplative prayer. Little do many of us know, the Christian traditions have had a long history of contemplative practices right on par with Eastern meditation. These traditions had been altogether erased and squashed since the Medieval Ages, but they are experiencing a revival due to Eastern practices. To name only three contributors to this movement: Fr. William Johnston, Fr. Thomas Keating and the late Fr. Thomas Merton.

Here's to a geeky synthesis of technology, neuroscience and contemplation. Also, here is to a greater appreciation of the world's wisdom traditions in dialogue with our modern scientific world.

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