Monday, April 12, 2004

Dependent Arising: The Dalai Lama and the Scientists

by William S. Kowinski

The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama
Edited and narrated by Arthur Zajonc

Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama
narrated by Daniel Goleman
BANTAM paperback; 448 PAGES; $16.

Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature

edited by Richard J. Davidson & Anne Harrington

Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health

Edited by Daniel Goleman
SHAMBHALA, 2003; 277 PAGES; $15.95

Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama
Edited and narrated by Francisco J. Varela

Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism
Edited by Zara Houshmand, Robert B. Livingston and B. Alan Wallace
SNOW LION,1999; 183 PAGES; $15.95

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

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 the world was flat.

The resulting dialogue between Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, several other Buddhist scholars, and a group of western physicists and philosophers (including Tu Weiming, formerly of UC Berkeley) provides the substance and the narrative energy of physicist Arthur Zajonc's graceful and insightful new book.

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 (though video DVDs of the most recent conference, at MIT in Cambridge last fall, are available from

These are not the only books that have emerged from discussions between the Dalai Lama and western scientists (others include Worlds in Harmony from Berkeley's Parallax Press, and MindScience: An East-West Dialogue from Wisdom Publications) but the Mind and Life series is itself a kind of story, of continuing and fascinating cross-cultural collaboration---even a kind of convergence---on subjects suddenly of common importance.

Most of the conferences didn't deal with physics. They began with the mind. Though largely self-educated in western science, the Dalai Lama expressed keen interest in new developments in brain sciences and related fields, 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 new 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 new points of view.

These attractive and carefully edited books chronicle this unique journey, though each is also self-contained. Gentle Bridges impressed me as a kind of crash course in contemporary mind sciences, while Consciousness at the Crossroads most eloquently explicates Buddhist thought, particularly in Alan Wallace's afterword. Healing Emotions and Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying delves into research in those subjects and pertinent Buddhist thought, while Visions of Compassion investigates the growing scientific interest in altruism, empathy and the psychology of violence. These all 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 scientists especially amazed by the Dalai Lama's scientific mind. Scientists exclaiming that his questions anticipate their next area of research, or otherwise demonstrate remarkable analytical acuity, is a recurring theme throughout these books. The Dalai Lama often repeats that if science can prove a Buddhist assumption wrong, it 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. As Alan Watts noted elsewhere, "Buddhism is absolutely, fundamentally a dialogue."

While personalities percolate more obviously on video, they manifest in print as well: in questions, quick exchanges and presentations of doggedly systematic, briskly trenchant and passionately eloquent character. These dialogues had to navigate deeply different assumptions (just the differences between Buddhist enlightenment and the European Enlightenment is revealing), but the findings and methods of each tradition illuminate the other, so for readers these books become an education in both.

By the conference in 2000, the subject of Destructive Emotions, scientists were collaborating with Tibetan Buddhists in designing and conducting new laboratory experiments involving skills of advanced meditators to influence activities of mind measurable in the brain, and in designing 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 include UC Berkeley psychologist Eleanor Rosch, UC San Francisco psychologist Paul Ekman, psychologist Jeanne Tsai and professor of religion Lee Yearly of Stanford.)

Along with Daniel Goleman's Destructive Emotions and Francisco Varela's Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying,Arthur Zajonc's New Physics provides narrative that suggests the dramatic quality of the dialogues as well as 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 Native American." "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.

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