On one Wednesday evening this month, I found myself doing something fairly atypical for someone at the College: trying not to think.
My out-of-character attempt to ignore, rather than embrace, logical thoughts was one I took on as part of my attendance at a meeting of Buddha Lab, a student organization for Buddhist meditation and discussion. In what I later learned is the typical format of the meetings, we began with 20 minutes of zazen, or meditation, followed by reading from the koan and discussion of a topic that had been chosen the previous week by a student – in this case, emotion. Though the group is clearly student-driven, the meeting was guided by an advisor, Jim Gordon ’62, an alumnus and Buddhist monk.
In tracing how the group formed and connected with Gordon, I spoke with several leaders of the club, including Nikki Caravelli ’16 and Jackson Barbour ’18, who pointed me to Sophia Schmidt ’17 as the driving force of the group’s formation. From Schmidt’s description of how the group came together last spring, it seemed to be a combination of her own personal effort and a happy coincidence.
After attending a dinner organized by the Chaplain’s Office for students practicing or interested in Buddhism, Schmidt, along with some other students, began considering the lack of a visible Buddhist presence on campus and thinking about what form that presence might take. They had no solid plan when a few weeks later while sitting in Tunnel City, Schmidt overheard a discussion at the next table about the potential for a Buddhist group at the College and decided to interject. That conversation turned out to be between Gordon and Jackson Professor of Religion Georges Dreyfus.
“It seemed a little coincidental,” Gordon said, calling it a “karmic coincidence.” He now comes to campus weekly for the Buddha Lab meetings and is teaching a Winter Study course on Zen Buddhism. When speaking to Gordon about his motivation for becoming involved in the Buddhist community at the College, his desire to give back to the school is clear. He describes how after graduating from the College, he read The Three Pillars of Zen, sparking his connection to Buddhism and causing him to return to campus to take a Winter Study course on Zen, a sect of Buddhism that stresses meditation.
In his description of his own Winter Study course, Gordon refers to his taking that Winter Study course on Zen as “a major turning point” in his life, as it informed his decision to continue studying Buddhism and later, with the strong encouragement of one of his teachers, become a Zen monk. It is an opportunity that he hopes to pass on to today’s students.
After their initial serendipitous meeting, Gordon later reached out to Schmidt through the Chaplain’s Office and along with surveying those who were interested, she worked with him to develop the format of the group. She describes the initial meetings as “experimental,” and notes how thrilled she was when the first one was attended by over 20 people. Since then, she says, it’s “concentrated into a very strong core group of people,” while many new people have attended this semester. Both she and Gordon remarked on how the meetings have become too crowded for their original meeting space, the tower of Thompson Memorial Chapel, necessitating a relocation to a larger room in the Chapel.
When I asked why he thinks the meetings, as well as his Winter Study course, are so popular, Gordon pointed to a desire to handle stress. He remarked on how students here are “so busy, so pushed,” and how many feel that they need to de-stress. He also pointed to many students’ sincere interest in Buddhism itself, and comments on their thoughtful inquisitiveness. “I find the students totally wonderful, they know a lot about what’s going on in the world,” and have a genuine desire to make it “clean” and “kind” Gordon said. Caravelli also commented on the varying reasons people have for attending Buddha Lab, whether it’s “philosophical” interest in Buddhist thought or a desire for stress relief.
No matter the motivation, it is clear that the members of Buddha Lab find it to be a rewarding experience. “I think it’s a really unique space for talking about some of the things that can be really difficult to talk about,” Caravelli said, commenting on how the experience has personally affected her by allowing her to work through and accept difficult feelings.
Schmidt also notes how meaningful it is to have a time and space to move away from rational thought. While in academics we often stress logic and thought, meditation is something that “defies reason” and has “answers that cannot be reached through rationalizing,” giving her view of academics greater scope, she said.
My last question for Schmidt concerned the origin of the club’s name. She explained that one of the members of Buddha Lab was taking a Buddhist course, and started referring to their meetings as his “lab” period. The original name, Buddhist Meditation and Discussion Group, was “a bit of a mouthful,” Schmidt said, and the endearing nickname stuck.