Science and Buddhism | Thubten Chodron http://thubtenchodron.org The Thubten Chodron Teaching Archive Sun, 20 Aug 2017 19:43:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Connecting women scientists and Buddhist nuns http://thubtenchodron.org/2017/06/feminism-buddhism-science/ Fri, 23 Jun 2017 16:03:50 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=79781

At the 2016 Emory-Tibet Symposium on “Bridging Science and Buddhism for Mutual Enrichment” held at Drepung Monastery in South India, Venerable Chodron met Dr. Nicole Ackerman, an enthusiastic young Assistant Professor of Physics at Agnes Scott College. Nicole was part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative teaching science to monks through summer intensive courses in India, but she wondered, “What about the nuns?”

Coincidentally, Venerable Chodron had been asked to give a talk to the nuns at Jangchub Choeling Nunnery outside the symposium program, so she invited Nicole to come along. Word spread amongst the women scientists, and a group of four scientists (with two partners in tow) joined Venerable Chodron’s visit to Jangchub Choeling Nunnery, sharing ideas over dinner on how to bring more nuns into the science program, before attending Venerable Chodron’s Dharma talk.

A year later, Venerable Chodron was delighted to receive an update from Nicole about the physics class for nuns she that she co-taught with Dr. Heidi Manning at the Drepung Loseling Science and Meditation Center through the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative:

41 hard working nuns from five different nunneries enthusiastically completed the class activities, consistently asked good questions, and helped each other understand the physics topics that we covered. The average on the test was 81%. While the test changes from year to year, this is a much higher average than the monks typically earn on their physics tests! We were told that the nuns’ average on the philosophy test was higher than any class of monks.

The year one physics curriculum is an overview of a number of physics topics, while future years will go in to more depth on each topic. I hope that the nuns all have the opportunity to continue in the program so that they deepen their knowledge. Based on their questions, they were trying to form connections between their Buddhist studies and what they were learning in physics. I am sure they will think of many questions over the next year!

It was an incredible experience for me, and I hope that I have the opportunity to return and teach in the future. Their questions always show me that I can improve my understanding of physics—the monks and nuns catch places where my terminology or logic is sloppy! Many people asked about the differences between teaching the monks and nuns: I found the nuns to be much more engaged! More of the nuns spoke some English and they were much less shy. It was wonderful to be able to talk to them and work with them directly.

Nicole also sent photos that she kindly gave permission to post below. This is the first year that a full class of nuns has attended the science program, and their passion for learning shows. May this exchange between scientists and monastics continue to deepen and grow, for their mutual benefit and for the benefit of humanity!

A group of Tibetan nuns and two laypeople looking at a chart. Two Tibetan nuns and two laypeople talking to each other.

First topics: light and shadow, phases of the moon


Measuring speed with stopwatches, making a table, making a plot.

A group of Tibetan nuns, one smiling. A group of Tibetan nuns standing outside.
A group of Tibetan nuns studying.


Two skateboards: Newton’s 3rd law!

Two Tibetan nuns on skateboards speaking to a layperson.

Spring scales for measuring forces and exploring Newton’s laws. A fun demo showing that circular motion can happen even when our intuition says things will fall.

A group of Tibetan nuns studying. Smiling Tibetan nuns in class.
A Tibetan nun waving and smiling.


In the computer lab, everyone explored the structure of atoms using a simulation.

Tibetan nuns looking at computer screens. A Tibetan nun looking at a computer screen.

Telescope night at Jangchub Choeling – the clouds were sometimes in the way, but everyone saw the moon, Jupiter, and the moons of Jupiter.

Tibetan nuns looking at the sky through a telescope.

Response sheets ensure that everyone participates and the instructors know how many people are confused.

Tibetan nuns sitting in class. Tibetan nuns sitting in class.
A group of Tibetan nuns talking to each other.


One day was spent on circuits and Ohm’s law – everyone made some impressive circuits out of batteries, switches, and light bulbs. Much creativity was on display!

Tibetan nuns working in class together. Tibetan nuns working in class together.
A Tibetan nun writing on a white board. Tibetan nuns building a circuit board.
Tibetan nuns studying together. A group of Tibetan nuns with two laywomen.
A group of Tibetan nuns with three laywomen. Two Tibetan nuns and three laywomen.

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Healing the mind http://thubtenchodron.org/2014/12/psychology-buddhist-compassion/ Sun, 14 Dec 2014 16:04:07 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=38574

  • Clarifying misconceptions about compassion
  • The importance of self-care when practicing compassion
  • Self-awareness supports sustainable compassion
  • Dealing with guilt
  • Working with people who make empty promises

YouTube Video

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“Living with an Open Heart” book launch http://thubtenchodron.org/2014/12/compassion-writing/ Sun, 14 Dec 2014 05:04:24 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=37479 Living with an Open Heart: How to Cultivate Compassion in Everyday Life, at Poh Ming Tse Temple in Singapore.]]>

  • Celebrating the publishing of the book Living with an Open Heart
  • How the collaboration for the book began
  • Challenges faced during the writing process
  • The practice and the application of compassion in every day life
  • How practicing compassion can be effective in times of conflict
  • Practical strategies and meditative techniques to practice compassion

YouTube Video

A summary of the event appeared in the Singapore Buddhist magazine “For You,” January 2015.

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Brain Training: The effects of meditation on the brain http://thubtenchodron.org/2009/10/happy-mind/ Fri, 02 Oct 2009 18:00:52 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=42762

Ask almost any athlete, and they can tell you all about it, even if they haven’t experienced it themselves: the feeling described by some as euphoria, known as “the runner’s high”. When a person exercises at a sufficient intensity for a long enough period of time, they often begin to feel happy, even blissful, despite fatigue in their muscles or blisters on their feet. After medical science developed sufficiently advanced technology, researchers were able to confirm, and explain, the phenomenon of the runner’s high. It turns out that the mood elevation athletes report feeling comes from “a flood of endorphins in the brain” (Kolata, par. 8) in response to the physical stimulus of exercise. (Endorphins are your body’s natural version of opiates, making the owner of that endorphin-flooded brain feel very good, indeed.) So it is clear that physical training has a pronounced effect on the brain, which, in turn, influences one’s mental state. The intriguing question now is: does it work the other way around? Does mental training, more commonly known as meditation, affect the physical brain?

Modern science indicates that meditation does, in fact, have many effects on the physical brain. Not just any effects, either; meditation produces very beneficial changes in the human brain. Both short-term and long-term effects on brain function and structure have been observed by scientists, ranging from reduction in stress to slower age-related cerebral deterioration. Excitingly, science is just beginning to look at meditation’s effects on the brain, and we’ve already seen mountains of information on its benefits emerge.

A man wearing a brain cap with alot of wires attached to it.

The function of the brain during meditation was found to differ from the typical, non-meditative functioning in which we spend most of our waking hours. (Photo by Merrill College of Journalism Press Releases)

What we have discovered begins with the short-term effects of meditation on brain function. Brain function is primarily measured in brain waves, the electrical changes brain cells (neurons) use to communicate with each other. Brain waves at different frequencies indicate different neural functions, as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG). Additionally, the brain is divided into various parts and regions that are responsible for performing specific functions. Brain wave activity of certain frequencies in particular parts of the brain can tell a scientist a lot about what is happening within the brain, and what the result or perception of that activity will be to the brain’s owner. In a study conducted by neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the function of the brain during meditation was found to differ from the typical, non-meditative functioning in which we spend most of our waking hours. During meditation, “[a]ctivity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal cortex (site of negative emotions and anxiety)” (Begley, par. 12). In layman’s terms, the act of meditating made the study participants feel measurably happier. This increased cortical activity suggests that meditation “seems to help regulate emotions” (Cullen, par. 7), possibly by increasing the strength of the neural connections responsible for feelings of well-being through increased use of those connections, specifically, during meditation. Also, Davidson noticed a “dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves” (Begley, par. 11). Gamma waves are known to be “involved in higher mental activity and consolidation of information” (Brain and Health), related to coordination and cohesion of higher-functioning mental activities, such as self-awareness, and comprehension and retention of information and ideas. Interestingly, both of these changes in activity were significantly greater in the brains of the Tibetan Buddhist monks involved in the study than they were in the brains of the novice meditators, suggesting that happiness, self-awareness, and concentration may, in fact, not be inherent, unchangeable predispositions, but may instead be skills that can be learned and improved with mental training.

In addition to increased gamma wave production, indicative of an increase in awareness and concentration, the brains of meditators have been shown to increase production of alpha, then theta, waves, while decreasing production of beta waves. According to Brain and Health, “alpha waves… occur when we are relaxed and calm”, “theta waves… are associated with sleep, deep relaxation…, and visualization”, while “beta waves… occur when we are actively thinking, problem-solving, etc.”. The results of a study published in Time magazine reported that even first-time meditators showed a decrease in production of beta waves, “a sign that the cortex is not processing information as actively as usual” (Park, par. 1), after just a single 20-minute session. After these same meditators had been training for an eight week period, their brain wave patterns during meditation shifted “from… alpha waves… to the theta waves that dominate the brain during periods of deep relaxation” (Park, par. 8), an indication that a state of deep relaxation was achieved with greater efficiency as experience with meditation increased. The Time study also noted changes in specific regions of the brain. During meditation, the frontal lobe “tends to go offline” (Park, par. 4). The frontal lobe is the area of the brain responsible for higher functions like “reasoning, problem solving, judgment, and impulse control” (Brain Health). This decrease in frontal lobe activity correlates to a simultaneous decrease in activity in the parietal lobe. The parietal lobe, which, along with the thalamus, processes sensory information about one’s environment, slows down to “a trickle” (Park, par. 6). This seems to indicate that during meditation, one’s brain ceases to try to absorb and interpret the outside world, instead turning one’s focus of attention inward, producing a deeply calm mental landscape.

