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Q&A: Zen priest David Zuniga on mindfulness and other matters

July 21, 2014

David_Zuniga_PhotoMeet Dr. David Zuniga, Zen priest and psychologist. Isn’t this a terrific photo? He really does laugh a lot. This captures him well.

I first wrote about David in 2006 after he became the first Westerner ordained in the Taego lineage of Korean Zen. (A grueling ordination process that you can read about here.) We stayed in touch over the years as we started families (he and his wife have two delightful daughters) and reconnected this summer to talk about his psychotherapy career and the ways in which therapists incorporate Buddhism into their practice. Fascinating stuff. Of course, we wound up talking about kids and the challenges of teaching them about Zen, which we’d also explored a few years ago in an Austin American-Statesman column.

A short bio on David, then the Q&A:

Zuniga earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is now a post-doctoral fellow with a therapy practice in Austin. (Check out his professional website, which features a blog with great info on mindfulness.) He received a master’s degree in comparative religion from Harvard Divinity School, was one of the first Buddhists to be certified as a professional hospital/hospice chaplain and worked for over a decade as a Zen/interfaith chaplain in pediatric and adult end-of-life healthcare. In addition to his counseling practice, he is finishing a book on Zen, mindfulness and end-of-life care for Wisdom Publications. Find him on Facebook and on Twitter @drdavidz.

How would you describe mindfulness to someone unfamiliar with the term?

Great question! Part of the way I would describe mindfulness to someone depends on the unique interests, background, and situations that they are dealing with in the moment. It’s always important to speak in a language that can be understood.

Mindfulness, as a system of meditation and philosophy, arose over 2,000 years ago from within ancient Buddhism. More recently, it has come to be integrated into some of the leading clinical approaches in mental healthcare including mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). In fact, many theorists and researchers now argue that mindfulness is the leading paradigm in mental health. Mindfulness, and mindfulness-related practices, are also widely and successfully utilized in biological healthcare.

Because I utilize mindfulness in both psychology and in a Zen context, I’ll try to define it in a way that draws upon both of these methodologies. Mindfulness is a system of present-moment meditative attention and engagement brought to bear on all activities of existence including, but not limited to, activities of daily living (e.g., walking, sitting), interpersonal processes (e.g., talking, listening), behavioral patterns and activities (e.g., eating, cooking), emotions (e.g. fear, anger, sadness, joy), cognitions (e.g., automatic thoughts, attitudes) and biological processes (e.g., breathing, heart rate variability, muscle tension, perspiration). This method is active yet non-judgmental; it observes all phenomena through their inevitable processes of change. One of the ways mindfulness was first used in healthcare was for treating intractable, chronic pain. Similarly, I’ve used mindfulness meditation and philosophy in healthcare settings with pediatric and adult oncology and hospice patients. And I’ve seen mindfulness help people from a wide array of backgrounds deal with some of the most profound challenges in the human condition (e.g. trauma, depression, grief, divorce etc.).

Researchers in mental health have generated a wealth of empirical data attesting to the power of mindfulness to alleviate an array of challenges and clinical concerns. Buddhists will often say that mindfulness is a profound way, but not the only way, to transform suffering and cultivate gratitude, wisdom, and compassion. This dialogue about mindfulness between Buddhism and psychology is exciting and fruitful.

We have talked about mindfulness in psychotherapy and some of the debate around incorporating Buddhist themes. Some say it’s perfectly congruent with Buddhism; some argue mindfulness is congruent with other/all religions; some don’t seem to acknowledge the Buddhist connection at all. As a Buddhist and a psychologist, how would you like to see this handled?

This is an important question, and part of the way I could answer this question depends on what type of therapy and what type of Buddhism is being discussed. I think that’s an important point because people tend to assume that therapy is basically the same, and similarly that all forms of Buddhism are largely the same. But there are hundreds of different, recognized forms of therapy, and there are thousands of different schools of Buddhism.

William James speculated that Buddhism represented the future of psychology. And theorists since the origins of psychology and psychiatry (e.g. Carl Jung) have sought to interpret Buddhism and utilize some of its methods for clinical work. Buddhism, and its related forms of meditation, have often been conceptualized by mental health theorists via whatever is the dominant paradigm of psychology in the particular era. For example, in the early days of psychology, Freudian-derived approaches were dominant, so Buddhism and Buddhist-practices (e.g. Buddhist forms of meditation) were conceptualized through a psychodynamic (Freudian-based) lens. Now cognitive and behavioral approaches are the most popular clinical interventions. And similarly, mindfulness is re-conceptualized in mental health as a cognitive-behavioral technique.
According to the original Pali (a dialect of Sanskrit) Buddhist texts, which first articulated the practice of mindfulness, the Historical Buddha was initially terrified of the fact that he would someday grow old, grow sick, and die. In psychology aging, sickness, and death are often referred to as the “existential givens” of human existence. From a Buddhist perspective, the practice of mindfulness is grounded in transforming the fear of death that most people feel. For example, the main Buddhist text which describes mindfulness is the Mahāsatipatthāna Sutta. In the Mahāsatipatthāna Sutta mindfulness is consistently explicated as meditating directly on the inevitability of death. The Buddha wasn’t trying to be negative or pessimistic. The Buddha observed that by facing these existential inevitabilities skillfully they could be transformed, and people could be free of suffering and live more authentically and compassionately. Yet these existential and humanistic dimensions of mindfulness, which are so central to a complete practice of mindfulness, are less often discussed in contemporary psychological explications of mindfulness. Humanistic (e.g. Carl Rogers, David Cain) and existential approaches (e.g. Irvin Yalom, Kirk Schneider) are also main schools of thought in psychology. Exploring the humanistic and existential roots of mindfulness in relation to psychology represent a largely untapped resource in Western-based mental health.

