Being There

The Dalai Lama Gets Buddhism and Neuroscience to Go Face to Face

Magazine Issue
January/February 2006
Being There

It was early November in Washington, and the press conference, in Constitution Hall just off The Mall, was crowded with reporters and photographers. His red-robed Holiness the Dalai Lama, flanked by men in classy dark suits, including meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson, and the president of Georgetown University’s Medical School, was pondering my question about science and religion. “Given the American conflict between devotees of evolution and adherents of creationism,” I’d asked, “how does Your Holiness reconcile your interest in modern science with the creation myths of Tibetan Buddhism?”

Tenzin Gyatzo—Ocean of Wisdom, embodiment of compassion, the exiled Buddhist monk believed by many Tibetans to be the 14th reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama, born in 1935 in a part of Tibet so medieval that a pocket watch was an advanced machine—gave a rumbling cough and flung a corner of his robe higher over one bare, muscular shoulder. He was vigorous and down-to-earth, and, despite the honorifics, there was nothing self-consciously holy about him. Looking over his glasses at me and 20 or so other reporters from publications ranging from The Washington Post to The Shambhala Sun, he began speaking rapidly in Tibetan.

“The basic understanding of the emergence of cosmos in Buddhism is based on the interactions of the basic elements: water, air . . .,” his dark-suited translator, Thupten Jinpa, began in his impeccable Oxbridge accent. “No!” His Holiness interrupted, in English. “First, element of space.” He sliced his hand down. “Then, energy.” The hand came down again. “Then heat, then water, then . . . solid. So there is no conflict with science there. A natural process.”

“But when there is a conflict?” I pressed on.

“In one Abbhidharma text, there are concepts of world systems, universes resting on Mt. Meru, and things like that. It is so evident that we have to reject them,” the Dalai Lama went on, lapsing in and out of Tibetan and English as the cameras flashed, occasionally pausing for his translator to catch up. “I am often telling people that if the author of that book—a great Indian master, on other subjects his writing is very authentic—but as far as the cosmos is concerned, if he reappeared out of the 4th century, he’d have to rewrite all these things.” He raised his eyebrows and stared at us.

“One of the basic stands in Buddhist epistemology is that if a person upholds any particular viewpoint or tenet that is contrary to reason, then that person cannot be accepted as worthy of engagement,” he said. “And even more so in the case of someone who rejects the evidence of empirical facts.”

That set the tone for three days of sometimes laborious and occasionally luminous onstage conversations between the Dalai Lama, a sprinkling of Western contemplatives, and a phalanx of heavy-hitting research scientists from institutions like Stanford University, the National Institutes of Health, The Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, and the University of California, San Francisco. Interrupted briefly halfway through when the Dalai Lama went to the White House to meet with George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, the colloquies, held before an audience of 1,700, were part tutorial on psychoneuroimmunology and neuroscience, part pseudo living-room conversation, and part Readers Digest condensed version of the latest scientific research into meditation.

Although the Dalai Lama has met privately with leading Western scientists in similar gatherings 13 times since 1987, this was only the second such dialogue to be open to the public. Sponsored by the nonprofit Mind and Life Institute, the conference title was “The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation.”

Much of the science, on the health advantages of meditation, turned out to be old hat. It’s amazing how thoroughly meditation has moved from the fringes to the scientific mainstream. However, watching monks and scientists grope painfully toward a common language to describe great mysteries wasn’t old hat at all.

Each day, two complex, highly sophisticated cultures, long strangers to each other, attempted to find points of overlap and contact. Except in brief flashes, each dumbed itself down in the effort to make contact, and much was lost in translation. At some point, nearly everyone onstage looked confused enough to need an interpreter.

Each morning and afternoon, the Dalai Lama walked onstage, waved, and smiled at the audience. He then joined assorted monks and scientists seated in comfortable chairs around coffee tables banked with pots of red flowers. The idea was to create the impression of a salon in the Dalai Lama’s living room in Dharamsala, India, but the set was determinedly secular—heavy on laptops, suits, and bottled water, and lacking a single Buddha image, meditation bell, or brocade throne. The Dalai Lama would pull down an orange golf visor to protect his eyes from the stage lights, fiddle with his robes, and then listen politely as a rotating cast of scientists, some seeming almost awestruck in his presence, opened up their laptops and projected PowerPoint slides onto huge overhead screens like those in sports stadiums.

