By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2003; Page D01
"What shape are a cat's ears?" That's hardly the kind of question His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is accustomed to being asked.
The leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the best-selling author and one of the world's best-known spokesmen for moral causes, sat cross-legged on a plush white armchair placed in the middle of a large stage. He was wrapped cocoonlike in his scarlet monk's robe, rocking gently back and forth. He didn't know the answer, although he said he could picture a furry head that made him feel "peaceful."
"Okay," continued the questioner, Harvard University psychologist Stephen Kosslyn. "In what hand does the Statue of Liberty hold the torch?" After some conferring with the translator, the correct answer of "right hand" seemed to be given.
These were common research questions, the kind that Kosslyn and his colleagues ask subjects every day when trying to understand mental imagery -- how the human mind pictures objects as a way to retrieve information about them. This, however, was no typical laboratory or laboratory subject. It was taking place before an audience of more than 1,300 people -- some of the nation's top scientists, scientists-in-training, academic stars from other disciplines and a few Hollywood superstars, too -- all gathered to watch a historic encounter.
Long fascinated by science and technology, the Dalai Lama has met privately with prominent researchers since the mid-1980s to discuss subjects ranging from cosmology to quantum physics and consciousness. The week-long seminars usually take place in the living room of his home high in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas. But this two-day meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was public, the first of its kind.
In the United States, most encounters between scientists and religious leaders are over hot-button issues like stem cells, cloning, abortion and evolution, and they tend to be highly acrimonious. But the subject of last weekend's meeting, comparing Buddhist and scientific views of how the human mind works, was intended to be collaborative rather than contentious. Tickets for the event sold out in two hours, leaving a waiting list of 1,600.
Kosslyn was the scientific leader for the session on mental imaging, and he soldiered on despite the growing disconnect with his unique subject. Kosslyn asked the Dalai Lama to picture another simple mental image -- a rotated letter D, combined with the letter J -- but again with no success. He couldn't picture the umbrella.
It was an awkward moment, where the distance between the two worlds was highlighted. But as quickly became apparent, it was not because the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist colleagues had limited capabilities of mental imagery. Rather, it was because they had capabilities that Kosslyn and his colleagues couldn't imagine.
Advanced Buddhist monks, the Dalai Lama and his colleagues explained, are trained to remember complex images as a way to clear their minds and achieve new levels of awareness. An experienced monk can visualize the details of as many as 700 deities used in meditation, they said. Sometimes they would visualize the deity close up, sometimes from far away. Matter-of-factly, they added that some experienced meditators can keep a mental image in their minds for minutes and even hours.
For Kosslyn and the other psychologists, this seemed simply impossible. The longest they had ever had a Western (even a Harvard) subject hold a mental image was for seconds and never an image as complex as a Tibetan deity, which can be many-headed and multi-armed. Kosslyn was skeptical but open to setting up laboratory experiments to test the monks. Kosslyn even said he was ready to throw aside years of research if the monks could perform the feats they claimed. "There comes a point where a theory has to be patched up too much, so you give up and start over again," he said when the session ended. "This may be such a case."
As the Dalai Lama stressed when he opened the conference, the scientific and the Buddhist traditions have a lot to learn from each other. The Western scientific ability to measure, describe and explain the physical world, he said, is infinitely more advanced than anything in Tibetan Buddhism. But after 2,500 years of training the mind through meditation and other practices, Buddhists have a lot to offer modern science, too. "Western psychology, compared to Buddhism, is still very young," he said. "Like a baby."
The setting for the gathering was undeniably, if charmingly, odd.
At the center of the stage sat the Dalai Lama. On his right sat a row of five scientists, in typical college professor garb. On his left were five Buddhists, some in monk's robes, others in Western clothes. Before them was a large beige carpet, and at its center was a small platform covered in purple cloth, with a glossy green bowl atop it. Flowers surrounded the setup -- all in an effort to make it feel like the Dalai Lama's hilltop sitting room in Dharamsala, India. But behind the chairs was a large screen where images of the speakers were broadcast. The screen let the audience see the Dalai Lama and others close up, but sometimes gave an eerie sense of Big Brother hovering.
