James Robson: Monks, Monasteries and Mental Institutions: Between Mental Stillness and Mental Illness
Professor James Robson (Harvard University)
There has been increasing attention paid to the relationship between Buddhism and medicine, but despite the advances in a number of subfields, there remains a paucity of studies on Buddhism and mental illness. What was the early Buddhist doctrinal discourse on mental illness? How has the category of madness evolved within the Buddhist tradition? Were there connections between meditation and madness? This talk discusses the history of some of the specific ways Buddhism addressed madness, the intriguing history of particular sites in East Asia with close associations between Buddhist monasteries and mental institutions, and a critical assessment of modern appropriations and applications of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practices in therapeutic contexts. In order to understand both the promises and potential problems of the use of meditation and mindfulness within various healing techniques (which are so celebrated in the popular media today) it is important to track how those practices developed within the Buddhist tradition and how they have been transformed down to the present day. Current writing on meditation and mindfulness generally celebrates those practices as a panacea for a wide range of physical and mental ailments, but the final section of this talk will discuss some emerging research that suggests that there can also be some deleterious effects associated with the contemporary experimentation with those practices.