Buddhism and Science

From the Buddhist point of view, both bondage and true freedom depend on varying states of this clear light mind, and the resultant state that meditators try to attain through the application of various meditative techniques is one in which this ultimate nature of mind fully manifests all its positive potential, enlightenment, or Buddhahood.
—His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet[1]


November 8-10, 2005, Washington, DC. I am attending an international conference called Investigating the Mind 2005: The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation. Some of the world’ s eminent neuroscientists are going to talk, and several thousand students of medicine and/or meditation are participating. But what is unusual is that the whole event really centers around one man, and he himself is not a scientist. Since 1987, His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet has held a series of conferences with scientists to discuss the interfaces of science and Buddhism in the fields of the mind, life, the universe, the reality of nature, and the nature of reality.2 The 2005 meeting is the 13th Mind and Life Conference. Except for this and the 2003 meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all the other conferences were held privately either in Dharamsala, a beautiful Himalayan town in north India where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, or in various cities in the U.S. and Europe.

For three days, the Dalai Lama sits cross-legged on a chair (my own favorite way to blend East and West), listening to scientific presentations and engaging in lively discussions. As I observe him and the panel of scientists and monks onstage, my memories take me back some fifteen years to when I was finishing my PhD at Kyoto University. Physicist Fritjof Capra was on a lecture tour in Japan, and I was reading his book, The Tao of Physics, one of the pioneering attempts to integrate Western science and Eastern wisdom. Capra wrote: Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science; but man needs both. 3 Recalling this insight helps me better appreciate the importance of the conference and the Dalai Lama’s effort to hold these dialogues.

I should emphasize, too, the significance of the Dalai Lama’s own life journey to that conference. Born Lhamo Dhondup (wish-fulfilling goddess) in 1935, for the first two decades of his seventy years, science was not included in the Dalai Lama’s education; he was trained almost entirely in Buddhist and Tibetan subjects. And yet he later took the path of learning science, the English language, and firsthand, the living conditions of our world. In spite of all that has befallen his country and its people the suppression of Tibet and the Tibetans he has continued to care for humanity, pursuing peace and dialogue in place of violence, and to promoting compassion and cooperation as basic human qualities which transcend all countries, colors and creeds. Here is a spiritual leader who has realized the urgency of converging and balancing science and spirituality for the betterment of human life lest spirituality be entirely hijacked by religious fanatics, and science crystallized as a blind weapon in the hands of political maniacs. The Dalai Lama’s solution is to embrace the beneficial aspects of both material and spiritual development.

Light on the Mind

The mind is a natural bridge between science and Buddhism, for Buddhism, rather than focusing on a creator god, is based on the awareness and development of the human mind. Perhaps for this reason the Dalai Lama said in the conference that Buddhism is some sort of humanism. About 2500 years ago, the Buddha moved away from abstract philosophical debates and the Brahmanic priestly class of India, and suggested that our enlightenment, salvation or sufferings all are in our own minds.

One of the conference speakers, Ajahn Amaro, a British monk of Theravada Buddhism who lives in California, likened the Buddha to a Doctor of the World, who recognized dukkha (suffering) as the symptom of humanity’s disease, self-centered craving as its cause, the cessation of desire as the prognosis, and the eight-fold path as the method of healing humans. As Buddhism has spread from India to other Asian countries through the centuries, a wealth of data, experiences, and interpretations on the nature and development of the human mind has accumulated. Only in recent years, however, has science paid due attention to this 2500-year-old psychological knowledge (see “The Psychology of Zen” by Reggie Pawle, in KJ 59).

For science, the human brain and mind remain a fundamental mystery, partly because the brain-mind system is very complex and to some extent because of the peculiar course that modern science has taken. The Scientific Revolution in sixteenth-century Europe began with the investigation of stars and planets in the night sky, the farthest objects from us. The first giants of modern science were astronomers and physicists like Copernicus, Tyco Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. The Principles of Psychology by William James was published much later in 1890. There was thus in mainstream Western science a three-century gap from modern astronomy, the study of outer space, to modern psychology, the study of our inner space.

Even decades after Western psychology emerged in the late nineteenth century, many psychologists (notably J.B. Watson and B.F. Skinner) focused on behaviorism, the study of externally observable human behavior, rather than the nature and inner-workings of the human mind and consciousness. This school of thought and methodology became so dominant that psychology was equated with behavioral science. Alongside this trend, physiologist Ivan Pavlov initiated the use of animals in psychology and neurology. And in recent decades, computer science and programming have become important tools in psychology and cognitive science.

In the first Mind and Life Conference in 1987, the Dalai Lama pointed out that from a Buddhist perspective, he found it strange how scientists had virtually ignored the human mind itself and instead used animals and other indirect methods to understand human consciousness. In response, Dr. Eleanor Rosch, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, told a joke about the Persian Crazy-Wiseman, Mullah Nasr Eddin, who was discovered by a neighbor, down on his knees beneath a lamp-post outside his house, searching for his lost keys. The neighbor asks him, where did you lose them? In my home, he replies, but there is more light here. 4

Behaviorism, animals and computer programs, although undoubtedly valuable, provide only a third-person perspective on the human mind. Meditative psychology, such as that developed in Buddhism, offers a first-person experience; it is a study of the mind, thought and emotional processes from within. It would be a grave mistake to reject this meditative psychology simply on the assumption that it is subjective knowledge. Meditation practices can be conducted by all humans and the results can be cross-checked. Moreover, we now have scientific tools to monitor and quantify the effects of meditation practices on the human body, brain, and state of health.

Tools for the Science of Meditation

Some of the earliest studies on the physiological impact of meditation were conducted in the 1960s on Indian yogis and Japanese Zen monks. In 1961, two American physiologists, M.A. Wegner and B.K. Bagchi, together with B.K. Anand, the founder of modern neurophysiology in India, reported the results of an electrocardiograph reading on meditating yogis and found that the yogis could consciously slow their heartrates. In 1964, two Japanese researchers, Sugi and Akutsu, reported that experienced monks during zazen could decrease their respiration rates and consumption of oxygen. These signs indicated a slowing of metabolism. (One wonders if this is how Indian yogis could manage to survive while buried alive, as stories attest.) In 1966, Kasamatsu Akira and Hirai Tomio of Tokyo University, using the electroencephalograph (which measures the electrical activity or waves of the brain), found that Zen meditators developed a surge of alpha waves (oscillations of eight to twelve cycles per second), which are the signs of relaxation. Hirai s Psychophysiology of Zen (1974) has given a detailed description of these studies. 5

The Dalai Lama’s effort to assist meditation science actually began in October, 1979 when Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School requested him to arrange for a study of physiological changes in Tibetan monks practicing tummo yoga. Benson had read about this practice in the books of Alexandra David-Neel (the first Western woman to visit Tibet and become a nun). David-Neel had witnessed how practitioners sitting on the ground, cross-legged and naked in the cold winter, could generate sufficient skin heat to melt the snow they were sitting upon, or to dry sheets dipped in icy water and placed on their body. Benson has documented his lifelong studies of the physiological and psychological changes of meditation practices in his books, The Relaxation Response (1975), Beyond the Relaxation Response (1984), and Your Maximum Mind (1987). His case studies show that meditation is an effective way to combat stress, because while stress increases metabolism, blood pressure, heartbeat and respiration rate, meditation slows down these processes as a relaxation response.

Dr Richard Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience are among the active research groups involved in the Mind and Life conferences. In 2004, Davidson’ s group reported in the prestigious American journal, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that electroencephalographic monitoring of experienced Tibetan meditators shows that they can self-induce the brain s fast gamma waves oscillation of thirty to fifty cycles per second, which are indicative of concentration and an attentive state. 6
In recent years, the use of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) techniques to scan and map various parts of the brain in action has further enhanced studies of meditation science.

From Evolution to Meditation

In works such as the recently published The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Lama expounds upon two Buddhist doctrines that I find closely associated with the scientific discovery of evolution: Impermanence (anitya) and Emptiness (shunyata). These are components of the Four Seals that all Buddhist schools subscribe to:

All products are impermanent.
All contaminated things are miserable.
All phenomena are empty and selfless.
Nirvana is peace.7

The Dalai Lama considers impermanence to be a universal law which states that all conditioned things and events are in constant flux. Nothing not even in the material world, which we tend to perceive as enduring remains static or permanent. 8 According to the doctrine of emptiness or void, things and events are empty in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute being that affords independence. 9 The universe is in a flux, evolving through time; the same is true for humans.

