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Enrollment for Sarah Jacoby’s “Introduction to Buddhism” class usually fills up within an hour or two, attracting students eager to meditate and wade into a subject they think they understand. After all, “mindfulness” has exploded in recent years. It’s shown up on podcasts, smartphone apps, magazine covers, and in medical practice, partly driven by interest in bridging the worlds of science and contemplative practice, partly by the profit motive.

The students quickly discover that meditation practice isn’t on the syllabus and their professor isn’t some surrogate yoga instructor. She is a...