Talking with Andrew Olendzki About His New Roles


Andrew Olendzki has been part of Barre Center for Buddhist Studies since its earliest days, bringing it to life, managing its operations and teaching countless courses to many grateful students. After moving into a full-time role as Senior Scholar in recent years, to focus more on scholarship and teaching exclusively, he is now continuing that role part time and embracing a new role with the Mind and Life Institute in Amherst and Hadley, Massachusetts.

Insight Journal asked Andy to talk about his new dual roles, dividing time between BCBS and Mind and Life.

Insight Journal: I understand your relationship with BCBS will be changing somewhat. Can you tell us about that?

AO: As many of our readers know, I have been getting more involved over this past year with the Mind and Life Institute, which has recently set up its operations nearby in the Amherst/Hadley area of Massachusetts. I was their first Visiting Scholar last spring, a program they have inaugurated in cooperation with Amherst College, where I taught a course called Mind, Meditation and Transformation. I also participated in their Summer Research Institute at the Garrison Institute last June, giving a presentation on one of their main research initiatives, Mapping the Mind. As you might imagine, classical Buddhist thought has much to offer on this subject, and anyone who has ever taken a course with me may recall my penchant for drawing a lot of circles on the board and connecting them all with lines and arrows. Much of the Dhamma, in my view, is an elaborate map of the mind, or perhaps more accurately, a map of experience.

At the end of the summer I was invited by Mind and Life’s president, Arthur Zajonc, to get more involved with both of these programs. I am happy to do so, since I see them both being in harmony with what I have been doing for years here in Barre, and expanding this work into a larger intellectual and cultural community. I of course do not want to give up my now almost twenty-five-year commitment to the study center, so we have all agreed that I will split my time evenly between both jobs. So as of November 1st I have cut back to half time as senior scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and the other half of my time will be taken up as a senior scholar at the Mind and Life Institute. I see the two roles as complimentary, and hope that by dividing my time between the two institutions I can make a useful contribution to two somewhat different but I think entirely harmonious visions.

IJ: What can you tell us about the Mind and Life Institute, and what will you be doing there?

AO: Mind and Life is best known for the dialogues it has sponsored over the last quarter century between H.H. the Dalai Lama and various teams of scientists and other thinkers on a wide range of topics of mutual interest to Buddhism and the contemporary world. Their stated mission is “building a scientific understanding of the mind to reduce suffering and promote well being,” which I take to mean, at least in part, integrating Buddhist wisdom and experience into the emerging study of consciousness, such that the causes of suffering can be understood and eliminated, and a path toward the flourishing of all life can be charted and supported. It involves a remarkable group of people working toward a truly meaningful goal, and in this regard it has much in common with BCBS.

For most of its history Mind and Life has played a visionary and catalyzing role, organizing conferences and gatherings, educating scientists about contemplative practices and traditions, releasing publications from their programs, and disbursing grants to promising young researchers in the field of consciousness studies and its many related disciplines. Under the new leadership of Arthur Zajonc, a recently retired physics professor at Amherst College and renowned contemplative thinker, the organization is being reinvented as a research institute in its own right and is expanding its range considerably. They have recently hired a number of senior scholars and experienced researchers to head up various of its initiatives, including such topics as understanding craving and addiction, promoting compassion in education, and understanding the principles mindful leadership.

One of my roles is heading up their Mapping the Mind initiative, which I see as an opportunity to bring some of the Buddhist maps of experience articulated in the Dhamma and Abhidhamma into useful dialogue with contemporary researchers who are mapping the brain and trying to understand consciousness. It is generally recognized that first person perspectives on the mind, gained from contemplative practice, need to be brought in to help augment the third person viewpoint that is characteristic of modern science. This is the difference between mapping the mind and mapping the brain. I will also be helping to support their Visiting Scholar program at a facility they occupy on the Amherst College campus, in which role I will be in a position to learn a lot from some of the leading thinkers in many fields.

IJ: What effect do you think this change will have on BCBS?

AO: In the short term, perhaps not much–I will follow through on all my teaching commitments scheduled in 2014, and will continue to contribute to the programs with which I am already engaged, such as the Going Forth on-line retirement community and the current cohort of the Integrated Study and Practice program. I remain open-minded about how things might unfold after next year. We are trying out this 50/50 job sharing arrangement for the next several months to see how well it works, and I’m sure experience will show whether or not it is sustainable.

In the longer run, this shift might have some more significant beneficial effects upon BCBS. For one thing, the resources saved by my cutting back are going into creating a new staff position that will focus almost entirely upon developing online and web-based material that can be shared with people all over the world. One of the great strengths of the study center, appreciated by all who have come here over the years, is that we work with a small group of students in a very intimate and experiential way. Unlike a college, we integrate meditation into all we do, and unlike a retreat center, we encourage engagement with the textual tradition and discussion with fellow participants. BCBS is a place for real transformation to take place, something that is immeasurably precious in our times. One of the great drawbacks of this model, however, is that it can only affect about twenty-five people at a time. Given the increasing globalization of civilization and the challenges we face as a species, we have long explored ways we might reach a wider population without compromising the integrity of what we do.

One possible way to do this is by making good use of the emerging communication technologies, so like every other educational institution we are exploring ways we might develop online programming. I expect to be contributing significantly to this enterprise for many years to come, one way or another, by helping to supply and shape the content of such offerings. Much of its usefulness will come from how skillfully it is organized and presented, however, and we recognize the need for bringing someone on board who has some of the unique skills this work requires. Our challenge, of course, will be how to keep even our online offerings experience-near and transformative.

IJ: So it sounds like, as with every change, something is lost but something also is gained.

AO: Very much so. I prefer to think of this shift in terms of what benefits it may bring to BCBS. Mind and Life visiting scholars and staff have already come out to Barre to attend our programs, members of our faculty have already gone to participate in Mind and Life seminars in Amherst, and many of the people involved with each organization overlap with the other. There may be ways we might collaborate with one another as time progresses, and meanwhile there are certainly ways in which the mission of each contributes to and enriches the other. BCBS is working to understand the classical Buddhist teachings in a fresh way that engages with modernity and makes sense in our contemporary context, while Mind and Life is working to understand human nature from scientific perspectives that also encompass the values of contemplative experience. It is a natural confluence of ideas, and I am very fortunate to be inhabiting the place where they converge. I look forward to sharing these benefits with many others in the future.