Consider the evolution of the brain and mind in three categories: 1) geological evolution over a timespan of billions of years; 2) biological evolution during our embryonic and infant stages; and 3) spiritual or mental evolution in our lifetime.
Our brain is the outcome of eons of evolution of matter and life. The carbon atoms that make up our body and brain were cooked in the core of an exploding star a supernova that became a cloud of gas and dust and ultimately settled to form, among other celestial objects, our Sun, Earth and the other planets of our solar system. We are, as Carl Sagan was fond of saying, stardust. Life forms have developed from single cells to more complex organisms; our brains thus carry the geological heritage of the four-billion-year history of life on this planet.

In contrast to the fanatical, fundamentalist view of religion that has stirred much controversy in American schools in recent years, the Dalai Lama accepts the truth of evolution. In a press conference shortly before the Mind and Life Conference, a reporter asked his view about evolution versus creation. The Dalai Lama replied that in Buddhism there is no concept of creation from nothing; it is all natural evolution. He then added that an ancient Tibetan mythology relates the origin of human beings to monkeys: This is at least true for Tibetans; I don t know about Americans!
Indeed, humans and other animals share the same building block of life: the DNA molecule. And during a nine-month period in the mother’s womb, a human embryo replicates the geologic evolution of living beings — starting from a simple organism that grows by cell division, and going through fish-like, reptilian stages until it develops mammalian features. We do not know when and how consciousness and feelings emerge in an embryo. Probably it is not a single event but itself an evolutionary process; nonetheless, a 28-week-old embryo is a fully-developed human baby and nowadays can often survive if born premature.

From the study of mammals and the evolution of hominid fossils we know that what has made us homo sapiens — intelligent humans — is our big, convoluted brain, or more precisely speaking, a larger brain/body ratio. A fully developed human brain contains about one hundred billion neurons, or nerve cells, which are connected to one another in a complex network of electrical currents and certain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Our brain weighs only about one and half kilograms (or three and half pounds), but it is largely because of this brain that we can know the world, ourselves and the brain itself. Ancient Japanese believed that the stomach (hara) was the seat of our thoughts, memories, information, emotions, and feelings; we now know that this credit largely goes to the brain.

Buddhism affirms the mind as the most important component of our life; it is the source of both sorrow and happiness. The Dhammapada begins with this line: Our life is the creation of our mind. 10

Despite the best scientific efforts, the nature of the mind and consciousness remains a mystery. According to the mainstream scientific theory, the mind is what the brain does; consciousness is an emergent property of physicochemical processes of neurons. This theory has been popularized by the Nobel laureate Francis Crick (a co-discoverer of the DNA) in his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. 11 Nonetheless, no scientist can explain how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. The philosopher David Chalmers has called it the hard problem, implying that investigating the structure and biochemistry of the brain is only the soft problem. 12

Although Buddhism believes there is no self (anatman) in the sense that grasping to a concrete ego in our life is merely a delusion, it does maintain a continuum mind (chitta) or fundamental consciousness existing before and after our bodily life. The nature of this mind, as the Dalai Lama has discussed in his works, is clear light and knowing. Moreover, Buddhism considers the mind to be essentially compassionate and loving. Negative emotional afflictions can be removed by meditation, enlightenment, and the realization of our Buddha-nature. 13

One of the most significant ideas that have been discussed in the Mind and Life conferences is neuroplasticity. The human brain is not a meat machine hardwired to perform fixed tasks and behaviors. The brain is more plastic: It can reassign tasks once performed by a certain group of neurons that are later damaged to a group of healthy neurons. The brain can also create new connections among neurons to repair a damaged portion. Some recent studies have even shown that the brain can produce new neurons, which challenges the traditional belief that brain cells cannot reproduce.

