2016-06-30
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.

Some issues explored in this year's conference included how emotions, both constructive and destructive, change in the course of evolution, play a crucial role in survival, and help rapid problem solving in complex situations. Survival of the species is a good example: In some instances, an uncontrollable fit of anger might be the most appropriate response to keep a threatening individual at bay, or to urge someone in danger to move swiftly out of it (as when a child runs into traffic). But for someone whose goal is to free herself from ignorance and escape from the endless cycle of rebirth (the goal of Buddhism), all forms of anger should eventually be eliminated (except perhaps feigned anger aimed at achieving an altruistic purpose). It is quite certain, from a Buddhist perspective, that there is no trace of anger in a Buddha's mind.

Every morning, one of the participants presented a topic in the presence of the Dalai Lama and a host of rapt guests, covering such questions as: Which brain mechanisms regulate negative emotions and allow us to distinguish normal expression of these emotions from their destructive extremes? Are there differences in patterns of emotional expression from culture to culture? Do the developmental events of a child's life have a major role in shaping emotional circuitry? And how can we conduct scientific experiments on the effects of long-term meditation and Buddhist techniques of mind training?

Richard Davidson, the eminent University of Michigan neuroscientist, presented some fascinating research on the relation between emotions and brain activity. He had done a study of the influence of a meditation program, conducted over several months, on the balance between the activities of the right frontal lobe of the brain (associated with emotions generally considered as negative) and the left one (associated with positive emotions), as well as on the immune response to vaccination (which was significantly increased among the subjects who participated in the meditation training).

The Duke University philosopher and cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan explained how Western moral philosophy has long been concerned with the destructive potential of emotions as well as with the betterment of human traits, either through spiritual exercises aimed at moral improvement or ethical training based on rationality, democracy, and education.

I gave an overview of the way emotions are handled in contemplative practice and how different methods can dispel their destructive effects by counteracting them, recognizing their fundamental nature, or using them as catalysts for inner transformation.

Francisco Varela presented groundbreaking experiments on the process of perception. His studies have revealed the synchronization that occurs in various parts of the brain when a form is recognized, as opposed to when it is merely perceived. Varela's findings sparked an intimate and lively discussion with the Dalai Lama about the process of perception. For Buddhism, perception begins when we record outer phenomena through a sense organ. Then we form a mental picture that stimulates the creation of our mental constructs about the object. But since the object has changed in the time we first "recorded" it (according to the law of impermanence), we never apprehend reality directly.

University of Minnesota clinical psychologist Jean Tsai presented studies on how emotional expression varies across cultures, and Mark Greenberg, a University of Pennsylvania developmental psychologist, described successful programs of emotional education and their implementation in American school systems.

In the afternoons, Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book "Emotional Intelligence," moderated discussion groups. Topics ranging from the usefulness of negative emotions to the changeability of our traits and temperament gave rise to animated debates between contemplative East and scientific West--as when the participants considered whether one can totally get rid of emotions such as anger and desire (Buddhism would say yes). Throughout, the Dalai Lama asked incisive questions, discussed experiments, and suggested new approaches. He also offered detailed explanations of sophisticated aspects of Buddhist contemplative science.

Indeed, the ideas raised at the Eighth Mind and Life Conference will carry over into the academics' work. Neurological experiments are being planned, with the participation of highly trained Buddhist practitioners, to explore the process of perception and how distinct zones of the brain relate to positive or negative emotions. And next year, the Dalai Lama will take part in a meeting at Richard Davidson's Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Daniel Goleman will edit the proceedings of the conference into a book (forthcoming from Bantam/Dell). And in 2002, a group of philosophers and scientists will board an Indian bus bound for Dharmsala for the Ninth Mind and Life Conference, dedicated to the great questions of "Matter and Life." "After this week," Richard Davidson concluded, "we and the way we pursue our life and research will never be the same."



more from beliefnet and our partners