The Early Years: 1987-2002
“Dalai Lama: I welcome you. I deeply appreciate the efforts of the organizers of this meeting as well as of the participants. For quite some time I have had a great interest in the close relationship between Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism, and Western science. My basic aim as a human being is to speak always for the importance of compassion and kindness in order to help build a better, happier human society, and a brighter future…
Francisco J. Varela: Thank you, Your Holiness. For all of us who are participating here, as you pointed out, this possibility of a real dialogue between the Buddhist meditative tradition and science is of the utmost interest, both for the benefit of the world and for our own individual interests as scientists…I happen to be convinced that the natural bridge between the Buddhist tradition and the sciences is not through the physical sciences but through the sciences concerned with mind and life itself, roughly what we call today the cognitive sciences, and the life sciences, certainly. That’s why we have entitled the program “Mind and Life,” rather than “Science and Buddhism.” -October, 1987
Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind. (1992). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
The Mind & Life Institute (MLI) began as an intellectual experiment between His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, entrepreneur R. Adam Engle, and neuroscientist Francisco J. Varela. The first Mind and Life Dialogue was held in the Dalai Lama’s small audience room in Dharamsala, in October 1987. It was structured as a weeklong conversation between Buddhism and the Cognitive Sciences, and included the Dalai Lama, six scientists, two translators, and a few observers. From the very beginning, Varela had a clear vision of the opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration. He recognized that science had become the dominant paradigm for investigating the nature of reality, and in developing a knowledge base that could help improve the lives of humans, other animals, and the planet. The scientific method relies on empiricism, technology, and third-person ‘objective’ observation and analysis as its tools of examination, but Varela was adamant that well-refined contemplative practices and introspective methods could likewise be used as instruments of investigation. He was convinced that modern science was limiting itself to third-person investigation, that it could greatly benefit by incorporating, where appropriate, first- and second-person observation and analysis into its methodologies.
The Mind and Life Dialogues were established to pioneer collaboration between scientists, scholars, and contemplatives, the world’s most seasoned experts in introspection and mental training. The guiding conviction was that such collaboration would be constructive for modern science and beneficial for humanity in general. With funding from The Hershey Family Foundation, Engle and Varela were able to host ten dialogues with the Dalai Lama between 1987 and 2002. The scale of the meetings had remained fairly small, on the order of a dozen or so participants. All that changed in 2003, at MIT.
Growing a Community: 2003-2012
“It was a two-day conference in September 2003, launched under the plain-vanilla title, ‘Investigating the Mind.’ The actual opening scene at the meeting, however, was a bit more exotic. Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, sat cross-legged in a confortable white armchair (shoes set neatly on the floor before him) in the center of a large stage in Kresge Auditorium, on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had just arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after a flight from Washington, D.C., where he had met with President George W. Bush. However, he said, this meeting at MIT was the most important stop on his three-week North American tour. To the Dalai Lama’s left, spread out on a crescent, sat a small group of Buddhist scholars and practitioners, some in standard-issue academic tweeds, some in saffron and orange monastic robes. To his right, in another semicircle, sat a no less carefully selected group of neuroscientists and cognitive scientists. The prominent bouquets of flowers surrounding the Dalai Lama hinted at the high occasion…for Engle and the rest of the Mind and Life Board, the meeting at MIT was nothing less than a turning point in the history of their organization. The Mind & Life Institute had been founded in the late 1980s as a small, volunteer-run organization dedicated to organizing dialogues between the Dalai Lama and a wide array of scientists. All previous dialogues had taken place in private meetings (with just a handful of invited observers), usually held over the course of five relaxed days at the Dalai Lama’s home-in-exile in Dharamsala, India…the meetings themselves were not widely publicized and the Mind & Life Institute remained little known. The decision, now, in 2003, to “go public” was a gamble. If the meeting failed to impress and engage, Mind and Life’s loss of face would be considerable. If it succeeded, the institute would earn the right to call itself a leader in ventures of this sort.”
-Anne Harrington, PhD
Acting Chair, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University
The Dalai Lama at MIT. (2006). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
The success of the MIT conference in 2003 marked the beginning of a new developmental phase for MLI: catalyzing new fields of science that involved true collaboration between scientists and contemplatives in research and clinical settings. The Mind and Life Summer Summer Research Institute (MLSRI) was created to support this goal – an annual event that would bring together over 100 scientists, scholars, and contemplatives in a retreat-style scientific conference. Since 2004, the MLSRI has been the incubator for dozens of research projects and initiatives, many of which continue to be funded by the Francisco J. Varela Research Awards for Contemplative Science – or Varela Awards, for short. The awards of up to $15,000 each have resulted in more than 200 journal articles, chapters, and books, over 300 public talks, dozens of prestigious faculty appointments, fellowships, and directorships, and more than $11 million in follow-on funding to continue existing research or start new projects. Many ex-attendees of the Summer Research Institute feel that they are part of a Mind and Life extended family, thanks in part to this annual convening of a growing community of researchers dedicated to the intersection of the scientific and the contemplative.
