Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dalai Lama: Science, Buddhism and the Mind

H.H., the 14th Dalai Lama
From his writings and talks it is clear that the Dalai Lama is one of the world religious leaders, perhaps the world religious leader, most influenced and accommodative to learning from, and perfecting his religious knowledge with, the teachings of modern science.

In his introduction to the XIV Mind and Life Conference convened in 2007 in Dharamsala, the Tibetan leader-in-exile's residence, and based around his 2005 book, "The Universe in a Single Atom," the Dalai Lama observed that there were two challenges facing Buddhism in Asia: the first a political challenge, which he declares "not serious," and the second challenge coming from modern science itself.
"From the Buddhist point of view, and particularly from the Nalanda (or) Sanskrit based tradition," he observed, "one can see this reality as a challenge (and) opportunity for further exploration and discussion. These challenges can be seen as an opportunity for gaining new, fresh insights. We have brought this point up right from the beginning of our Mind and Life dialogues, that from the particular view of this particular brand or lineage of the Nalanda tradition, since the fundamental epistemological standpoint of this tradition is to really appreciate the need for evidence and reasoned-based understanding."
"So that, if there are certain facts, which as a result of experiment and based upon evidence, if we see clear evidence of their presence, then these are something Buddhists will have to accept as part of their reality. And if there are certain facts which even may have been part of the Buddha's heritage for a long time, and mentioned in the sutras and so on, if as a result of constant investigation and experiment no evidence is found, and furthermore if contrary evidence is found from the scientific side, then even if these have been part of the Buddhist tradition and explicitly mentioned in the texts, then we will have to reinterpret them."
"As far as external matters are concerned," he notes, "I think modern science (is) a more elaborate authority. I feel like that. Now, as far as internal matters, emotions or mind, (in) that field Buddhist, like ancient Indian thought, I think long experience and a long history (has) maybe some potential to contribute understanding about emotion or mind, and also how to teach sophisticated emotions."
"The Universe in a Single Atom' is a personal, and very successful attempt to chart the interface of Buddhist teachings and the new physics, particularly the remarkably similar (although differently termed) teachings of the Bhuddist Abhidarma teachings and quantum theory.

Explaining the importance of the Abidharma teachings on 'emptiness' - a concept expounded by the great Mahayana scholar Nagarjuna - the Dalai Lama writes that "at its heart," the concept of 'emptiness' "is (a) deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed definable, discrete, and enduring reality."

"According to the theory of emptiness," he writes, "any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self contained."

This remark is, of course, markedly similar on its face to Einstein's famous quote:

"A human being is part of the whole called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of 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 the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

The videos below, follow the lengthy proceedings of the XIV Mind and Life Conference, session by session. Readers may want to select from amongst the different talks by subject to see just how closely these leading minds from Buddhism and various scientific fields come to a convergence where spirituality and insights from meditative contemplation meet leading-edge science.

DAY ONE A.M. - Introductory remarks by the Dalai Lama. The Buddhism-Science Collaboration and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge: Exposing the Fracture Points. Dialogue Leader: Evan Thompson.

DAY ONE P.M. - Atomism, Emptiness, Interdependence and the Role of the Observer in Quantum Physics and Buddhism. Dialogue Leaders: Anton Zeilinger and Arthur Zajonc.

DAY TWO A.M. - Mental process underlying attention, visual perception, and cognitive control.

DAY TWO P.M. - Paying attention to awareness - "attention", "mindfulness" and "clear comprehension".

DAY THREE A.M. - Mental processes for attention and cognitive control in children and adolescents.

Day Three P.M. - The utility of improving attention and working memory with mindfulness-based training.

DAY FOUR A.M. - The attention-emotion interface.

DAY FOUR P.M. - Consciousness. Dialogue Leaders: Wolf Singer, Richard Davidson and Evan Thompson

DAY FIVE A.M. - Embodiment and intersubjectivity - empirical and phenomenological approaches.


DAY FIVE P.M. - Education, application, Buddhism and technology.

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