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Evidence of Shinzen Young oppressing people for the attainment of meditative absorption

Jeffrey S. Brooks
the Great Western Vehicle
PO Box 41795
Tucson, AZ 85717
Jhanananda@greatwesternvehicle.org

Arapaho National Forest, 06-15-06

I first met Mr. Shinzen Young at a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat that he led at the Sanoran Field School in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona in July, it was hosted by the Tucson Community Meditation Center (TCMC), At the time I thought he was nuts for leading a retreat on the desert floor at that time of year, because it would be so very hot there.  And, it was.  I attended the retreat anyway because I wanted some retreat time.

The Sanoran Field School is a rustic training center mostly serving campers.  We used the main classroom as our meditation hall.  There was no air-conditioning, just what we call "swamp coolers," which is a device that runs air through damp porous pads.  The device works excellently for bringing the temperature down from 100 degrees (F) to a reasonable 75 degrees (F) in a region of low humidity, like Tucson.  But, the temperatures on the desert floor in July are more like 120 degrees (F) in the shade, so the coolers only succeeded in increasing the humidity.

Meditating many hours a day can be quite a challenge even to the contemplative with many years and several retreats of practice.  Doing so in unrelenting sweltering heat was a tremendous undertaking.  We were all just dripping with sweat all day long.  On top of that the meditation hall became infested with ants, so not only were we sticky with sweat, but we had ants crawling all over us.  Shinzen suggested that we just meditate on the sensations, which is a reasonable solution to poor planning.

With all of the uncomfortable tactile sensations that impinged upon my awareness during that retreat I found myself propelled into one of the darkest dark nights of the soul I had so far encountered.  My skin burned all over intensely as if I was a burn victim.  There were times when I thought I would go stark raving mad.

There was a young woman there who happened to be a victim of child molestation.  She did not fair well at all.  One night mid-retreat she lost it and started screaming and breaking furniture.  Shinzen came and calmed her down.  Remarkably that young woman was there for the rest of the retreat.

Shinzen had brought with him a guest speaker, a woman psychologist by the name of Shirley.  I cannot recall her last name.  Mixing western psychology with Buddhism seemed like a good fit.  He also liked to weave in Native American spirituality and modern physics theory into his talks.  The mix did not seem particularly successful, more New Age, but I was not looking for dharma talks I was looking for an opportunity to meditate rigorously, which I got.

Shinzen's website claims he has "trained extensively in Asian monasteries." But in reality he spent a single 100-day period in a Pureland temple in Japan back in the early 70s. Pureland Buddhism is a devotional form, so he most probably chanted mantras the whole time. He also presents himself as a "scholar of languages and science."  He does seem to be a student of the Japanese language, but as far as I know he has no scientific training beyond that which he may have gotten in high school. There is some rumor that he was once in graduate school, but he did not complete that course of study, whatever it may have been.

One of the things Shinzen liked to emphasize was guided meditation.  He actually had some equipment made for him that allowed him to dial into any individual because they all wore headsets.  Fortunately these fancy guided meditations were optional, so I did not partake in them.  I have found over the years that guided meditation tends to make people subservient to the guide, and thus it is a common tool of the cult leader.

After that retreat I found out that Shinzen had an affair with Shirley, then dumped his wife of 10 years.  That fiasco caused quite a stir in the local vipassana community, and from what I have heard, throughout the dharma centers where he had led retreats.  It is my understanding at that time that he lost about 50% of the centers that he used to lead retreats at. 

Aside from the affair and the dumping of his wife, in that order, I did not see what all of the fuss was about. After all Shirley was not some young naēve devotee, she was a mature woman, a psychologist, and about 10 years older than Shinzen.  His affair seemed less like him overpowering a naēve devotee and more like him working out an oedipal complex.

Someone said that Shinzen had written an essay on meditative absorption, and sent me the URL for it.  It is STRAY THOUGHTS ON MEDITATION.  The essay really is not a discussion of meditative absorption (jhana). It simply brushes over the topic of meditative absorption.  And, I will cover points in his essay along the way.

I had been deeply involved in TCMC, where Shinzen had been leading retreats, for about 13 years.  I sat at least 2 retreats led by Shinzen and I had listened to a number of his recorded dharma talks and I even reviewed a book on meditation that he has been writing for about 10 years.  At no time do I recall him ever addressing meditative absorption (jhana) in a dharma talk.

