As John mentioned earlier, the Society for Neuroscience invited the Dalai Lama to keynote their (huge) annual conference in DC, and out of general interest I ponied up for a nonmember registration and drove down from Pittsburgh. The talk kicked off an annual series on the potential dialogue between neuroscience and ’empirical’ meditation knowledge bases such as Buddhism, although some neuroscientists protested what they saw as science inappropriately endorsing a particular religion.
Contrary to the critics, the Dalai Lama (known as His Holiness, HHDL, or by his original name Tenzin Gyatso) seems to me the perfect choice to keynote a discussion between neuroscience and traditional mind-body knowledge. HHDL’s Mind and Life Institute has facilitated dialogue between eastern and western students of the mind since 1987, and he has written two books that strongly argue in favor of accomodating modern science in spiritual life.
For those who are interested, here’s a brief rundown of what I gleaned from his talk.
HHDL started, smartly in my opinion, with the question of whether religion should accomodate science. A much younger HHDL discovered while experimenting with a gift telescope that the moon reflects light rather than making its own light, as one revered sanskrit text claimed. Rather than throw out the telescope, HHDL convinced his teacher that the ancient scholar was wrong. He used this to make the larger point that Buddhism’s attitude of open-minded skeptical inquiry should have no problem fitting in with modern science, although he acknowledged that some traditionalists might call him a bit of a rebel.
What can science gain from Buddhism? HHDL’s primary point would sound familiar to anybody who’s read Emmanuel Kant, that is to say that any human activity can be considered good if it has the effect of increasing the positive human qualities. In his view problems almost always come from a basic lack of understanding (ignorance) of the larger situation, which explains his enthusiasm for the research sciences. In his view the more we know about ourselves the less likely we are to misinderstand each other and act out of ignorance. [gratuitous self-shout out: Tim F’s law] He made the point that if and when science produces a simple surgery that removes the harmful emotions he would gladly sign up and save several hours of daily meditation. While he didn’t have lobotomy specifically in mind, neuroscientists can (understandably) misinterpret what he meant and he later was obliged to explain that one should never seek tranquility by numbing one’s critical faculties. In his view inner peace must come from exercising critical thinking rather than subduing it, which suggests that a primary goal of mind research ought to focus on understanding the positive and negative emotions so that we can control them better.
It’s clear that scientific progress is not by itself an unalloyed good thing. HHDL suggested that scientists working in sensitive fields such as neurobiology carry a ‘sense of responsibility’ in what they do [I would insert the observation that in science you’re far more likely to find a ‘sense of employment.’ If the NIH asked for grants to study TV-mediated mind control it’s safe to predict that they would not lack for qualified takers. That message would go more effectively to the civilian policymakers who set funding priorities]. In response to a tricky question about animal research he suggested that researchers who have a sense of empathy with the animals on which they experiment will incur less harm [in my experience they also do better research], and that one must always weigh the harm they do against the greater good.
HHDL reminded me a bit of the author and researcher Edward O. Wilson in that the most genial people sometimes have no problem setting off the real-world version of a board-crippling flame war. HHDL ended his short speech by declaring that any religious leader who doesn’t represent ‘fundamental human values’ (compassion, humility, affection) is irreligious and a hypocrite. That’s nearly a direct quote. His telescope story also constitutes an implicit criticism of the western fundamentalists who had every access to science that the insular Tibetans never had and nonetheless choose to throw away the telescope. In your face, Pat.
New title has more zip.