Thoughts on the mind from the Dalai Lama

The Buddhist leader is coming to Stanford to continue the conversation

The Mind and Life Institute

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, can trace the beginnings of his lifelong interest in science to the ticking of a clock. During his youth in a monastery, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled leader and the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, was so fascinated by the movement of gears in a mechanical watch that he took it apart and put it back together — all without any guidance. His appetite for scientific knowledge grew after receiving a telescope and a globe. He once said that if he hadn’t become a monk, he would have been an engineer.

Throughout his life, the Dalai Lama has sought out conversations with experts in a variety of scientific fields, including several meetings with Western neuroscientists. He plans to continue that dialogue during a two-day visit to the Stanford campus Nov. 4 and 5.

The School of Medicine will sponsor a daylong symposium Nov. 5 titled, “Craving, suffering and choice: Spiritual and scientific explorations of human experience,” featuring the Dalai Lama, Buddhist scholars and scientists from Stanford’s Neuroscience Institute and UCSF. Buddhists, with their 2,500-year-old tradition of introspective inquiry into the nature of the mind, are thought to have much to offer to neuroscience. Conversely, Western research tools and concepts could help test the insights that come from Buddhist practice and better understand the mental states achieved through meditation.

Take part

Complete information about the Dalai Lama’s campus visit is available online at or by calling (650) 723-4441. Tickets to the public sessions are sold out, but the events will be broadcast live on the Web site.

“Both cultures see brain function as important, and both are informed by observations, in other words, they are empiric,” says William Mobley, MD, PhD, Stanford medical alumnus, class of ’76, and director of the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford. “But there are more than a few things that distinguish them. Important differences involve the methods of analysis and the levels at which observations are collected.”

Born in 1935 to a peasant family in Tibet, the Dalai Lama was recognized at the age of 2 as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama and thus an incarnation of the Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion. At age 15, he became Tibet’s head of state after Tibet was invaded by China. He fled his homeland in 1959 following a failed uprising against China’s occupying forces. Approximately 80,000 Tibetans followed him into exile.

The Dalai Lama, who has become known worldwide for his advocacy of peace, tolerance and compassion, lives in Dharamsala, India, where he serves as Tibet’s religious and political leader and works to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Talking Buddhism and science

What follows are glimpses of the Dalai Lama’s perspective on what science and Buddhism can offer each other: first, a book excerpt and second, conversation that took place this summer when Mobley and a Stanford delegation visited the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala to discuss the upcoming symposium.

From the Dalai Lama’s foreword to the 2003 book, Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them?

Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: Seeking the truth. In Buddhist training, it is essential to investigate reality, and science offers its own ways to go about this investigation. While the purposes of science may differ from those of Buddhism, both ways of searching for truth expand our knowledge and understanding.

The dialogue between science and Buddhism is a two-way conversation. We Buddhists can make use of the findings of science to clarify our understanding of the world we live in. But scientists may also be able to utilize some insights from Buddhism.

I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. … However, a clear distinction should be made between what is not found by science and what is found to be nonexistent by science. What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions.

With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play in reminding us of our humanity. What we must do is balance scientific and material progress with the sense of responsibility that comes of inner development. That is why I believe this dialogue between religion and science is important, for from it may come developments that can be of great benefit to mankind.

Adapted from a conversation on May 27, 2005, in Dharamsala:

On objectivity in the study of emotions:

Dalai Lama: One can envision a process of scientific analysis to which you carry no value judgments; you are interested in uncovering the real nature of what is being examined, and make no evaluative judgments. In the study of mind or consciousness, you can envision a similar process; you just keep on probing and probing and probing.

At the same time, there must be some consideration of the implications of the findings — a sense of moral responsibility. I have heard that there were some physicists who worked on the atomic bomb and recognized the tremendously destructive implications of the work if it were to be used wrongly, and, in some instances, they shied away from the research.

The challenge is how to ensure real objectivity in your scientific research. If someone is inquiring into the physiology of the brain and is motivated predominantly by the wish to somehow prove that an emotion is valuable, then that is not really objective. To ensure that it is a scientific process, one has to suspend the judgment and just pursue whatever you observe.

We have to find a balance so that the actual scientific process is not diluted. Objectivity is the strength of science. But once the science is revealed, then we should not ignore the question of its implications — whether positive or negative.

On understanding the neural basis of compassion and other emotions:

Dalai Lama: Compassion, or loving kindness, is experienced by individuals in many different ways. Some Christian sects call it faith in god, and they experience it with a deep intensity. Buddhists use different methods to produce this same strong state of mind. Perhaps there could be investigations to determine whether the different methods produce different intensities of the  emotion. The emotion of compassion may be the same, but we could see if at a brain level the differences in the methods  of the emotions that are manifested.

Mobley: One way to have a real dialogue is for neuroscientists using the best methods and the best tools to begin to understand the brain basis of compassion — to be able to measure that and publish that and really captivate a larger body of neuroscientists. Right now, neuroscientists are excited about watching brain circuits function and, to some extent, decoding what the neurons say to each other. Understanding the brain basis of compassion would be an experiment that would allow us, if done very well, to essentially map meaning onto the circuits, which no one has done yet. If we can map the meaning onto the circuits that are operative, we could distinguish between different states of compassion. It might then be possible to teach people to become compassionate — that would be the application.

Dalai Lama: One thing I would be interested in is mapping the various types of mental states. For example, Buddhists have a typology of the different types of perceptions: Those that are analytical are distinct from those that are sensory. Another is the emotion of satisfaction. There is the sense of satisfaction that can be very spontaneous, and there is another sense of satisfaction that is achieved after contemplation. If there is a way of somehow mapping these different states, that would be very interesting. We’re not talking about any type of evaluative judgments, just objective study.

Mobley: The hypothesis for such an experiment would be that if there’s a difference between two types of compassion, there would be a brain basis for the difference, and it will be discoverable. Maybe not tomorrow, but in time there will be methods to distinguish between them. This is a challenge. The methods are not where they need to be. I would also say that if there are complex but well-defined mental typologies — and we can bring those out — it will drive neuroscience to build better tools to discover these concepts. We’ll have to work hard to catch up with you.

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