Always punctual, the Dalai Lama had arrived precisely at 9 a.m. The large crowd stood in respectful silence and watched intently as the man identified at age 2 as the leader of Tibet and the Buddhist incarnation of compassion, walked slowly across the stage. He took small steps, bowing slightly to greet his American guests and bowing farther for his Buddhist colleagues, even touching his forehead to theirs. He clasped his hands together to bless them and did the same with the crowd.
Speaking sometimes in Tibetan, sometimes in a soft singsong English, the Dalai Lama, who was on a three-week tour of the United States, explained why he decided to take his meeting with scientists public. "Science and Buddhism are very similar," he said, "because they are exploring the nature of reality, and both have the goal to lessen the suffering of mankind." For 2,500 years, Buddhists have specialized in using contemplation, meditation and introspection to explore the secrets of the mind. Now, because of advances in brain imaging and other behavioral tests, it has become possible to learn more precisely and scientifically about those inner workings. The Dalai Lama said he was very excited about what science and Buddhism might contribute to each other.
Returning to his chair, the Dalai Lama slowly took off his shoes, put on sunglasses to block the glare and sat ready to listen. It was all heady stuff, what with the talk of how we know what we know, how Buddhists may have intuited what neuroscientists are now proving, and how both traditions can reduce suffering in the world and increase happiness. And with the Dalai Lama presiding over it all, the day started rather stiffly and awkwardly. But then the man everyone referred to as "His Holiness" or "Your Holiness" took events into his own hands.
As one of the scientists was talking with great gravity about why it's so difficult to study thoughts objectively, a loud sneeze erupted. It had been made directly into a microphone pinned to a robe, and consequently quite close to a nose.
The sneeze echoed through the hall and stopped the talk dead. But the sneezer immediately started to laugh, to slap his thighs and then to roll his head back with greater and greater mirth at his own highly amplified faux pas. The audience joined in, relieved and enraptured. It was just a sneeze, but it was also what Buddhists might call a transforming moment, an emotional resetting of the hall's thermostat. Was it done intentionally? Nothing was said, but Tibetan Buddhists believe a sneeze (like meditation, falling asleep, preparing to die) can provide a moment of "clear consciousness," when people are opened to greater understanding.
We all know what the brain is, but what exactly is the mind? What is consciousness, our awareness of being who and where we are?
As the scientists and Buddhists set out to debate those questions, they divided the issues into three categories: attention (how and why the mind focuses on a specific thought, perception or task), mental imagery (how the mind pictures objects and situations as a way to remember and move forward) and emotions (whether mental training can regulate the way we feel and respond, or whether the emotions are precisely the part of mental life least under our control).
The discussion ranged far and wide, touching on the "hedonic treadmill" (how the acquisition of goods and power generally doesn't satisfy but rather makes us want more), on how meditation might allow a Buddhist to reach the heightened state of being "vividly aware of being aware of not much at all," and how brain imaging that captures electrical and chemical activity has allowed researchers to learn where in the brain different kinds of emotions and perceptions are received and processed.
For the Buddhists, centuries of thinking about the mind are contained in a tradition called the Abhidharma, which sees the mind and the body as interconnected in a way Western science is only now beginning to accept. Central to the Abhidharma is the belief that the mind and emotions can be changed by meditation and other introspective practices that have no necessary connection to religion. Neuroscientists have also concluded that the brain is more "plastic" than was long believed, that its circuitry can be changed by outside, as well as inside, events.
This plasticity has long been a focus of Richard Davidson, a prominent University of Wisconsin neuroscientist with an interest in the brain circuitry of emotions. A decade ago, he was invited to Dharamsala to test some of the mental capacities of advanced monks. Since then, Davidson has done pioneering work not only on the mental capacities of highly trained Buddhists but also on the neuroscience of emotion generally and the effects of meditation on non-Buddhist Americans.
