Mind, Brain and Matter His Holiness the Dalai Lama Participates in the 26th Mind & Life Meeting at Drepung - Day 1

January 18th 2013

Drepung Lachi, Mundgod, Karnataka, India, 17 January 2013 - The main hall of the Drepung Lachi Monastery temple was abuzz with anticipation this morning as about 1000 people, scientists, lamas, monastics, lay students and guests awaited the arrival of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Loudspeakers and an array of video screens meant that wherever they were sitting all those present could attend to the discussions taking place among the circle of scientists with His Holiness in the middle of the temple. As soon as His Holiness had taken his seat, Geshe Lhakdor, Director of the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, Dharamsala, welcomed all those present and expressed appreciation of His Holiness’s initiative in encouraging dialogues between modern science and Buddhist science and philosophy. He noted the importance of this meeting taking place in a monastic setting.

The morning’s theme, Exploring the Nature of Reality: Buddhist and Scientific Perspectives was to serve as an introduction. Arthur Zajonc, President of the Mind & Life Institute, recalled that the first such meeting had taken place 25 years ago and now science is being introduced into the monastic curriculum. This is a courageous move, he said, but clarified that science is not a branch of materialism but an attempt to penetrate reality.

“We follow the evidence of the senses employing the power of the mind. Our research in our labs is intent on benefiting humanity.”

Richie Davidson remarked,
 
“Our discoveries have already led to major benefits in health care and education, both of which are now more receptive to contemplative practice.”


His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaking during the first session of the Mind and Life XXVI conference held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 17, 2013. Photo/Ned Dunn
His Holiness said that since the majority of the audience were Tibetan he would prefer to speak in his mother tongue. Several interpreters immediately stepped in to help those who needed an English translation. He repeated what he had told the scientists yesterday that the conference was taking place in Drepung, the second Nalanda of Tibet and the monastery to which the line of Dalai Lamas since the second have belonged. He acknowledged that in their objectivity, intelligence and enthusiasm these scientists, several of whom he has known for many years, fulfil the Indian philosopher Aryadeva’s criteria for fit recipients of knowledge.

“I am known for being frank and in our monastic studies we rely a great deal on citing scriptural sources, but we also need to employ reasoning. In the Buddhist investigation of reality we traditionally employ four principles of reasoning: dependence, function, nature and evidence.”

He said that in their investigations it seems that scientists seek evidence, and to do that they look for function, dependence and nature. Both approaches seem to work in parallel. He also mentioned the four reliances that guide Buddhist investigations: not relying on the person, but on his words; not relying on the words, but on their meaning; not relying on the conventional meaning, but on the ultimate meaning; and not relying only sensory evidence, but on the mind. He also alluded to the Buddhist categorization of phenomena into evident, slightly hidden and completely hidden.

While the Buddhist tradition has developed means of achieving happiness through overcoming the disturbing emotions, science has focussed on material development with an emphasis on seeking truth and reality. Buddhist and modern science involve common approaches to extending knowledge in order to benefit humanity.

“Having preserved the Buddhist tradition of study, reflection and meditation, I hope that the monks here will come to have some idea of the profound investigations involved in science too. In 1955, Chairman Mao praised what he called my scientific turn of mind, and yet in the 1960s the Chinese criticized Buddhism as dependent on blind faith that Tibetans needed to overcome.”

“When I told my tutors of my interest in science, they replied that it made sense. However, although we have an interest in science, that doesn’t mean we have to devote all our energy to it. I spend the majority of my time in meditation on love, compassion and wisdom, which is the source of my interest in science. It is also my training in reasoning and Madhyamika philosophy that gives my way of thinking a quality that is of use to scientists.”

Arthur Zajonc speaking during the first session of the Mind and Life XXVI conference held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 18, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL
In his presentation about Buddhist and Scientific Perspectives, Arthur Zajonc reminded listeners of the correspondence between the young Dalai Lama looking at the moon from the roof of the Potala Palace through his predecessor’s telescope and Galileo’s great discovery several centuries earlier.

“You looked and reasoned. You saw that light from the sun cast shadows on the moon. In 1607, Galileo, using a telescope he’d made, saw the mountains of the moon. He changed the course of scientific investigation. However, in 1633 the Catholic Church tried him for heresy and he was imprisoned under house arrest.”

His Holiness responded,

“It wasn’t that I was looking for the “rabbit in the moon”, but seeing the direction of the shadows I inferred that the source of the light was the sun. I showed my tutors and they agreed with what I’d understood.”

“I believe the course of history has been changed again,” Arthur added, “by this coming together of religion and science, to which His Holiness’s contribution has been immense. And the Mind & Life Institute has taken up the task of bringing the two together.”

Richie Davidson asked,
“Why has Neuroscience been so rich and why have the results so effective? Because many of our questions are also central to Buddhism - what and where is the self? What, in terms of brain activity, is the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual thought and what is the difference between disturbing and positive emotions?”

He gave short visual demonstrations of attention blink, change blindness and recognition of facial expressions, which show that the brain is not always correct in assessing appearances.

“The human brain is probably the most complex piece of matter in the world,” he said, “and yet scientists have very little idea of how it works. However, we do know that it is the source of both delusion and insight.”

In the afternoon session, which concerned the Sweep of Science: Knowledge and the Nature of Reality, Thupten Jinpa explained that he had decided to make his presentation directly in Tibetan. He mentioned that momentary impermanence, a topic crucial to Buddhist philosophy is explained quite differently in the scientific tradition. He noted that last year a decision was taken to incorporate science into the monastic curriculum, but how this could be done still needed to be discussed. Because of their training, introducing science to monks would not be the same as introducing it into ordinary schools.

“If science is a method of inquiry, what are its features? As the President of Mind & Life said this morning when he talked about His Holiness’s interests and observation of the moon, science involves observation, the creation of a hypothesis on the basis of empirical data and the testing of that hypothesis. Both Buddhism and science are committed to processes for getting at the truth.”

His Holiness listened attentively to John Durant giving a presentation on behalf of Anne Harrington his wife, who was unable to do so herself. Wendy Hasenkamp gave a succinct introduction to the functioning of the brain with illustrations of the workings of neurons.

His Holiness speculated that it will be very helpful when neuroscience is able to distinguish between conceptual and non-conceptual processes, making the tantalizing suggestion that one of the occasions when the mind clearly functions on a subtle mental level and sensory input is turned off is the dream state.
 

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