Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, India - As participants in the first Mind & Life Conversation and an audience of about 50 people awaited His Holiness the Dalai Lama this morning, the sound of his laughter preceded him before he entered the room. He wished them all, “Good morning,” shook hands with the participants and greeted several other old friends.
“Thank you for organizing this opportunity—wonderful,” he told them once he’d sat down. “Followers of the Pali Tradition of Buddhism accept the Buddha’s words as they are, but followers of the Sanskrit Tradition ask why? why? and even question what the Buddha said. Scholars like Nagarjuna, Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti examined the Buddha’s words closely and classified some of his instructions as definitive, but others as requiring interpretation.
“The Buddha encouraged his followers to be sceptical—”As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so, bhikshus, should you accept my words only after testing them, and not merely out of respect for me”. So, he gave us the liberty to investigate. I respect all the major religious traditions, but this advice is unique to Buddhism. It encourages questioning and using our human brains to the full.
“I also want to say how much I appreciate the Mind & Life Institute and what it has achieved.”
Mind & Life President, Susan Bauer-Wu, who was moderating today’s meeting, thanked His Holiness and told him how happy she and her colleagues were to be back in Dharamsala again and to see His Holiness in such good health. She explained that the conversations they were going to have would focus on three themes: compassion, interconnection and transformation. She introduced the two presenters, David Sloan Wilson and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela.
“One of the purposes of this kind of meeting,” His Holiness responded, “is to expand our knowledge. Modern science has detailed knowledge of the material world, but much less understanding of mind and our inner world. The second purpose, in the context of highly developed knowledge and complex economies, is to ask whether people are happy. We face a lot of problems, many of them of our own making. In today’s world, climate change is hard to control, there is a growing gap between rich and poor, and wars continue to be fought, in which science is used to kill. There is too much stress on differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
“We are at peace together here, and yet elsewhere people like us are killing each other. As human beings we have a responsibility to reduce if not eliminate such problems. This is why we’re here.
“We need to find ways to educate people about the importance of combining the potential of our marvellous brains with warm-heartedness. Scientists tell us that constant anger and hatred are bad for our health, whereas if we have a compassionate mind, everything appears in a positive light. We 7 billion human beings are the same. We belong to one community. We have to live side by side on this one planet. This is why we have to promote human values and ethics.”
David Sloan Wilson took up His Holiness’s theme, expressing his admiration for His Holiness’s love of science, his truth telling and his call for ethics for a whole world. He admires his courageous stewardship of Tibetan religion and culture and the humility with which he says he thinks of himself as just another human being.
“I’m a scientist who studies evolution in terms of variation, selection and replication. Due to these three opportunities organisms are shaped by their environment. When I was a student, evolution was only about genetic evolution. Everything was said to be selfish and to have no higher purpose. These theories have given way to ideas of compassion, transformation and so forth, I’m proud to say.
“I’d like to tell you about some experiments we’ve done with chickens. What we want is for chickens to lay more eggs. We chose the most productive hen to create the next generations. At the same time, we chose the most productive cage of chickens and bred others from them. It turned out that the most productive individual hen was a bully and after five generations we had produced a sociopath. On the other hand, the most productive cage or group turned out to be the most peaceable and after five generations seemed almost compassionate.
“We discovered that egg-laying is not so much an individual achievement as a social process. Natural selection is based on relative fitness. On an individual or small scale, it can be negative and destructive. Natural selection in terms of groups favours cooperation.”
In relation to evolution His Holiness remarked that our sun is about 5 billion years old, but life seems to have emerged 1 billion years ago with the appearance of micro-organisms. What he wanted to know was what differentiates particles that create the conditions to sustain consciousness. What is it that gives rise to an organism that is capable of supporting consciousness? Does it just happen at random? Wilson replied that evolutionary selection is not necessarily conscious.
“And when we discuss feelings,” His Holiness suggested, “I think we should take account of ancient Indian psychology, which sees mind as a continuum rather than a monolith. I’ve heard that each individual has their own different chromosomes. Is there a connection between chromosomes and consciousness?”