The aspects of meditation highlighted on those screens—compressed into bar graphs and bulleted lists—bore little resemblance to a silent Zen retreat or the guttural chanting of Tibetan monks in the midst of meditative visualization. The screens displayed only a tiny part of the Buddhist story: meditation as a source of emotional, physical, and mental stability. But in the Buddhist tradition, that stability is just a starting point, a foundational practice that’s buttressed by ethical behavior and the cultivation of positive mental states like compassion and equanimity, as well as by a deeper investigation into the nature of mind, self, and reality. The hope is that, over many years, practicing these activities will catalyze the profound shift in perspective that Buddhists call insight, awakening, or enlightenment.

But Western science has no words for “opening the dharma eye,” few for the notion of compassion, and even fewer for conveying the possibility that the felt sense of a solid, permanent human identity is an illusion. Except in quantum physics, science’s articulated concerns remain overwhelmingly within the discrete, the linear, and the quantifiable. As a result, the scientists at the conference—even those with meditation training—started out at the shallow end of the pool.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, for instance, reprised research showing that his Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction, a secularized form of Vipassana Meditation, speeds up the healing of psoriasis treated with ultraviolet light, and has improved immune function and mood in novice meditators working at a high-stress biotech company. Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto described how his mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which builds on Kabat-Zinn’s work, had reduced relapse rates in people with chronic depression from 66 percent to 34 percent by teaching them to turn away from rumination and emotional numbing in favor of nonjudgmental awareness of emotional states, whether disappointment or joy.

Then neuroscientist Richard Davidson waded a little deeper into the water, describing how, when one advanced Buddhist monk meditated on compassion, his brain produced some of the fastest waves ever recorded in the left prefrontal cortex. The same monk, a later experiment showed, could consciously shift from one meditative state to another in 90-second increments, and those shifts were reflected in his brain imaging.

This, Davidson suggested, was welcome news for ordinary mortals, because it confirms the brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to reshape itself with mental training—just as Buddhist masters have maintained for centuries. “Compassion and happiness aren’t fixed states, but skills,” Davidson said, touching on ethical concerns rarely mentioned at science conferences. “They can be trained, and we see significant changes after only several weeks of [meditative] practice. They aren’t inaccessible to the ordinary person.”

That gave the colloquy’s only Christian advocate of meditative prayer, Father Thomas Keating, a chance to try to draw the waders into even deeper water. “This is the beginning of taking contemplative experience seriously,” he said, suggesting that there are fruits of meditation that appear on entirely different radar screens than do curing psoriasis, reducing depression relapse, or even developing compassion. “The new physics is saying things more mystical than any Sunday sermon about our extraordinary interconnectedness and interdependence,” he continued. “Scientists are finding that we mystics weren’t stupid after all.”

And so it went, with frequent missteps. On the first afternoon, for instance, Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University spoke of “adventitious suffering”—the human ability, unique among mammals, to layer optional distress atop inevitable pain. Our bodies and brains, explained Sapolsky, were shaped by evolution to mobilize against sudden, acute stresses, such as physical threats. But we produce the same cascades of neurochemicals when we face a glowering boss or quarrel with a neighbor, and, over time, this damages brain cells and almost every other bodily organ.

Not surprisingly, the notion of adventitious, or extra, suffering became a major subtheme at the conference, since Buddhism’s basic texts emphasize how life’s ordinary pains are amplified by the workings of the human mind: its tendency to regret the past, desperately crave the pleasant, hysterically push away the unpleasant, and worry about the future. But Sapolsky’s presentation left the Dalai Lama foundering in the thickets of the Tibetan/English language barrier. “We are trying to find a Tibetan word for stress,” his translator explained, bedeviled by the fact that the English word covers a multitude of phenomena, from social challenge to torture.

There was another awkward silence when Sapolsky threw up a PowerPoint list of the effects of stress on male and female reproductive systems, which included the term erectile dysfunction. “I must say,” Sapolsky said, as the Dalai Lama and his translator conferred again under their breaths and the crowd burst out in relieved, nervous laughter, “I never in my life thought that I’d be sitting on a stage with the Dalai Lama talking about erections.”

And the confusion over a mutual vocabulary continued. “There’s social stress, hierarchy stress, physical stress,” Esther Greenberg, an NIH researcher in psychoneuroimmunology said later on, a little desperately, realizing that she and the Dalai Lama were not only speaking different languages, but using different conceptual frames. “Is there such a thing as stress in your tradition? And how can we start a dialogue with you if we’re using different terms?”

Father Keating chimed in on a more positive note, saying that it was amazing the two cultures were talking at all. “For four hundred years, science and religion have been at each other’s throats, when they even got that close,” he noted.