In this essay Shinzen Young discusses shamata and jhana, which are two synonyms for the Sanskrit term "samadhi" which are terms from early Buddhist literature.  In the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22.21) the Buddha defined the eighth fold of the Nobel Eightfold Path in terms of samadhi, and jhana. This sutta refers to altered states of consciousness that arise due to successful meditation practice.

Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22.21)

"And what is meditative absorption (sama-samadhi)? There is the case where a contemplative; who is withdrawn from sensory phenomena, and withdrawn from unwholesome mental states; enters upon and abides in the first meditative absorption state (jhana), which is accompanied by bliss (piiti) and joy (sukha) originating from withdrawal..." (through fourth jhana).
It is surprising that Shinzen Young would even mention jhana in an essay, because he told me in 2001 that he knew nothing about jhana.

Over the decades when I spoke of my experiences in meditation with highly respected meditation teachers, such as Shinzen Young, they typically told me to ignore the various phenomena that I have found associated with meditation.  Some of them were even offended, or hostile toward me, so I learned to not speak about my meditation experiences with my meditation teachers.

One of the little external signs of the pleasantness of my meditation is my head bobs slightly when I am in deep meditation.  I have sat about 50 or 60 meditation retreats over the last 3 decades.  No one ever seemed to even notice this slight quirk.  However, in July of 2001 I was attending a 10-day Goenka Vipassana meditation retreat. There the assistant retreat leader was quite alarmed by the bobbing of my head.  Telling him that I had the effect for 3 decades did not seem to relieve his anxiety, because he asked me to leave on the 8th day.

At that time I was an officer for the Tucson Community Meditation Center (TCMC), which at that time was one of the largest meditation centers in Arizona.  For TCMC, in addition to my board-level duties, I had also led their weekly meditations, functioned as registrar and manager for their retreats and setup public talks and radio interviews for their visiting meditation teachers, such as Shinzen Young.  So, when I returned from the Goenka 10-day meditation retreat, people noticed my early return and asked why I was back so soon.  When I told them that I had been asked to leave the retreat by the assistant retreat leader because my head bobbed when I meditated, they thought it was pretty funny. 

One of them just looked at me quizzically, and said, "That meditation teacher must be insane."

Talk got around TCMC that I had been thrown out of a meditation retreat.  Mary McWhorter, one of the senior members of that center, suggested that I call Shinzen Young, who was the guiding teacher of TCMC, to ask him about the situation. So, one evening I called him on Mary's phone and told him about being tossed out of a Goenka 10-day meditation retreat.

He asked, "Well, what goes on in your meditations?"

When I told him what occurs. He said, "Hmm, that sounds like Jhana.  Unfortunately I do not know anything about jhana."

His vocal inflection when he said the word "jhana" sounded similar to how a doctor would say, "You have AIDS." But, at least I had a name within a Buddhist context for my experience.  I got right onto the web and browsed for the term, and I found only about 3 hits for it.  I read all of the information and found, while there seemed to be a lot of myth tied up in the doctrine of Theravadan Buddhism regarding the term "jhana," there was sufficient information for me to identify my experience within it.  What was even more helpful were the canonical references provided by those webpages. I spent the next three years studying everything on the subject of jhana and the fruits (phala) of the contemplative life including reading the canonical references, which I found by reading the first 5,000 pages of the Discourses of the Buddha.

In the intervening time I found my fellow board members became suspicious of my motives.  Very often the items that I suggested for board-level discussion were removed from the list. I also published a newsletter to help promote our meditation retreats and our teachers.  In that newsletter I began to publish editorials that addressed the issues that my fellow board members were unwilling to discuss.

In the intervening three years after I was booted out of that Goenka retreat for a bobbing head I found no additional information on the subject of jhana being presented by TCMC's itinerant meditation teachers, such as Shinzen Young. Within TCMC I had asked for empowerment to teach meditation and to address jhana, which none of the other meditation teachers, including Shinzen, would address. Not surprisingly that empowerment was not forth coming.

In early 2003 Shinzen Young, Eric Kolvig and Marcia Rose, who were TCMC's itinerant meditation teachers, filibustered the board of TCMC to have me removed from office because of two articles that I had published in my newsletter.  The first was on the importance for a contemplative to understand the Dark Night of the Soul, and the second was on the Emergence of Western Teachers of Buddhism.

Thus it was remarkable that Shinzen would even address jhana and shamata in an essay, even though he knew nothing about it, and had actively oppressed contemplatives who had the experience.  But, then I am sure he was feeling some pressure to speak about the subject, because I had made the topic very public through building a website about it and running a listserve on the subject.

