Neuroscientists, physicists have questions, the Dalai Lama answers
- From The San Francisco Chronicle
The science of Tibetan Buddhism
Neuroscientists, physicists have questions, the Dalai Lama answers
Reviewed by William Kowinski Sunday, April 11, 2004
When Charles Darwin proposed the crowning scientific theory of the
19th century, a wide public understood enough of it to passionately
debate evolution and natural selection. But not even physicists today
fully understand the similarly significant theories of quantum
mechanics, first proposed early in the 20th century. With Western
scientific thought apparently at its limits, a group of scientists
recently looked for help from a man who, until he was a teenager,
believed that the world was flat: Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
The resulting dialogue between the Dalai Lama, several other Buddhist
scholars and a group of Western physicists and philosophers (including
Harvard's Tu Weiming, formerly of UC Berkeley) makes up physicist
Arthur Zajonc's graceful and insightful new book, The New Physics and
Cosmology: Dialogues With the Dalai Lama (Oxford University Press; 246
pages; $29.95). This five-day conference at the Dalai Lama's compound
in Dharamsala, India, in 1997 was not the first or last of these
conclaves. Since they began a decade earlier, there have been 11
discussions convened by the organization created to arrange them, the
Mind and Life Institute. Seven books have resulted so far, and DVDs of
the most recent conference, at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., last fall, are
available from www.mindandlife.org. Several books have emerged from
discussions between the Dalai Lama and Western scientists, but the
Mind and Life series is itself a kind of story, one of continuing and
fascinating cross- cultural collaboration -- even a kind of
convergence -- on subjects suddenly of common importance.
Most of the conferences with the Dalai Lama didn't deal with physics.
They began with topics on the mind. Though largely self-educated in
Western science, the Dalai Lama expressed keen interest in new
developments in brain sciences and related fields, wishing to test his
belief that ethical behavior is inherent in human nature and can be
nurtured without reference to any religious doctrine. As leader of
Tibetan Buddhism, he was also intrigued by what Western science had to
say on workings of the mind that Buddhist scholars and advanced
meditation practitioners had been exploring for several thousand years.
At the same time, neuroscientists using the latest technologies were
challenging old assumptions about the relationship of brain and body.
Psychologists were trying to account for abilities to change physical
states (such as body temperature), as specifically demonstrated by
individuals adept at meditation, when such influences on the body by
the mind was thought impossible. Western science had emphasized
external influences and was just beginning to investigate human life
from the inside. So in various disciplines loosely grouped as mind
sciences, some scientists were eager to experiment with more advanced
meditation subjects, and they were ready to hear different points of view.
Several attractive and carefully edited books chronicle this unique
journey, though each is also self-contained. Gentle Bridges:
Conversations With the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind (Shambhala;
272 pages; $17.95), edited by Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela,
impressed me as a kind of crash course in contemporary mind sciences,
while Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations With the Dalai
Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism (Snow Lion; 183 pages; $15.95),
edited by Zara Houshmand, Robert B. Livingston and B. Alan Wallace,
most eloquently explains Buddhist thought, particularly in Alan
Wallace's afterword. Healing Emotions: Conversations With the Dalai
Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health (Shambhala; 277 pages;
$15.95), edited by Daniel Goleman, and Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying:
An Exploration of Consciousness With the Dalai Lama (Wisdom
Publications; 254 pages; $16.95), edited by Francisco J. Varela, delve
into research in their respective subjects and pertinent Buddhist
thought, while Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan
Buddhists Examine Human Nature (Oxford University Press; 263 pages;
$27.50), edited by Richard J. Davidson and Anne Harrington,
investigates the growing scientific interest in altruism, empathy and
the psychology of violence. All these titles turn out to be at the
cutting edge of science in these decades.
The mood of the early conferences seemed eager but uncertain, with the
participants especially amazed by the Dalai Lama's scientific mind.
Scientists exclaiming that his questions anticipated their next area
of research, or otherwise demonstrated remarkable analytical acuity,
is a recurring theme throughout these books, as is the Dalai Lama
often repeating that if science can prove a Buddhist assumption wrong,
that assumption should be discarded. Trust is established as the
Buddhists find the scientists both forthright and respectful, and the
scientists appreciate the sophistication of Buddhist thought, which is
based on rigorous training in logical debate as well as introspection.
While personalities percolate more obviously on video, they manifest
in print as well through questions, quick exchanges and doggedly
systematic, briskly trenchant and passionately eloquent presentations.
These dialogues had to navigate continuing disagreements and deeply
different assumptions (just the differences between Buddhist
enlightenment and the European Enlightenment are revealing), but the
findings and methods of each tradition illuminate the other, so for
readers these books become an education in both.
By the time of the conference in 2000, which was covered in
Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue With the Dalai Lama
(Bantam; 424 pages; $16), edited by Daniel Goleman, scientists were
collaborating with Buddhists in designing and conducting new
laboratory experiments involving advanced meditators and their ability
to influence measurable brain activities, and were brainstorming on
educational programs on emotional literacy. Some scientists took their
own research in new directions partly as a result of these dialogues.
(Participants from the Bay Area included UC Berkeley psychologist
Eleanor Rosch, UC San Francisco psychologist Paul Ekman, psychologist
Jeanne Tsai and professor of religion Lee Yearly of Stanford.)
Zajonc's "New Physics" suggests the dramatic quality of the dialogues
and the emotional impact of the conference experience. Physics became
a topic partly because of the Dalai Lama's curiosity, but Western
scientists had their own reasons. Because quantum physics implies an
apparently determining role for the human mind on the phenomena
observed, it shatters Western notions of objective reality. Tibetan
Buddhism has been investigating the correlations of thought and
reality for centuries. The nuanced Buddhist ideas of "dependent
arising," which explore relationships of perception, expectations and
reality, were particularly intriguing to both physicists and mind
scientists. The physics dialogue didn't create a new way of
understanding quantum reality but did suggest a path to it. The new
physics and mind science both lead quickly to questions once
considered the sole province of spirituality, and also to other
traditions, not only to Buddhism, but as Tu Weiming points out, to
indigenous thought such as Hawaiian, Maori and American Indian.
"I think the time is ripe for imagining a new kind of education," he
asserts. "It is highly desirable, maybe even necessary, that this new
education integrates the self-cultivation of the Buddhist and other
traditions. ... It will enhance the communal, critical self-awareness
of some of the most creative and reflective members of the scientific
community. This is absolutely necessary for a new breakthrough."
For the Dalai Lama, the emphasis on the human mind's profound role in
reality has an ethical dimension. "Therefore, the future of humanity
is in the hands of humanity itself," he says, concluding the physics
dialogue. "We have the responsibility to create a better world, a
happier world, and a more peaceful world." These books illuminate just
how deep, common and unavoidable a responsibility that is, even if we
don't believe it.
William Kowinski is the author of "The Malling of America."