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Niles Lecture to Discuss Meditation as Psychiatric Intervention

With support from the Harold H. Niles Memorial Fund, St. Lawrence University will host Clark Chilson as guest speaker for the Niles Lecture on Religion and Science at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 1, in Sykes Common Room. The event is free and open to the public.

His lecture, “Medicinal Meditation in Japan: How the Buddhist-Inspired Practice of Naikan Became a Psychiatric Intervention,” will discuss how Japanese families went to Buddhist monks to seek healing for their mentally ill relatives. These monks would treat those who were suffering from mental anguish by performing exorcism, reciting mantras, or by having them stand under waterfalls or sit in hot springs, rather than sitting in silent meditation.

In the early 1900s, bio-medically trained psychiatrists replaced Buddhist monks as experts on “mental hygiene,” as it was then called. In the 1960s, at a loss for how to cure alcoholics and patients with psychosomatic disorders, some Japanese psychiatrists began to experiment with a Buddhist-inspired meditation called Naikan, which involved silent self-reflection. Surprised by the positive results, they formulated scientific theories for why Naikan worked. Those theories show how psychiatrists in Japan first came to medicalize meditation in ways distinct from how mindfulness would later start to be understood in North America as a medical intervention. 

Chilson is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches on religion in Asia and the relationship between Buddhism and psychology. He is the author of Secrecy’s Power: Covert Shin Buddhists in Japan and Contradictions of Concealment (2014) and the co-editor of two books: Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions (with Paul Swanson), and Shamans in Asia (with Peter Knecht). He has done four intensive Naikan retreats in Tokyo, a 10-day vipassana course in Massachusetts and recently did fieldwork at mental hospitals in Japan that use Naikan

Organized by the Spiritual and Religious Life Committee, the Niles lecture series is supported by the Harold H. Niles Memorial Fund, which was established in 1971 by family and friends of Dr. Harold Niles, class of 1915, retired Universalist minister and former University chaplain.

For more information, contact Laura Rediehs or visit the Chaplain's Office at 315-229-5256.