The question of commonality between mindfulness and other religious traditions and their practices is an interesting and important one. In the original texts which first proposed and articulated the practice of mindfulness, the Buddha consistently described mindfulness as a direct way to overcome the fear of death, transform related existential concerns, and overcome a false sense of isolation that often causes suffering.

The Buddha, particularly in the Pali Canon (oldest preserved collection of Buddhist texts) taught mindfulness as a way to experientially realize a state of no-self (Pali, anatta). No-self is one of the central teachings of Buddhism and observes that all sentient life forms lack a separate, unchanging, autonomous self. As everything changes, human existence can be prone to suffering. Mindfulness meditation was formulated to cultivate compassion and alleviate the forms of suffering that frequently occur in response to the evanescent nature of existence such as aging, sickness, and death. In the Buddha’s time, the term atta essentially was used to refer to what we now call a “soul” (and this notion of anatta is why some Buddhists identify with atheism or agnosticism). So by offering a philosophy grounded in the idea of anatta, or no-soul/no-self, the Buddha was arguing in a powerful way for a literal interconnection between all things.

The Buddha wasn’t a nihilist. We exist. And our existence operates in concert with everything in existence; this is the joyful interconnection of all beings. Manifestations of existence change, they are always in a state of flux. This is why Buddhists often say “nothing is born and nothing dies.” It’s a provocative intellectual idea, and it is more than just a philosophical idea. If we can feel this deeply, on a heart level, in a lived, embodied way, we can live in harmony and union with the symphony of existence. The Buddha suggested that as one cultivates mindfulness, he or she gains direct insight into the constant flow of change in and around us. As we cultivate equanimity with change, we overcome suffering. How similar or different this philosophy and practice of mindfulness is to other religions can be debated.

As a Zen priest, what principles guide you? Are there certain core beliefs and practices essential to your identity as a Buddhist?

There are many different kinds of Buddhism throughout Asia. It can be argued that Buddhism has undergone change when coming to Western countries. Zen is one type of Buddhism. While there are different kinds of Zen, generally Zen defines itself as a tradition operating outside of words, language, and concepts. Most forms of Buddhism would agree with that same definition, but Zen often cultivates a radical adherence to present moment, direct experiencing. Zen could be understood as a mystical tradition within a wider (Buddhist) mystical tradition.

Beliefs are important, and beliefs help to shape our experience of reality. As a Zen Buddhist, I believe that our practice is even more important than any beliefs we have. Mindfulness is one of my main personal forms of practice, but not my only form of practice. I utilize different practices based on what I need in the moment. The guiding principle of my life is to become an ever more skillful healer in the world, so I can help transform suffering and cultivate compassion and joy—in my own life and in the lives of others. In my personal Zen practice, I utilize mindfulness and other forms of meditation to cultivate an experiential reality of no-self. In other words, I practice so I can experientially realize the reality of interconnection that exists between all beings and things. We are all interconnected. Transforming the illusion of a seemingly dichotomous existence liberates one from suffering.

Like me, you’re a parent of two wonderful little girls, and we’ve discussed the challenges of introducing kids to Buddhism when there aren’t many (if any) family-friendly sanghas in Austin. While that community connection may be lacking, I’m wondering about practicing some kind of ritual in the home. Is this important for children? Do you use any Zen (or other) rituals in your home?

I love this question, though it might be confusing to some folks because, as you point out, I’m a fully ordained Zen priest and have two children. Most forms of Buddhism require their ordained clergy (monks/priests) to be celibate (e.g. like Roman Catholicism). My lineage of Zen allows their ordained clergy to marry (e.g. like Protestant Christianity). So I’m a fully ordained Zen priest and married with two children, which is great because I believe my Zen practice informs my family life, and my family life makes me a better Zen priest. All things are interconnected.

All religions have their strengths and growing edges. Zen is very strong in the domains of meditation and philosophy. The Buddha taught that the sangha (the community) is the most important dimension of the spiritual path. And yet Zen in the west has room to improve in terms of being family-friendly. One of my dreams for Zen in the west is for Zen/Buddhism to become more accessible to families as a whole. This is not to proselytize. You give with an open hand, with no attachments. I know a lot of people who would like to practice Zen and yet don’t experience Zen groups as being family-friendly. Not surprisingly, many parents who are interested in Zen don’t know how to share the tradition with their children.

For me, it’s been really easy to share Zen with my kids. But I’m a Zen priest! My first step is to be the best Zen practitioner I can be. I’m not perfect, obviously. But I try to take honest inventories of myself so I can be as compassionate and mindful as possible, which certainly helps with being a parent. I share Buddhism with my kids. We celebrate Buddhist holidays like Vesak and Bodhi Day, and we also do some other rituals and holidays like Day of the Dead. We read Buddhist-based books, I meditate with my kids, I chant with them. I share Buddhist principles with them; for example, we do mindful eating or talk about being fully present when we color or play with one of our pets. Sharing your Buddhism with your kids is basically sharing your life with your kids. Mostly my wife and I try to cultivate a culture of joy in our house. And I also don’t expect my kids to be Buddhist. They choose their own path. I don’t expect them to be just like me. I encourage them to be fully who they are. And I love being surprised by the unfolding and manifestation of their own unique paths. I share Zen with them, but my wife and I also discuss other religions and systems of philosophy with them too.

Being a parent is perhaps the most direct practice of no-self in my life. Parenting teaches me, on a daily basis, to step outside of the small, limited desires of a sense of self. My children’s happiness is more important than my own sense of happiness. My children and my wife are my teachers, and they are the best Zen practice I have.


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