Zen and Now

meditations on the Providence Zen Center and the Brown Contemplative Studies Initiative

by by Mimi Dwyer

In Providence, two influential and disparate iterations of Zen in the West stand within thirty minutes of one another: the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland and the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown. Neither didactic, neither proselytizing, both groups see the drawbacks of their particular approaches to ‘translating’ the cultural foreignness of Zen. The Providence Zen Center is the international head temple of the Kwan Um School of Zen, one of the largest schools of Zen in the West. It embraces Zen in largely the same way the Beats did—as alluring in its nonconformity and otherness, isolated in the deep and hollow woods, adhering to certain traditional precepts like robe-wearing. The Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown, conversely, approaches Zen through a critical, scientific, and experiential lens, and boasts one of the most developed academic approaches to meditation in the country. As the Zen Center struggles to retain members, Contemplative Studies attracts more and more students and increasingly gains legitimacy in the scientific community. Now that you can buy 'Zen gardens' in SkyMall, does our approach to the practice mean something different?

The roles of Buddhism and Zen in the West have long been a point of tension in academic and religious circles. (It’s important to note that there are countless cultural variants of Buddhism in Asia itself, and that talking about it or about meditative practice as a whole inevitably leads to gross generalizations.) Robert Sharf writes that most fundamentally, the practice has functioned as the “religion of science” in the West, asserting “the essential oneness of the material and the immaterial” and basing religious practice on “the pure facts of experience.” There are countless ways of expressing this idea—the irrelevance of opinion, relinquishing the ego, understanding yourself, penetrating reality. Meditation is a central tool in working towards this oneness.

The pop-Zen we know derives mainly from Beat poets’ fascination with the practice in the fifties. “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution,” Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums, “all of ‘em Zen lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason, and also by being kind, and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and all living creatures... wild gangs of holy men getting together to drink and talk and pray.” The newborn revolutionaries leapt at the enlightenment to which the Beats alluded. Zen got cool. The PZC found its client base.


Off I-295 and past strip malls of supermarkets and dollar stores, the Providence Zen Center sits frozen and silent. Its fifty-acre grounds house pristine buildings inspired by traditional Korean architecture. The PZC is the historical epicenter of the Kwan Um School of Zen, the popular Western sect founded by Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn. Raised in North Korea by two Protestant Christian parents, Sahn immigrated to the United States in 1972 and wound up working at a laundromat in downtown Providence. He began teaching Zen meditation to students at Brown within months of arriving in the US. The students ate it up—to them, Sahn was a living expression of the philosophy that the sixties icons had made sexy. He founded the PZC in October of 1972 and by 1979 the school was popular enough to build the elaborate complex in Cumberland. Sahn officially created Kwan Um Zen in 1983, and by his death in 2004 his legacy had spread to over 100 centers worldwide. His first center in Providence serves not only practitioners of Buddhism, but also any laypeople interested in Zen meditation practice.

Inside the complex, George Hazlbauer, the PZC’s abbot, talked about his life. He was raised in the largely atheist Czech Republic and has lived in Zen Centers across the US for the last thirteen years. His story fits squarely into the kind of soul-searching narrative Westerners love.
“I was a pretty successful young man with a construction business, a band, all that kind of stuff,” he says. “Everything worked out. I had fifty people in my company and I was only nineteen. And I was like, what’s going to be next? I can have more people, I can have more money, I can be a really famous musician rather than somebody who is just well-known, and I was like, what, why? It was just empty. So I tried different things as I was looking into that—a lot of drinking, a lot of drugs, a lot of parties.”

It’s a familiar trope—it all felt hollow, so he searched, and eventually “dropped the company, gave it to [his] workers, and went to travel to find some kind of meaning of life.” He traveled to Israel, lived with Bedouins, picked up meditation. He chose Kwan Um because he happened to meet a teacher from the PZC at the right time, and because he could relate to Seung Sahn’s philosophy.

