Oral Histories

Interview of Shinzen Young

Shingon Buddhist monk. Leading teacher of mindfulness and a pioneer in studying the intersection of meditation and neuroscience.
Many Branches, One Root: Buddhist Traditions in the Los Angeles Area
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Shingon Buddhist monk. Leading teacher of mindfulness and a pioneer in studying the intersection of meditation and neuroscience.
Cline, Alex
Young, Shinzen
Persons Present:
Young and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Home of Ann Buck in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research; musician; member, Order of Interbeing, Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, ordained 2009 by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. The interviewee was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content but made no changes.
12 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The Many Branches, One Root series traces the histories and practices of a range of Buddhist traditions and communities in the greater Los Angeles area. Beginning in the early twentieth century, a succession of Buddhist traditions have put down roots in Los Angeles, each one providing spiritual support and a sense of community for the tradition’s immigrant population. By the late twentieth century many of those traditions had extended their reach beyond their original ethnic base to include an American-born, often largely Anglo, constituency. The series seeks to document the ethnic and immigrant roots of these traditions, as well as the changes that have resulted as traditions have accommodated to an American context. Series participants included monks, nuns, and lay people from Buddhist traditions from Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam and a mixture of immigrants and American-born practitioners.
Parents’ Eastern European Jewish heritage—Early life with grandparents as caretakers—Grows up in Los Angeles—Early interest in science and languages—Difficulty in school environment—Encouraged to study Asian languages—Introduced to meditation—Grows up during the Cold War—Turmoil in family life—Childhood friendship with Gerald Takahashi—Introduction to Japanese film—Beginning karate—Graduates from Sawtelle Japanese Language Institute—Struggles as a student at Venice High School—Enters UCLA as East Asian language major—Study abroad in Japan—Studies Senchado tea ceremony—Welcomed as a foreigner—Obaku school of Zen Buddhism—Attends talk by Shibayama Zenkei—Returns to United States—Attends University of Wisconsin, Madison—Buddhist studies at University of Wisconsin—Involvement in counterculture as a student—More on attending UCLA.
Festivals at West Los Angeles Buddhist Church—Kendo Club at Japanese Institute in Sawtelle area—Academic experience of Buddhism at University of Wisconsin—Experimentation with psychedelic drugs in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco--Altered states of consciousness contribute to desire for deeper study of Buddhism—Mentors Kyoda Minoru and Richard Robinson—Returns to Japan to study Shingon school of Zen Buddhism—Impact of Richard Robinson’s death on meditative practice—Methods of study in Shingon school—Begins study at Shinnyo-en Monastery under Kyodo Nakagawa—Learns zazen from Okamura—History of Shinnyo-en Monastery—Hundred-day traditional training at Shinnyo-en—Realization that samadhi is the path to survive training experience—Continues training in Japan—Passion shifts from academia to meditative practice—Teaches meditative practice in Japan and upon return to United States—Meets Father William Johnston—Learns about brain wave studies on meditative and contemplative practices from Father Johnston—Studies Western science alongside meditative practice.
Ann Buck—Work as translator for Dr. Thich Thien-An at UCLA—Contrast between experiences of returning to United States from studying language versus monastic training—Changes in family dynamic upon return from monastic training—Dr. Thien-An and the International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBMC)—Meets brain wave researchers at IBMC and begins brain wave feedback work—Cultures and traditions represented at IBMC—Invitation from Elmer Green to teach at the Merringer Foundation—Teaches at IBMC—Studies with Wu Guang Fashi in Taiwan—History of Wu Guang—Wu Guang’s mastery of esoteric Buddhist practices—Cultural experiences in Taiwan—The “Buddhist ghetto” of Los Angeles—Establishment of Chua Vietnam Temple by Dr. Thien-An—Dr. Thien-An’s ministry with Vietnamese refugees—Passing of IBMC to Rev. Kanna Dharma—Meets Shelly Young—Interprets service for Joshu Sasaki Roshi—Joshu Sasaki Roshi’s influence on meditative practice—Okamura’s question of self-reflection—Experiences breakthrough of perception while contemplating Okamura’s question—Shift from concentration on liberation to ethical conduct—Changing relationship to marijuana after attending S.K. Goenka’s vipassana retreat—Relationship of marijuana to breakthrough experience—Continuing interest in esoteric subjects and cultures—Introduction to Lee Wino—Lee Wino’s development of meditation practice while incarcerated—Relationship with Lee Wino.