Yet the disjunctions between the Western and Eastern viewpoints threaded through each day, sometimes embodied within a single person. “I live two lives,” said the pediatrician and Zen teacher Jan Chozen Bays, her bright face shining above her formal, black and white Japanese robes. “The Zen teacher in me sees that when people begin to practice, it’s almost like they’ve been given a vitamin. It could be that meditation practice is supplying them something absolutely essential—as essential as sleep, food, or being loved.

“Yet we’ve been hearing that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction can cure everything from asthma to heart disease to psoriasis,” she went on. “And the medical part of me says that’s too simplistic, and that as we unfold this more, it won’t be so simple. Whenever someone says, ‘Oh this medicine can cure everything,’ I get very skeptical. It sounds like snake oil.”

If anything became clear over the three days, it was that meditation isn’t the simple relaxation technique Western scientists once assumed it was, nor is it a single hammer capable of hitting any nail. Like exercise, the term covers panoplies of specific trainings that may produce different patterns in brain imaging, and few have been studied thus far. “There are dozens of mindfulness practices, and hundreds of forms of concentration practice, mantras, visualizations, contemplations,” pointed out Jack Kornfield, a California clinical psychologist and Vipassana Meditation teacher. “One of my teachers described 21 levels of silence—the silence of darkness; luminous silence, where the body space becomes filled with light; silence with or without content. There are meditations on compassion, lovingkindness, joy, equanimity. All have many different levels and many different trainings. I’d like to have them differentiated.”

To complicate matters further, the Dalai Lama explained, all forms of meditation are only one leg of the three-legged stool of the Buddhist contemplative tradition. The other two are ethical training and insight. “At the initial stage, one needs to find a way of restraining from impulsive, destructive behavior. You adopt a set of precepts or a code of life,” explained the Dalai Lama. “Then, since this destructive behavior stems from restless, undisciplined states of mind, you cultivate mental stability. Then you apply your mind with focused attention to deal with negative and destructive tendencies. The actual antidote for those tendencies is the insight—recognition that the various problems of an undisciplined state of mind are rooted in a false grasping at self.”

Yes but, what exactly did he mean by this? Ironically, it was left to two German non-Buddhists, one living and one dead, to put what the Dalai Lama had said in terms that a Westerner might understand. The living German was Wolf Singer, director of the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt, who spoke on the final day of the conference. Referring to his 30 years of research on the neuroimages of cat, rat, and human brains, he called attention to how diffused our brain functions really are. “Intuitively, we’ve always had the idea that there ought to be a coherence center somewhere in the brain where decisions are reached,” he said. “But there is no such center. The brain has no command structure. It’s a highly distributed system, with many functions occurring simultaneously—an orchestra without a conductor. An object (of perception) in the brain is reproduced by many thousands of neurons, all working simultaneously, never coming together in one place.”

At the same time, Singer added, the human brain has been shaped ad hoc by evolution, so it sees events in simple, hierarchical, linear, cause-and-effect terms, and is basically incapable of understanding its own complexity. “We lack the intelligence,” he said, “to understand these things.

The complex, nonlinear systems that we can’t understand, he suggested, exist not only inside the human brain, but outside as well. “The system we’re in cannot be controlled by us—it’s evolutionarily nonlinear. We cannot deliberately steer it. So let’s try to become a little more humble, reduce the emphasis on the almighty self, and enjoy openness, the maybe—be comfortable with it, and not try to produce certainties.”

To this, the Dalai Lama later responded. “You referred to the notion of a controller self. Three thousand years ago, intelligent people began to investigate where is ‘I,’ but we cannot find that self.” Like the headlights of two great freight trains converging through the darkness from distant points on the map, the two men illuminated territory impossible to put into words fully.

What they were getting at is perhaps best summarized by a slide containing a quote from the dead German scientist, Albert Einstein, displayed earlier on one of overhead screens. It said:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

“This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation, and a foundation for inner security.”




Katy Butler

Katy Butler, a former features editor and staff writer for Psychotherapy Networker, is the author of two award-winning books about aging and living meaningfully in life’s final quarter, especially in relation to modern medicine. Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2013) was a New York Times Bestseller and Notable Book of the Year. The Art of Dying Well (2019) is a road map —practical, medical, and spiritual —through the significant passages of life after 55. Katy’s groundbreaking work for the Networker was nominated for one National Magazine Award and contributed to several other NMA awards and nominations. Her writing has also  appeared in the The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Tricycle: the Buddhist Quarterly, Scientific American, Best American Essays, and Best American Science Writing. Other honors include first-place awards from the National Association of Science Writers and the Association of Health Care Journalists; a “Best First Book” award; and a finalist nomination for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in northern California and loves to dance in the kitchen to Alexa with her husband Brian.