Is meditation really  universal as he makes it seem? This importation of culture through religion is hardly unique—Seung Sahn, after all, was the child of Protestants. “A lot of people think of meditation as, you know, feel happy—which is fine," he says. "But it’s not the goal of meditation. The goal of meditation is to understand why we are here and where we go when we die.” The result is a practice that is nonjudgmental and self-relinquishing, but in some ways exclusive nonetheless. Enlightenment “is attainment,” says Hazlbauer. “It’s a state of mind. Anybody who attains that state of mind can see if somebody else has attained it.”

While this search is ubiquitous, in the United States, meditation is hardly the most common path to its achievement. It appeals to a very specific subset of the population. “Buddhism has this kind of upper-middle white class vibe around it,” says Hazlbauer. “I don’t know why. But somehow that’s the image we have in society.”

Today, only ten of the PZC’s thirty available residential rooms are filled. “At one time, there were forty people living here,” Hazlbauer says. “That was a long time ago.” The sixties are over-- Zen has lost some of the countercultural connotations that once popularized it. Moreover, full-time residency at the center is $725 per month. Not bad, considering it includes meals, room, board, several daily meditation sessions, and even cable and WiFi. But full-time also means no job or income. Thus the communal setting mandates some degree of privilege.

“We are not good with balance,” acknowledges Hazlbauer. “We kept ourselves really isolated for a long, long time and just recently came to the knowledge that that’s not a good thing to do. Now we want to change that and in the last few years we’ve tried to be more part of the community.” He alludes to high school outreach programs, teenaged “interns” working on the grounds, cooking and cleaning, witnessing meditation if not engaging in it.


As Hazlbauer sees it, the decline has to do with an American aversion to ritualistic or de-individualizing practice. “Everything is on time here… A huge part of [meditation] is discipline… You have to put down your personal opinions. There are certain forms we follow, and they have their function, but a lot of people struggle with them. When it happened to me in the Czech Republic I was like, yeah, I’ll try it, but here people are like, it’s not me, I would never put this on myself!”

He releases me on the grounds with the offer of dinner and meditation and even an overnight stay. Whatever we want to do. An openness—perhaps related to the new outreach he’s been talking about. What’s off limits? “We do not have such a place,” he says.

Then, a less symbolic answer: “There is a building up on the hill with a blue roof on it. That’s where we host our ninety-day retreats and one is going on right now. There are a few guys sitting for ninety days in silent meditation. Don’t talk around that building. Don’t walk on the porch. You can walk on the road, you can take pictures, but that building is dedicated to people who want to do longer meditation periods... We try to keep it like that. People have left their jobs.”


Back on campus a week later, I stand outside the ‘Cheetah House’ at 185 Brown Street. Tom Rocha B’11 and Willoughby Britton, Ph.D. greet me—they’re both members of Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative, a newly-established academic program centered at the house. According to its website, the Initiative unites students and faculty “around a common interest in the study of contemplative states of mind, including the underlying philosophy, psychology, and phenomenology of human contemplative experience.” The Initiative is nothing if not inclusive, nondenominational. Portions of it implement the same Zen techniques and Buddhist principles that drive the PZC, albeit with a totally disparate pedagogical approach. And while the Zen Center is struggling more than ever to fill its bedrooms, Contemplative Studies is drawing more students in every year, and by its third year in operation it became involved enough in the spiritual community that Janet Cooper-Nelson, head chaplain at the University, lives here.

Upstairs, Britton settles on a pillow on the floor. Rocha sits on a couch next to her, a stout dog in a hoodie curling up under his legs. “You’re asking why places like the Zen Center are struggling,” Britton says. “I think it’s that when you walk in there, you feel like an outsider. And then all these other people, they’re doing chants in other languages, they have their head shaved, they have these titles. It doesn’t feel as inviting as the approach here.”

