The Teachings of Ethan Nichtern

One night, when browsing the web, I must have stumbled upon what was then still called ’21st Century Buddhism’, a podcast which consisted of talks given by Ethan Nichtern, a young teacher in the Shambhala buddhist tradition. That is undoubtedly one of the better coincidences that have shaped my life thus far, as his insights are what eventually convinced me to commit to a regular meditation practice. Here is what he has to say on contemporary buddhism:

To me, buddhism was this awesome gift, wrapped in really weird packaging. It would almost be like if you gave your friend who was really into football, a signed football from his favourite NFL player, but you wrapped it in frilly, pink paper, so he couldn’t tell what it was and was slightly turned off. He’d say: “I don’t want that. I don’t care what’s in here.” Something felt off about the presentation, but the teachings, once you unwrapped them, felt very relevant to me.

(from ‘Practice like your Hair is on Fire – Part 1′ © 2009 Ethan Nichtern)

This problem of what he called “retro packaging” is exactly what his teachings help to unwrap. He talks about what’s happening in our mind as we come home from a bar at three in the morning only to aimlessly watch Youtube clips for an hour while we know we have to be at work the next day. Or how when we walk down the street and pass hundreds of people, we can only remember the two that we thought were hot. His podcasts shed light on the whole spectrum of buddhist teachings, ranging from mindfulness, karma, impermanence and desire to money, anger, sex, and almost every other topic we get confronted with in our daily lives.

idppodcast

Ethan Nichtern has a very likeable way of talking, calm, yet without that grueling air of holiness you can hear with teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh (whose teachings are well worth studying in their own right, mind you), and is quite witty to boot. I’ve found myself bursting out laughing many a time, mainly because of his disarming honesty. I highly recommend listening to some of his talks, and if you have to choose two, listen to ‘Desire’ (recorded on 2009-11-14) first, and then check out ‘The Basics of Working with Your Mind’ (recorded on 2011-01-03)

You can subscribe to his podcasts
> Through RSS
> Through iTunes

Book Reviews: Brad Warner

Brad Warner is undoubtedly an important figure in translating buddhist teachings to our western contemporary setting. Besides his blog on the contemporary face of Zen buddhism, hardcorezen.blogspot.com, he has written several books on the matter.

I’d like to introduce you to two of his works, namely ‘Hardcore Zen’ (2005) and ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ (2007). As is apparant from those titles, Warner doesn’t fit in with some of the more new-agey, sickeningly sweet publications on buddhism one can find in many mainstream bookshops. His writings are very personal, which in his case means they fit more in a punk tradition of questioning authority.

Both books use the same formula: Warner talks about buddhism, and his Zen-practice in particular, through stories that the average person can identify with. He uses the tools at his disposal, namely a history of being a punk bass player, a love for Japanese monster movies and a critical mind not too inclined to accept any external authority, to pass on what he has found to be meaningful in the buddhist teachings. Don’t think of this as some modern perversion of the buddhist teachings, in fact, this is exactly what the earliest forms of buddhism (and indeed the historical buddha himself) have always done: explain what you feel is essential through the means available to you. Just like the historical buddha used a framework of a society that firmly believed in reincarnation to explain karma and different mind states in ancient India, so Warner uses our celebrity culture and Eric Cartman’s “I am a cop. You will respect my authority!” to explain what is happening in our mind.

warnerbooks

Warner details some of his views on modern buddhism in his review of ‘The Making of Buddhist Modernism’ by David McMahan:

“I’ve said several times that I feel like Buddhism is sort of like advanced physics. Albert Einstein pioneered so much of advanced physics it might be considered appropriate to call it ‘Einsteinism.’ But if we did that we would not want to stop all of advanced physics at the point of Albert Einstein’s death and say anything that came after is not legitimate. Same with Buddhism. Buddha never claimed to be a prophet or messiah. So to say Buddhism stops with the death of the historical Buddha would be a grave misunderstanding of Buddhism. Westernization and modernization of Buddhism is inevitable and helpful.”

