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).
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).
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.
The Dalai Lama contributed his viewpoints during many of these presentations, and closed the meeting with the following words:
In 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.
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.