Short-term effects on the brain during the actual process of meditating aren’t the only effects that scientists have noted, however. Several studies show that, much like regular weightlifting has an observable, long-term effect on the body’s muscles, regularly practiced mental training changes the actual physical structure of the brain. One such study, presented by research scientist Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital in Charlestown, reveals that certain areas of the brains of practiced meditators are actually thicker than those same cerebral areas in non-meditators. The “parts of the brain’s cerebral cortex responsible for decision making, attention, and memory” (Cullen, par. 3) were thicker in the study participants than in the average brain. Both “the prefrontal cortex, important in higher thought and planning, and the insula on the right side, a region that integrates emotions, thought and senses” (Phillips, par. 4) showed signs of increased thickness in the study’s meditators after the completion of the study. An exciting aspect of this observed thickening is the implications it has on the way we perceive age-related mental decline as inevitable, or at the least, expected. The very areas of the prefrontal cortex that showed increased thickening in the study’s meditators are areas of the brain that have been shown to be vulnerable to thinning, and corresponding decreased mental function, as we age. Whether the cause of the thickening is due to an increased number of neural connections, or greater blood flow to those areas during meditation, the “effect seems to reverse the usual cortical thinning” (Phillips, par. 4) that is often seen in the elderly. One of the more interesting facets of this particular study is the participants themselves. Meditation studies are often conducted on Buddhist monks, referred to as “the Olympic athletes of meditation” (Davidson qtd. in Cullen, par. 4). Lazar’s study participants were not Buddhist monks, but a selection of 20 average men and women from the Boston area who practiced meditation for 40 minutes a day for the duration of the study. The indication that the beneficial effects of meditation don’t require Olympic stamina or Buddhist vows to achieve holds global implications: they are potentially available to almost everyone.

That includes college students, according to a study conducted by Bruce O’Hara of the University of Kentucky. Randomly selected groups of college students were asked to “either meditate, sleep or watch TV” (Cullen, par. 5), then participate in a psychomotor vigilance test. Psychomotor vigilance refers to one’s ability to quickly and efficiently physically react to a perceived stimulus, in this case, to hit a button when study participants saw a light flash on a screen. The college students who had been instructed to meditate outperformed the sleepers. The meditators “performed 10% better” (Cullen, par. 5) than when they tested without meditating first—“a huge jump, statistically speaking” (O’Hara qtd. in Cullen, par. 5). Those students who slept before testing actually performed “significantly worse” (Cullen, par. 5) than on their prior test. (No mention is made of the test results of the TV watchers. Apparently, readers are meant to draw their own conclusions about the mental benefits of television viewing.) These results suggest that meditation may have a restorative effect on neural connections, much the same way sleep does, but without the accompanying grogginess.

In fact, a recent study conducted in China this year concluded that practitioners of a simple form of meditation showed not just improved attention, a factor in psychomotor vigilance, but also better autonomic self-regulation than a control group who practiced relaxation training, instead. (Relaxation training involves the progressive tensing, then relaxing, of the body’s various muscle groups.) Participants’ physiological data, as well as brain scans, were taken before, during, and after the five days of the study. The meditators “showed significantly better physiological reactions in heart rate, respiratory amplitude and rate, and skin conductance response… than the relaxation” (Tang, et al., par. 1) group did, both during and after the study. EEG scans showed increased theta activity in the ventral anterior cingulated cortex, the region of the brain responsible for some autonomic functions, such as heart rate variability (HRV). HRV refers to the heart’s slight increase in rate upon inhaling, and its slight decrease in rate upon exhaling, while one is resting. The healthier the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the more responsive the HRV will be in accordance with the breath. After the five days of the study ended, scans of the participants revealed that the meditation group “show[ed] better regulation of the ANS… than [did] the relaxation group” (Tang, et al., par. 1), due to the activity observed in the anterior cingulated cortex.

Another study, conducted by Richard Davidson (from earlier reference) and a group of colleagues, also found that a group of 25 meditators’ immune systems functioned more efficiently than did those of a non-meditating control group. For years, the medical community theorized that “the brain was shut away from the actions of the immune system” (“Direct Route from Brain…”). Now, medical science shows that the brain and the immune system are, indeed, linked. The immune system and the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for production of the stress hormone, cortisol, appear to operate in conjunction. The more cortisol produced by the hypothalamus, the more suppressed the immune system becomes. When immune cells encounter large or constant amounts of cortisol in the bloodstream, they interpret that as the brain “essentially telling them to stop fighting” (Wein, par. 8). Stress itself can have a positive effect, if it serves to motivate, but excess or chronic stress appears to chemically deactivate the immune system, to an extent. The Davidson study taught a group of participants to meditate over an eight week period. Data collected at the conclusion of the eight weeks showed “increases in relative left-sided anterior activation that are associated with reductions in anxiety and negative effect and increases in positive affect” (Davidson, et al.) in the meditators brains. This is similar to what other studies have noted. The difference in this study is what occurred at this point. At the conclusion of the eight week meditation training, both groups were injected with a flu vaccine. At follow-up, there were “significant increases in antibod[ies]… among subjects in the meditation compared with those in the… control group” (Davidson, et al.). Interestingly, researchers noted that the “magnitude of increase in left-sided [brain] activation predicted the magnitude of antibody [response] to the vaccine” (Davidson, et al.). In other words, the happier and less anxious the meditators were directly correlated with how much more efficient their immune system response was. This may suggest that the effect of right-sided frontal brain activity, associated with anxiety and stress, is to stimulate the hypothalamus to produce greater amounts of cortisol, thereby suppressing the immune system. The practice of meditation shifts that brain activity from the right frontal lobe to the left, increasing feelings of a positive nature, such as happiness, which may, in turn, prompt the hypothalamus to produce less cortisol, thereby increasing the efficiency of the immune system.

It seems clear at this point that meditation does, in fact, produce many measurable, yet invaluable, benefits to the physical brain. As this brief sample of studies has demonstrated, just 20 to 40 minutes of training per day has been shown to increase feelings of well-being, decrease stress, maximize the functioning of various autonomic systems, and even slow, and possibly reverse, some age related mental deterioration, among other benefits. With all these benefits as the payoff for a comparatively small amount of effort, one could almost conclude that not meditating may even, in the long run, be a form of self-neglect. Arguably the best news of all: this is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Day by day, medical technology is advancing, giving us the ability to discover even more detailed information about the mysterious events that occur within our own brains. With all that has been uncovered thus far, science is sure to be investigating the effects of mental training on the brain for years to come. Given what we already know, considering we’re just starting, how much more might there be to discover?

Works Cited

Begley, Sharon. “Scans of Monks’ Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning”. The Wall Street Journal: Science Journal. 5 November 2004. University of Wisconsin. 14 July 2009.

Brain and Health. Ed. Karen Shue. 2007. “The Basics of Brain Waves”. 24 July 2009.

Brain Health Puzzles. Copyright 2007 – 2009, “Facts on the Human Brain”. Wolfgang. Steven Looi. SBI. 28 July 2009.

Cullen, Lisa T. “How to Get Smarter, One Breath at a Time: Scientists find that meditation not only reduces stress but also reshapes the brain”. Time. 167.3 (16 January 2006): 93. Health Reference Center Academic. Gale. Spokane Community College Library, Spokane, WA. 12 July 2009.

Davidson, Richard J., Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jessica Schumacher, Melissa Rosenkranz, Daniel Muller, Saki F. Santorelli, Ferris Urbanowski, Anne Harrington, Katherine Bonus, and John F. Sheridan. “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation”. Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine. 27 December 2002. American Psychosomatic Society. 16 July 2009.

“Direct Route From Brain To Immune System Discovered By Scientists”. Medical News Today. 25 October 2007. 7 August 2009.

Kolata, Gina. “Yes, Running Can Make You High”. The New York Times. 27 March 2008. 5 August 2009.

Park, Alice.“Calming The Mind: Meditation is an ancient discipline, but scientists have only recently developed tools sophisticated enough to see what goes on in your brain when you do it”. Time 162.5 (August 4, 2003): 52. Health Reference Center Academic. Gale. Spokane Community College. 24 July 2009

Phillips, Helen. “How life shapes the brainscape: from meditation to diet, life experiences profoundly change the structure and connectivity of the brain”. New Scientist. 188.2527 (Nov 26, 2005): 12(2). Health Reference Center Academic. Gale. Spokane Community College. 24 July 2009.

Tang, Yi-Yuan, Yinghua Ma, Yaxin Fan, Hongbo Feng, Junhong Wang, Shigang Feng, Qilin Lu, Bing Hua, Yao Lin, Jian Li, Ye Zhang, Yan Wang, Li Zhou, and Ming Fan. “Central and autonomic nervous system interaction is altered by short-term meditation.(PSYCHOLOGY: NEUROSCIENCE)(Author abstract)(Report)”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. 106.22 (June 2, 2009): 8865(6). Health Reference Center Academic. Gale. Spokane Community College. 24 July 2009.

Wein, Harrison, Ph. D. “Stress and Disease: New Perspectives”. The NIH Word on Health. October 2000. 7 August 2009.