(from ‘Hardcore Zen – The Making of Buddhist Modernism’ © 2011 Brad Warner)

Because Warner speaks from his own experience, he does end up talking about his own life a lot of the time. Combined with his often cynical phrasing, this has lead to Warner becoming somewhat of a controversial figure. I must admit that at times, I found the passages on his personal life less interesting than the buddhist interpretations he presents based on those, but they are a necessary part in the way his works are structured. However, quite a few people have accused him of being an egomaniac, which I think mainly illustrates a lack of understanding on their part. I’ve re-read Hardcore Zen between 5-10 times, and it has yet to fail in providing me with some valuable insights.

Because of the many references to pop culture, the cover design and the way Warner uses language in his publications, I believe his works to be especially attractive to younger generations, though there’s a lot to be found here for everyone. You can find his books on Amazon:
> Warner, Brad – Hardcore Zen
> Warner, Brad – Sit Down and Shut Up

Research on Meditation Practice and Neuroplasticity

Now and then, one stumbles upon claims that something is ‘”scientifically proven”. Especially in the context of meditation practice, I have come across such claims multiple times, but the people making those claims never seemed to provide a clear reference to academic research on the matter. So I was delighted when an article presenting such claims also included the name of the person responsible for the research and subsequent publication. After some probing around the internet, I managed to track down the original article by Sara Lazar et al. in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, published by Elsevier in 2010. I’ve included the abstract of the academic article below:

graymatterTherapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre–post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

(© 2010 Elsevier Ireland Ltd.)

This is a fascinating bit of research, and I enjoyed reading the entire article. If you find the academic writing style a bit too dry for your taste, you can always read the psychcentral article by Rick Nauert. You can find both articles below:
> Nauert, Rick: Brain Structure Changes After Meditation, 2011
> Lazar, Sara, et al.: ‘Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density’ in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Elsevier, 2010.

Journal of Buddhist Ethics

I’m a big supporter of open-source culture, as I believe it’s one of the major ways the internet can help us redefine the way in which we interact with knowledge and the arts. I’m always particularly delighted when a source with good academic credentials decides to adopt such a model, and the Journal of Buddhist Ethics has done just that. It was founded by Damien Keown (University of London Goldsmiths College) and Charles S. Prebish (Penn State University) in 1994, and utilises a blog model to distribute its articles. You can download these articles as pdf files which include a copyright notice which is very much like what you find in creative commons licenses.

journalofbuddhistethicsDigital copies of this work may be made and distributed provided no change is made and no alteration is made to the content.

The material published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics is, as is common practice in most academic journals, a mixture of articles and reviews of books in the same research field. Two examples of papers are Goodman, Charles A.: “Paternalist Deception in the Lotus Sutra, A Normative Assessment” (2011) and Sevilla, Anton Luis: “Founding Human Rights within Buddhism, Exploring Buddha-Nature as an Ethical Foundation” (2010). There’s more excellent papers by the likes David Loy as well as book reviews by Steven Heine.

All in all, this is an excellent free resource if you’re interested in academic buddhist studies.

How to stretch to get into the lotus posture

To me, the embodiment of the open way in which education is evolving is represented by the Youtube tutorial video. So I know no better way to start a page on contemporary buddhism than sharing some instructional videos to help with that most crucial part of any meditation practice: posture. Both half and full-lotus position offer an excellent base for a solid meditation posture. Dr. Mark Rosenberg from how to stretch has been a chiropractor for three decades, and he gives some very good stretching exercises for loosening the hips, which is essential for getting into lotus.

Though there are many more excellent videos on his channel, below you can find those that will get you started for lotus posture:
> Loosening the Hips
> Preparation for Getting into Lotus
> Get into the Lotus Posture – Part 1
> Get into the Lotus Posture – Part 2
> Get into the Lotus Posture – Part 3