In the second paragraph in that essay Mr. Young claims to know something about the various schools of Buddhism, however, he reveals he does not understands his subject very well.  He claims "there is remarkable agreement among Buddhists (schools) as to what is involved in the meditative process."  If that were true then we would see considerably more uniformity in the teaching of meditation within the various schools of Buddhism.  However, Theravadan Buddhism begins with breath meditation and ends with body scanning.  Zen tends to just stick to breath meditation and the Koan, whereas Pureland Buddhists tend to reject meditation altogether, and Tibetan Buddhists have elaborate forms of ritualized devotional practices that include mantra, yantra and tantra practices.  We can conclude the variety of contemplative practices within the three vehicles of Buddhism is rather broad, and not all of them even refer to the terms "shamata" or "vipassana."

"Within each of these three spheres, numerous schools, traditions and individual approaches exist for the practice of meditation. Yet concerning basic principles, there is remarkable agreement among Buddhists as to what is involved in the meditative process." 

In his third paragraph Mr. Young is correct that some forms of Buddhism tend to express their contemplative methodologies within a dualistic view summed up by the terms "calm abiding" (shamata) verses "insight" (vipassana).  However, I believe he utterly missed the Theravadan logic behind their teaching of vipassana, when he wrote "The second, vipasyana, is the step by step heightening of awareness, sensitivity and clarity."  I believe the vipassana schools would prefer to be distinguished by their reflection upon the three marks, which they call "Ti-Lakkhana." The three marks are the three aspects of the human experience common to all of us, which are: suffering (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and non-self identification (anatta). It is odd that Mr. Young would have gotten this central point so fundamental wrong regarding the vipassana model, considering he refers to himself as a vipassana meditation teacher.  But, then he was not trained in vipassana meditation.  He was trained in Pureland Buddhism, a devotional school that rejects the practice of meditation and emphasizes faith and devotion.  They are more like born-again Christians than they are like Theravadan Buddhists.

Why Mr. Young even teaches vipassana is just an odd quirk of fate in which he had sat a single vipassana retreat led by Bhante Rahula at the LA Zen Center in the late 70s or early 1980.  A few months later Shinzen happened to answer the phone when Mary McWhorter called the LA Zen Center looking for someone to visit Tucson to teach vipassana meditation.  Shinzen decided he was the man for the job.  Apparently he has not learned any more about the practice and philosophy behind vipassana meditation since that time.

Mr. Young further errs in his essay when he says the following in regards to shamata and vipassana, "These two components complement each other and should be practiced simultaneously."  First of all the Buddha simply did not teach a dualistic practice model.  Secondly he never referred to either vipassana or shamata as practice strategies. Siddhartha Gotama taught a single practice model that he called "Sati," which is the seventh fold of the Noble Eightfold Path.  The Buddha expressed that methodology in the practice of using the psychophysiology as the object of meditation, which is often referred to as the "Four Foundations of Mindfulness."

Most probably Mr. Young has not read the Discourses of the Buddha because he says some pretty bazaar things, such as in his 4th paragraph he states the following, "Samatha, if taken to an extreme, leads to special trance states; these may be of value, but they are not the ultimate goal of Buddhism."  Considering the Buddha defined the 8th fold of his Noble Eightfold Path in terms of the attainment of meditative absorption states that he called "jhana" or "samadhi," we can conclude the Buddha very much believed it was necessary to cultivate the meditative absorption states, and that they were indeed a goal of the practice of meditation.  In fact if we look at the second sutta in the Digha Nikaya the Buddha actually called the meditative absorption states "samana phala" which means "fruits of the contemplative life."  We should also not forget that Samadhi is one of the factors of enlightenment, whereas vipassana is not, nor did the Buddha consider it a "fruit" (phala).

11 "fruits" (phala) of the contemplative life, or types of higher wisdom, "knowledges"

1

Equanimity

upekkha

2

Fearlessness

nibbhaya; abhiiruka; nissaarajja; abhiita

3

freedom from unhappiness and suffering

Asukhacaadukkha

4

Absorption

jhana/samadhi

5

(OOB)

Manomaya "Mind-made body."

