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Flavio is a historian of religions with an expertise in the contemplative systems of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Although the contemporary conception of practices like mindfulness meditation appears to be largely bereft of specific cultural content, meditation techniques never arise in a vacuum, but rather in interaction with other societal domains, such as myth, history, philosophy, science, art, literature, or politics. Reconstructing the place of specific meditation techniques within these larger contemplative systems through rigorous textual studies, his research engages questions related to three specific areas of inquiry: 1) the history of meditation practices in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, 2) the theory of meditation and its functioning as it is articulated in Buddhism and in contemporary society, 3) and interdisciplinary methods that allow for a better understanding of meditation as a complex phenomenon where universal cognitive structures meet unique cultural contexts.

The History of Contemplative Systems in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism

As anyone encountering the world of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism knows, the plethora of tantric techniques of meditation is overwhelming. From a historical perspective, his work focuses on contemplative traditions in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, with a focus on a famous and distinctive religious system known as the “Great Perfection” (Dzogchen, rdzogs chen) or “Utmost Yoga” (atiyoga). Based on the philological analysis of tantric literature written between the 8th and the 14th centuries, he raises historical questions regarding the controversial origins of the Seminal Heart (snying thig) Great Perfection tradition, one of the most contested issues since Western scholars encountered the tantric systems practiced on the roof of the world: How much are the myths and practices of the Great Perfection recovering the religious system of pre-Buddhist Tibet? What is the relationship between Treasure Traditions (gter ma) and the Great Perfection contemplative system within the Old School (rnying ma)? To what extent does the Seminal Heart Great Perfection adopt and materials from the Mahāyoga or the Yoginī tantras? How much were the Seventeen Tantras, the core scriptures of the Seminal Heart tradition, inspired by materials from non-dual systems like Mahāmudrā or Kaśmiri Śaivism?

The Theory and Functioning of Meditation in Buddhism and in Contemporary Society

From a theoretical perspective, he investigates the functioning of meditation as part of the larger contemplative system that frames it. Specifically, he focuses on one of the most secretive practices in all of Buddhism, the Great Perfection’s highest technique, namely “Direct Transcendence” (thod rgal, Tögal). As part of this Tibetan technique, practitioners gaze into the sun-lit sky until they perceive luminous visions against the backdrop of the blue sky. Despite its esoteric character, scholars have compared the Tibetan sky-gazing technique to mindfulness meditation, which has become so phenomenally popular across Western societies in recent decades. It has not only been argued that these types of practices share a frame of mind characterized by freedom, but also a series of closely related traits, such as present-centeredness, relaxation, or a non-judgmental attitude. Contextualizing Tögal practice within a larger contemplative system, which includes mythical-historical narratives of origin, anatomical descriptions of our subtle bodies, and philosophical speculations about the nature of language, he shows that meditation is not simply dominated by freedom but rather by a dialectical logic: Present-centeredness requires us to be aware of our pasts, relaxation involves an appreciation of our bodily energies, and a non-judgmental attitude calls for an understanding of how our brains are inherently geared towards structure and meaning-making.

The Interdisciplinary Study of Contemplation

Flavio has a strong commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship, which allows him to capitalize on his access to primary textual sources to engage larger historical, theoretical, and methodological questions. His methodological inquiries grow out of his earlier work on the Roman School of History of Religions, as well as the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR). In both endeavors, he explored ways to combine classical humanistic research (philology, history, anthropology, etc.) with the most recent findings of the sciences (particularly the cognitive sciences); with the explicit intent to generate knowledge out of this encounter of specific historical-cultural worlds with universal human mechanisms of cognition. In his current research, he continues this dialogical approach to meditation by studying a broad range of meditation techniques found in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism through a robust theory of human cognition. He specifically works with embodied approaches to cognition and his investigation centers on how meditation practices help humans construct their identity by negotiating the boundary between their brains/bodies and the surrounding environment.

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