On the weekend of September 13–14, 2003, the “Mind and Life XI: Investigating the Mind” conference was held at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since its inception in 1987, the Mind and Life Institute has been sponsoring meetings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Western scientists regarding subjects of mutual concern. Up until this year, the meetings have been private, by invitation only, and the proceedings were available to the public solely through books written about each conference. This year marked a flowering of sixteen years of careful cultivation of an exciting dialogue between two influential and profound systems of thought. They came out of the “cloister,” if you will.
The panelists included Richard Davidson, Ph.D., brain scientist from the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Jonathan Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Program in Neuroscience at Princeton University; Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., trained in cell genetics, Buddhist monk and author; along with fourteen other scientists and Buddhists chosen by virtue of their scholarship, accomplishment and the willingness to engage in open dialogue. The Dalai Lama participated in every panel throughout the weekend. The conference was further dignified by opening remarks from the president of M.I.T. and closing remarks from Eric Lander, D. Phil., geneticist, molecular biologist, mathematician, and founder and director of the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research.
Having sold out within an hour of opening to the public, the conference was much anticipated. The excitement inside M.I.T.’s Kresge Auditorium made the air crackle. The stage was set with a dozen or so chairs in a semicircle, intentionally attempting to re-create the intimacy of the Dalai Lama’s living room, where most past conferences have taken place. There was an exuberant bouquet of sunflowers behind the two large armchairs for His Holiness and the session presenter. The participants strode onto the stage and took their seats, except for His Holiness, who bowed to everyone and then shielded his eyes so he could peer into the audience. He squinted, grinned, waved to a friend, bowed again, took his seat, slipped off his shoes, and with these few gestures managed to break glacial academic ice and soften the hearts of the 1,200 attendees.
The themes woven through the weekend revolved around the promises and perils of the meeting between the so-called objective and subjective worlds. In his opening remarks, the Dalai Lama said, “Human knowledge [objective] alone cannot guarantee happiness. . . . There must also be human values [subjective]. [With the validation of scientific research] I will be able to say that we should combine brain [objective] and heart [subjective] for our health and happiness.”
Evan Thompson, a professor of philosophy with a specialty in the philosophy of perception, was the first presenter. As a close collaborator of the late Francisco Varela, he honored Varela’s life and visionary contributions to neuroscience. Varela, a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner as well as a world-renowned scientist, had developed the research orientation called “neurophenomenology,” which aims to incorporate disciplined introspective techniques or “first-person methods” into cognitive science. Through this method, Thompson said, not only might we “guide the study of brain data (derived from fMRIs) using first-person data, but eventually the two sides can mutually inform and revise each other.”
In the middle of this dense and esoteric presentation, His Holiness let loose an enormous sneeze that sent him and his translator, Thupten Jinpa, into a paroxysm of giggles. Seeing the childlike amusement of the two Tibetans, Thompson’s face registered first a look of bewildered incredulity but quickly gave way to a grin of delighted amazement.
The presentations on mental imagery were marked in their differences. Matthieu Ricard spoke completely extemporaneously, unhurried and remarkably eloquent in his nonnative tongue. Speaking directly from his own experience, he presented a moving and yet intellectually rigorous overview of the complex role of visualization in Tibetan Buddhism. It seemed somehow perfectly natural that a French Buddhist monk in robes and with a shaved head should be speaking at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research about suffering arising from the deluded perception of a solid self, or about the imputation of value judgments onto intrinsically neutral phenomena. Ricard closed his presentation saying, “To understand the deep nature of mind and pure awareness that is free from obscuring emotions—so that when they do come to your mind, they are not going to invade your mind and make you their slave—that is one of the secrets of genuine and lasting happiness.”
The second presenter, Stephen Kosslyn, John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard, came equipped with a large iBook and a detailed Powerpoint presentation. He had the dignity to acknowledge from the outset that he felt humbled by Ricard’s presentation. He likewise dignified the end of his presentation, replete with graphs, charts, data and theories, with the comment: “The point of contact between science and Buddhism is most interesting when we find cases where Buddhists made proposals or claims that contradict what we would expect or predict based on our scientific theories.”
Though Kosslyn was clearly amazed at Ricard’s and other Buddhists’ claims that visualized images could be held for hours at a time, he was almost certainly not anticipating the Dalai Lama’s assertion that mental imagery can be developed to such an extent that one can project it into the sentient world, where it becomes a constructed form: for example, a meditation on fire that actually has the capacity to burn. The Dalai Lama looked straight at Kosslyn and grinned as he made this comment (in Tibetan), and the smile seemed to capture the marvelous improbability of the moment.
