The Dalai Lama’s Scientific Agenda

It’s not surprising that His Holiness the Dalai Lama—who likes to say that if he hadn’t become a monk, he’d have been an engineer—should so often find himself involved with the paradoxical relationship of the material and the spiritual. On his fall trip to the U.S., which coincided with publication of his new book, The Universe in a Single Atom, he gave teachings in Tucson, New York City, and San Francisco, and joined a webcast dialogue at Stanford University between neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars during a daylong program called “Craving, Suffering and Choice: Spiritual and Scientific Explorations of Human Experience.” In Washington, D.C., he participated in three days of dialogue on the science and clinical applications of meditation at the thirteenth meeting of the Mind and Life Institute, which he cofounded in 1987 to foster dialogue and research between modern science and contemplative traditions, especially Buddhism.

Dalai Lama: Life and Mind meetings

The Mind and Life meetings, five two- to three-hour sessions cohosted by Georgetown University Medical Center and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, generated intense dialogue between spiritual practitioners and neuroscientists, biologists, and psychologists. The scientists outlined recent cutting-edge data on neuroplasticity, immunology, stress, chronic depression, neural pathways in normal and abnormal mood states, mindfulness-based stress reduction therapies, and brain-imaging studies that seem to verify and quantify specific neurological effects of meditation. These presentations generated probing questions from His Holiness, the dharma teachers who joined him on stage, and practitioners in the audience. But the presentation that aroused particular interest was by Frankfurt-based researcher Wolf Singer on the widely distributed patterns of neuronal firing in the cerebral cortex, because it seemed to confirm—or at least support—the no-self vision of Buddhism.

One day after the Mind and Life meetings, the Dalai Lama delivered the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience. His invitation to do so was controversial. In the days leading up to the meeting, 1,002 brain researchers signed a petition stating that his appearance would “highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromised scientific rigor and objectivity.” A counter-petition, signed by 895, argued that since “science itself can be viewed as its own sort of religion … the very opposition to mixing religion and science may itself be a form of religious belief.”

The petition’s ultimate effect was minimal—there was no on-site protest, and the Society itself demonstrated vigorous support for the Dalai Lama’s visit. Dr. Carol Barnes, the Society of Neuroscience president, defended her decision, saying, “The practice of meditation is a human behavior, and the Dalai Lama is extraordinarily skilled at it and at promoting qualities of peace and compassion.”

LARRY SHAINBERG is a freelance writer and author of the memoir Ambivalent Zen.