August 2015

Bio

About Corey Jackson

Corey Jackson received a Khyentse Foundation Award for Excellence in Buddhist Studies at Sydney University for his work in Sanskrit and Psychology in 2014.

Why it is worth understanding both the modern academic and traditional Buddhist points of view.

Buddhism’s arrival in the west is sometimes seen as a bit radical and surprising.  A culture heavily under the dominion of a science dominated, materialistic world view seems like an unlikely place for ancient, far away ideas of renunciation to take root.  Nonetheless, this is exactly what Buddhism has been doing for centuries, spreading from a culture as unique as the ancient Gangetic plain and settling in a variety of foreign lands.  People in very different cultures have seen advantages in accepting it, and in doing so flavoured it with their culture and ideas, so perhaps its apparent relevance to modernity should not be that surprising.

The spread of Buddhist philosophy to a variety of different contexts throughout Asia and beyond has been well documented by western academia.  In fact, we are in the unique position to be able to examine this current adaptation of Buddhism into modernity with a relatively complete picture of how it has arrived at this point in time.   As in the past, in this dissemination of Buddhism to western modernity, the two main features of its new cultural context are that of its language and prevailing world view. My interest in both these aspects of the modern Buddhist context is the primary reason I am working toward a major in both Sanskrit and Psychology at the University of Sydney.

Corey’s journey

Early in my original career as a jazz pianist in Toronto, it occurred to me that improving my concentration could improve my performance and give me an advantage over my peers.  Interested in developing sustained, directed attention I did a little research and decided to train in Zen Buddhist practice.  It certainly did improve my ability to concentrate, but to my surprise, it also improved many other aspects of life as well, particularly the competitive and challenging music program at university.

I also studied Buddhist philosophy in Tibetan and began translating oral teachings and personal interviews for western students.

There are many exiled Tibetans living in Toronto and it was only a matter of time before I learned a little of their tradition, and soon left for India to see the Himalayas and learn more.  This trip turned into three years in Dharamsala, during which time I learned to speak, read and write the Tibetan language and made friends with both Tibetans and the local Indian people.  I also studied Buddhist philosophy in Tibetan and began translating oral teachings and personal interviews for western students.

This led to a position as interpreter for Geshe Tashi Tsering who was teaching an in-depth five year study program at Chenrezig Institute in Queensland.  Just after a year of my arrival, the Dalai Lama installed Geshe Tashi Tsering as abbot of Gyume Tantric College, requiring him to move to India, effectively making my position redundant. After such intensive study and translating, I returned to Dharmsala with a far better understanding of the difficulties of accurately translating content from Tibetan to English.  At first I worked at Thosamling institute, teaching the second year of the Tibetan Language program which concentrated on philosophical terminology.  The discussions in these classes further highlighted the difficulties in translating well defined, relatively standardized terminology into English, which is still without much agreement or cohesion amongst translators.

During this time I also worked for a non-profit non-government organisation (NGO) in Sidhpur called Shide Ling. This organisation was set up with western finance to help rehabilitate and teach occupational skills women (former nuns in particular) who had been political prisoners in Tibet. My role in this was to teach English classes which were opened up to all Tibetans in the village. My access to westerners trying to learn Tibetan and Tibetans trying to learn English meant I could also arrange and supervise different conversation classes for both sides.

I hope to play a small role in achieving mutual understanding of both the contemplative and scientific communities.

Returning to Australia, with a plan to study Sanskrit, I trained as a teacher in the ‘Cultivating Emotional Balance’ (CEB) training. This program was developed by the renowned Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace and a pioneer in emotional research, Paul Ekman as a result of the ‘Mind and Life’ conference in 2000 which examined ‘destructive emotions.’ During this training, watching scientists consider the plausibility of Buddhist concepts of the mind and behaviour inspired me to study both psychology and Sanskrit. I teach the course regularly, throughout Australia, often with psychologists in the group and very much enjoy the exchanges with them. I feel that my knowledge of Sanskrit and Tibetan languages helps identify discrepancies between some genuine Buddhist practices and concepts and psychology’s usage of them.

It is my hope that with a background in Buddhist philosophy, languages, psychology and western scholarship of Buddhism I will have a good grasp of the context into which Buddhism is being placed. Most importantly, I would hope to play a small role in achieving mutual understanding of both the contemplative and scientific communities.

