Meditation & Buddhism: Insights from a Religious Studies Professor

woman professor speaking
Gloria Chien

April 07, 2024
Kate Vanskike (’22 M.A.) | Gonzaga Magazine Spring 2024

Q&A with Gloria Chien

Gloria Chien teaches a Buddhist Meditation and Practice class that combines academic study with the act of meditation. She received funds to purchase 25 cushions and mats, which students use for contemplation sessions held in the Hearth Room, a quiet space near the University Chapel in College Hall. Here, she answers a few questions about the course.

Given that your class is open to students from any or no specific religious background, what are some of the ways you accommodate or enhance the meditation and practice portion without requiring adherence to a Buddhist mindset, especially as some view it as more of a philosophy than a religion?

This is an important question and relates to what I emphasize in the first meeting of my “Buddhist Meditation and Practice” course. To ensure students feel comfortable participating in the practice portion I employ two strategies. The first is transparency. I inform students that each contemplation activity is rooted in Buddhist tradition, yet I have designed them so they can be undertaken without needing or evoking a belief in Buddhism. The activities are influenced by my certification in the Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT®) contemplation program developed at Emory University. In other words, the contemplative activities have no messages (hidden or overt) that could be seen as proselytizing.

Second, the practice portion is a combination of experiential learning and critical thinking. It is experiential because in class we actually do contemplation that is related to the texts we are studying. Students then practice guided contemplation that I recorded at home. It is critical because we examine academic readings. Students reflect on how their contemplation experience is different than the Buddhist meditation practice that is explained in the readings. Certainly, there are some common methods shared by both Buddhist meditation and non-Buddhist contemplation, such as paying attention to one’s breath. However, the goal and context are distinctive. Through examining their personal experience and reading, students understand that the breathing exercise in class is about training their focus; while breathing in the Buddhist context is tied to Buddhist cosmology and doctrines.

Your mention of “Buddhism is viewed of more of philosophy than a religion for many” is a great point that has been addressed by Buddhist scholars. For example, in their 2014 essay “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism” (Tricycle), Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez succinctly explain this misconception.

student in meditation class

What are the things you hope students gain in the practice of mindfulness and meditation? 

For my students’ intellectual growth, I hope they realize how our class contemplation activities differ from various Buddhist meditation traditions that are tied to Buddhist spiritual goals and philosophies, such as no-self (no unchanging permanent soul/spiritual entity), liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth, decrease sensual desires, cultivating universal compassion, activate the innate Buddha nature, etc.

For their emotional growth, I hope our class contemplation activities related to resiliency skills provide them a useful tool to enhance their awareness of their emotional states, such as being outside of their “okay zone.” With this awareness, they can use the contemplation skills that we cultivated in class to regulate their emotions.

For their spiritual growth, I want my students to increase their ethical concern for others. For example, I hope my students develop awareness of how their perspectives may cause them to judge or discriminate against others. With this awareness, they can reflect on the root of their perspectives and adjust them if desirable.

How do you personally differentiate mindfulness and meditation? 

“Mindfulness” and “mediation” are both used to translate several Pali or Sanskrit terms. In brief, I treat meditation as a comprehensive term that refers to Buddhist contemplation practice. It deepens the practitioner’s learning in Buddhist doctrines (such as the concept of emptiness), assists in transforming their habitual mental patterns (such as craving for sensual desires), or aids in the cultivation of their virtuous character (such as compassion). Meditation can be focused, analytical, affective, devotional, to name a few categories.

“Mindfulness” was first used by T. W. Rhys Davids (1843–1922) to translate the Buddhist technical term sati (in Pali) or smrti (in Sanskrit) in 1881. I consider sati to be a mental state that supports meditation practice. Depending on the texts, sati can mean remembering, attention, or an ability to differentiate wholesome and unwholesome mentalities. Beginning in the 1950s, some western converts interpreted sati as “bare attention,” which influenced the definition of mindfulness adopted by the developers of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Gradually, “mindfulness” became a popular term that mainly concerns mental health and emotional well-being in Western society. I found Rupert Gethin’s 2011 article “On Some Definitions of Mindfulness” useful to clarify this development. In class, I guide students to investigate how the term “mindfulness” has been partially interpreted and exploited outside of the Buddhist context, such as Mindful Meats, a beef company based in California’s Bay Area.

What outcomes have you witnessed from students, or heard them testify to what they have gained in the course? 

Below are some examples from course evaluations:

“I liked the ways we were able to live out what we learned in class in our daily lives. I enjoyed the meditation assignment and the precept assignment. It was interesting to have that time outside of class to practice that.”

“I really liked going to the hearth room and doing class contemplations. . . Journaling and mediation are both things I'd like to do more in my personal life, so performing both activities regularly within the classroom structure was beneficial.”

“An aspect of this course that really aided my education was the classroom meditation practice and the journal entries. I felt that these things allowed me to connect to the material on a deeper level and I enjoyed learning in that way.”

My students’ responses are encouraging. It is rewarding to know that students still find class contemplation helpful even after they completed the course. For example, Daniel Smart (c/o 2021), who was the student supervisor for the Rudolf Fitness Center and took my course in 2019, reached out during the pandemic. We collaborated to create a resiliency skills program (2 videos and 2 guided contemplation recordings) in response to the additional stress and anxiety during that difficult time.

From an academic perspective, how would you describe the benefit of studying Buddhist Meditation? 

Buddhist meditation is one of the major religious contemplation practices, and its study promotes interreligious dialogue. Derived from the Latin word contemplatio (“to look at; observe”), contemplation denotes activities in which participants continually focus or reflect on an object, such as a concept, a text, physical sensations, certain actions, etc. Contemplative practices in religious traditions include Hindu mantra recitation, Tibetan Buddhist guru yoga, Catholic Lectio Divina (divine reading), Ignatian Examen, etc.

While contemplation has existed in various religions throughout history, contemplative science and the integration of contemplative practice into education has only started to inspire the interdisciplinary field of contemplative studies in the last twenty years. Learning about Buddhist meditation or other religious contemplation practices benefits both the religious studies and contemplative studies fields.

For a person new to meditation or mindfulness, do you have any quick tips or recommendations on getting started? 

Newcomers to meditation can walk slowly in a quiet place focusing their attention on the sensations of each step. They can also choose to stand against the wall or sit on a chair. Through breathing, they can notice the rising and falling of their shoulders, back, or stomach. Alternatively, they can join the Meditation Club meetings, during which I lead guided contemplation practice. While it is a student club, any Gonzaga community member is welcome.

The Meditation Club was initiated by students Daniel Cook (c/o 2022) and Henry Barber (c/o 2022). The Gonzaga Bulletin published an article about the club, which can be accessed here. Though Daniel and Henry did not take my Buddhist meditation class, Daniel took my 2019 Asian religions course. He appreciated the in–class contemplation activities, and subsequently invited me to be the club advisor starting late fall 2021. After these founders graduated, it has been my pleasure to continually work with the club leaders.

Read more about mindfulness and meditation opportunities.