One of the interesting people I met in Oslo was Harold D. Roth, professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. As many of the experts of the Eastern Traditions, he was of Jewish background who turned to the east becuase “One of the problems I wrestled with as a young Jewish person growing up was how the Holocaust could be justifiable in light of the theology I’d been taught.”
Roth offers a meditation lab to compliment his lecture course.
TOM: The Religious Studies courses you teach at Brown are supplemented by lab courses where you invite students to engage in what you call “critical first-person investigation” of the material. Would you tell us more about this?
ROTH: There are two courses that I teach that involve first-person labs right now. These are advanced seminars for people who already have had some courses in Buddhism. In them we have our weekly three-hour seminar in which we discuss the texts we are reading, and then from 9am to 10am, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we try out meditation techniques that are derived from these texts. I encourage people to investigate things empirically, to try out different techniques, for example, following the breath, or counting breaths, or paying attention to different parts of one’s body, the diaphragm, the sensation of the breath coming in and out the nose. These are all practices that would be used in the “Insight Meditation” tradition that is at the heart of Theravada or “Southern” Buddhism. Very often I’m able to coordinate the actual reading with the techniques in the lab. For example, when we study Theravada Buddhism we get two sutras that are devoted to breathing meditations: “Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing” (Anapanasati sutta) and “Sutra on The Foundations of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana sutta). And in the lab we use techniques from those particular texts. I call this approach critical because I never ask anyone to accept what they are reading as true. I just ask them to read the texts with an open mind, and to practice a particular technique with an open mind. And then we talk about how the text relates to the techniques and the experiences in the meditation lab.
Direct experiential questioning is important for a complete investigation of religious phenomena. However, … academics in Religious Studies are very uncomfortable with engaging in religious practices as part of their pedagogy and their research. It is odd, because there are a lot of other academic disciplines that encourage first-person practices, such as laboratory science, public speaking, and anthropology, to name a few.
This kind of direct experiential questioning is important for a complete investigation of religious phenomena. However, conventional academic study in the field of Religious Studies has completely banned it, for a variety of reasons.
It is odd, because there are a lot of other academic disciplines that encourage first-person practices, such as laboratory science, public speaking, and anthropology, to name a few. All these disciplines give you techniques to critically examine the data you get from first-person investigation
First, religions in which empirical experience is central de-emphasize the need to believe. This is the case in all the world’s great mystical traditions.
Second, the whole idea that any of us can be completely objective denies the important role that our own subjective experience plays in our intellectual investigation and reasoning. Instead of banning and attempting to deny our own experience as a valid investigative tool, why not develop methods that engage it in a critical, reasoned way? That is what is behind my courses that combine traditional third-person academic study and “critical first-person” investigation. So I, for one, would be happy to engage in first-person investigation in Christian prayer or meditation, or Islamic practices, or Hindu practices, even though I don’t consider myself a believer in any of those traditions. I think first-person investigation is part of a serious examination of religion. The field is cutting off its foundations in not finding that acceptable.
The very fact that anybody does any kind of sitting or moving meditation practice … already gives them a leg up in interpreting texts that might have involved meditative or mystical practices.
ROTH: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m alluding to. For example, there are Taoist texts and Buddhist texts produced by specific groups of practitioners. If you don’t understand what the practicing context is, and if you haven’t had any related experience, you’re just going to miss the allusions to the practice and can not appreciate when this technical language is being used. Very often, especially in the early Taoist tradition, things are described metaphorically. Or Chinese characters may be used that have a range of meanings. They may have particular meanings in a political context but in a meditation text they might mean something very specific and concrete. So that’s part of what one needs to be sensitized to.
To read more from a good interview- here.
Any thoughts on labs for Kabbalah or mahshevet yisrael courses?