Mind Over Matter

At the Eighth Mind and Life Conference, the Dalai Lama and Western scientists debate the true nature of negative emotions

BY: Matthieu Ricard

 

Buddhism has never shied away from dialogue in its quest for deeper understanding. Over the centuries, Buddhist sages have waged metaphysical debates with Hindu philosophers and adepts of other traditions. And today, dharma teachers have an ongoing conversation with disparate religions and, most recently, with Western science, looking for both common ground and common boundaries.

This dialogue has allowed Buddhism to refine, sharpen, and enlarge its philosophical outlook, its system of logic, and its understanding of the world. In particular, the encounters between Buddhism and science pose interesting questions for both "camps," especially around ethics, personal transformation, and the nature of mind. Do Buddhism, and spirituality in general, have anything useful to offer when science reaches its limits and falls silent? "Buddhist thinking relies more on investigation than on faith," the Dalai Lama has said. "Therefore, scientific findings are very helpful to Buddhist thinking. In my experience, Buddhist views may also give scientists a new way to look at their own field, as well as new interest and enthusiasm."

To explore these and other questions, last month a group of respected scientists and philosophers made their way on a local bus that wound through village market places and Himalayan roads en route to the village of Dharmsala, in northern India. They were gathering to take part in the Eighth Mind and Life Conference, a weeklong discussion with the Dalai Lama. Inspired by His Holiness' keen interest in science (he has long been a student of physics and brain science), an American businessman named Adam Engle and the Chilean-born neuroscientist Francisco Varela first organized in 1987 what was to become regular encounters between the Tibetan spiritual leader and a group of eminent Western neurologists, physicists, and philosophers. Previous Mind and Life Conferences have spawned collaborative scientific research projects and numerous publications, such as the Dalai Lama's "Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying," and "Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind" by Alan Wallace.

This year's conference was an exploration of the nature and destructive potential of "negative" emotions, as when pride obscures our judgment, or jealousy turns into murderous rage. Our mind is confused because of the inconsistency between the way things are and the way we perceive them. In the Buddhist tradition, the recognition and transformation of negative emotions lies at the heart of spiritual practice. Negative emotional states have also captivated scientists who study the brain. Throughout evolution, these brain responses have shaped the human mind and played a key role in human survival. But in modern life, they pose grave dangers to our individual and collective fate, in part because the weapons we wield in anger have so much more destructive power, anger is no longer an appropriate answer in our time and society.

It is quite certain, from a Buddhist perspective, that there is no trace of anger in a Buddha's mind.

For Buddhists, the acquisition of knowledge is viewed essentially as a therapeutic exercise. The aim of knowledge is to end suffering, which is fundamentally caused by a specific form of ignorance. This ignorance is based on a misconception of the reality of the external world and of the self or an "I," which we imagine to be the center and prime agent of our being. These false assumptions give rise to a host of problematic mental states and eventually to destructive emotions. We then want to protect the "I," to please it and remove whatever threatens it. This gives rise to the impulses of taking and rejecting, which soon evolve into hate, excessive attachment, pride, greed, jealousy, etc.

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