In his reply, Wilson mentioned that in addition to genes we have systems of symbols and the evolution of meaning systems. These relate to positive behaviour in groups. His Holiness asked about how apes’ brains compared to those of human beings. Wilson informed him that compared to human beings, apes are much less cooperative. That human beings are more peaceable is something we have selected ourselves.
Susan Bauer-Wu intervened to close the first part of the meeting. She acknowledged that human beings do have a capacity to be selfish and self-serving. She asked how this can be resisted and how it can be arranged that kind people are not just taken advantage of?
“In infancy our natural benevolent qualities are more prevalent,” noted His Holiness. “However, education changes this by introducing a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Instead we should ensure that education also emphasizes the oneness of all human beings and the fact that we have to live together.”
After a short break to rearrange the chairs to bring more people into the discussion, Richie Davidson said he wanted to go back to His Holiness’s question about apes’ brains and point out that we need to look at the size of brains in relation to the size of animals’ whole bodies. An elephant’s brain is bigger than a human brain, but its body is bigger than a human’s too. He also suggested that in terms of what distinguishes conditions for supporting consciousness from the lack of it, the answer is complexity.
David Sloan Wilson contributed the clarification that all important words have multiple meanings and that instead of talking about consciousness it would be simpler to refer to being ‘intentional’ and ‘goal directed’. Davidson responded that single cell organisms can be said to be goal directed, but the evidence is that they don’t feel pain. He also posed the question, “Does conscious evolution have an effect on physical evolution?” Wilson introduced the notion of epigenetics, the study of heritable changes that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence.
“The fundamental thing,” His Holiness declared, “is that there is a phenomenon we call ‘consciousness’. In connection with this and the continuity of consciousness, there are people who have clear and detailed memories of past lives. Indian tradition suggests that it is the self or ‘atman’ that has no beginning. Buddhists say that what continues is subtle consciousness. Although sensory awareness depends on the presence of an object and sense organs, there is a third factor—the experience of an immediately preceding consciousness.”
His Holiness went on to allude to ‘thuk-dam’, the circumstances following the clinical death of an accomplished meditator when, despite the cessation of breathing circulation and so forth, the body remains fresh. It is explained that this is because the deceased is absorbed in the subtlest consciousness that manifests at the time of death. Richie Davidson is involved in a project to examine such cases whenever possible to seek a scientific explanation of what is going on.
Davidson reminded the gathering that a member of the board of Mind & Life Europe, Wolf Singer, had remarked, “If this is true, we’re in big trouble,” to which His Holiness responded, “There are many things we still don’t know.”
Returning to the more general theme, His Holiness stated that what is needed is scientific evidence that cultivating a more compassionate mind is better for our health and for ensuring a happier community. He reiterated the necessity of promoting a sense that in being human we are the same and that each of us is part of the human community.
A question was raised about self-interest being a trait in individual evolution, while in groups or social situations generosity is more successful. Wilson remarked that if you’re a giver surrounded by other givers, it works well. Davidson commented that His Holiness has spoken of the importance of motivation.
His Holiness responded that human beings regard altruism as something good. It indicates a respect for others. “To care for the community,” he added, “is to care for yourself. To be merely self-serving is to ignore your own benefit. And it’s unrealistic.
“Warm-heartedness is not blind when it is combined with intelligence. We view behaviour as harsh or gentle largely on the basis of appearances, but the real distinction depends on the motivation with which it is done.”
Asked to reimagine education, His Holiness replied, “There is no tradition of training the mind through investigation and analysis included in modern education. But training the mind is important. The ancient Indian practices for cultivating a calmly abiding mind and insight into reality gave rise to the conduct of non-violence supported by an attitude of compassion.
“Therefore, a reimagined education system would include tackling the emotions and achieving peace of mind in a secular context. It would involve wishing for the well-being of humanity in an objective, thoughtful way. Where Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated the efficacy of non-violence in the 20th century, here in the 21st century I believe we can show how effective training the mind and emotions can be.”
Richard Davidson brought the meeting to close, thanking His Holiness for giving his time and agreeing to meet again the day after tomorrow.