6

Clairaudience

dibba-sota Divine hearing

7

Mental telepathy

ceto-pariya-ñána "Knows the minds of others" or parassa ceto-pariya-ñána: 'penetrates the mind of others'

8

Recollection of past lives

s. Patisandhi, paticcasamuppada) pubbenivásánussati: 'remembrance of former births', is one of the higher powers (abhiññá, q.v.), and a factor of threefold knowledge (tevijja, q.v.).

9

Clairvoyance, Divine seeing

dibba-cakkhu "sees beings passing away & re-appearing" (cutúpapáta-ñána)

10

Ends anxiety

The ending of the mental agitation (effluents)

11

Knowledge & vision

nanadassana (knowledge (nana) and vision (dassana))

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga, sambojjhanaga)

#

English

Pali

Source

1

Investigation of the way

dhamma-vicaya

siddhi

2

Energy

viriya, vîrya/ Kundalini

iddhi-páda

3

Tranquility

passaddhi

2nd jhana

4

Mindfulness

sati

7th fold of N8p

5

Equanimity

upekkha

3rd jhana

6

Bliss

piiti

1st jhana

7

Absorption

samadhi

Jhana/samadhi 1-8

(DN 22, n.689, 33.2.3(2); MN 118

In his 7th paragraph Mr. Young attempts to define shamata.  We should not fault him for making the most common of errors in conflating the English term "concentration" with meditative absorption, but he nonetheless does not distinguish himself with an insightful interpretation of concentration or absorption.  In fact it does not seem he even understands what meditative absorption is when he says, "In real concentration, one simply rests the mind on the object at hand and then proceeds to let go of everything else in the universe. The mind then remains on that object until it is appropriate to shift attention." While his description might well be a reasonable interpretation of the practice of concentration, he is nonetheless referring to meditative absorption, which is something entirely different.

Meditative absorption is an altered state of consciousness that arises when the subjective conditions support it. The Buddha enumerated those subjective conditions in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22.21).  The eight jhana factors, as they are known, are: applied and sustained attention (Vitakka & Vicára); joy (Sukha); bliss (Piiti); one-pointedness (Ekaggatha); tranquility (Passaddhi); equanimity (Upekkha); and freedom from unhappiness and suffering (Asukhacaadukkha).

 

the Eight Jhana factors (savikalpa samadhi)

Vitakka

(applied or initiating attention)

Vicára

(sustained attention)

Sukha

joy

Piiti

bliss (a factor of enlightenment)

Ekaggatha

one-pointedness

Passaddhi

tranquility (a factor of enlightenment)

Upekkha

equanimity (a factor of enlightenment)

Asukhacaadukkha

freedom from unhappiness and suffering

(DN 2, 22; MN 119)

We can conclude that just because someone claims to know about Buddhism, insight and meditative absorption, does not mean that he or she does.  Mr. Shinzen Young does not demonstrate an understanding of the philosophy and practice of vipassana meditation, but then he only sat one short vipassana meditation retreat before he decided he was ready to teach it.  In his writing he does not seem to indicate he understands the philosophy and contemplative practices of Buddhism, most probably because he has never read the Buddha's discourses.  And, from his demonizing of contemplatives with the attainment of meditative absorption (jhana) we can conclude that he most certainly is not a safe and supportive teacher to study meditation from.  He also has not empowered a single person to teach meditation in his 25 years of teaching, but then he was not empowered by anyone to teach meditation either.

Jhanasamyutta, SN 34

"Therein, bhikkhus, a contemplative who is skilled both in meditation that leads to meditative absorption (jhana) and in the attainment of meditative absorption (jhana) is the chief, the best, the foremost, the highest, the most excellent of these four kinds of meditators."
(Bodhi, Bhikkhu trans., Samyutta Nikaya Wisdom, 2000)

May you dwell forever in the joyful home of the way (Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa)

Jeffrey S. Brooks (Jhanananda)

the Great Western Vehicle

Sources:

The Great Western Vehicle Archive of Gnosis, Jhana, Samadhi, Kundalini, Ecstatic Meditation (Jhana/Samadhi) and Ecstatic Buddhism

What is Ecstatic Buddhism? (September 19, 2004)

What is Jhána? Jhána as defined in the Buddha's Discourses (October 13, 2005)

The characteristic manifestations of absorption, Jhana-Nimitta (October 1, 2004)

The Fruits (Phala) of the Contemplative Life (September 13, 2004)

The Language of Gnosis (October 15, 04)

A Proposed Unified Theory for the Experience of Gnosis

A Chart of the various stages of absorption, Samadhi Chart

The Experience of Meditation (July 23, 2004)

