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Cover Feature

Meditation and Science:
A Meeting of Minds

Most know the Dalai Lama as Tibet’s leader-in-exile, a 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the spiritual head of the worldwide Tibetan Buddhist community. It may be hard to reconcile this image with the more mundane background story of an insatiably curious young boy growing up in Lhasa who liked to tinker with machines, repair clocks and cars, and follow new research and developments in the world of science. One female devotee has described shaking the hand of His Holiness and being surprised by how down to earth and “manly” he is. Indeed, the Dalai Lama has said that if he were not a monk he would be an engineer.

Those who know that he counts renowned physicist David Bohm and the late philosopher of science Karl Popper among his friends, and that he has participated in many science and spirituality conferences in the last several decades, will not be surprised to hear that His Holiness will gather with Buddhist scholar-practitioners and a group of scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in September of 2003 for a cutting edge conference investigating the common ground between Buddhism and science. This monk with the inquisitive mind has attended many such conferences over the years.

“Investigating the Mind: Exchanges between Buddhism and Biobehavioral Science on How the Mind Works,” September 13-14, in Cambridge, Mass. is the centerpiece of the Dalai Lama’s month-long visit to the U.S. This will be the 11th meeting between the Dalai Lama and scientists interested in the brain, and the first open to the public.
Co-sponsored by the Institute of Brain Research at MIT and the Mind and Life Institute of Boulder, Colorado, this conference will explore the synergy between those perpetually estranged bedfellows: Eastern spirituality and Western science.

How does the mind work? Cognitive scientists base answers on “third-person” biobehavioral data, while Buddhists emphasize a “first-person” approach. Neurophenomenology--a research program for the science of consciousness developed by the late Francisco Varela--has sought to incorporate one the two approaches in a “circular and reciprocal exchange” between Western behavioral science and Buddhist introspective experience. The Dalai Lama first met Dr. Varela at the Alpbach Symposia on Consciousness in 1983. Later, together with Adam Engle, Dr. Varela established a forum for ongoing dialogues between leaders in science and spirituality, which grew into the Mind and Life Institute. His Holiness has attended their biennial meetings to discuss these interrelationships since 1987, believing that “science and Buddhism share a common objective: to serve humanity and create a better understanding of the world. Science offers powerful tools for understanding the interconnectedness of all life which provides an essential rationale for ethical behavior and protection of the environment.”

The MIT conference will open with a session honoring Dr. Varela, and analyzing neurophenomenology. Then the Buddhist tradition will be integrated into the presentation. What can the disciplined Buddhist teach about how to increase our threshold of awareness to provide more refined first-person reports of subjective experience? How can this refinement partner with experimental techniques of biobehavioral science such as brain imaging to further our understanding of neural and cognitive processes? Following such dialogue, science can then reciprocate with discoveries that will enrich first-person insights, leading to further refinement, in an ongoing virtuous cycle.

Cognitive control, the subject of the second session, is defined as the ability to act (or think) in accord with intention. One of Buddhism’s primary tenets is the practice of training the mind to focus and sustain attention. According to the Dalai Lama: “Teaching the mind to focus on its inner contents in a sustained manner is a gateway to an expansion of one’s capacity to exert cognitive control both over the contents of one’s own thoughts and the processes of one’s own body.” Tibetan adepts have long been known as practitioners of “mind over matter,” able to exert the mind to keep the body warm in the coldest conditions, for example. How can science apply such skills practically? Biobehavioral sciences have in the past studied psychological processes and underlying neural mechanisms as a way to understand attention processes. Recent advances in hypnosis and placebo responses have allowed for the possibility of training mental capacities beyond old Western-proscribed limits of control. Again, the mental dialogue is intended to provide reciprocal benefits: results from scientific studies of such phenomena may deepen Buddhist understanding of attention as the foundation of spiritual practice.

What would a study of mental imagery provide? Again in the words of the Dalai Lama: “Objects populate the world without; images populate the world within.” Twentieth-century philosopher Karl Wittgenstein believed (as do most behavioral psychologists) that scientific study of mental imagery is not possible. But new techniques such as brain scanning can observe the neural levers and pistons that power our inner imagery. And Tibetan Buddhists have a centuries-old system of disciplined introspective techniques for generating, controlling, and observing mental images. What can be learned from merging old and new knowledge? If science can now track the observable footprints of imagery, how can this heightened consciousness enhance creativity and emotional experience?

The afternoon session on day two will probe emotion: why have Buddhism and science disagreed about the extent to which emotion can be voluntarily controlled? Can evolutionary and Buddhist views of emotion be reconciled, and on what grounds, empirical or otherwise? Western psychology tends to label emotion as “positive” or “negative”-the part of being human that is most unsettling and beyond the control of logic and reason. Buddhism looks at the wholesomeness, or harmfulness, of a particular emotional experience in terms of the individual’s personal and social functioning in the world, and insists that emotions can be regulated with cognitive strategies. Specific methods and systematic training for the cultivation of compassion are the Buddhist foundation for emotional control. The Dalai Lama, along with Buddhists Georges Dreyfus, Thupten Jinpa, B. Alan Wallace, and Matthieu Ricard, will compare notes with scientists Richard Davidson, Daniel Kahneman, Daniel Gilbert, and Dacher Keltner to examine systematically “the points of divergence and overlap between Buddhist and Western understanding of emotion.”

The final session of this groundbreaking conference will explore how both traditions understand the functional interrelations between attention, imagery, and emotion. And, more broadly, it will examine what each tradition understands “the mind” to be, and on what empirical basis Buddhism uses highly disciplined “first-person” methodologies and practices of introspection. Western biobehavioral science prefers “third-person” observation, especially the use of technical instruments of measurement. Empirical investigations of the mind are integral to both traditions, but for reasons that are embedded in quite different ethical and philosophical traditions.

Since 1987 the Mind and Life Institute has hosted small meetings with western scientists and the Dalai Lama at his residence in Dharamsala, India, which have resulted in the publication of six books. The most recent is Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, narrated by Daniel Goleman. These meetings have also inspired research initiatives and scientific collaborations in neuroscience and psychology, many of which will be addressed at the MIT meeting. The MIT conference will be the 11th Mind and Life meeting and the first one convening in the West with open attendance.

Can modern science make use of Buddhism’s 2,500 years of investigating the mind? Western scientists have been aware of this tradition while being skeptical of the fact that it uses the mind to investigate itself. Increasing numbers of scientists recognize that introspective investigation can be both rigorous and at the same time complementary to established scientific methods of observation and measurement. The moment for collaboration between Buddhism and biobehavioral science has come. “This MIT meeting is the fruit of almost 20 years of dialogue and collaboration between the Dalai Lama and scientists,” says Adam Engle, chairman of the Mind and Life Institute. “We hope this larger and more open forum at MIT will initiate a new chapter in this exciting exploration and lead to more in-depth collaborative research. The participation of the Dalai Lama along with so many leading scientists and Buddhist scholars will make this conference historic.”

More info at www.dalailamaboston.org

Hope For the Dalai Lama’s Return Home
Meditation and Science: A Meeting of Minds

An Interview with the Dalai Lama

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