Claims like these, and the Buddhist notion of pure awareness, created consternation among the scientists. His Holiness addressed this by saying that he believes “there is a material basis for even the most subtle levels of consciousness. Without the brain, the mind could not function and, in a similar way, without a material basis, so-called consciousness, no matter how subtle . . . I don’t know . . . something independent or not . . . I don’t know.” With this, he turned to face Kosslyn and laughed out loud—a deep, jolly and resonant “HA HA HA HA”—then threw up his hand and tossed it off.
In the session on Attention and Cognitive Control, Alan Wallace, Ph.D., Buddhist scholar/practitioner and prolific writer on Tibetan Buddhism and the interface between science and religion, compared Galileo’s telescope to the technology of meditation. The former allows for the stable and vivid observation of the stars (objective); the latter allows for the stable and vivid observation of mental phenomena (subjective).
Wallace also made the point that the foundation of Buddhist practice is ethics, and he carried forward the exciting possibility His Holiness had suggested earlier when talking about human values being an underpinning to human happiness. Wallace said, “Ethics need not be confined to religion. It is a nonsectarian issue, and, pragmatically speaking, an ethical life that is oriented towards compassion, service and nonharming turns out to be an indispensable foundation for cultivating cognitive, emotional and attentional balance.” This possibility of understanding ethics not simply as a religious mandate but as foundational to happiness and a balanced mind was of great interest to the scientists. It was suggested that a research model could be developed to prove that an ethical lifestyle improves quality of life. When asked how the Buddhists would benefit from such a study, Ajahn Amaro replied simply, “A better, healthier world.”
Through it all, in the center of the stage sat the Dalai Lama, cross-legged and dwarfed by an oversized armchair, pitching and swaying as if davening, scratching his head, either grinning irrepressibly or with his bottom lip thrust out in an uninhibited display of thoughtful deliberation. He looked entirely relaxed watching Powerpoint presentations on a laptop placed on a table in front of him. His presence was palpable. Given the conference location and the density of Ivy League credentials, Nobel laureates and academic distinction, who better could tip the scales away from somber and self-important pomposity toward open and light-hearted dialogue? Due to the presence of His Holiness, the careful planning on the part of the Mind and Life Institute, and the good will of the panelists, the discussions were indeed a true exchange of ideas. In one panel discussion Jonathan Cohen stated that the most gratifying part of this experience for him was being disabused of his scientific narrowness of mind and realizing that there are, indeed, some very interesting ideas that stand behind the claims of his Buddhist colleagues. This comment was met with thundering applause from the audience. All the scientists echoed a sincere wish to include the Buddhist practitioners not simply as subjects in their experiments but as co-collaborators in their experimental designs.
In another particularly frank discussion when the scientists again asked the Buddhists what they hoped to gain from this collaboration, Ajahn Amaro replied, “Validation through the great God of data.” To which Nancy Kanwisher, M.I.T. professor in brain research, retorted, “So we would function as a PR tool for Buddhism? This may not be a compelling motivation for science.” His Holiness said with a grin that he would like it if “our Chinese brothers and sisters could see that the culture and religion of Tibet was not so primitive as they think.” As Eric Lander so beautifully remarked in his closing talk, he was relieved to learn that Buddhism was not a “flight from reason” into “crystals and pyramids” and away from science but instead a highly evolved technology with much to offer science and society. Like science, he surmised, Buddhism was motivated by a deep and abiding wish to relieve suffering as well as an intense curiosity about the true nature of reality.
What will emerge from a conference such as this one? As Lander also suggested, perhaps the U.S. Surgeon General might one day be prescribing sixty minutes of mental exercise five days a week. Perhaps institutional review boards will
be asking scientists, “What is in your heart when you conceive of this experiment?” as the Dalai Lama asked Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate Stephen Chu last year in Dharamsala when he expressed concern about using animals for laboratory experiments. Perhaps happiness will be understood as predicated on a foundation of ethics rather than consumerism.
What if Western psychology raised the bar for mental health? Alan Wallace urged us to consider an Olympic category of mental health. Ajahn Amaro asserted that one is not even considered sane according to the abhidharma until fully enlightened! Richard Davidson suggested that happiness, rather than being a state or a trait, may actually be a skill that can be learned. What if Western psychology were to join forces with Buddhism in teaching this skill? In his groundbreaking work subjecting advanced monks to fMRIs, Davidson has discovered brain patterns literally off the charts when compared to legions of everyday folks. This suggests the possibility of neuroplasticity heretofore unimaginable in the West. What if science could prove that even the mind of the most hardened and remorseless criminal could be trained to incline toward kindness, compassion and generosity?
Perhaps we will finally connect the dots between our intentions, actions and their consequences, between the “subjective” and “objective” worlds, and, as Neruda wrote, “a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.” Yet more exciting, what are the possibilities we can’t imagine?