It’s a matter of preference—Hazlbauer acknowledged that, too. After all, very few people practicing meditation are looking to ‘out-meditate’ other practitioners. But what changes when the cultural reproduction of the Zen Center turns into a more scientific form of meditative practice?
Perhaps some of the elitism tied into private communal living dissipates. The Contemplative Studies initiative makes its public lectures free or very cheap. “Retreats that would be hundreds of dollars are, say, thirty,” says Britton. The PZC, conversely, charges for retreats but makes its other events free to the public.

“But,” Rocha adds, “It’s no more exclusive than going to an Ivy League school. People going here tend to have a lot of money, so in that sense it’s exclusive.”

“Contemplative Studies is not just Brown students!” Britton counters. “There are another 400 people from Providence that come to our events; they could be anyone.” Still, Britton acknowledges, “those people probably are pretty educated and likely therefore pretty high socioeconomic status.”

On a more fundamental level, Contemplative Studies changes Zen-Center Zen by removing its isolation. “But I think isolation can be encountered in different ways,” says Britton. “The person that takes up meditation as part of their life and not part of a larger religious system can be isolated too. They’re maybe doing meditation in their office or bedroom. And then the people at the Zen Center… meditate together, eat together, they do everything together. That’s a tremendous community.”

Britton argues that retreat-style removal is not necessarily positive. “There can be a division between the ‘retreat’ life and ‘home’ life,” she says. “That’s actually a huge problem. People think they can leave their regular lives and somehow exist in this other place. And there are a lot of teachers actively trying to get rid of that idea.”

But wasn’t monastic isolation a tenet of Zen meditation in the first place? “A lot of the teachings we’re using that were intended for monastics are incomplete [in the West],” Britton answers. “Monastics never had to deal with money. They didn’t have to choose jobs, careers, all the anxieties which go with that and which are a huge part of being alive in America. They never had to deal with relationships, boundaries, sexuality… So if you wanted to refer back to monastic teachings to see how you dealt with those parts of your life, they’re not there…Buddhism in America has had to add particular trainings and teachings in those domains,” she says. “Similarly, a lot of the monks and teachers that came from Asia were suddenly introduced to a tremendous amount of money and power and got themselves into a lot of trouble. I don’t think there’s a single meditation center in the West that hasn’t had a scandal.”

This is true of the Providence Zen Center—in 1988, Seung Sahn was accused of conducting simultaneous sexual relationships with students at the Center while leading the community under the pretense of his monastic celibacy. The scandal compounded the Center’s decline in membership.


Contemplative Studies has embraced the integrated approach to which Britton alludes. Hal Roth, Ph.D. teaches Intro to Contemplative Studies at Brown. “One of the main differences between practicing in a religious center and practicing in a course is something we call critical first-person engagement,” he says. “With first-person engagement you’re actually doing a practice. You don’t assume any of the assertions that are made…are true. You test them out and they’re subject to criticism based on what you experience. It’s a very empirical approach.” Then comes the more academic component: “We also do what you call third-person approaches that look at the history, the context, the social and political structures surrounding all of these different contemplative practices.

“And then,” Roth adds, “we’re also interested in investigating all the experiences through scientific means.” This is where Contemplative Studies at Brown differs from other forms of appropriated mediation at American universities.

“Brown definitely has the most developed [Contemplative Studies] program,” Britton says. “There are interests at other schools, but nothing as integrated and expansive as there is here.”
Britton explains how she has begun to look at meditation from an academic perspective. She addresses depression, anxiety, and sleep problems, and at Brown, she’s used meditation in several clinical studies—how meditation affects people with chronic forms of depression, how meditation affects drug-addicted adolescents’ sleep patterns, how meditation changes the emotions and social interactions of sixth-graders. Now, Britton is comparing the effects of meditation on Brown students’ emotional wellbeing, brain function, and sleep to other forms of academic first-person engagement like dance.

