Monday, April 12, 2004

crash course in science and mind

Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind
Edited by Jeremy Hayward & Francisco Varela
SHAMBHALA, 2001; 272 PAGES; $17.95

Readers shouldn't think this book is of interest only to Buddhist adherents of any school. In a series of presentations and dialogues, contemporary scientists---Newcomb Greenleaf, mathematician and artificial intelligence researcher; physicist Jeremy Hayward, neuroscientist Robert Livingston, biochemist Luigi Luisi, cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch, and biologist Francisco Varela---present a wonderfully succinct and relevant crash course in contemporary science from its methodologies to its latest findings (as of 1991) and their implications for questions that western science has in common with Tibetan Buddhist thought.

For it turns out that various schools of Tibetan Buddhism have been systematically investigating and building theories about the mind-how it perceives, what knowledge and thinking are, what the relationship of the individual is to common reality---for centuries. So this book reflects a true dialogue, in which western scientists and the Dalai Lama and other Buddhists present each learn from the other.

In fact, several of the scientists comment on how pertinent the Dalai Lama's questions are, often anticipating the next line of research they're going to talk about. "You think like a scientist!" one of them exclaims.

While the Dalai Lama explains the theories and explorations of various Buddhist schools with remarkably easy erudition, the emphasis of material in this book is on western science. This is the first of at least eight books emanating from conferences that the Dalai Lama has hosted with western scientists, on questions of mind. A much fuller presentation of Tibetan Buddhist theories of mind can be found in "Consciousness at the Crossroads," dialogues from the next conference, published by Snow Lion Press. The presentation and dialogue on the recent history of scientific theory pertaining to Darwinian evolution is especially valuable. There's more information about the series at

Personally I like dialogues, perhaps because I'm an aural learner. To me these books are like plays in the mind, about the mind. Some of these scientists know a lot about Buddhism already, while others know very little. But they all seem impressed by the long tradition of Tibetan Buddhists in investigating phenomena of mind, and in developing a sophisticated view of how mind relates to the universe. I'm sure they are heartened as well by the Dalai Lama's attitude that Buddhist doctrine is not dogma, and if science disproves these theories, they ought to be abandoned. But it's clear that western science has much to consider that Buddhist scholars have already thought about in a way more relevant to the most advanced western science than the science of even a few decades ago. Together they may help answer perennial questions about humanity's role in the universe. Maybe even the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

No comments: