RIT professor practices Zen and the art of philosophizing

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A. Sue Weisler

Brian Shūdō Schroeder, professor of philosophy, leads meditation sessions in RIT’s Interfaith Center twice a week as part of his role as a Zen Buddhist priest.

Truth be told, there aren’t many people in this world with enough willpower to sit in a meditative, statuesque state for 12 hours. Although Brian Schroeder has done it, he admits that the path to clearing one’s mind to achieve enlightenment or self-realization can be hard work.

“Meditation is about stilling the constant chatter of one’s thoughts—which I believe is something we can all benefit from once in a while—and detaching oneself for the purpose of realizing and working toward one’s goals,” says Schroeder, professor of philosophy in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts. “If we observe children and animals, we often see expressions of the simple and focused mind that Zen meditation strives for. As we mature, we complicate our lives so much that it’s important to calm the mind’s activities. This state of mind—when attained—is what is understood as an awakening or enlightenment.”

In addition to his work in the philosophy department, Schroeder also does “double duty” as a Zen Buddhist priest.

As a martial-arts student in the mid-1970s, Schroeder began reading literature about Zen Buddhism—just as our nation was becoming fascinated with Eastern culture.

After finishing his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, Schroeder realized that a future as a Lutheran pastor wasn’t for him and he went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy. During that time his interest in Zen blossomed, ignited by a desire for understanding the philosophy of religion and its connection among cultures.

Since 2003, he has relished in welcoming RIT students to the world of philosophy through his introductory courses and has led other students further into the subject through courses such as Ancient, Medieval and Contemporary philosophy; Existentialism; Postmodern Religious Thought; Zen Thought and Practice; and an entire course focusing on the perspectives of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

And that’s just his day job.

In 2009, after nearly 20 years of studying and practicing Zen, Schroeder was offered the opportunity to become ordained in Japan as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest. The process leading up to and following ordination involves years of dedicated study, living periodically in a rigid, monastic setting and shaving one’s head, signifying being cut off from the world. He is working toward advancing to the next level of sensei, or teacher.

“I’m continually working on my training here in the U.S. but I will also work on the traditional approach to studying Zen during my regular travels to Japan.”

His role as priest allows him to work as the Zen Buddhist chaplain in RIT’s Interfaith Center, where he interacts with students also interested in Zen meditation practice.

“Meditation is scientifically and medically therapeutic, allowing for better focus and concentration, and stress and anxiety relief,” he adds. “Engaging in this state of meditation definitely isn’t for everyone, but some find this disciplined state of mind as a way to break down all sense of ego, while enjoying discipline, focus and concentration. This sense of calm can help one become receptive to whatever life throws their way. And couldn’t we all benefit from that?”