What he has found using advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology and other brain scanning has convinced him that the Buddhists are on to something. At the conference, Davidson revealed new findings that tentatively showed that six monks, when asked to meditate on compassion, had identifiable and intense electrical activity in the same small part of the brain. "The issue here is that with purely mental practice, we are seeing the brain responding to emotional stimuli and being transformed," Davidson said. "This is very close to what Buddhists say they can do, which is to regulate their emotions through meditation."
Davidson also reported about his experiments on one of the men facing him across the MIT stage, a French-born practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism named Matthieu Richard. A trained molecular biologist as well as a highly trained monk, Richard has been working with Davidson for several years and has allowed himself to be regularly tested and scanned. As reported by Davidson at the meeting, an MRI test of Richard showed the highest level of activity ever recorded in the area of the brain (behind the right side of the forehead) associated with positive emotion. To further make his point, Davidson showed a picture of Richard emerging from three (usually grueling) hours in an MRI tube, beaming.
"These are the Olympic athletes of mental and emotional achievement," Davidson later explained. "It's very, very exciting to think what we can learn from them and help other people."
It's not easy to voice skepticism about a figure as prominent the Dalai Lama and the claims of his tradition, but it was the job of several scientists on the stage to do just that. Eric Lander, a renowned molecular geneticist at MIT and a principal leader of the Human Genome Project, was among those asked to assess what science might add to Buddhism and what Buddhism might add to science.
The most serious problem he described is that many of the Buddhist claims (i.e., the ability to fix the mind's attention exclusively on a Buddha image for 30 minutes, or that meditation brings a new awareness of life) are subjective, while science is based on objective data that comes from rigorous research. Brain imaging experiments such as Davidson's have begun to measure first-person perceptions with some scientific basis, Lander said, but the experiments have to be repeated many times before they will be widely accepted.
Lander also said the ethical nature of Tibetan Buddhist thinking can run counter to scientific practice. He explained how a colleague had asked the Dalai Lama if it is wrong to kill animals in laboratory experiments. The reply was that killing is wrong, but there can be overriding benefits. But most important, the Dalai Lama said, was "what was in the heart" of the person doing the experimenting -- a very non-Western, nonscientific consideration.
For the Buddhists, Lander said, science might help validate their claims, though he said that was a risky business for all involved since they included religious beliefs. But he also said science could potentially help Buddhists refine meditation practices and explain some of the tricky questions of how the mind works that Buddhist contemplatives have struggled with for centuries.
As for what Buddhism might contribute to science, he said it's already providing the "Olympic-class" meditators for study and new areas of scientific inquiry. But even more important, he said, is the dawning realization among scientists that Buddhism offers a systematic way to approach certain kinds of knowledge and mind training.
"One way is to see [Tibetan Buddhism] as the way a pharmaceutical company might regard a folk remedy -- that they're on to something and now we'll come and really work out what the basis of it is," Lander said. "I don't think that's the right way to regard it. I am persuaded that we should look at it as a refined technology."
Jerome Kagan, a top psychologist at Harvard and a member of the prestigious national Institute of Medicine, was also asked to assess the possible benefits to science of meditative Buddhism. "I do believe that trained introspection can reveal subtleties of perception and feeling that no other current scientific method can discover," he told the audience. But he also said that "no individual using introspection would be able to discover that one area of the brain is more active when we see a robin fly from a tree, while a different one is active when we notice it has a red breast." The insights of Buddhism, he said, are no more valid or true than the insights of science.
