Mind and Life XXX: Perception, Concepts, and Self

 
Over the last several decades, the Mind & Life Institute has organized regular dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and leading scientists and philosophers. The goal of these meetings has been to creatively but critically investigate themes of mutual interest—such as the nature of reality and consciousness, ecology and our global environment, the neural underpinnings of meditation and brain plasticity, and bringing compassion into economics—in the expectation that such cross-cultural dialogue can lead to enrichment of our collective knowledge and even to new insights and lines of research.

For our 30th dialogue, we shared this unique exchange with the larger Tibetan Buddhist monastic community, gathering at Sera Monastery in Bylakuppe, India from December 14-17, 2015. The location of this meeting was chosen to synergize with recent efforts to bring science education into the traditional monastic curriculum, and we were joined by and audience of over 5,000 monastic students.

Mind and Life XXX was co-organized by the Dalai Lama Trust India, and addressed the topics of Perception, Concepts, and Self from Western scientific and Buddhist perspectives. The conference brought together some of the world’s foremost scientists and philosophers with the Dalai Lama and other senior Tibetan scholars for a rich exchange about these topics, which have been central not only in modern cognitive science, but also in classical Indian and Tibetan thought (see insets below).

Perception is the principal mechanism through which we make contact with ourselves and the world around us. Our perceptual mechanisms, however, are neither transparent nor infallible. While perception leads us to believe that we are somehow experiencing the world directly “as it is,” it is actually a complicated set of psychophysiological processes that constructs our experience. Thus, if we are to understand the nature of our knowledge, and the world we experience, we must develop a sound understanding of the nature of perception itself.
We experience the world around us not as a bare sensory array, but as objects with properties, categorized through concepts, labeled through our language. That means that to understand how we engage with the people and objects around us, we must understand the origin, structures and impact of our concepts. To understand how concepts are acquired and formed, much can be learned through understanding the relations of concepts to language, and the mechanisms through which language is acquired, represented and deployed in thought. Inasmuch as our interactions with those around us are determined in part by the ways in which we categorize and label them, this study of cognitive activity has profound moral implications.
The idea that there is no self is central to Buddhist philosophy, but Buddhists also recognize the fact that most of us take the existence of the self—both our own and the selves of others—for granted. In the Buddhist view, this is the core confusion that generates human suffering; the goal of Buddhist practice is to eradicate this view and to transform our psychology to end the reflexive construction of this illusion. At the same time, Buddhists also recognize that while there may be no self, there has to be a conventionally real person, and there is a good deal of debate about the nature of that conventional person and its relationship to more fundamental phenomena. Both Western philosophy and cognitive science are also deeply concerned with the metaphysics of the self, how we construct and represent our identities, whether those constructed identities correspond to any physical entities or processes, and how the self emerges in relation to others. Because of the deep connections between our grasping at this sense of self and our everyday behavior, understanding the nature of self is a matter of great moral import.

Over the week, scientific presentations addressed visual perception (Pawan Sinha) and embodied neuroscience (Cathy Kerr), the psychology of language and thought (Lera Boroditsky), and development of the concept of self in early infancy (Vasu Reddy). Philosophical presentations discussed accounts of perception and its role in knowledge (Thupten Jinpa), the nature of conceptual thought and the role of concepts in our experience (John Dunne), and the varying conceptions of self as well as debates concerning the reality of the self (Professor Geshe Yeshe Thabkhe; Jay Garfield). In thinking about how to best extend this knowledge into the world, we considered possibilities for self-transcendent attributes such as altruism and compassion (Matthieu Ricard) and what modern science knows about cultivating these states (Richard Davidson)._OHH2242 resize

The event featured additional presentations discussing the challenges and opportunities of the exchange of ideas between Buddhism and Western culture (Geshes Lhakdor, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, and Dadul; Yangsi Rinpoche), and overviews from three leading monastic science education programs: Science Meets Dharma, Science for Monks, and the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (Werner Nater; Bryce Johnson; Carol Worthman). To provide the monastic audience with basic information on neuroscience and Western approaches to studying the mind, we also offered an introductory lecture in this domain (Wendy Hasenkamp).

Finally, we were very pleased to be able to host our first dialogue among more junior members within Western scientific and Buddhist scholarly traditions. To this end, on the final evening of the event, neuroscientists Christy Wilson-Mendenhall and Dave Vago joined with monastic scholars Khenpo Sonam Tsweang, Thabkhe Lo, and Tenzin Lhadron to discuss self and self-concepts from these two perspectives. We are hopeful that this will be the first of many such conversations among younger members of our communities, and that the ongoing dialogue will thereby continue long into the future.
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The Dalai Lama contributed his viewpoints during many of these presentations, and closed the meeting with the following words:

MLXXX-MR312 resizedIn the beginning these dialogues took place at my wish. But when I saw what a benefit it could be for the monks, I thought we should try to hold meetings in the monastic institutions where thousands are studying. I saw an opportunity for the extension of knowledge. 

We face many problems, many of them man-made. It is our responsibility to solve them. We need to use our human intelligence to do this. … We are talking about coming to see things differently. No one seeks out suffering; everyone just wants to be happy. But out of short-sightedness we hatch plans that bring us trouble. We need to find human solutions. We need to consider the needs of coming generations. … Our real responsibility is to find a new approach, a more holistic view so the generation of the 21st century will have the opportunity to make this a happier, more peaceful world.

Videos of all presentations with the Dalai Lama can be found here, and the full program brochure is here.

We extend our deep gratitude to the Dalai Lama Trust India, the Hershey Family Foundation, and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives for their support of this event, and to all the participants for their important contributions. It is our wish that these conversations will continue to advance both the project of scientific education in the monastic universities, as well as the developing dialogue between the Tibetan and Western academic communities in the years to come.

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