The Mind and Life Institute emerged as “a bold experiment” in 1987 from the efforts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Adam Engle, and Francisco Varela. Between ML IX and X, co-founder and visionary scholar Francisco Varela passed away, a tremendous loss for all of us who seek knowledge in the realm of consciousness studies. Varela has been ably replaced by Richard Davidson (author, most recently, of The Emotional Life of Your Brain).
Among the luminaries attending past conversations are neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio, philosopher Owen Flanagan, psychologist Daniel Goleman, anthropologist and Zen priest Roshi Joan Halifax, psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Cistercian monk and founder of the Centering Prayer movement Father Thomas Keating, cellular geneticist and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, and philosopher Evan Thompson, among many, many others.
The Scientific Coordinator at ML X was:
- Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Professor of Physics at Amherst College
- Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the XIVth Dalai Lama of Tibet
- Michel Bitbol, M.D., Ph.D., Directeur de recherché at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, France
- Steven Chu, Theodore and Frances Geballe Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Stanford University
- Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D., Professor of Biology at Washington University
- Eric Lander, Ph.D., geneticist, molecular biologist, mathematician, and the founder and director of the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research
- Prof. Dr. Pier Luigi Luisi, Professor of Macromolecular Chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
- Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., Author and Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu and French interpreter since 1989 for His Holiness the Dalai Lama
- Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Professor of Physics at Amherst College
The interpreters were:
- Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., President and chief editor for The Classics of Tibet Series produced by the Institute of Tibetan Classics in Montreal, Canada.
- B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., Visiting Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
When I began reading this book, my expectations, based on watching videos of the last several Mind and Life Conferences, no doubt skewed my experience of the book at first. Having seen those videos of recent conferences, I kept waiting for the book to get into the dharma, but that is not the book’s purpose, although there is certainly some Buddhist philosophy later in the book.
As one might guess from the list of Western scientists present at ML X, the topic was the “nature of reality,” and the book is essentially a condensed summary of how Western science makes sense of life, consciousness, and the universe. The first chapter looks at the elementary particles from which matter emerges, then moves through complexity theory (2), the complexity of life (3), how life unfolds (4), the human genome (5), and then consciousness to ethics (6). Along the way, there are interviews with Matthieu Ricard, Richard Gere, and His Holiness the Karmapa.
Readers interested in a crash course in the fields of physics, biology, and psychology will receive a solid grounding in the areas where theory is well-established and a sense for the open questions with which researchers still grapple. The conference structure allows that each day features a morning session of scientific explication and an afternoon discussion session. Pier Luigi Luisi does a good job of presenting this flow of the five days, although there are a couple of adjustments in the timeline in the interest of literary coherence.
Through the first half of the book, the Tibetan contingent offers little opposition to the Western model of physics and biology. However, when the topic eventually shifts to consciousness in the latter part of the book, the different perspectives on consciousness fully emerge. Western science, or at least the more forward-thinking version presented in these conferences, theorizes that consciousness is an adaptive, complex, and emergent property of the brain, making it clear that not all consciousness researchers believe it is fully reducible to the physical brain. The Tibetans, however, strongly disagree, holding that consciousness consists of gross and subtle consciousness, with the gross level based in the body and its sensations/perceptions and the subtle level shaped by the brain, but not subordinate to it. In fact, many authors who work in the interplay between Tibetan Buddhism and Western science believe consciousness exists independent with or possibly from – and ontologically prior to – matter and life (such B. Alan Wallace).
Here is the Dalai Lama’s explanation of the Buddhist view:
[W]e ask what consciousness actually arises from. What is it that turns into consciousness? According to Buddhist principles, consciousness can arise only from a continuum of phenomena similar to itself, in the same way that formations of mass-energy give rise to formations of mass-energy. It is a similar continuum. Subtle consciousness is a radically different type of phenomenon; therefore it can arise only from phenomena similar to itself. Matter, configurations of mass-energy, is radically dissimilar to consciousness. … Matter cannot transform into or become consciousness. (p. 181)
The Dalai Lama admits that this view is a form of dualism, and suggests that Western science has its own dualisms, such organic and inorganic matter. But he also argues that dualisms are inherent any time there are two things and not one, and “Dualism makes sense only in relation to a very specific context.”
Eric Lander tried to challenge the Dalai Lama on the rather esoteric nature of the gross/subtle distinction, asking if this doctrine is not simply an unproven but accepted assumption in the absence of any evidence, logic, or proof. His Holiness countered, however, with an argument based in the scientific method he learned from his Western teachers.
First of all, it’s not true that this is merely an assumption. There’s an empirical basis that is repeatable. There is a systematic training that can lead to the empirical conclusion that a continuity of consciousness transcends the limitations of one body, one life. This is not something unique to Buddhism; it preceded Buddhism, and it is not embedded in one ideology or one belief system. There are different modes of meditation within Tibetan Buddhism, different avenues to that experience. (p. 182)
What the Dalai Lama presents here is the essential nature of scientific inquiry. There are three steps: (1) Instrumental injunction, to know this, do this practice or experiment; (2) Direct apprehension, an immediate experience of the data generated by the injunction; and (3) Communal confirmation, comparing your results with others who have performed the same injunction (Wilber, 1998). His Holiness argues that other monks in other disciplines have replicated the reality of subtle consciousness in their own experiments, so there is a communal confirmation.
Where this leads, of course, is into the ongoing conflict between subjective, introspective knowledge (first-person) and objective, observational knowledge (third-person). Western science and, indeed, Western philosophy still struggle with admitting that first-person experience has any scientific validity. In fact, Massimo Pigliucci, in his rant against a review of this book by Michael Bond in Nature magazine (13 November 2008), argues that “‘a science of introspection’ is an oxymoron.” In fact, he states that introspection “is not and cannot be ‘science’ because science is based on the idea of independent verification of empirical findings” (para. 7).
Fortunately, the scientists and philosophers who engage in these dialogues with the Dalai Lama are more open-minded. While several of the Western scientists admit lacking the meditative experience necessary to make sense of the Tibetan worldview, they are nonetheless curious and seek some form of understanding that fits within their own worldviews. For now, however, both sides are somewhat entrenched in their own perspectives, but we benefit from their efforts to hold their own views more lightly.
Pigliucci, M. (2008, Dec 6). “Consciousness, Meditation, and The Dalai Lama.” rationallyspeaking.org.
Wilber, K. (1998). The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. Boston: Shambhala Publications.