2007 – XIV

A Dialogue on The Universe in a Single Atom

April 9-13, 2007, Dharamsala, India


Watch videos of the conference proceedings here>>

In addition to being a scientific autobiography, the Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality highlights those issues he feels are most important in the “convergence of science and spirituality.” These issues and questions will form the focus of our Mind & Life XIV meeting, and will become the foundation on which a group of scientists will develop a deep dialogue with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist scholar-practitioners.

In his book, the Dalai Lama includes ethical, philosophical and even metaphysical reflections prompted by science. These are both specific and general in character. For example, he asks whether science is the sole reliable source of knowledge, which raises the question of the limits of scientific knowledge, reductionism and its ramifications. In addition, each field of science inevitably raises ethical issues that must be addressed. Advances in molecular biology and genetics have spawned a biotech industry which confronts profound ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. Comparable issues also exist for atomic physics and cognitive science. In addition to fundamental scientific questions we will engage and address the larger philosophical, ethical and spiritual issues these provoke.

For more complete information about the Dialogue on “The Universe in a Single Atom,” click here to view the conference brochure (PDF).


Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama
Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., Vilas Research Professor and William James Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin-Madison
John Dunne, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Religion, Emory University
Paul Ekman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology Emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco; Consultant
R. Adam Engle, J.D., M.B.A., CEO and Chairman of the Mind & Life Institute, and General Coordinator of the Mind & Life conferences
Martha Farah, Ph.D., Walter H. Annenberg professor in the Natural Sciences, Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania
George Greenstein, Ph.D., Sidney Dillon Professor of Astronomy, Amherst College
Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., Author and Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu and French interpreter since 1989 for His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Bennett M. Shapiro, M.D., Biotechnology Consultant
Wolf Singer, M.D., Ph.D., Director at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and Founding Director of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies (FIAS)
Evan Thompson, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, York University, Toronto
Anton Zeilinger, Ph.D., Professor at the Physics Department of Vienna University and at the Institute of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Andrew Mellon Professor of Physics and Interdisciplinary Studies, Amherst College


Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., President and chief editor for The Classics of Tibet Series produced by the Institute of Tibetan Classics in Montreal; Adjunct Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal
Geshe Dorji Damdul, English interpreter for the Dalai Lama; Dharamsala, India

The Dialogue

Day One
April 9, 2007

Part I: The Buddhism-Science Collaboration and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge: Exposing the Fracture Points
Dialogue Leader: Evan Thompson

While science has made phenomenal progress in physics, cosmology and neuroscience, the juxtaposition of questions posed by the Buddhist account unmasks many significant gaps in our scientific understanding. Many of these gaps are regarded by some segments of the scientific community not as fundamental limits in our understanding but rather as the current state of progress in particular fields of science, while the Buddhist account highlights some of these gaps as fundamental, such as the conjecture that the brain is necessary and sufficient for the expression of mind. We wish to know where the Dalai Lama is committed to the belief that crucial aspects of human nature can not be understood, ever, scientifically? That there are mysteries that will remain mysteries?

The philosopher Evan Thompson will open the meeting with a consideration of some of the key issues that frame this debate and will expose the significant fracture points that distinguish traditional scientific accounts from the Buddhist view.

Part II: Atomism, Emptiness, Interdependence and the Role of the Observer in Quantum Physics and Buddhism
Dialogue Leaders: Anton Zeilinger and Arthur Zajonc

Quantum physics and Buddhism both raise questions concerning the nature of causality, the constitution of objects, the nature of emptiness and the importance of interconnectedness. As in Buddhism, physics contrasts the common-sense view of the world with a much more subtle and complex ontology and epistemology. In the third chapter of his book the Dalai Lama takes up these themes and relates them to the Middle Way school of Mahayana Buddhism. He writes, for example, of the importance assigned to the observer in both Buddhism (through the idea of dependent origination) and quantum theory, and he explores the crucial role of interconnectedness in ethics and ontology. How far are these two traditions similar and different and what are the larger implications of these ideas for life?

