Wellesley Researchers Study How Contemplation
Changes Students, Affects Careers

May 11, 2009
Arlie Corday,

Kodera and Padma
Professor of Religion James Kodera and Buddhist advisor Ji Hyang Padma are studying the effect of a contemplative life on college students, their career choices and more.

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- College is supposed to change lives for the better. Higher education, after all, teaches skills and knowledge that often result in better jobs and more income.

But what if the most life-changing result of college involved becoming a kinder, gentler person?

That’s the focus of a Wellesley College study, “Impact of Buddhism on Undergraduates in the U.S. Today,” by Professor of Religion James Kodera and Buddhist advisor Ji Hyang Padma.

“We have collected data quantitatively, using an online survey sent to Wellesley students, faculty, staff and alums who have gone through our courses and programs,” said Padma. “We are now collecting qualitative data through semi-structured interviews, which Jim and I conduct together.”

"I am regularly reminded of the inherent interdependence of each and every individual, an idea that forces me to be mindful of the ways in which my own actions affect others and vice versa."

- Wellesley junior
Claire Droste

On Wednesday, May 20, they will discuss preliminary findings and moderate a panel discussion, “Contemplation and Education:  The Impact of Buddhism on Vocational Choice,” at 4 pm in Houghton Memorial Chapel’s Multifaith Center. Panelists include three Wellesley alumnae: Diana Chapman Walsh ’66, president emerita; Tsunmala (Sue Macy) ’78 and Mary Gottman ’96, a Davis Scholar.

Kodera and Padma are trying to learn how the practice of meditation and the study of Buddhism may change lives for the better, including career choice and community involvement.

“Contemplation doesn’t have to be Buddhism,” Kodera explained, “but we are using it as a lead-in through this study.”

TRANSFORMATION: Padma is in a unique position to ask such questions. In 1991, she graduated from Wellesley, a Catholic girl from New Jersey named Brigid Frizell. After an internship at a Buddhist sanctuary, she was a changed woman. She decided her life path was as a Buddhist nun.

“I trained for two years in residence in Cambridge Zen Center under the Abbot, Do Mun Sunim, and also completed an intensive 90-day retreat to become a nun,” she said. In 1994, she returned to Wellesley with a shaved head and a new name to become the college’s Buddhist advisor.

Fast forward to 2009: Kodera, who once taught Padma in a seminar on Zen Buddhism, now works with her to study the impacts of religious and spiritual life. Their work has been funded by the Teagle Foundation, following in the footsteps of a similar Teagle study on the impact of Catholicism.

Kodera and Padma want to know if the process of slowing down to meditate – to seek a time of reflection – has the power to change lives.

“What is the connection between contemplation and action?” asked Padma. “When we begin to develop that self-awareness – that sense of wholeness and connectedness – does it shift our view of the world and how we can be of help to the other people in our lives?”

Padma believes a sense of connectedness develops from the practice of meditation – and that connectedness may affect the choices people make.

“For people who are beginning, I recommend spending a half-hour each day in meditation, including a ‘kindness meditation for oneself,’ followed by practicing thoughts of loving kindness toward people we know, for those we don’t know, and ultimately, all beings,” she said.

“Like water, drop by drop, it permeates people’s being,” she said, leading them to more compassionate lives. “It develops into a hunger to be of service.”

QUEST FOR ANSWERS: Graduates of two Wellesley courses, “Contemplation and Action” and “Buddhist Thought and Practice,” are central to the study; both were developed and are taught by Kodera.

“The separation of the study of and the practice of religion is very artificial,” he said. “People bring their own quests to the study of Shakespeare; why not the study of religion?”

Alyssa Mcconkey, who graduated last year as a Davis scholar, a program for non-traditional-age students, said while her practice of Buddhism and meditation didn’t begin at Wellesley, it blossomed there.

“By nurturing my ability to turn inward, I was more aware of my actions and how they affect the world around me,” said Mcconkey, a Loveland, Colo., resident. “I began to think a lot about how to merge this deeper awareness with the work and studies I would do in the future, after Wellesley.”

While her career path is still unfolding, Mcconkey, who is interested in sustainable food production, is sure of its direction.

“I need to be doing work that serves others and work that respects and sustains life,” she said. “Buddhism has taught me how to recognize the tremendous beauty and love in life. My future actions, both in my career and outside of it, will have to be in line with this truth. There is no way around it.”

FOLLOWING OPPORTUNITIES: Davis Scholar, Mary Gottmann of Sudbury, Mass., calls her Wellesley studies of Buddhism and meditation “pivotal” in her life, helping her become a synthesized “Buddheo-Christian.”

“The synthesis comes to life, of course, primarily within the nourishing silence of meditation itself,” Gottman said.

Her future plans don’t involve a particular path as much as a spiritual direction.

“I have not chosen a ‘career’ per se but rather followed other spiritual opportunities which came to me,” she said. “And the future beckons.”

Claire Droste, a Wellesley junior from Dow, Ill., has taken several Buddhist-oriented courses at Wellesley, including two during study abroad opportunities in Japan and India.

“As my study of Buddhism has progressed and increased in depth, I have been able to recognize the many ways in which it has impacted my academic plans, as well as my outlook on daily life,” Droste said. “A devoted planner and type-A personality, I often find myself focusing too much on the future, without giving enough time to my present experience. My exposure to Buddhist principles and practices has taught me to recognize, and constantly remind myself of, the importance of being aware of my present situation.”

Droste also has noticed a stronger recognition of connection to others.

“I am regularly reminded of the inherent interdependence of each and every individual, an idea that forces me to be mindful of the ways in which my own actions affect others and vice versa,” she said. “In my opinion, my study and practice of Buddhism have allowed me to recognize these principles and apply them in my daily life.”

It is this kind of response that Kodera and Padma try to capture for their study.

“How has the practice of meditation connected to their lives and their choices?” Padma asks. “What possibilities opened up for them?”

The researchers hope to expand to other college campuses, where they can plumb the depths of the contemplative life.

“Do these contemplations really have the ability to shift our awareness to more compassionate actions in this connected world?” Padma wonders. “That’s our goal: to see the connections between contemplation and action.”

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.