In April, 2012, Mind and Life opened its doors even wider to the global community by hosting the world’s first International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in Denver, CO. The purpose of the biennial event is to bring together academics and other interested attendees for presentation, discussion, and collaborative networking in the fields of contemplative basic science, contemplative clinical science, contemplative philosophy and humanities, contemplative education, and those domains of contemplative practice that relate to and interact with these fields of research and scholarship. There has been a growing consensus regarding the need for a regular and recurring venue in which researchers, scholars, and students in the emerging contemplative fields can come together to share new research and scholarship and to network with established and potential collaborators. The 2012 conference included 740 participants from around the world, nine Master Lectures in neuroscience, education, clinical science, and the humanities, more than 30 Concurrent Panel Discussions and Platform Presentation Sessions, a Keynote Address, and more than 120 Poster Presentations. Three months after the International Symposium, Mind and Life received a $3,000,000 grant in support of the organization’s new strategic vision.
New Strategic Initiatives: 2013-
“MUNDGOD, India – Religion and science have not always been easy friends, as Galileo could attest. But over the last week scientists and Buddhist scholars have been working in this small Tibetan enclave in southern India to prove that these two worlds can not only co-exist – but benefit each other. It is the 26th edition of the Mind & Life Conference [sic] and the first held in the monastery, for thousands of Buddhist monks gathered here. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, greeted the scientists last Friday and introduced the week-long dialogue about science and religion…The thousands of monks of the Mundgod monasteries have been asked to follows the discussions – whose topics range from Quantum physics to neuroscience – in the Drepung Loseling Monastery’s assembly hall here. Monks who can’t fit into the hall watch the discussions on overflow screens outside on the monastery grounds…But the curiosity goes both ways. Scientists have long been fascinated by the effect of the Buddhist practice of meditation on the brain. Richard Davidson, director of the laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has conducted experiments on a dozen of Tibetan Buddhist monks’ brains…As part of his ongoing research, Dr. Davidson last year connected French monk Matthieu Ricard to 256 sensors and asked him to meditate on compassion. The scans of his brain showed an extraordinary level of gamma waves (activity linked to consciousness, learning, and memory), ‘levels never reported in the neuroscience literature’, the scientist said.”
-Saskia de Rothschild
International Herald Tribune, January 25, 2013
What is unique about the MLI approach to the sciences investigating the mind is the integration of the first and second person inquiry developed and refined by the worlds’ living contemplative traditions with the third person inquiry developed and refined by modern science. We also are committed to a multi-disciplinary investigation which includes the traditional mind sciences, social sciences, contemplative scholarship and practice, philosophy and humanities. We believe that only through this integrated investigation can we achieve an accurate understanding of how the mind works.
The MLI board, program and research council and management team continuously review and refine the MLI strategy to produce the maximum impact given its limited financial and human resources. Our current comprehensive strategy includes and integrates the following initiatives:
- Mind and Life Dialogues with His Holiness the Dalai Lama
- Mind and Life Publications which report on these ML Dialogues
- Mind and Life Summer Research Institute which helps train scientists and scholars in the emerging fields of Contemplative Science and Studies
- Mind and Life Research Grant Programs which provide pilot research grants to pioneering investigators in Contemplative Science and Studies
- Mind and Life Developmental Science Research Network which explores the human development issues necessary to create programs that can begin to educate children to cultivate the mental qualities of attention, emotional balance, kindness, confidence, and happiness early in life
- Mind and Life Leadership and Organization Research Network which explores how best to bring mental and emotional fitness, stress reduction, creativity and long term well-being to organizations
- Mind and Life Humanities and Social Sciences Initiative to insure that the emerging fields of Contemplative Science and Studies are multi-disciplinary and integrated among 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person modes of investigation
- Mind & Life Institute Collaborator Initiative which promotes cooperation among the emerging research centers and laboratories in Contemplative Sciences and Studies; organizes the International Symposia on Contemplative Studies and coordinates the development of best practices in Contemplative Research