Day Two
April 10, 2007

Cosmology and the Relativity of Space and Time
Dialogue Leaders: George Greenstein and Arthur Zajonc

Two related themes emerge from the Dalai Lama’s writings on cosmology:

  1. The relativity of time and space as developed within both Einstein’s relativity theory and Buddhist philosophy. For example the Dalai Lama refers to the arguments of the Sautrantika School and Nagarjuna concerning the relative nature of time, and to the Kalchakra system’s concept of “space particles” as the source of material existence from out of emptiness or the vacuum. This latter view echoes modern ideas of fluctuations of the quantum vacuum and the inflationary theory and merit further discussion.
  2. The Big Bang and the Buddhist idea of a beginningless universe. Like modern cosmology, Buddhism endorses an evolutionary cosmology, but for logical reasons it is held to be one that is without beginning or end. Moreover there are a “billion-fold” universes in various stages of development. One feature of Buddhist cosmology is the central place of sentient beings whose evolution (karma) is served by the development of a world system. In a sense, their view is “anthropic,” that is centered on human development.

Day Three
April 11, 2007

Evolution, Altruism and the Fundamental Nature of Human Emotion
Dialogue Leaders: Ben Shapiro, Paul Ekman, Richard Davidson and Matthieu Ricard

  • Is evolution driven by random mutation and natural selection?
  • How can the adaptations of species best be understood?
  • Can basic evolutionary principles be used to understand the fundamental origins of basic human cognitive and emotional competences?
  • Is the fundamental nature of emotion positive, compassionate and altruistic?
  • How might evolutionary accounts of emotion accommodate these virtuous emotional qualities?
  • To what extent is any particular emotion (e.g., anger) destructive or constructive, or can any emotion be enacted constructively or destructively?
  • What is the role of subjective experience of emotion in the overall function of emotion? Buddhism places great emphasis on the role of experience while modern psychological and neurobiological accounts of emotion place less emphasis on the experiential component. Buddhism underscores the importance of suffering. Is there some teleological significance to suffering?
  • Are there neurobiological parallels?
  • Buddhist accounts emphasize training the mind as a strategy for improving emotional qualities. What are the scientific bases of these practices and what do these practices imply for the stability and plasticity of emotional traits?

Day Four
April 12, 2007

Dialogue Leaders: Wolf Singer, Richard Davidson and Evan Thompson

Buddhist psychology and philosophy make strong claims about the primary of subjective experience and from this perspective, Buddhist accounts have argued that there are three fundamentally distinct features of our world:

  1. matter comprised of physical objects;
  2. mind comprised of subjective experiences; and
  3. abstract composites comprised of mental formations.

Western science has grounded the study of consciousness and subjective experience in terms of the functions of the brain. The Buddhist account questions the adequacy of this reductionistic proposition and suggests that there remains a large explanatory gap. As His Holiness has asked, how do we explain the emergence of consciousness? What marks the transition from sentient to non-sentient beings?

Day Five
April 13, 2007

Buddhist-Science Collaboration, the Mind-Brain Relationship, and Neuroethics
Dialogue Leader: Martha Farah

The Buddhist approach with its emphasis on the central role of relieving suffering and promoting compassion has at its root a strong ethical stance toward the acquisition of knowledge. The Buddhists ask what is the purpose of further knowledge acquisition. In the case of neuroscience, how does our growing understanding of brain function illuminate the nature of sentience, suffering, compassion, and moral agency? How might such new knowledge be put to more widespread use in promoting a secular ethics that shares many of the same goals as the Buddhist approach?

Philosophical and Historical Dimensions of the Dialogue
Evan Thompson

Throughout the meeting we will be aware of the philosophical issues that are implicitly at stake, and also the historical moment the dialogue occupies. The philosophical issues will range from the epistemological and ontological to the ethical and metaphysical.