Clark Chilson poses for a photo in his office.
Clark Chilson poses for a photo in his office.
Pamela Smith | Contributing Editor

Clark Chilson: Teaching Zen

Right before his 19th birthday, Pitt religious studies professor Clark Chilson made a decision that would change his life forever. Standing at a crossroads in his academic career, Chilson opted to pack his bags and fly from his home in western New York to Japan for a study abroad program. 

“I was a [first-year] college student in Buffalo, New York, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in college,” Chilson said. “I didn’t really see the point of it, and I wanted to get away. When I got to the office, there was a pamphlet for Japan. Five months later, I was on a plane to Japan.”

While he didn’t know it at the time, Chilson’s visit to Japan would spark a lifelong interest in East Asian culture and religion, leading him to stay in the island nation for a total of 15 years. Chilson went on to graduate from Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan, before completing his doctorate at Lancaster University in England.  

Chilson now teaches about East Asian culture and religion as a professor in Pitt’s religious studies department. The Pitt professor specifically focuses on the connection between Buddhism and psychology — a topic that he says is growing in popularity with the rise of meditative practices in Western culture.  

Clark Chilson holds a work of calligraphy. (Pamela Smith | Contributing Editor)

“I always had an interest in the question of, ‘How should we live our lives?’” Chilson said. “When I was in high school, it interested me from the perspective of psychology and philosophy. When I got to Japan, I wanted to take that question from an anthropological perspective. In the process of studying anthropology, I realized I’m most interested in what religions have to say about that.”

With a calm and engaging demeanor, Chilson explains the connection between mental health and East Asian religions in a way that encourages students to evaluate their own lives. Senior political science major Andrew Klepeis took Chilson’s course “Popular Religion in a Changing Japan” in the fall of 2023. Klepeis also had experience with Chilson as a guest lecturer in a “Religion in Asia” course, where the Pitt professor took the entire class through a guided meditation. 

“Dr. Chilson came into my “Religion in Asia” class as a guest lecturer, and it was awesome,” Klepeis said. “He came in and said ‘We are going to do 10 minutes of zen meditation.’ [He told us] to put our hands together, look down and do nothing for 10 minutes.”

Klepeis said his experience meditating with Chilson was incredibly powerful and has changed his outlook on the practice. 

“It was crazy,” Klepeis said. “I guess I never really had the chance to do something like that in a group setting. So, after 10 minutes, he rang that bell, and I was in a completely different mindset. It was crazy. I actually can’t believe it. I’ve looked into meditation a little bit since then.”

At a university with a 14:1 student-to-professor ratio, one of the biggest challenges for instructors is simply connecting individually with the sheer number of students in their classroom. But Chilson still strives to remember students’ names and engage with them individually. 

He said he feels a connection with his students on a more spiritual level. 

“In Buddhism, there’s something called a karmic connection,” Chilson said. “It basically means that the workings of karma just bring people into your life. I like to think that students who take my classes and I have some karmic connection.”

The Pitt professor also said he is concerned about the future — specifically, the generations growing up after the rise of the internet. Chilson’s position as a scholar in East Asian religions gives him an insightful vantage point into societal change and how people cope with it. As depression rates skyrocket across the country, many are turning to East Asian practices, such as yoga and meditation, for answers to growing uncertainty about the future. 

But Chilson warns students to engage with these practices in moderation, as too much meditation, especially done alone and without the guidance of people trained in meditation, can actually have a negative impact on some people’s lives. Chilson’s concern specifically applies to mindfulness meditation — a form of the practice prevalent in Western culture. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing one’s attention on a single object, such as the breath or a mental image, as a way to calm the mind down. 

Clark Chilson poses for a photo in his office. (Pamela Smith | Contributing Editor)

“I think some of the students who take my ‘Buddhism and Psychology’ class think I am anti-mindfulness [meditation],” Chilson said. “But I’m not. What I am concerned about is the way mindfulness is taught, which is that it is good, and you should do it. The problem is that different people have different responses to it, and the Buddhist tradition says that you have to be careful not to do it too much by yourself without an experienced teacher. There is a dosage issue.”

Still, Chilson believes that meditation and other religious practices are useful tools to deal with the stresses of modern life. Chilson personally engages with Naikan meditation, which encourages people to focus on positive actions they have done or received from others in their daily lives. 

“Naikan meditation is a Japanese form of meditation, which involves three questions,” Chilson said. “The questions are, ‘What did I receive that was positive from other people? What did I give back that was positive? And what difficulties did I cause other people?’ In the process of doing this, I can see things differently.”

To Chilson, Naikan’s focus on the actions of others is crucial because it cultivates kindness and encourages social connection. As a mentor to many college-aged people, Chilson is concerned with how technology harms social connections and creates a more self-focused society.

“Everyone’s got a phone in their pocket, and people spend a lot of time by themselves to the point where it’s not healthy,” Chilson said. “Social connection is weaker than ever in America, and you see that with a lot of data. This fundamentally goes against part of our human nature, which is [that] we are social animals.”

To combat this growing inward focus in society, Chilson encourages students to focus less on themselves and more on what’s going on around them. In a world where people spend much of their time alone and social connections are weaker than ever, Chilson wants students to take a moment to reflect on what others have done for them.

“Try to think about how other people are helping,” Chilson said. “How are other people making my life better? That’s a question that people don’t spend a lot of time on. When you think about that for a little while, then you can think about how you can make other people’s lives better.”