This article is available in Spanish: Entrenamiento Cerebral: Los efectos de la meditación en el cerebro

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Entrenamiento Cerebral: Los efectos de la meditación en el cerebro http://thubtenchodron.org/2009/10/mente-feliz/ Thu, 01 Oct 2009 18:00:17 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=45166

Pregúntale a casi cualquier atleta y te dirá todo sobre el tema, incluso si no lo ha experimentado en carne propia, hablo de la sensación que describen algunos como euforia, conocida como la “euforia del corredor”. Cuando una persona se ejercita con bastante intensidad durante un período de tiempo suficiente, por lo regular se empieza a sentir feliz, incluso llena de gozo, a pesar del cansancio de sus músculos o de que tenga ampollas en los pies. Cuando la ciencia médica desarrolló tecnología suficientemente avanzada, los investigadores pudieron confirmar y explicar el fenómeno de la euforia del corredor. Resulta que la elevación del estado de ánimo que los atletas reportan, proviene de “un desbordamiento de endorfinas en el cerebro” (Kolata, par. 8) como respuesta al estímulo físico del ejercicio. (Las endorfinas son la versión natural de tu cuerpo de los opiáceos, hacen que el dueño de ese cerebro inundado con endorfinas se sienta muy bien, en serio). Entonces, queda claro que el entrenamiento físico tiene un marcado efecto sobre el cerebro que, a su vez, influye en el estado mental de la persona. Ahora, la pregunta intrigante es: ¿Esto trabaja al revés? Es decir, ¿el entrenamiento mental, mejor conocido como meditación, afecta al cerebro físico?

La ciencia moderna nos dice que la meditación sí hace eso, de hecho, tiene muchos efectos sobre el cerebro físico. Y no cualquier tipo de efectos; la meditación produce cambios muy beneficiosos en el cerebro humano. Los científicos han observado tanto efectos de corto plazo como de largo plazo en el funcionamiento y estructura del cerebro, los cuales comprenden desde la disminución del estrés, hasta que el deterioro relacionado con el envejecimiento sea más lento. Es muy emocionante, la ciencia apenas está empezando a observar los efectos de la meditación en el cerebro y ya han aparecido montañas de información sobre sus beneficios.

A man wearing a brain cap with alot of wires attached to it.

Se encontró que el funcionamiento del cerebro durante la meditación difiere del funcionamiento típico no meditativo el cual pasamos la mayor parte de nuestras horas de vigilia. (Photo by Merrill College of Journalism Press Releases)

Lo que se ha descubierto, comienza con los efectos a corto plazo de la meditación sobre el funcionamiento del cerebro. La actividad del cerebro se mide, principalmente, por medio de ondas cerebrales que son los cambios eléctricos que utilizan las células cerebrales (neuronas) para comunicarse entre ellas. Las ondas del cerebro que están en distintas frecuencias, indican diferentes funciones neuronales, tal como las mide un electroencefalograma (EEG). Además, el cerebro está dividido en varias partes y regiones que son responsables de llevar a cabo funciones específicas. La actividad de las ondas cerebrales de determinadas frecuencias en zonas específicas del cerebro, pueden decirles a los científicos mucho sobre lo que ocurre dentro del cerebro y cuál será el resultado o percepción de dicha actividad en el dueño del cerebro. En un estudio que dirigió el neurólogo Richard Davidson de la Universidad de Wisconsin, Madison, se encontró que el funcionamiento del cerebro durante la meditación discrepaba del funcionamiento no-meditativo típico en el que transcurre la mayor parte del tiempo mientras estamos despiertos. Durante la meditación, “la actividad en la corteza prefrontal izquierda (el asiento de las emociones positivas como la felicidad) llenó de actividad a la corteza prefrontal derecha (lugar de las emociones negativas y de la ansiedad)” (Begley, par. 12). En términos comunes, al acto de meditar hizo que los participantes del estudio se sintieran sensiblemente más felices. Esta actividad cortical incrementada sugiere que la meditación “parece ayudar a que se regulen las emociones” (Cullen, par. 7), posiblemente por medio del aumento en la fuerza de las conexiones neuronales que son responsables de los sentimientos de bienestar por medio del uso frecuente de esas conexiones, específicamente durante la meditación. Davidson también se dio cuenta de que había “un incremento drástico en la actividad cerebral de alta frecuencia llamada ondas gamma” (Begley, par. 11). Se sabe que las ondas gamma “están relacionadas con la actividad mental superior y con la consolidación de información” (Brain and Health), lo que se relaciona con la coordinación y la cohesión de las actividades mentales de funcionamiento superior, tales como la autoconciencia y la comprensión y retención de información e ideas. Es interesante ver que ambos cambios en la actividad fueron muy superiores en los cerebros de los monjes budistas tibetanos que participaron en el estudio, con respecto a los que ocurrieron en los cerebros de los meditadores novatos, lo que sugiere que la felicidad, autoconciencia y concentración pueden, de hecho, no ser predisposiciones inherentes e inmutables, en lugar de eso, podría tratarse de habilidades que se pueden aprender y perfeccionar con entrenamiento mental.

Además del incremento en la producción de ondas gamma, lo que indica un aumento en la atención consciente y en la concentración, los cerebros de los meditadores han mostrado que producen más ondas alfa y luego theta, mientras que se reduce la producción de ondas beta. De acuerdo con Brain and Health, “las ondas alfa… tienen lugar cuando estamos relajados y en calma”, “las ondas theta… están asociadas con él dormir y la relajación profunda… y la visualización”, mientras que “las ondas beta… acontece cuando estamos pensando activamente, solucionando problemas, etc.”. Los resultados de un estudio publicado en la revista Time, informan que incluso las personas que meditaban por primera vez, mostraron una disminución en la producción de ondas beta, “eso es una señal de que la corteza no está procesando información tan activamente como de costumbre” (Park, par. 1),después de una sesión única de 20 minutos. Cuando estos meditadores habían practicado por un periodo de ocho semanas, durante la meditación sus patrones de ondas cerebrales se movieron “de… ondas alfa… a las ondas theta que dominan al cerebro durante los períodos de relajación profunda” (Park, par. 8), éste es un indicio de que al tener más experiencia en la meditación, alcanzaban un estado de relajación profunda con mayor eficiencia. El estudio del Time también registró cambios en regiones específicas del cerebro. Durante la meditación, el lóbulo frontal “tiende a desconectarse” (Park, par. 4). El lóbulo frontal es el área del cerebro responsable de las funciones superiores como “razonar, resolver problemas, discernimiento y el control de los impulsos” (Brain Health). Esta disminución de la actividad del lóbulo frontal está correlacionada con una disminución simultánea en la actividad del lóbulo parietal. El lóbulo parietal que, junto con el tálamo, procesa la información sensorial sobre nuestro entorno, reduce su actividad al punto que sólo queda “un mínimo de actividad” (Park, par. 6). Esto parece indicar que durante la meditación nuestro cerebro deja de tratar de absorber e interpretar el mundo exterior y, en su lugar, produce un panorama mental de tranquilidad profunda cuando se dirige el foco de atención hacia el interior.

No obstante, los efectos a corto plazo sobre el cerebro mientras se está llevando a cabo el proceso de meditar, no son los únicos efectos que los científicos han notado. Varios estudios muestran que, casi cómo levantar pesas con regularidad tiene un efecto de largo plazo observable en los músculos del cuerpo, el entrenamiento mental que se lleva a cabo con regularidad cambia la estructura física del cerebro. Uno de esos estudios, presentado por la investigadora científica Sara Lazar del Hospital General de Massachusetts, ubicado en Charlestown, revela que ciertas áreas de los cerebros de meditadores experimentados son más gruesas que las mismas áreas del cerebro de no meditadores. Las “partes de la corteza cerebral responsables de la toma de decisiones, la atención y la memoria” (Cullen, par. 3) eran más gruesas en los participantes del estudio que en un cerebro promedio. Ambos “la corteza prefrontal, la cual es importante para el pensamiento y la planeación superiores, y la insula del lado derecho, una región que integra las emociones, el pensamiento y los sentidos” (Phillips, par. 4), mostraron signos de incremento en su grosor en los meditadores del estudio después de que éste se terminó. Un aspecto emocionante de este engrosamiento que se observó, son las implicaciones que tienen sobre la forma en la que percibimos el deterioro mental relacionado con el envejecimiento, por lo general lo vemos como algo inevitable o, por lo menos, esperado. Las áreas específicas de la corteza prefrontal que mostraron un incremento en el engrosamiento en los meditadores del estudio, son áreas del cerebro que han mostrado ser vulnerables al adelgazamiento y su reducción correspondiente de las funciones mentales conforme vamos envejeciendo. Ya sea que la causa del engrosamiento se deba al incremento en el número de conexiones neuronales o a un mayor flujo sanguíneo en esas áreas durante la meditación, el “efecto parece invertir el adelgazamiento acostumbrado cortical” (Phillips, par. 4) que frecuentemente se observa en los ancianos. Uno de los aspectos más interesantes de este estudio en particular, son los participantes en sí mismos. Los estudios de meditación por lo general se han dirigido a monjes budistas, denominados “los atletas olímpicos de la meditación” (Davidson gtd. en Cullen, par. 4). Los participantes del estudio de Lazar no eran monjes budistas, sino una selección de 20 hombres y mujeres comunes del área de Boston, quienes practicaron meditación 40 minutos al día durante el estudio. El indicio de que para obtener los efectos benéficos de la meditación no se requiere de resistencia olímpica ni de tener los votos budistas, tiene implicaciones globales: dichos efectos están potencialmente disponibles para casi todos.

De acuerdo con un estudio dirigido por Burce O’Hara de la Universidad de Kentucky, lo anterior incluye a estudiantes universitarios. Se le pidió a los grupos de estudiantes universitarios que fueron seleccionados aleatoriamente para participar en un test de vigilancia sicomotora que “eligieran entre meditar, dormir o ver televisión” (Cullen, par. 5). La vigilancia sicomotora se refiere a nuestra habilidad para reaccionar físicamente con rapidez y eficiencia ante un estímulo que se percibe, en este caso, apretar un botón cuando los participantes del estudio vieran un destello en una pantalla. Los estudiantes a los que se les pidió que meditaran, aventajaron a los que dormían. El desempeño de los meditadores “mejoró en un 10%” (Cullen, par. 5) respecto a la prueba que hicieron al inicio sin haber meditado – “un salto enorme, estadísticamente hablando” (O’Hara gtd. en Cullen, par. 5). Aquellos estudiantes que durmieron antes de la prueba se desempeñaron “significativamente peor” (Cullen, par. 5) que en su prueba inicial. (No se mencionan los resultados de las pruebas de los que vieron televisión. Por lo visto los lectores deben sacar sus propias conclusiones sobre los beneficios mentales que tienen que ver con los que vieron la televisión). Estos resultados sugieren que la meditación puede tener un efecto reconstituyente sobre las conexiones neuronales, tal como lo hace él dormir, pero sin experimentar atontamiento.

