“Harmonia Mundi” and “Mind-Life” conferences

Attended by H. H. the Dalai Lama, October, 1989

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The Mind and Life Dialogues began in 1987 to develop a more complete understanding of the nature of reality, and promote well-being on the planet.

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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