The GWV master directory of translations of the TIPITAKA, The Earliest Buddhist Canon of Literature

Jhanasamyutta, SN 34, Bodhi, Bhikkhu trans., Samyutta Nikaya Wisdom, 2000

Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118) Mindfulness of the breath

Kayagata-sati Sutta, MN 119 "Mindfulness of the Body"

Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) the Four Paths of Mindfulness

Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22.21)

Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) "The Discourse on the Fruits of the Contemplative Life"

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation by Jhanananda

Teresa of Avila, the "Interior Castle,"

Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) translated by E. Allison Peers, Image Books, Garden City, New York, 3rd addition, 1959

Southwest Insight E'letter, A monthly newsletter for contemplatives in the Southwestern USA

Commitment as a Refuge, Dark Night of the Soul in Buddhism (January 1, 2003)

The Emergence of Western Teachers of Buddhism

The Demonizing of Ecstatic Meditation (Jhana)

Exposing translator bias in the translation of the Pali Canon and other Asian literature (updated 11-10-04)

The Witch-hunt Continues, The Oppression of the Ecstatic Contemplative

The Mystification of Gnosis

Considering the Siddhis, Occult, or Magic Powers of the Mystics

How to determine an authentic enlightened teacher

The Suppression of Jhana by the "Sangha" (July, 7, 2005)

The Suppression of Jhana at a Goenka Retreat (August, 2001)

The Boycotting of Jhana by IMS and Spirit Rock revealed in Correspondence with Marcia Rose, Guiding Teacher, Taos Mtn. Sangha & The Mtn. Hermitage, (February, 2003)

The Boycotting of Jhana by IMS and Spirit Rock revealed in Correspondence with Eric Kolvig, an Insight Meditation Society teacher, (07/2005)

Evidence of Shinzen Young oppressing people for the attainment of meditative absorption

Tucson Community Meditation Center (TCMC) oppressing people for the attainment of meditative absorption

The Boycotting of a GWV Jhana Retreat at Bell Springs Hermitage by the monks of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery (14 Apr 2004)

The Cha'an, Son and Zen Concept of Makyo the "ghost" or "devil's cave"

Correspondence with Sudhamma 04-19-04, revealing the lack of jhana among the orthodoxy

Correspondence with Sudhamma 8 Jun 2004, revealing the resistance to jhana and the ability to oppress those ideas by the Theravadan Orthodoxy

The suppression of Jhana by European Vajrayana teachers revealed in Correspondence with Ingmar Pema Dechen 6/3/03

Correspondence with Mark Vetanen Jan 22, 2004, revealing the negative Zen attitude toward jhana as "bliss ninny"

Correspondence with Bhikkhu Samahita 04-04, revealing the attempt to subvert jhana in the non-canonical belief in "supramundane" verses "mundane" jhana by the orthodoxy

Herman Hofman on the poor treatment of ecstatic meditators on Yahoo Groups, 10 Apr 2004

The dirty little secret of Asian Buddhism by Mark Vetanen, 25 Apr 2004

Correspondence with Mark Vetanen 27 Apr 2004, revealing the oppression of a Western interpretation of the Dhamma by the Zen Orthodoxy

The orthodox views of some Theravadan monks revealed in Correspondence with Richard Estes (aka Bhikkhu Dhammarato) in the guise of Phramaha Somsak 7/21/05

Correspondence with Bhikkhu Sujato revealing the conflict over jhana within the Theravadan Orthodoxy Wed, 27 Jul 2005

Long term meditator but no hint of Jhanna! And anti Jhanna philosophy of some Buddhist schools. By Stephen Hendry, 29 Jul 2005

Original Buddhism And Brahminic Interference by Dr. K. Jamanadas

Jnanavira, Dharmachari. Homosexuality in the Japanese Buddhist Tradition. Western Buddhist Review, Volume 3. Journal of the Western Buddhist Order, 12 Oct, 2005 revealing pedophilia and misogyny in Japanese Buddhism.

SCANDAL HAUNTS TEMPLE MURDERS, A textbook example of the warping effect that $10 billion of China White heroin had upon major media, law enforcement, and judicial processes in Arizona. B.Q. 4-20-96 by Brian Downing Quig, also reveals ties between organized crime and the Buddhist orthodoxy of Asia

More information on Goenka's cult-like activities within VRI

A view into the Goenka cult by a long-term member

 "STRAY THOUGHTS ON MEDITATION" by Shinzen Young


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