De hecho, un estudio reciente que se llevó a cabo en China este año concluyó que los practicantes de una forma sencilla de meditación mostraron no sólo mejorar su atención, un factor de la vigilancia sicomotora, sino también mejor autoregulación autonómica que el grupo de control que practicó entrenamiento de relajación. (El entrenamiento de relajación consiste en tensar y después relajar progresivamente, los distintos grupos de músculos del cuerpo). La información sicológica de los participantes, así como las ecografías del cerebro, se tomaron antes, durante y una vez transcurridos los cinco días del estudio. Los meditadores “mostraron reacciones sicológicas significativamente mejores en la frecuencia cardiaca, la amplitud y el ritmo respiratorio, así como en la respuesta de conductancia de la piel… que el grupo de relajación” (Tang, et al., par. 1), durante y después del estudio. Las ecografías de los EEG mostraron un incremento en la actividad theta de la corteza singulada ventral anterior, la región del cerebro responsable de algunas de las funciones autonómicas, tales como la variabilidad de la frecuencia cardiaca (VFC). La VFC se refiere al leve incremento que se produce en la frecuencia cardiaca al inhalar y su leve disminución al exhalar, cuando uno está en reposo. Mientras más sano se encuentre el sistema nervioso autónomo (SNA), más sensible será la VFC en concordancia con la respiración. Cuando habían transcurrido cinco días desde que el estudio se terminó, las ecografías de los participantes revelaron que el grupo de meditación “mostró mejor regulación del SNA… que los del grupo de relajación” (Tang, et al., par. 1), debido a la actividad observada en la corteza singulada anterior.

Otro estudio dirigido por Richard Davidson (de una referencia anterior) y un grupo de colegas, también encontró que el sistema inmune de un grupo de 25 meditadores funcionaba con mayor eficiencia que el de un grupo de control que no meditaba. Durante años, la comunidad médica teorizó que “el cerebro era ajeno a las acciones del sistema inmune” (“Direct Route from Brain…”). Ahora, la ciencia médica nos muestra que el cerebro y el sistema inmune de hecho están conectados. El sistema inmune y el hipotálamo, la parte del cerebro responsable de la producción de la hormona del estrés, cortisol, al parecer operan en combinación. Mientras más cortisol produce el hipotálamo, más se suprime el sistema inmune. Cuando las células inmunológicas encuentran grandes cantidades de cortisol en el torrente sanguíneo de forma continúa, interpretan eso como un indicio de que el cerebro “básicamente les está diciendo que dejen de pelear” (Wein, par. 8). El estrés por sí mismo puede tener un efecto positivo, cuando sirve para motivar, pero el estrés excesivo o crónico, al parecer desactiva químicamente al sistema inmune, hasta cierto punto. Para llevar a cabo el estudio de Davidson, enseñaron a meditar a un grupo de participantes durante un periodo de ocho semanas. La información recopilada al final de las ocho semanas mostró “incrementos en la activación relativa anterior izquierda que se asocia con la disminución de la ansiedad y de los efectos negativos y el aumento en los efectos positivos” (Davidson, et al.) en el cerebro de los meditadores. Esto es parecido a lo que otros estudios han observado. La diferencia en este estudio es lo que sucedió en este punto. Al finalizar las ocho semanas del entrenamiento de meditación, ambos grupos fueron inyectados con una vacuna contra la gripe. A lo largo del seguimiento, se hallaron “incrementos significativos de anticuerpo[s]… entre los sujetos que pertenecían al grupo de meditación comparados con aquellos en el… grupo de control” (Davidson, et al.). Es interesante ver que los investigadores observaron que la “magnitud del incremento de la activación del lado izquierdo [del cerebro] predijo la magnitud de anticuerpos [respuesta] a la vacuna” (Davidson et al.). En otras palabras, lo felices y poco ansiosos que estuvieran los meditadores, estaba directamente correlacionado con qué tanto más eficiente era la respuesta de su sistema inmune. Esto puede sugerir que el efecto de la actividad del cerebro frontal derecho, asociada con la ansiedad y el estrés, es para estimular al hipotálamo para que produzca mayores cantidades de cortisol, de manera que suprima al sistema inmune. La práctica de la meditación cambia la actividad cerebral del lóbulo frontal derecho al izquierdo, incrementando los sentimientos de naturaleza positiva, tales como la felicidad, lo que, a cambio, induce al hipotálamo para que produzca menos cortisol, de esa manera se incrementa la eficiencia del sistema inmune.

A estas alturas, parece claro que la meditación, de hecho, produce muchos medibles, pero invaluables, beneficios en el cerebro físico. Como lo ha expuesto está pequeña muestra de estudios, tan sólo 20 a 40 minutos de entrenamiento por día, ha demostrado que puede incrementar los sentimientos de bienestar, reducir el estrés, maximizar el funcionamiento de sistemas diversos autonómicos e, incluso, volver más lentos, y posiblemente invertir, algunos deterioros mentales relacionados con la edad, entre otros beneficios. Con todos estos beneficios como recompensa por un esfuerzo comparativamente menor, uno pude llegar a la conclusión que no meditar puede incluso, en el largo plazo, ser una forma de abandono a uno mismo. Posiblemente la mejor noticia de todas es: esta es sólo la punta legendaria del iceberg. La tecnología médica avanza día con día, dándonos la capacidad de descubrir información más detallada sobre los eventos misteriosos que se llevan a cabo dentro de nuestros propios cerebros. Con todo lo que ha sido revelado hasta este momento, la ciencia está segura de que seguirá investigando los efectos del entrenamiento mental por muchos años. Dado lo que ya sabemos, considerando que apenas estamos empezando, ¿cuánto más habrá por descubrir?

Trabajos Citados

Begley, Sharon. “Scans of Monks’ Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning”. The Wall Street Journal: Science Journal. 5 November 2004. University of Wisconsin. 14 July 2009.

Brain and Health. Ed. Karen Shue. 2007. “The Basics of Brain Waves”. 24 July 2009.

Brain Health Puzzles. Copyright 2007 – 2009, “Facts on the Human Brain”. Wolfgang. Steven Looi. SBI. 28 July 2009.

Cullen, Lisa T. “How to Get Smarter, One Breath at a Time: Scientists find that meditation not only reduces stress but also reshapes the brain”. Time. 167.3 (16 January 2006): 93. Health Reference Center Academic. Gale. Spokane Community College Library, Spokane, WA. 12 July 2009.

Davidson, Richard J., Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jessica Schumacher, Melissa Rosenkranz, Daniel Muller, Saki F. Santorelli, Ferris Urbanowski, Anne Harrington, Katherine Bonus, and John F. Sheridan. “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation”. Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine. 27 December 2002. American Psychosomatic Society. 16 July 2009.

“Direct Route From Brain To Immune System Discovered By Scientists”. Medical News Today. 25 October 2007. 7 August 2009.

Kolata, Gina. “Yes, Running Can Make You High”. The New York Times. 27 March 2008. 5 August 2009.

Park, Alice.“Calming The Mind: Meditation is an ancient discipline, but scientists have only recently developed tools sophisticated enough to see what goes on in your brain when you do it”. Time 162.5 (August 4, 2003): 52. Health Reference Center Academic. Gale. Spokane Community College. 24 July 2009

Phillips, Helen. “How life shapes the brainscape: from meditation to diet, life experiences profoundly change the structure and connectivity of the brain”. New Scientist. 188.2527 (Nov 26, 2005): 12(2). Health Reference Center Academic. Gale. Spokane Community College. 24 July 2009.

Tang, Yi-Yuan, Yinghua Ma, Yaxin Fan, Hongbo Feng, Junhong Wang, Shigang Feng, Qilin Lu, Bing Hua, Yao Lin, Jian Li, Ye Zhang, Yan Wang, Li Zhou, and Ming Fan. “Central and autonomic nervous system interaction is altered by short-term meditation.(PSYCHOLOGY: NEUROSCIENCE)(Author abstract)(Report)”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. 106.22 (June 2, 2009): 8865(6). Health Reference Center Academic. Gale. Spokane Community College. 24 July 2009.

Wein, Harrison, Ph. D. “Stress and Disease: New Perspectives”. The NIH Word on Health. October 2000. 7 August 2009.

Versión Inglés: Brain Training: The effects of meditation on the brain

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The Mind and Life VIII conference: Destructive emotions http://thubtenchodron.org/2000/03/harmful-thoughts/ Fri, 31 Mar 2000 17:35:10 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=42041

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the Mind and Life Institute has brought together scientists from various fields of expertise with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a series of conferences. A theme is picked for each, and five to seven scientists in that field are selected to make presentations to His Holiness. These presentations are given in the morning session each day, and lively discussions among these key participants, who are seated in a circle, occupy the afternoon session. In addition to the scientists, two Tibetan-English translators are present. A group of observers—20 to 40 in number—sit around the periphery. The atmosphere is informal and intimate. The topics of previous conferences have ranged from physics and astronomy to sleeping and dreaming to the relationship between the mind and the brain.

The eighth Mind and Life Conference, held in Dharamsala March 20-24, 2000, explored the topic of destructive emotions. While it is impossible to summarize the complex proceedings in a way pleasing to all, I will mention a few highlights as well as discuss some of the points I found most interesting.

