Dalai Lama and Mind and Life

“With the ever growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other. Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things.”
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and a spiritual leader revered worldwide. He was born on July 6, 1935 in a small village called Taktser in northeastern Tibet. Born to a peasant family, His Holiness was recognized at the age of two, in accordance with Tibetan tradition, as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lamas are manifestations of the Buddha of Compassion, who choose to reincarnate for the purpose of relieving suffering. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1989, he is universally respected as a spokesman for the compassionate and non-violent resolution of human conflict. His Holiness has traveled extensively, speaking on subjects including universal responsibility, compassion, and kindness.

The Dalai Lama’s Interest in Science

The Dalai Lama has always shown a strong mechanical aptitude and a keen personal interest in the sciences. He has said that if he were not a monk, he would have liked to have been an engineer. As a youth in Lhasa he taught himself to fix broken machinery, from clocks to movie projectors to cars. A highlight of his first trip to the west in 1973 was a visit to the University Observatory at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge England.

Over the years he has enjoyed relationships with many scientists, including long friendships with the late renowned philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper, and physicists Carl von Weizsäcker and the late David Bohm. He has participated in many conferences on science and spirituality. It was at one such conference, the Alpbach Symposia on Consciousness in 1983, that His Holiness met Dr. Francisco Varela who, in partnership with Adam Engle, later created the unique form of in-depth dialogue between Buddhism and science that has grown into the Mind & Life Institute. Since the first Mind and Life meeting in 1987, His Holiness has regularly dedicated a full week of his busy schedule to these biennial meetings.

An Ongoing Dialogue with Western Science

Along with his vigorous interest in learning about the newest developments in science, His Holiness brings to bear both a voice for the humanistic implications of the findings, and a high degree of intuitive methodological sophistication. As well as engaging personally in dialogue with Western scientists and promoting scientific research into Buddhist meditative practices, he has led a campaign to introduce basic science education in Tibetan Buddhist monastic colleges and academic centers, and has encouraged Tibetan scholars to engage with science as a way of revitalizing the Tibetan philosophical tradition. His Holiness believes that science and Buddhism share a common objective: to serve humanity and create a better understanding of the world. He feels that science offers powerful tools for understanding the interconnectedness of all Life, and that such understanding provides an essential rationale for ethical behavior and the protection of the environment.

A complete biography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is available on the Private Office’s official website.


Mind and Life

The Mind and Life dialogues between His Holiness and Western scientists were brought to life through a collaboration between R. Adam Engle, a North American businessman, and the late Dr. Francisco J. Varela (1946-2001), a Chilean-born neuroscientist living and working in Paris. In 1983, both men independently had the initiative to create a series of cross-cultural meetings between His Holiness and Western scientists.

Engle, a Buddhist practitioner since 1974, had become aware of His Holiness’ long-standing and keen interest in science, and his desire to both deepen his understanding of Western science, and to share his understanding of Eastern contemplative science with Westerners. In 1983 Engle began work on this project, and in the autumn of 1984, Engle and Michael Sautman met with His Holiness’s youngest brother, Tendzin Choegyal (Ngari Rinpoche), in Los Angeles and presented their plan to create a week-long cross-cultural scientific meeting. Rinpoche graciously offered to take the matter up with His Holiness. Within days, Rinpoche reported that His Holiness would very much like to participate in such a discussion, and authorized plans for the first meeting.

Convergence and Collaboration

Varela, also a Buddhist practitioner since 1974, had met His Holiness at the 1983 Alpbach Symposia on Consciousness. Their communication was immediate. His Holiness was keenly interested in science but had little opportunity for discussion with brain scientists who had some understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. This encounter led to a series of informal discussions over the next few years; through these conversations, His Holiness expressed the desire to have more extensive, planned time for mutual discussion and inquiry. In the spring of 1985, Dr. Joan Halifax, then the director of the Ojai Foundation and a friend of Varela, became aware that Engle and Sautman were moving forward with their meeting plans. She contacted them on Varela’s behalf and suggested that they all work together to organize the first meeting collaboratively. The four gathered at the Ojai Foundation in October of 1985 and agreed to go forward jointly. They decided to focus on the scientific disciplines that address Mind and Life, since these disciplines might provide the most fruitful interface with the Buddhist tradition. That insight provided the name of the project, and, in time, of the Mind & Life Institute itself.