Articles by Corey

It seems meditation is the new black. So many articles about the benefits of meditation reach my inbox that I have trouble finding the time to read them all – even if I delete the ones about celebrities. Public awareness and curiosity are increasing as the scientific and anecdotal evidence mounts. People are overcoming addictions such as cigarettes and alcohol, losing weight, reducing stress as well as increasing wealth, kindness and compassion. There are many accounts of improved athletic performance, people are overcoming severe anxiety and depression, heart disease and the list goes on.

However, saying “I am a meditator” is a bit like saying “I am a musician.” It doesn’t convey whether I am first violinist in a renowned symphony orchestra, playing washboard in a Louisiana zydeco band, or the drummer of a punk band disturbing the neighbours from a suburban garage.

There are different types of meditation, designed to enhance different qualities and skills. We can work to improve our attention, kindness and compassion or improve understanding of our minds and the world. When used together, they are like a balanced diet tailored to each of our personal needs.

The most researched and talked about form of meditation is commonly known as mindfulness. In the modern world this term has taken on as many different meanings as there are people teaching it. Traditionally, this type of practice involves strengthening our powers of concentration to overcome distractions and pay better attention. To increase these attention skills, we try to keep an object (our breath for example) in the foreground of our attention and leave all the usual opinions, chatter and activity in the background. Over time, this ‘background noise’ subsides and we become better able to focus on any object we may choose for ever-longer periods of time. It doesn’t take long before the benefits of these skills spill over into our daily lives, making us more attentive and less reactive to the emotional lives of ourselves and others. This leaves us with a much better chance of balance emotions and not being overwhelmed by them.

Again, wonderful news, but even if our new found powers of concentration could help us bend spoons or join the Jedi’s fight against the empire, it can’t strike at the cause of our own dis-satisfaction or unhappiness. It has only limited benefit in the longer term, because mindfulness is really only part of the picture.

At some point we are bound to have an emotional button pushed that could furrow even Yoda’s brow.

At some point we are bound to have an emotional button pushed that could furrow even Yoda’s brow. When this happens, we are destined to spiral into the sort of uncontrolled behaviour that is the hallmark of what eminent emotions researcher Dr. Paul Ekman calls a regrettable emotional episode.

Although we are hoping to reduce or even eliminate regrettable emotional episodes, this should not be misunderstood as getting rid of our emotions. An emotionless life wouldn’t just be difficult or boring, it would be pretty much impossible. Fear, enjoyment, sadness and so on are all necessary to make sense of the world around us. They are the primary way we experience life and without them we would not wish the best for ourselves and others, nor would we strive to overcome difficulties and achieve goals. But they can also cause us to say and do things we later wished we had not. For most of us, control over this kind of emotional behaviour could be life changing.

This brings us to another type of meditation which is designed to help us understand how our emotions work and identify particular traits and habits we would like to cultivate. It involves all sorts of fun emotional experiments performed on ourselves to give insights into the world around us. Mindfulness is much like the microscope that helps us see more clearly, and this analytical meditation is the training necessary to understand what it is we see.

Finally, we use our improved ability to pay attention and the results of our emotional experiments to set about cultivating the qualities and skills we identified as desirable. Cultivating these qualities such as kindness and compassion in meditation means they will inevitably show up in our daily lives. These qualities traits have been shown to increase the overall happiness of ourselves as well as those around us, with even physical benefits such as improving the immune system.

When we consider the full picture: Sitting on a chair or cushion during a session of mindfulness meditation is like anchoring in a protected lagoon, relatively safe and unaffected by what might be happening in the open ocean. It’s peaceful, restorative but only a temporary stop before we move on through our day. Once we are back in the open water of our daily life, the mindfulness we have developed functions like a keel, keeping us upright as we are swamped and buffeted about in the turmoil of our own emotional oceans.

Staying upright is important for our basic survival, but at this point, arrival at our destination would be left mostly to chance. We need to consult maps to plot a course and a compass to tell us which direction we need to go. This is the job of our analytical meditation. However, even with these in place, we are still adrift, and the practices of cultivating kindness and compassion are like the sail and the rudder that will give us power to move steadily toward our destination.

Now we can be confident not just that we will survive the day, but that we are headed in the right direction. As we become more skilful in this navigation of our daily lives, we can better use the tides of our moods and changeable emotional winds to better power the voyage. Not only will this leave us with an enjoyable journey, but before long we will gain the confidence to take interesting, uncharted side trips along the way.