Moral inclination

Dr. Owen Flanagan, Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, spoke about the role of emotion and virtue in making a good life. The West has several approaches to this. Religious moral philosophy speaks of the destructive nature of some emotions and the improvement of human qualities through religious practice, while secular moral philosophy discusses the topic in terms of democracy and reason. Science sees emotions as having a physiological basis, and this raises further questions as to human nature and the possibility of pacifying destructive emotions. In the West, emotions are important for determining what is moral, and morality is essential for the functioning of society. Thus working with emotions is seen as important for social interaction, not for having a good soul or being a good person. This leads the West to focus on self-esteem and self-accomplishment as positive emotions, not on having a harmonious inner emotional life.

Many emotional words - depressed, sorrow, hurting, upset, hurting, miserable, grieving, affliction etc. in black background.

Destructive emotions, are based on misconceptions and therefore cannot be cultivated limitlessly. (Photo by GollyGforce)

We find three main answers in response to the question, “What are we really like deep down inside?” The rational egoists say that we look out for our own good, and know that only by being nice to others will we get what we want. The second is that we first are selfish and take care of ourselves and then are compassionate sharing any extra resources with others. The third is that we are basically compassionate, but if there’s scarcity in resources we become selfish. His Holiness believes human beings are by nature gentle and compassionate, and due to self-centeredness and ignorance, we feel and act in the opposite way. Still, we cannot say that ordinary human nature is one of cherishing others.

Western culture considers love and compassion to be other-oriented. His Holiness clarified that in Buddhism, they are felt towards oneself as well. Wanting ourselves to be happy and free of suffering is not necessarily selfish. Having those feelings in healthy ways is essential to practice the path, and they are included in the love and compassion we develop on the path.

Mental states

Ven. Mattieu Ricard, a scientist and a Buddhist monk, gave an excellent summary of the Buddhist approach to the mind, speaking about the pure luminous nature of mind, the distortions of the destructive emotions, and the potential to eliminate them.

His Holiness mentioned two types of emotions. The first, impulsive, destructive emotions, are based on misconceptions and therefore cannot be cultivated limitlessly. The second, realistic ones, such as compassion and disillusionment with samsara, can be enhanced limitlessly. The first are based on illogical reasons that can be disproved, whereas the second are grounded in valid observation and reasoning. We must use valid reasoning to develop mental states opposed to the destructive emotions. For example, love, as an antidote to anger, must be cultivated through reasoning. It will not arise simply by praying to the Buddha. He also suggested that scientists perform neurological studies to determine if these two types of emotions are linked with specific brain activities.

Conceptual consciousness

Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor of Psychology at UCSF Medical School, spoke about the evolution of human emotion. Previously it was thought that emotions, like language and values, differed from one culture to another. However, Darwin saw them as common to all people and existing in animals as well. Ekman’s research showed that across cultures, people all identified certain facial expressions as indicating the same emotions. Also, the same physiological changes occurred in people from all cultures when they feel specific emotions. For example, when fearful or angry, everyone’s heart rate increases. Emotions occur quickly. We feel that emotions happen to us, not that we choose them. We aren’t witness to the process leading to them and often become aware of them only after they are strong. Here His Holiness gave the example of identifying laxity and excitement in meditation. Initially, we are unable to identify them quickly but with the development of alertness, we can detect them even before they arise.

Ekman differentiated between thoughts, which are private, and emotions, which are not. For example, if someone is fearful when arrested, we know his emotion, but we don’t know the thought provoking it, i.e. is he afraid because he got caught or because he is innocent? Thoughts and emotions are different. His Holiness responded that in Buddhism the word “namtog” (preconception or superstition) encompasses both. Also, both are conceptual consciousnesses, and both must be transformed on the path.

Moods and manifestations

Whereas emotions arise and cease comparatively quickly, moods last longer. We can usually identify a specific event which caused an emotion, but often cannot for a mood. Moods bias how we think and make us vulnerable in ways we usually are not. When we are in a bad mood, for example, we look for a chance to be angry. There is no Tibetan word for “mood,” but His Holiness said that perhaps the mental unhappiness that Shantideva says is the fuel for anger could be an example of it.

In addition to emotions and moods, there are traits and pathological manifestations of emotions. For example, fear is an emotion, apprehension is a mood, shyness is a personal trait, and a phobia is a pathological manifestation.

After a destructive emotion arises, there is a refractory period during which new information cannot enter our mind and we think only of things that reinforce the emotion. Only after this time are we able to look at the situation more reasonably and calm down. For example, if a friend is late, we think he is deliberately insulting us and see everything he does thereafter as hostile. Therapy aims to shorten this refractory period and to help the person control his behavior during the refractory period.

Affective neuroscience

Dr. Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, spoke on the physiology of destructive emotions, also called affective neuroscience. Bringing out a bright pink plastic brain, he showed His Holiness the various areas activated during particular perceptions and emotions. Certain activities, such as playing tennis or having emotions, are complex and many areas of the brain are involved in them. However, certain patterns can be seen. For example, a person with damage to the lower frontal lobe has more unregulated emotions, while the left frontal lobe is more active when we have positive emotions. In both depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, the hippocampus shrinks. The amygdala is the center for negative emotions, especially fear, and the amygdala shrinks in a person with uncontrolled aggression. Both the amygdala and the hippocampus change in response to our experiences and are affected by the emotional environment in which we were raised.

All forms of craving—drug addiction, pathological gambling, etc.—involve abnormalities in the dopamine levels in the brain. Molecular changes of dopamine that come during craving alter the dopamine system, so that an object which was previously neutral becomes important. In addition, different brain circuitry is involved in wanting and liking. When we crave something, the wanting circuitry becomes strong and the liking circuitry is weakened. The person feels continually dissatisfied and needs more and better. Richardson proposed several antidotes to destructive negative emotions: change the brain activity, change the refractory period, do cognitive restructuring by learning to think differently about events, and cultivate positive emotions.

Culture and emotions

Dr. Jeanne Tsai, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, spoke on culture and emotions. Cultures differ in their view of the self, and that influences people’s emotions. Thus, therapies that work on Euro-Americans often do not work for Asian-Americans. In general, Westerners feel their self to be independent and separate from others. When asked to describe themselves, Americans speak of their internal attributes, saying, “I am outgoing, smart, attractive, etc.” Asians, on the other hand, experience their self as connected with others and defined in terms of social relationships. They describe themselves in terms of their social roles—”I am a daughter, worker at this place, etc.” People with an independent self seek to distinguish themselves from others. They emphasize self-enhancement, express their beliefs and emotions, and tell others about their own good qualities. They value being different from others and appreciate conflict because it provides an opportunity to express their feelings and opinions. They focus on themselves during an interaction with another, and value emotions such as self-esteem and self-worth. People with an interdependent self seeks to maintain relationships. Thus they minimize their own importance, are modest, and control how they express their beliefs and emotions to maintain harmony with others. Their emotions arise more slowly and they return to baseline quicker than Westerners. During interactions, they focus more on others and value emotions such as humility and willingness to cooperate.

As someone who has taught Buddhism in a variety of cultures, I found this interesting. It made me wonder: Do different aspects of the Dharma need to be emphasized according to the sense of self found in a culture? In addition, Buddhism has been expressed for generations in cultures with an interdependent sense of self. What, then, will change and what should we be careful does not change as Buddhism spreads into cultures where an independent self is valued?

Emotional education

Dr. Mark Greenberg, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University spoke on emotional education. Having studied the development of emotions, he developed a program teaching young children how to manage their destructive emotions, especially anger. This helps children to calm down (i.e. decrease refractory period), be aware of emotional states in themselves and others, discuss their feelings as a method to solve problems, plan ahead to avoid difficulties, and be aware of the effects their behavior has on others. They teach others that emotions are important signals about their own and others’ needs, that feelings are normal but the behavior may or may not be appropriate, that they can’t think clearly until they’re calm, and to treat others the way they want to be treated. The program contains lessons on various emotions and their opposites. The children also have a set of cards with different facial expressions of emotions that they can show so others know how they’re feeling.

His Holiness was pleased with this and added that in addition to managing destructive emotions, children (and adults too) need to cultivate positive ones as well. Although these positive emotions may not be usable in the heat of the moment, they affect our temperament and set a good foundation, like bolstering our emotional “immune system.” Davidson said that when we practice something often, our brain also changes.

Neuroplasticity

Dr. Francisco Varela, Professor of Cognitive Science and Epistemology at Ecole Polytechnique, spoke about neuroplasticity. He explained new, more refined techniques for measuring minute or brief changes in the brain, and showed computer diagrams of synchronicity or the lack of it among different areas of the brain during the process of seeing and knowing an object. His Holiness said there may be a connection between that and the process of our visual consciousness and then our mental consciousness cognizing an object. He suggested teaching lorig (mind and its functions) in conjunction with neuroscience to make the topic more relevant.

Whereas His Holiness was fascinated by discussion of brain activity, others had different reactions. Science teaches that genetic makeup, environment, and external experiences influence the brain, which in turn creates emotions and leads to thoughts. From the Buddhist view, thoughts influence emotions, which in turn affect behavior and brain functions. Some found the scientific view disempowering because by emphasizing external factors, there seemed little the individual could do to influence his emotions and thoughts. They found the Buddhist view more empowering because it seemed that we could do something to help ourselves.

Defining emotion

Having summarized the main events, I would like to discuss some of the points that I found particularly interesting. First, no word for “emotion” exists in the Tibetan language. Klesa (often translated as delusions, afflictions, or disturbing attitudes and negative emotions) include attitudes as well as emotions. When the scientists were presented with the list of the six root and twenty secondary klesa from the lorig text and told that the Buddhist delineation of destructive emotions, they did not understand why ignorance, for example, was called an emotion. Nor was it clear to them why attitudes such as incorrect views of ethical disciplines, and emotions such as jealousy, were together in one list. Later they learned that these are included in one list because they all cause cyclic existence and impede liberation.