It took two more years of work and communication with the Private Office of His Holiness before the first meeting was held in Dharamsala in October 1987. During this time, the organizers collaborated closely to find a useful structure for the meeting. Varela, acting as scientific coordinator, was primarily responsible for the scientific content of the meeting, issuing invitations to scientists, and editing a volume from transcripts of the meeting. Engle, acting as general coordinator, was responsible for fundraising, relations with His Holiness and his office, and all other aspects of the project. This division of responsibility between general and scientific coordinators has been part of the organizational strategy for all subsequent meetings. While Dr. Varela has not been the scientific coordinator of all of the meetings, until his death in 2001 he remained a guiding force in the Mind & Life Institute, which was formally incorporated in 1990 with Engle as its Chairman.

Click here to read Varela’s paper The Importance of the Encounter with Buddhism for Modern Science.

A Unique Forum

A word is in order concerning these conferences’ unique character. The bridges that can mutually enrich traditional contemplative disciplines and modern life science are notoriously difficult to build. Varela had a first taste of these difficulties while helping to establish a science program at Naropa Institute, a liberal arts institution created by Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa as a meeting ground between Western traditions and contemplative studies. In 1979 the program received a grant from the Sloan Foundation to organize what was probably the very first conference of its kind: “Comparative Approaches to Cognition: Western and Buddhist.” Some twenty-five academics from prominent North American institutions convened. Their disciplines included mainstream philosophy, cognitive science (neurosciences, experimental psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence) and, of course, Buddhist studies. The gathering’s difficulties served as a hard lesson on the organizational care and finesse that a successful cross-cultural dialogue requires.  Thus in 1987, wishing to avoid some of the pitfalls encountered during the Naropa experience, several operating principles were adopted that have contributed significantly to the success of the Mind and Life series. These include:

  • Choosing open-minded and competent scientists who ideally have some familiarity with contemplative traditions
  • Creating fully participatory meetings where His Holiness is briefed on general scientific background from a nonpartisan perspective before discussion is opened;
  • Employing gifted translators like Dr. Thupten Jinpa, Dr. Alan Wallace, and Dr. Jose Cabezon, who are comfortable with scientific vocabulary in both Tibetan and English; and finally
  • Creating a private, protected space where relaxed and spontaneous discussion can proceed away from the Western media’s watchful eye.

Since that time, the Mind & Life Institute has held over 20 dialogues:

  • 2010: Contemplative Science: The Scientific Study of the Effect of Contemplative Practice on Human Biology and Behaviour
  • 2010: Latest Findings in Contemplative Neuroscience, co-sponsored by theUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds
  • 2010: Altruism and Compassion in Economic Systems: A Dialogue at the Interface of Economics, Neuroscience and Contemplative Sciences, co-sponsored by the University of Zurich
  • 2009: Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century: Educators, Scientists and Contemplatives Dialogue on Cultivating a Healthy Mind, Brain and Heart, co-sponsored by Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Stanford University School of Education, Pennsylvania State University College of Education, University of Virginia Curry School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, the American Psychological Association and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning
  • 2009: Attention, Memory, and the Mind
  • 2009: Latest Findings in Contemplative Neuroscience
  • 2008: Investigating the Mind-Body Connection: The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation, hosted by Mayo Clinic
  • 2007: Mindfulness, Compassion and the Treatment of Depression, co-sponsored by Emory University
  • 2007: The Universe in a Single Atom
  • 2005: Investigating the Mind: The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation, co-sponsored by Johns Hopkins Medical University and Georgetown Medical Center
  • 2004: Neuroplasticity: The Neuronal Substrates of Learning and Transformation
  • 2003: Investigating the Mind: Exchanges between Buddhism and Biobehavioral Science on How the Mind Works, co-sponsored by the McGovern Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • 2002: The Nature of Matter, The Nature of Life
  • 2001: Transformations of Mind, Brain and Emotion at the University of Wisconsin
  • 2000: Destructive Emotions
  • 1998: Epistemological Questions in Quantum Physics and Eastern Contemplative Sciences at Innsbruck University
  • 1997: The New Physics and Cosmology
  • 1995: Altruism, Ethics, and Compassion
  • 1992: Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying
  • 1990: Emotions and Health
  • 1989: Dialogues between Buddhism and the Neurosciences
  • 1987: Dialogues between Buddhism and the Cognitive Sciences