As a whole, the scientific community has slowly accepted Zen as a form of therapy. “Meditation has a lot of connotations with psychedelic drugs and hippies and everything academic psychiatrists hate,” Britton says. “It’s been a struggle to get credibility. The legitimacy has been gained through a process of ‘repackaging.’ Even when it was called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, it was sort of fringey. And then a number of the founders of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy… changed a couple things. They called it Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. They made it more scientifically palatable. But the practices are identical.”

So how does the Contemplative Studies approach look in the eyes of the traditional Zen community like the PZC? The question becomes whether informal, integrated practitioners of Zen are ‘missing’ something derived from more rigid practice—and whether anyone even cares to make such a judgment. Britton echoes Hazlbauer on this topic. Zen “definitely gets oversimplified,” she says. “Meditation has been marketed as a relaxation technique, which it is absolutely not. It’s also marketed as one hundred percent benign, when actually, some people probably just shouldn’t meditate at all as a rule.”

One of the central components of meditation, she says, is experiencing states of reality that involve struggle. “People are meditating twenty minutes a day,” she says. “That’s not usually enough to get you in trouble. Most people who do it for stress reduction won’t experience these odd states of consciousness. But even with an hour a day… Often someone that has no idea about that or about ‘penetrating reality’ actually will. And that can actually be surprising and shocking, because they just had no idea.” Hazlbauer had touted the benefits of communal living in grappling with this struggle. Britton agrees-- this is where the tradition and cultural guidance can help, she posits: “Then you go and look in the ancient texts and see, oh, there’s a stage called ‘Terror.’ That’s encouraging and relieving.”

Presently, however, part of her task is to remove even these texts from Zen tradition. Her lab wants “to get a good description of [these stages] for people who stumble into them and who aren’t necessarily interested in Buddhist texts,” Britton says, “but who are like, what is going on in my mind?!”

“People do get profound benefits from fifteen minutes a day… but it’s not the same thing as what these hardcore practices are aimed for,” Britton says. “It’s a good question, and one that’s starting to be discussed in the clinical and intercultural dialogues—are we missing something, and what is the relationship between the lighter forms of practice like an eight-week program where you meditate for an hour a day and the point of meditation practice from a Buddhist perspective. We just don’t know.”


In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Job is a righteous man whom God punishes for no apparent reason. In Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Book, Job’s last words are “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” Boils festering, possessions gone, children dead, a pious man suffers excruciating punishment for no reason explainable through a logical conception of justice. It is the ultimate paradox of Judeo-Christian vision of the human condition.

Zen approaches this paradox without looking for any solution or answer to it. In a rough and partial sense it operates from this fundamental conception of dust—something that’s difficult for ego-paradigmed Westerners to grapple with. “One of the things about the Western psyche is that we’re very suspicious of religion,” Britton said. So if [a religion] has any trappings or robes or bowing or power hierarchies that’s going to be a harder sell… Between the sciences and humanities, not a lot gets through the cracks. You’re going to have a hard time ‘pulling one over’ on America. Things based on faith that have been passed down for hundreds of years because they’re part of the tradition, but have no effect aren’t going to last here. People are too skeptical.”

If the ‘historical’ problem of Zen in the West has been aesthetic preference without ideological underpinnings, perhaps the problem of academic or clinical Zen is that those ideological underpinnings sometimes get lost in the promise of more tangible goals like stress reduction—hence some of its appeal to Brown students. Any imported spiritual practice is going to change when it comes to the West and function differently for different individuals. And ultimately, no one has the objective authority to call one form of practice superior to another. That’s not the point. Anybody practicing Zen has a purpose for it (and themselves)—whether it be aesthetic preoccupation or stress-reduction or enlightenment. None of the actual practitioners made a judgment over what sort of Zen practice was relevant or accessible or superior in modern American culture. After all, a fundamental tenant of Zen is the irrelevance of opinion—or of ideological underpinnings as a whole. So how can we evaluate a judgment-less tradition? Perhaps critiques of cultural appropriation, reproduction, or ‘shallowness’ of practice are just denials of the dreaded human Dust.

MIMI DWYER B’13 has been marketed as a relaxation technique.