The Dalai Lama was born Tenzin Gyatso to Tibetan peasants but was brought to the capital of Lhasa as a young child to begin his training as the nation's spiritual and political leader. From his earliest days he had a fascination with science, something little understood or studied in Lhasa. When Westerners came to the then-closed-off capital, he would drink up their knowledge of astronomy, geography and technologies of all kinds. He took apart and reassembled clocks and watches as a boy, and at age 14 was able to get an old movie projector to work without any manual to explain its mechanics. In his introduction of the Dalai Lama last weekend, MIT President Charles Vest noted that he has often said, "If I didn't become a monk, I would be an engineer."
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 to escape Chinese Communist efforts to capture him and his court, and resettled in India. Since then, he has spent his days working to maintain Tibetan culture, to bring his Tibetan Buddhism to people around the world and to negotiate with the Chinese for better treatment of his people. But his interest in science has never waned, nor has his desire to meet with Western scientists who could help him understand the world. The result of those interactions was the formation in 1987 of the nonprofit Mind & Life Institute, which was dedicated to bringing together scientists and Buddhists to explore what they might have in common.
Ten private meetings have been held, some lasting as long as five days, and the transcripts of many have been turned into books. They have also attracted the attention of sponsors and benefactors such as the McGovern Institute of Brain Research at MIT, the Hershey Family Foundation and Merck Laboratories, as well as actor Richard Gere, a longtime Buddhist who has attended many of the Dalai Lama's meetings with scientists. He, along with actress Goldie Hawn, sat attentively through every session at last weekend's conference. ("He's a very important dude," Hawn said with her trademark giggle.)
At first, it wasn't easy to attract prominent scientists to meet the Dalai Lama, who, after all, was never educated in any Western science. Not only would a meeting require a major commitment of time and travel, but it also could raise some doubt about the participant's scientific seriousness. Buddhist thought and practice includes some ideas quite foreign to Western science -- such as reincarnation, an ability to leave the physical body as a dream body, meditations that reportedly allow advanced monks and yogis to reach states that science does not believe achievable. But the openness of the Dalai Lama attracted a number of scientists, many with backgrounds in Buddhism, and the process grew as his knowledge became apparent.
By now, an invitation from the Dalai Lama is highly regarded in many scientific circles. Daniel Reisberg, a psychologist from Reed College and an expert on mental imaging, was exhilarated by his time on the stage with the Dalai Lama and fellow scientists and blurted out when it was over, "I'm just jealous that I wasn't invited to these discussions earlier."
The testing of the monks sparked a discussion onstage about whether they were just being used as "guinea pigs," and what the Buddhists might get out of it. (Their motivation, they said, was to try to bring more happiness into the world.) Whatever the ethics, it is easy to understand the researchers' desire to comprehend the abilities of monks such as Matthieu Richard and the Dalai Lama. That's because reports of how their meditation and emotional states can have physical manifestations can be so intriguing. Among Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is seldom called the Dalai Lama. Instead, they call him Kundun -- "the presence" -- and his effect on people can be quite startling.
For instance, in the book "Destructive Emotions," renowned (and non-Buddhist) psychologist Paul Ekman recounts an experience he had with the Dalai Lama when he was a participant in the ninth meeting between scientists and Buddhists in 2000. Ekman and his daughter had asked the Dalai Lama a personal question about relationships, and the Dalai Lama held and "affectionately rubbed" their hands as they talked. "I was inexplicably suffused with physical warmth during those five to ten minutes -- a wonderful kind of warmth throughout my body and face," Ekman told author Daniel Goleman. "It was palpable. I felt a kind of goodness I'd never felt before in my life, all the time I sat there." The experience, he said, transformed his life.
I also had an opportunity, in the late 1980s, to visit the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala when I was on my way to Tibet. I remember that it was a cool day, and that I spent some time in a chilly windowless waiting room. By the time I was ushered into the Dalai Lama's chambers, I was freezing.
I was greeted by a smiling man in a sleeveless robe. He took one of my hands with both of his and slowly rubbed it. Despite the cold, despite his lack of sleeves, his hands were remarkably warm, and the warmth traveled into and through my hand and up my arm. It didn't transform my life, but it sure made me wonder how he did it.
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