Second, the meaning of emotion according to science and Buddhism differs. From a scientific viewpoint, an emotion has three aspects: physiological, feeling, and behavioral. Brain activity and hormonal changes are physiological, and aggressive or passive actions are behavioral. In Buddhism, emotions refer to the mental state. Little is said of the physiological changes, probably because the scientific instruments for measuring them weren’t available in ancient India or Tibet. Buddhism also distinguishes between the emotion of anger and the physical or verbal action of being assertive, which may or may not be motivated by anger. Similarly, someone may be patient inside, but have either assertive or passive behavior, depending on the situation.

Third, Buddhists and scientists differ on what is considered a destructive emotion. For example, scientists say that sadness, disgust, and fear are negative emotions in the sense that they are unpleasant to experience. However, from a Buddhism viewpoint, two types of sadness, disgust, and fear are discussed. One is based on distortion, interferes with liberation, and is to be abandoned, for example, sadness at the breakup of a romantic relationship and fear of losing our job. Another type of sadness helps us on the path. For example, when the prospect of having one rebirth after another in samsara makes us sad and even fills us with disgust and fear, they are positive because they prompt us to generate the determination to be free from cyclic existence and attain liberation. Such sadness, disgust, and fear are positive because they are based on wisdom and stimulate us to practice and gain realizations of the path.

Experiencing emotion

Science says all emotions are natural and okay, and that emotions become destructive only when they are expressed in an inappropriate way or time or to an inappropriate person or degree. For example, it is normal to experience sadness when someone dies, but a depressed person is sad in an inappropriate situation or to an inappropriate degree. Inappropriate physical and verbal displays of emotions need to be changed, but emotional reactions, such as anger, are not bad in themselves. Therapy is aimed more at changing the external expression of the emotions than the internal experience of them. Buddhism, on the other hand, believes that destructive emotions themselves are obstacles and need to be eliminated to have happiness.

The question “Is there a positive form of anger?” came up several times. Some of the scientists believe that from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, anger enables human beings to destroy their foes, and thus stay alive and reproduce. Another type is associated with a constructive impulse to remove an obstacle. For example, if a child can’t reach her toy, her anger makes her think how to get it. His Holiness commented that this anger may be conjoined with solving problems, but does not necessarily help to solve the problem. It is being called “positive” on basis of its effect—the person getting what she wants—not its being virtuous. In addition, such anger does not always lead to a solution of the problem. For example, frustration and anger due to our inability to concentrate when meditating, rather than help us attain calm abiding, block our practice. His Holiness did not agree that there is a positive form of anger. Although in a secular way, anger at someone who is harming himself or others could be called “positive,” arhats are free of this. Thus, righteous anger is a defilement to be eliminated to attain nirvana. We can have compassion for the person and still try to stop his harmful behavior. Thus, while the West values moral outrage as an emotion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, it is skillful means, a behavior motivated by compassion.

Buddhas feel emotion

In a previous Mind/Life Conference, the question was raised: Does a buddha have emotions? After much discussion, it was decided that buddhas do have emotions, for example, impartial love and compassion for all beings. They feel generous and patient. They care about others and feel sad when they see others suffering. However, a buddha’s sadness at seeing suffering differs from the feeling most people have. Our sadness is a form of personal distress; we feel despair or depression. Buddhas, on the other hand, are sad that others do not observe karma and its effects and thus create the cause for their own suffering. Buddhas feel hope and optimism for the future for they know that such suffering can cease because its causes—disturbing attitudes, negative emotions, and karma—can be eliminated. Buddhas are also much more patient than we are. Knowing that stopping suffering is not a quick fix, they are happy to work for a long time to overcome it.

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The Mind and Life IV conference: Sleeping, dreaming, and dying http://thubtenchodron.org/1992/10/not-awake-states-brain-activity/ Sat, 31 Oct 1992 19:26:12 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=40543

Note: This report began as a letter to friends. I do not attempt to give a comprehensive report on the conference and refer people to a number of excellent books published by Snow Lion Publications and Wisdom Publications that have come out of the Mind/Life Conferences…

A man covering himself with blanket and sleeping in a seascape and different colors of air balloons in the sky.

The questions arose as to why we sleep and dream. There is no clear understanding of this yet. (Photo by Diego da Silva)

Due to the kindness of a friend who offered my air ticket and the kindness of the conference organizers and participants, I was able to attend the Fourth Mind and Life Conference in Dharamsala in October, 1992. The theme of the conference was “Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying,” and in it, His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) discussed these subjects with Western scientists and scholars. It’s hard to summarize five full days of presentations and discussions, but I’ll highlight some of the points I found interesting. When I told some friends, “Please be aware that you’re hearing about this through my subjective perceptions,” they responded, “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Phenomenon of dreams

The purpose of the conference was to exchange ideas. It was not to show how Buddhism and science were the same or to try to stretch the parallel points between them. I personally enjoyed thinking about dreaming, for example, from a scientific view, with descriptions of REM (rapid eye movement) and physiological measurements; then from a psychoanalytic view, with the interplay between conscious, preconscious and unconscious; and finally from a Buddhist view, with its techniques for transforming dream time so it can be used on the path. These three descriptions were very different, and yet the phenomenon of dreams includes all of them.

Several months ago, His Holiness said in an audience with a group from Singapore that it wasn’t necessary to keep refuting the ancient Indian schools such as Samkya and that he has encouraged the monasteries in the south to study Western philosophy and science and to debate the views found in these disciplines. I cheered inside upon hearing this, and this conference demonstrated again His Holiness’ openness to other views. He is genuinely interested in science and is aware of how some Buddhist “logical” arguments are logical only within a Buddhist setting. And when the scientists asked questions about Buddhist beliefs that he couldn’t explain to their satisfaction, he readily said that those need further investigation. Yet, he is firmly grounded, and at the conclusion of the conference said half jokingly and half seriously, “Each time we meet you scientists have more new information to tell me, while I keep saying the same thing!”

“Self” exploration

The conference began with Charles Taylor, a philosopher, tracing the development of the idea of self in the West. When Plato spoke of self-mastery and of reason commanding one’s soul, he was referring to letting the order of the universe work within oneself. When Augustine spoke of self-exploration, it was in terms of discovering God at one’s core. However, in the last 200 years, the West hasn’t viewed people in relation to the cosmos or to God so much, and the idea has grown of an independent self that controls one’s thoughts and behavior. So on one hand, we believe in self-control and will, which by extension has led to technological advancement and exploitation of the environment, and on the other, we exalt self-exploration, to discover our individualistic and unique way of being human. This helps me understand the particular way self-grasping manifests in those of us who grew up in the West. His Holiness later described at length the Buddhist view of no-self, while at the same time said that even when one realizes this, one still has a valid sense of self.

Sleeping and dreaming

Francisco Varela, a neuroscientist, went on to describe sleeping and dreaming physiologically. The questions arose as to why we sleep and dream. There is no clear understanding of this yet. Scientists used to think that it was to replenish the body, but in REM sleep, when most dreams occur, the body in many ways consumes more energy than when awake. For example, the brain uses more glucose, respiration often increases, etc. So what is being replenished? It seems that in evolution there was a reason for REM sleep—all mammals except anteaters have it and so do birds—but why is still a mystery. Perhaps because dreaming gives us a time to digest the information gathered during the day, to plan, rehearse and rethink things.

Joyce McDougall, a Freudian psychoanalyst, explained that according to that system, dreams arise as a way of handling information arising from the preconscious and unconscious; dreaming resolves the conflict this information presented, thus enabling us to remain asleep, instead of waking up. Thus in Western psychology, dreams are seen as a source of information and are used in therapy to promote mental health. In Buddhism, on the other hand, dreams are generally not given such importance. If one has certain dreams repeatedly, not just once, it may indicate that one’s purification practice is going well, and a few dreams may be prophetic, but in general Buddhism uses common dreams neither as a source of information nor for therapy.

Transforming sleep

Since sleep is a changeable mental factor, explained HHDL, the time we spend sleeping can be made virtuous or non-virtuous. According to paramitayana, sleep is transformed into the path by generating a good motivation or Dharma understanding before falling asleep and then trying to maintain that mental state while asleep. In tantrayana, dream yoga is done in order to develop a special dream body which can be used to practice the path. A special dream body can leave the gross body while the person is asleep, but generally, even though ordinary people may sometimes feel like they have left their bodies while asleep, this is not the case. With the exception of a few rare people who have such a special dream body due to karma, the rest of us need to cultivate it through practice. There are two main ways to do this: either through intention or through tantric methods of working with the subtle winds. HHDL said that practices to develop a special dream body are also found among non-Buddhists and that without much foundation, they can attain them. However, the motivation and aim of a Buddhist is different: it is to realize emptiness in order to be able to benefit others.

Lucid dreaming

Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist, described lucid dreaming, the process of recognizing one is dreaming while dreaming. A “dream light,” developed by a professor at Stanford, was offered to His Holiness. This has been used to help people become lucid in their dreams. HHDL described some ways that it is done in the Buddhist dream yoga practice, and I think the dream light may be a useful addition. HHDL described the Buddhist practice of dream yoga and the nine mixings found in tantric practice, after going through the four noble truths, emptiness, the various levels of subtle and gross mind, and Dzog Chen all in one afternoon. And these people didn’t even know what refuge was! However, their appreciation of the depth of Buddhist philosophy and practice grew as a result. Many of them were personally affected by the teachings—HHDL planted many seeds.