The brain’s plasticity implies that we are not merely prisoners of our genes; our environment and our efforts control the function of our brain. This precisely matches with the Buddhist idea that we should work out our own salvation and enlightenment via training the mind, or lojong in Tibetan. In the 2005 Mind and Life Conference, Dr Richard Davidson emphasized that virtues like compassion, love, kindness and forgiveness are skills that we can learn. The converse is true as well: We can unlearn (or learn to decrease) our negative emotions. In Buddhist psychology, the six most negative emotional afflictions or mental poisons are ignorance, hatred, desire, miserliness, jealousy, and arrogance. These correspond to six particular realms in samsara, or the cycle of unenlightened existence. In the same way, the eight-fold path that the Buddha has offered for salvation from suffering (dukkha) and for happiness (sukha) and enlightenment (bodhi) right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration are skills to be cultivated.14

After I returned from Washington, DC, I found a fascinating book, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, who document many instances of neuroplasticity, or rewiring of the brain as the authors define it. Interestingly, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a leading neuroscientist and a discoverer of neuroplasticity, is also self-taught in yoga and Buddhism. 15 One wonders to what extent Buddhist teachings were significant in the discovery of neuroplasticity itself.

The Nature of Dialogue between Buddhism and Science

The Mind and Life conferences initiated by the Dalai Lama are a milestone in dialogues between scientists and spiritual practitioners. In his press conference, the Dalai Lama remarked that these conferences began from his personal curiosity, and that he was glad to see them grow into an international organized effort which, he hoped, would go forward into the twenty-second century. As the 2005 conference came to an end, I reflected on the nature of these dialogues and jotted down the following two points in my notebook:

First, although Buddhism can aid scientists in understanding the human mind, the primary function of Buddhism is not scientific research but, as the Dalai Lama said during a conference panel discussion, to help humans with their enlightenment, happiness, and liberation from suffering. Thus Buddhist psychology is not meant to replace modern psychological research, but only to enrich it.

Second, our efforts to gain knowledge of the mechanism and processes in the brain should not be taken to negate or undermine our spiritual qualities. Several years ago, on a television program,  The Brain: Our Universe Within (produced by NHK and the Discovery Channel, 1994), Antonio Demasio, a renowned neuroscientist, stated that even if we understand the neurochemical transmitters of love in the brain, it does not mean that we will love less, just as understanding the mechanism of digestion does not reduce our enjoyment of eating.

This statement is consistent with words the Dalai Lama has written in his recent book, The Universe in a Single Atom: Although the experience of happiness may coincide with certain chemical reactions in the brain, such as an increase in serotonin, no amount of biochemical and neurobiological description of this brain change can explain what happiness is. 16 In other words, neuroscience is not meant to replace our spiritual experiences but to expand our knowledge and our capability to heal illnesses, thereby increasing happiness.

Given the thorny relations between scientists and religious authorities over the past centuries, the convergence of science and spirituality, as attempted by the Dalai Lama, is a welcome trend, and one sorely needed for our increasingly interdependent world, in which both science and religion play vital roles.

1. The Dalai Lama, The Buddhist concept of mind, in MindScience: An East-West Dialogue, Wisdom Publication, Boston, 1991, p. 17.
2. Several volumes have resulted from the Mind and Life conferences: Gentle Bridges (Shambhala, 1992); Consciousness at the Crossroads (Snow Lion, 1999); Healing Emotions (Shambhala, 1997); Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying (Wisdom, 1997); Visions of Compassion (Oxford University Press, 2002); Destructive Emotions (Bantam, 2003); The New Physics and Cosmology (Oxford University Press, 2004).
3. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Shambhala, Boston, 1975.
4. Gentle Bridges, Shambhala, Boston, 2001, p. 92.
5. Tomio Hirai, Psychophysiology of Zen, Igaku Shoin, Tokyo, 1974. More recent works are James Austin’s Zen and the Brain (1999) and Zen-Brain Reflections (2006), both published by the MIT Press.
6. Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 16, 2004.
7. The Dalai Lama, The Buddhism of Tibet and the Key to the Middle Way, Harper & Row, N. Y., 1975, p. 53.
8. The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, Doubleday, N. Y., 2005, p. 146.
9. The Universe in a Single Atom, p. 47.
10. The Dhammapada, translated by Juan Mascaro, Penguin Books, 1973.
11. Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Simon & Schuster, N. Y., 1994.
12. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind, Oxford University Press, 1996.
13. For Buddhist discussion on the nature of the mind and Buddha-Nature, see The Dalai Lama’s The Four Noble Truths (1997) and The Universe in a Single Atom (2005).
14. The Dalai Lama, The Four Noble Truths, Thorsons, London, 1997.
15. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, HarperCollins, N. Y., 2002.
16. The Universe in a Single Atom, p. 145.

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