I was first introduced to Buddhist practice as an undergraduate in the early 1970s. In a sense, I had already been primed for this interest. The “Summer of Love” had ushered in a broad interest in Eastern religions, and books like Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind were widely read.
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During my sophomore year at Pomona College, I encountered my first Buddhist meditation teacher, a young Zen monk from Japan who had been sent by his abbot to find out why all those American hippies were drawn to the monastery’s doorstep. One day I arrived at his small apartment for a private meditation interview, and there he was in his monastic robes in front of a television set, watching a football game with his full attention. The image I remember most, however, came after I knocked on the door of his den, when he immediately and effortlessly turned his attention from the football game to me. I learned in that moment a Buddhist lesson in “nonattachment.”
I left Pomona for MIT to study architecture. Though my encounter with Buddhism had touched me, I was uncertain how great a commitment I wanted to make. I didn’t have the motivation or time to actively seek out a new Buddhist teacher. But as happens in life, on a crisp autumn day in Cambridge, I came upon a yard sale in front of a house that turned out to be shared by a group of American Buddhists. On one of the tables was a flyer detailing their ongoing meditation classes. I attended a class that very night, thus beginning a lifelong connection to Chögyam Trungpa, my principal teacher.
The demands of the MIT program were rigorous. But somehow I found time to participate in weekend programs and even took a trip to a retreat center in northern Vermont for a week-long solitary meditation retreat.
While I found that my MIT professors and fellow students were tolerant and supportive, I never came across any Buddhist activities at the Institute. Furthermore, although Buddhism is popular and even hip in some circles today, back then the Jonestown massacre was fresh in people’s minds, and many viewed Buddhism as a cult. As a result, I was largely private about my Buddhist experiences.
These days, however, MIT has a growing Buddhist community. Tenzin Priyadarshi, an internationally respected Buddhist teacher, serves as MIT’s new Buddhist chaplain. And he’s known to roller-skate through the halls of the Institute in his flowing red robes. I am heartened that MIT students don’t feel the need to draw the line that I felt I had to draw between my practice of Buddhism and my MIT pursuits. Today, Buddhist activities are much more integrated into community life at the Institute.
For instance, the MIT campus regularly hosts Buddhist programs, including meditation, arts, and social-action programs. In 2003, the Dalai Lama appeared on the Kresge Auditorium stage before a packed hall of more than 1,200 people to kick off a conference cosponsored by MIT on “Investigating the Mind: Exchanges between Buddhism and Biobehavioral Science on How the Mind Works.” Events featuring the sand mandala, a traditional Tibetan art form, have attracted more than 5,000 people in the past two years and have been instrumental in building awareness of MIT’s Buddhist community.
The fact that the demanding pace set at the Institute continued into my career years made the continuation of my Buddhist practice all the more important. I’ve been involved in several high-tech startups, which are known for their fast-paced, constantly changing, and stressful work environments. While meditation practice doesn’t eliminate these challenges, it does teach you to work with them in a spacious and peaceful way.
I believe that the more visible presence of a Buddhist community at MIT is a good thing. Buddhist training, after all, is a millennia-old tradition that teaches Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike how to uncover the natural compassion and clarity that is at the core of our true nature.
Jim Rosen ‘79, MAR ‘82, has worked in the technology business for more than 20 years and cofounded two successful software firms. He can be reached at email@example.com.