Influence of counterculture’s questioning of the status quo and development of interest in Eastern religions—Difference between Western adoption of Buddhist principles and traditional practice in Asia—Mindfulness and evidence-based science as biggest influences on adoption of Buddhism in the West—Arrival of Vietnamese Buddhist refugees at Chau Vietnam Temple and impact on the International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBMC)—Attends meditation class taught by Western Theravada monks at IBMC—Witnesses effectiveness of culturally neutral, mindfulness-based teaching practice—Incorporates new teaching practice into personal paradigm—Development of unified mindfulness approach—Jon Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR)—Belief that mindfulness is present in all contemplative practices—Mindfulness as a “trillion dollar word”—Interest in mindfulness in China—Increasing acceptedness and universality of the concept of mindfulness—Uses meditative practice to learn advanced mathematics—Math as a basis for all scientific study—Computer programming study at UCLA—Attends the first computer show in New York City—Witnesses the unfolding of the personal computer and the early internet—Adapts computer science principles to teaching meditation with interactive algorithmic approach—Leaving IBMC to start Community Meditation Center—Continues exploration of human consciousness—Carbogen—Altered state experienced under carbogen—Lee Wino’s understanding of Buddhist principles—Expands understanding of gang culture through relationship with Wino—Uses meditation to balance involvement with criminal element—Wino’s affiliation with the Righteous Bastards.
Meditative strategies allowing contemplative merging—Benefits of contemplative merging—Brief and horrifying experience living in South Korea under its dictatorship in the 1960s—Korean Friendship Bell (Korean Freedom Bell)—Relationship of Korean Buddhists to their temple bells—Teachers Okumura Neilsen and Nikola Geiger—History of Nikola Geiger—Arrest while protesting Korean dictatorship at unveiling of Korean Freedom Bell—Merging with Lee Wino to use his survival skills while imprisoned—Activities with Wino—Fading of friendship with Wino as teaching responsibilities increase—Teaching Asian languages—Academic and Buddhist lineage credentials—Addressing issues of unbalanced students at International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBMC) in 1970s—Personal relationship with an unbalanced student—Relocation to Vermont—Learning lessons with Bill Hamilton—Hamilton’s understanding of Burmese vipassana—Hamilton’s students Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Fork—The contemplative path as both primordial completeness and cultivated completeness—Teaches both approaches in unified mindfulness—Importance of Ingram’s questioning of meditative teaching practices in North America—Creates an interactive online mindfulness program with Bill Corates—Trains Bob Stiller at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters—Connections with Insight Meditation Society and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness based stress reduction—Meeting at Spirit Rock Mountain Center—Mindfulness practices reach Hollywood—Prophetic pronouncement by Tertullian and modern mindfulness practice.
Becomes ordained as a Shingon monk after training at Shinnyo-en--Trains at Shokoku-ji, a Rinzai Zen monastery--Alms rounds at Shokoku-ji--Invitation from Nikola Geiger to stay in Kyoto--Belief that Geiger is a living bodhisattva--Encouragement from Geiger to improve practice through service to others--Geiger’s work with Amnesty International and human rights in South Korea--Geiger’s early training in meditation and move to Japan--Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi--Readjusting to American culture after returning to the United States--Attending retreat at International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBCM), leading to teaching, meeting wife Shelly, and neuro-feedback research--Young supports himself while teaching meditation by selling marijuana--Vipassana Support Institute --Mainstreaming of teaching and nature of changing venues and clientele--Spirit of serving present in teaching practice--Development of interactive algorithmic approach--Moves to West Los Angeles--Attracting students with academic and science backgrounds--Assets and liabilities of teaching via telephone and internet--Strategies for guiding students--The effectiveness of goal-oriented approaches to teaching--Using a Socratic method to help students progress--Emphasizes spiritual growth over enlightenment to provide accessible practices--Eight forms of human behavioral change--McMindfulness--The Buddha as proto-scientist of human happiness--Jon Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness based stress reduction--History of Buddhism and its future--Work with Bob Stiller and family--Strength of Young’s Jewish cultural identity--Potential influence of mindfulness and Buddhism in the modern world--Experimenting with ultrasound waves and brain activity.