Bio

I first received formal training in meditation at the Toronto Zen Centre. It was the summer of 1995 and it was exactly what I had been looking for – not an answer to life’s deeper mysteries or even a little stress reduction, but an innovative way to further my career as a jazz pianist. It’s a competitive city and I was sure this could give me an edge. “Forget all the Buddhist stuff,” I would tell my friends in bars and cafes around town, “these people know how to concentrate.”

I was not the first musician to be so enthralled with the benefits of attention training on performance, but I did not expect the positive spin offs in other aspects of my life and relationships. There are many exiled Tibetans in Toronto and when I stumbled across them (there was a Tibetan Buddhist centre across the street from my local pub), it was clear that these were the people with the presentation most relevant to me. Just as high levels of musicianship are only achieved from a thorough understanding of harmonic theory that is then put into practice, so too did these teachers offer what I considered a very convincing blend of intellectual understanding and instructions on how that should be used. Before long, just as the search for better opportunities for music study had led me from Brisbane to Toronto, interest in philosophy and meditation drew me to the Tibetan settlement of Dharamsala, India.

It was supposed to be a quick trip to hear some Tibetan teachers and hike in the mountains, but it turned into two years of intensive study of Tibetan language and philosophy. I missed the music and came back to North America a few times to play piano and save some money, but it soon became clear that the meditation and philosophy was more important than the music. When an opportunity arose to translate for (Khensur Rinpoche) Geshe Tashi Tsering at Chenrezig Institute arose, I took it and happily moved back to Australia after nearly fifteen years away.

The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is vast, detailed and very profound, where even more than a decade of study only scratches the surface. It is also littered with practices and ideas that can be incredibly useful in a person’s every-day life whether they be Buddhist or not. In a time when modern technology exists alongside rampant depression, anxiety and so on, many of these ancient ideas and practices have remained relevant and are proving to be of benefit to people from all walks of life.

As a lay person, I am particularly interested in how to make these practices available to those who need them, but do not want to identify themselves as Buddhist (or any other religion). There are many meditation based courses and techniques being developed and tested by psychologists the world over, many of which are providing good results. However, almost none of this research is being done on practices as they are explained in the original texts. Psychologists have changed them in different ways depending on whether they were working with stressed executives, combat veterans and so on. They were also adapted to the goals that the researchers were hoping to achieve such as weight loss, stopping smoking or stress reduction to name a few.

It was through this interest in how authentic Buddhist practices would stand up to scientific rigour that I was drawn to the Cultivating Emotional Balance (CEB) project. Having read many of Alan Wallace’s books and heard him speak I was convinced enough to travel to Thailand and go through the CEB teacher training. If there is to be a clear dialogue between Buddhism and science, it is important that terminology of both approaches is clearly understood and agreed upon. With this in mind, I enrolled at Sydney University to study Sanskrit and Psychology which has served to broaden my understanding of both approaches.

I now deliver CEB courses to a growing audience around Australia and find there are many people seeking benefit from Buddhist techniques and points of view, who don’t identify as Buddhist. It’s an attitude I carried for many years and find it is often accompanied by a healthy scepticism that wants to see certain claims investigated by science and personal experience. The CEB training fits this perfectly.

The world I’m living in is full of people wanting a meaningful balanced life where they connect positively and benefit others.

The course appeals to a broad range of people both men and women with backgrounds in psychology, Buddhism, both or neither sitting together. Each week inevitably becomes a social gathering. We spend a good deal of time discussing how the CEB material did (or should have!) influenced our emotional lives during the week and these discussions often flow into the lunch and tea breaks. Each day introduces new meditation techniques from the contemplative component and more details of emotions from the psychological point of view with a lot of time for discussion that helps bind the two together.

Of course much of the work is done between sessions, as people develop better concentration by practicing at home and build on a growing understanding of emotions to improve their social and work lives. This is the most inspiring part of the course as people share stories of ways their interactions are improving. A father saying he’s become a ‘hero’ at home for resolving issues, a teenage son who thought it better that his mother missed his football grand final rather than an afternoon of CEB, a mother whose daughter called her to express her surprise at how easily they discussed a difficult situation … and the list goes on. These stories and more are the results of people putting the CEB material into practice for themselves and experiencing the benefits of an exciting dialogue of modern science and ancient meditation techniques.

Despite my sceptical beginnings I have identified as a Buddhist for many years, but I’m not living in an exclusively Buddhist world. The world I’m living in is full of people wanting a meaningful balanced life where they connect positively and benefit others. Cultivating Emotional Balance is an invitation to simply do that.

Discover more about upcoming events with Corey.