Death and “self” in science

Pete Engel, a physician, talked about different stages of consciousness such as coma and seizures. He also spoke of the medical causes of life and death, and from this a discussion arose about “What is death?” Doctors speak of the death of an organ. Someone can be brain-dead, or the heart can stop or the breathing cease. But a brain-dead person can be alive on a respirator, and the brain can be alive several minutes after the breathing has stopped. So when does death occur? HHDL brought up an interesting point here: Buddhism speaks of a person, not an organ, dying. And when does life start? Scientists don’t have a definition for consciousness, but they agree that its existence depends on the existence of a nervous system. So is there life in the womb (although there may not be consciousness) before the fetus develops a nervous system? Can subtler levels of mind be measured by scientific instruments either in a fetus or in a meditator who is in the clear light? In previous Mind and Life Conferences, HHDL has said that scientists could measure the EEG of a meditator in the clear light, if they have his/her permission. It’s not clear what one could discover by doing an EEG at this time because EEG is a very gross measurement. This time, when asked if Buddhism could prove the existence of the subtlest clear light, HHDL said that high practitioners who have direct experience of the subtlest clear light don’t need proof because it is their own experience, and it can’t be proven to one who doesn’t have that experience.

Another topic that arose was what is the “self” in science? Many think the self is connected with the brain. Nowadays some people with brain lesions can receive transplants of fetal brain tissue to take the place of their own damaged brain areas. At what point, then, would the person be transplanted?

Dialogue on brain states

Epilepsy has been viewed differently in different cultures. In ancient times it was seen as a gift, while in the Middle Ages it was an affliction from the devil. It seems that many epileptics have mystical experiences: Joan of Arc, Mohammed, and several biblical prophets. Pete asked Dr. Chodak about the Tibetan view of epilepsy. He explained that there is talk of it in medical texts, although it is not extensively discussed. There is Tibetan medicine for it. However, when the medicine isn’t immediately effective, then pujas are done to remove the spirit interference which could be contributing to the seizures.

Oracles and mediums

The topic then arose of oracles and mediums. What is happening? Is the medium having a seizure or is it a genuine trance in which an oracle is present? Pete expressed interest in using an EEG to measure the brain activity while the Nechung oracle was present. Could you imagine an electrode cap in addition to the elaborate headdress he is already wearing?

At this point HHDL made some interesting comments about oracles. Such spirits have more subtle bodies than ours and they may have access to some information that we don’t. However, they are in samsara and have lots of problems. Just as some human beings are honest and some lie, so some spirits tell the truth and others don’t. Just as some humans are kind and some are malevolent, so are some spirits. Therefore, it’s wise to be careful in this regard, although if one can ascertain the integrity of an oracle, that being can be helpful.

Near-death experiences

Joan Halifax, an anthropologist, talked of near-death experiences. There are some experiences reported frequently by people who have nearly died or who have been termed medically dead and then resuscitated. People often speak of seeing their old body from above, going through a dark tunnel, meeting dead friends or relatives, reviewing their life, and meeting a being of light or some spiritual presence. (I’ve subsequently heard that while some adults report meeting Jesus, some teenagers meet Dr. Spock in their near-death experiences!) During the Middle Ages, people also reported near-death experiences, but while modern reports talk of bliss, light and lack of fear, those older reports talk of heaven and hell and encourage people to keep good ethical conduct. The question arose: to what extent are near-death experiences conditioned by the culture of the time? How much of what people report of such experiences is conditioned by the culture and expectations of society? How much are they mental creations?

Joan asked HHDL if people actually entered the intermediate state during near-death experiences and then returned to life. HHDL responded that once one enters the intermediate state, there is no going back to the former body. Even if one has gotten as far as the clear light of death, unless one is a skilled tantric practitioner, it is difficult to come back to the gross levels of consciousness of this life. These people may have experienced a similitude of the clear light, but not the actual clear light of death. He told the story of someone who died at the time of Milarepa and later the body came alive again. Milarepa told the people that it was a spirit who had entered the corpse, it wasn’t the mind of the person who had died. HHDL also commented that we need to check up reports of out-of-body experiences during near-death experiences, for it is difficult to determine what happened and what is one’s imagination. As in the previous discussions about feeling like one has left the body while asleep or meeting special people or receiving special messages in dreams, HHDL maintained an open yet critical attitude. We can’t deny people’s feelings and subjective perceptions, but we must research and check up to determine what happened and what is merely appearance to the mind or imagination. HHDL also clarified that the detailed descriptions of deities in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) are for practitioners of this specific Nyingma practice. Other people in the intermediate state wouldn’t have those same appearances or experiences.

H.H. the Dalai Lama

During the conference HHDL clarified some philosophical points I had been wondering about. However, some of his other comments affected me on a deeper level. One was his opening statement at the conference: what is important in life is compassion and humility. Another was his comment that all Buddha’s teachings were given for the happiness of sentient beings. How incredible, I thought, sitting in this room full of Western scientists and scholars, an entire discipline exists simply for the benefit of beings, to bring happiness to others.

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The Mind and Life III Conference: Emotions and health http://thubtenchodron.org/1990/12/joy-peace-mindfulness/ Tue, 01 Jan 1991 00:31:20 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=38850

Note: This report began as a letter to friends. I do not attempt to give a comprehensive report on the conference and refer people to a number of excellent books published by Snow Lion Publications and Wisdom Publications that have come out of the Mind/Life Conferences. Unfortunately, I did not have the program with me and apologize for omitting the names of the participating scientists…

I was living in Dharamsala, India, in the autumn of 1990, when a group of scientists arrived (mostly American, with one Chilean who lived in France) for the Mind/Life Conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL), which lasted five days, with sessions both morning and afternoon. I was delighted to be able to be a spectator to the scientists’ presentations to HHDL and their subsequent discussions. HHDL’s open-mindedness and curiosity about new things was an impressive example for us all. He asked the scientists so many appropriate questions that demonstrated his understanding of the process of scientific research that one scientist said, “You can come work in my laboratory any time!”

Ethical compassion

A philosopher started the conference with a presentation of different ethical systems as found in the West and the doubts people have about compassion as the basis for ethics. Of course, this jarred me, for compassion is so admired in Buddhism. But he pointed out that in the West compassion often means a higher person condescendingly helping a lower one. Also, many religions which talk about compassion also use their religion to justify sexism and racism. For this reason too, many people doubt the effectiveness of compassion. A lively discussion ensued. But four days later, at the end of the conference, when HHDL talked on the necessity of compassion and affection to have satisfaction and happiness both within individuals and within society, people were so moved that nearly everyone had tears in their eyes.

Identifying emotion

A woman looking very sad and despair.

Do new emotions come into being as our language and literature evolve or are we just identifying emotions that have been there all along? (Photo by Stella Maris)

One scientist presented research about emotional states and brain activity which prompted a discussion about just what was meant by emotion. This is especially interesting because there is no word in Tibetan for the broad category of “emotion” as we mean it in the West. Are emotions to be cultivated or abandoned? Do Buddhas have emotions? We concluded that some emotions are beneficial while others are destructive, and that since Buddhas have love and compassion, they also have emotions.

I enjoyed the discussions most of all, for many points came up that aren’t usually covered in Buddhist teachings or in the scientific talks. For example, one person asked, “Do new emotions come into being as our language and literature evolve or are we just identifying emotions that have been there all along? When a language has a word for a particular mental state, does it encourage the people who speak that language to experience that state?” What came to my mind was guilt: in Tibetan there’s no word for guilt, nor do they seem to have the same problems with guilt that we have in the West.

Overcoming low self-esteem

Sharon Salzburg from Insight Meditation Society, a Theravada group in the USA, brought up something that I too have noticed while teaching Westerners: we have a hard time loving and forgiving ourselves. We tend to have low self-esteem and varying degrees of self-hatred, together with a feeling that we’re unlovable. Thus, Westerners often misinterpret Buddhist teachings on cherishing others to include, “I’m so bad. I don’t deserve to be happy because I’m so selfish and angry, so I have to sacrifice myself for others to make up for this.”

HHDL was very surprised to hear this, and when he asked the roomful of scientists and spectators, all of whom were successful in their own fields, “Who has this low self-esteem?” we all unabashedly said, “All of us do.” Shocked, HHDL said, “Previously I thought I understood the mind pretty well, but now I have my doubts.” He questioned us on why we have this feeling, and various reasons came up: from babies’ lack of parental love and physical contact with their parents to competition in society to the Christian idea of original sin. HHDL proposed a few meditations to help overcome low self-esteem: meditating on the fact that all of us have the Buddha nature and the potential to develop ourselves; contemplating the fact that we’ve been the recipient of others’ help, love and kindness, and thus cultivating affection for others. He concluded by saying, “Yes, it’s appropriate in Buddhist practice to cultivate love for oneself without selfishness.”

Peace through understanding

The following day, the scientists were equally surprised at something HHDL said. One scientist told of his work with torture victims and refuges. HHDL commented that very few Tibetans who were tortured by the Chinese communists have Post-traumatic Stress—nightmares, painful flashbacks, disorientation. The scientists were amazed. How could this be? HHDL suggested some reasons: Perhaps because the Tibetans had firm refuge in the Three Jewels and understood the law of karma; perhaps because they knew they weren’t being imprisoned because they had done anything wrong. It was for freedom that they endured this.

Several scientists presented research of the effects of stress vs. a calm mind on health and the ability to recover from illness. All evidence pointed to the fact that the more people felt peaceful inside and connected to others, the better their health. “You’re giving me more ammunition (to show others that detachment, patience, kindness and compassion are beneficial for self and others),” commented HHDL.

Reducing stress through mindfulness

The last day, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist talked of his work at the University of Massachusetts’ Medical Center: he ran a stress reduction clinic. His clients were people who were being treated for other illness (cancer, heart problems, etc.) and referred to his clinic by other doctors to help them recover. He described teaching people mindfulness meditation as generally taught in the Theravada tradition. He did this with no religious orientation. They started with being mindful of the breath and later were mindful of feelings in their bodies, etc. They also did hatha yoga. The results were impressive and again gave HHDL“more ammunition.” I thought that this kind of work must make HHDL very happy for it reached out to many people and benefited them without any religious doctrine. Throughout the conference HHDL stressed that what was important was the 5 billion people in the world, 4 billion of whom don’t have any firm religious grounding. We have to show them the value of ethical conduct and compassion— two things essential for the survival of our planet—without bringing in religious beliefs.

