Mind and Life XXII: Session 1

The Scientific Effects of Contemplative Practices on Human Biology and Behaviour, kicked off with a welcome from co-founder and CEO Adam Engle, who talked of the history of the Mind & Life Institute.  Viji Ravindranath, chair of the Centre of Neuroscience in Bangalore and one of the MLXXII planning members, described this conference as an exploration of the richness of Indian traditions.  The great enthusiasm from a meeting with Indian scientists the previous day alluded to the necessity of follow-up meetings, that this conference should not be the only such dialogue among philosophers, scientists, and Indian contemplatives.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama then gave an inspired speech about the importance of this dialogue.  He has wanted to expand the gamut from which scientists choose practices for years, and his enthusiasm was plainly evident.  By enlarging the menu of practices, researchers are approaching the field of Contemplative Science with a more holistic perspective.  “In order to reach the ultimate goal, you must have the best understanding.  Read.  Investigate.  The Buddha said, ‘Do not take my word for it – investigate it for yourself.’”

“Years ago, I told our monasteries it is very good to learn science.  At first there was resistance and skepticism to this; but now after just five years, we have created a whole curriculum.  And now we are starting to study non-Buddhist thought, so that we have monks with fuller knowledge.  We must study living traditions, like Christianity, Islam, and modern philosophy.”

His Holiness explained the two purposes of the Mind and Life dialogues from his perspective:

  1. To expand knowledge, not just of subatomic particles but of the mind.  This will help modern science to become complete.
  2. With the help of science, we should attempt to discover ways to promote happiness, and to help the world.

“I consider myself a messenger of ancient India traditions, as Buddhism arose there.  India ultimately taught us Tibetans.  I now wish that my ‘guru’ starts taking a more active role in this sort of exploration.”

The presentations of the session came from Swami Atmapriyananda and Thupten Jinpa.  Swami attempted to give an overview of the Indian traditions and their common denominators in fifteen minutes.  He emphasized that they are not so much characterized by a dogma, as much as they are means of investigating reality.  He joked that India has produced too many theories, but they do not have enough practical implications.

Thupten Jinpa traded hats for this session; whereas he normally acts as His Holiness’ principal English interpreter, he in this case presented a review of Buddhism and its philosophy.  He focused on the idea of Ground/Path/Result.  The Ground is the aim, what one is attempting to attain – a clear understanding of reality.  The Path is what one does to attain the goal; one incorporates the understanding of reality by adopting correct view, by internalization (meditation), and by right action.  The Result is the genuine freedom achieved by following the Path.

Charkravarthi Ram-Prasad entered the conversation by addressing challenges facing Contemplative Science, among which are the terminology and western interpretations of Buddhist and Indian-tradition concepts.  The West has an all-purpose word – ‘mind’ – while Buddhist and Indian traditions have several nuanced terms to describe a range of aspects.

In short, the opening session of Mind and Life XXII served as a refresher to place everyone – from the audience to His Holiness to the speakers – on the same page before moving forward with discussions on Indian traditions and their implications for scientific study.

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