The conference gave all of us a lot to think about. Personally, I thrive on discussions with people who have different beliefs and perspectives on life than I do. They teach me many new things and inevitably deepen my conviction in the Buddha’s teachings. Also, it makes me aware that people have so many different inclinations and interests, and that it’d be good to learn how to communicate with everyone effectively.

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“Harmonia Mundi” and “Mind-Life” conferences http://thubtenchodron.org/1989/10/science-buddhist-talks/ Tue, 31 Oct 1989 14:24:41 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=36389

My description does not do justice to either of the events or to the contributions of all the participants. Rather, it focuses on what was of personal interest to me as a Buddhist and student of H. H. the Dalai Lama. These two conferences occurred in October, 1989 in California. During the second conference, news that His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) had received the Nobel Peace Prize arrived.

Harmonia Mundi conference

Held in Newport Beach, California, the “Harmonia Mundi, Transformation of Consciousness” conference was attended by 1,200 people, mainly psychologists, therapists, doctors and others in the helping professions. His Holiness came twice a day, for panel discussions with some of the best-known psychologists, thinkers, etc. in the country. The conference was very expensive (some people in Seattle helped me out), and so the audience was mostly professionals and wealthier New Age seekers.

His Holiness and Thupten Jinpa during a talk.

His Holiness’ humility was so evident: he frequently said, “I don’t know”, to their questions and then asked them what they thought. (Photo by Christopher Michel)

His Holiness, as usual, was completely relaxed with the people and spoke to them exactly according to their mentality and in their vocabulary. Thupten Jinpa and Alan Wallace did excellent jobs translating. My strongest impression after the first session was how much the people in USA—including these professionals—need the Dharma. Although the other panelists are well-educated, well-respected leaders in their fields, it became clear to me that these people lacked knowledge of the techniques we learn at the beginning of Dharma practice for controlling anger, preventing “burn-out,” developing equanimity, etc. I’m not saying this with pride in being a Buddhist, but with deep gratitude for our teachers who have taught us so much.

His Holiness used no Buddhist terms in explaining Dharma to these people. The audience was receptive, not only to what he said, but to HHDL as a person. His humility was so evident: he frequently said, “I don’t know”, to their questions and then asked them what they thought. He also asked questions of his own, and queried them about why America has so much child abuse and intra-family violence, why the Vietnam vets had a hard time adjusting to civilian life, etc.

They asked him about how to respond to harmful situations without anger, techniques to develop compassion, what role intimacy (not necessarily sexual intimacy, but family relationships and friendships) had in the path, how to balance their work to help others with their own personal needs and practice. Some very interesting points were brought up, expressed only the way Americans would dare say them: e.g., “Why are there recently many incidents of abuse of power on the part of some Buddhist teachers?” HHDL’s reply to this surprised me. He said it happened because Westerners pamper and spoil their teachers. Then he said that there’s no need to see everything a teacher does as perfect or divine. If they do something ethically harmful, we should say so.

They also asked questions such as: “Don’t some of the stories in the sutras about how disciples obeyed and sacrificed for their teachers imply that to be a good disciple, one has to be happy to let oneself be abused?” If one is in the helping professions, he or she is continually in the role of being a helper, and this may bring some difficulties in their own personal relationships where others don’t want them to be a helper, but to be engaged and involved personally. That brought up the issue of what compassion means, and how deeply involved one is to be with the people one helps.

Please excuse me for telling you only the questions, not HHDL’s answers. Hopefully hearing the questions will generate some reflection in you too. That is the process by which we grow. If we simply wait for our teachers or the “experts” to tell us THE answers, our own wisdom will not develop. In general, HHDL’s replies centered upon the need for compassion and education. He also stressed the importance of action, not just prayer, to ameliorate society’s problems. We are each individually responsible to do what we can for others and to develop our own sense of universal responsibility.

Reflections on the Mind and Life conference

The Harmonia Mundi conference lasted three days. For the next two days, HHDL had a conference with scientists during the day, and in the evening gave public talks. I had been wanting for years to attend the conferences with scientists, not only because I’m personally interested in this, but also because others ask me about the relationship between Buddhism and science. I wasn’t able to attend the first Mind/Life conference two years ago in Dharamsala, but the scientists there were mostly Buddhists. In this one, however, most of the scientists weren’t, and in fact, they knew virtually nothing of Buddhism. Most were neuroscientists, although one was a philosopher of science. They held tenaciously onto the materialist view that consciousness is but a function of the brain. The conference was held in the home where HHDL was staying, so it was a relaxed and informal atmosphere.

The presentations were fascinating and again HHDL was incredible. He was so humble and with a sincere wish to learn from these people, asked them many questions. He didn’t cling to Buddhist doctrine, but suggested that experiments be done: e.g., when yogis go through the death process and meditate on the clear light, their brain activity should be measured to see if consciousness can in fact function separately from the body at that time.

Sometimes his discussions with the scientists were so exciting that it was all I could do to keep my mouth closed (I was only a spectator). The scientists gave many reasons why there wasn’t a separate soul or mind stream, and we Buddhists have to think deeply about how to refute their assertions with evidence, logic and language that is acceptable to them. The scientists had difficulty understanding Buddhist thought doesn’t assert a materialistic view of “physical material only,” nor does it accept an independent soul as in usual Western philosophy (Descartes, etc.). But time was short, and with more explanation, maybe they could understand that body and mind both exist and are different, but that doesn’t mean there’s an independent soul.

Mind and brain

The scientists’ assertions that mind is nothing but a function of the brain doesn’t hold water. HHDL asked them if, when looking at a brain, they feel the same spontaneous affection that they do for another person. They said no. So he said, “Well, if the mind is nothing more than the brain, then there is no person there at all, so who do you have affection for? You should love the brain, for that was the closest thing to a person there was.” This set them thinking, though I don’t think they understood the whole purport of HHDL’s argument.

Just before that session, I had asked one of the scientists just what was the definition of mind. If the mind isn’t exactly the same as the brain because scientists don’t use the terms “mind” and “brain” synonymously, but it’s not separate from the brain either, then what is it? When the brain is registering a perception through chemical and electrical processes, who is perceiving the object? Who is having an emotion? This stumped that particular scientist, so he called over the philosopher of science, and she went as far as to say that there was no person perceiving things. That was only an illusion, for there was only the brain reacting. So I said, “Then our use of language is all wrong, for we say, ‘I saw this,’ and ‘You felt that.'”

Evidence and testimony

Afterwards some of us were talking in the kitchen and commenting how the scientists’ position didn’t correspond to the way they lived their lives. They always asked HHDL, “What is the evidence?” whenever he explained something. But in their personal lives, we doubted that they did that. Could you imagine, according to their world view, when they said to their spouses, “I love you,” their spouses should retort, “What’s the evidence? I want to see a change in your heartbeat. Only if your EEG is different will I believe that you love me!”

However, we can’t dismiss their wish for evidence, and I found many of their questions challenging. We have to think how to respond to them in a way that they’ll understand. Scientists accept only repeatable experiments as evidence; while Buddhists rely on the testimony of those with experience of things we haven’t yet experienced. I personally think we need a combination of the two. HHDL’s open-mindedness and willingness to question things said in the scriptures is like a breath of fresh air. He doesn’t cling onto a position just because it’s in the texts, but actively seeks to understand and explore.

The Nobel Peace Prize

I learned so much just by observing HHDL. For example, the news of his winning the Nobel Peace Prize came a few hours before the science conference began. So when it started, everyone congratulated HHDL. He didn’t say anything. It didn’t move him at all. Something good happens, okay, something bad happens, okay. The mind is balanced. Days later, when he did say something about winning the prize, he disclaimed any personal responsibility for it and instead attributed it to his sincere altruistic motivation, saying that this motivation and the actions issuing from it were wonderful, but not him. This was an incredible way of encouraging all of us to develop altruism.

The news about the Peace Prize came at 3:00 a.m., and the cook answered the phone. He woke the woman whose home they were staying at, and they called HHDL’s secretary who was sleeping at another home nearby. HHDL was meditating, and they couldn’t disturb him, so he found out later. Meanwhile, the phone was ringing wildly with the press requesting interviews. HHDL insisted that none of the teachings he had promised to give be canceled in order to meet with the press. While any other person would have milked the opportunity for all the media they could get to spread their cause, HHDL continued on as always, just being “a simple monk, nothing more and nothing less.” The standing ovations at all his later talks didn’t move him. In fact, in San Jose, when everyone stood up to applaud his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he also did (on his throne), making us laugh.

His schedule was very tight, with three days of Harmonia Mundi, two days with the scientists plus evening talks. Then he went to Vajrapani Institute in the forest and to Santa Cruz for a public talk. Two days of Dzogchen teachings sponsored by Sogyal Rinpoche’s group followed. These teachings were above most of our heads, but inspiring nevertheless. HHDL didn’t just say all the four Tibetan traditions come to the same point, so there’s no reason to be sectarian; but he went into the philosophy of the different traditions to prove it. Wow!

Then he was helicoptered to the top of Mount Tamalpais, near San Francisco, for the incense offering ceremony for creating harmony with the environment, organized by Tai Situpa’s Maitreya Institute. This was a big thing for the press. He went from there to speak to 1,200 people of the Commonwealth Club. That afternoon, he was to go to the largest Episcopal Church in San Francisco for a talk and inter-faith prayer, and that evening to a huge dinner sponsored by the Himalayan Foundation and give another talk. Four talks at different places in one day was an outrageous schedule, and after the non-stop activities and lack of rest on the tour, he got sick and couldn’t go to the church or evening dinner. He left at 5 a.m. the next day for Madison and Geshe Sopa’s group, but his health was okay there.

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