12 Dec 2014

The Dalai Lama and Science

By Pippa Wysong

Much of October 2014 was suffused with a sense of unreality because of the unusual trip that was to happen near the end of the month. Hubby and I were to travel to Alabama where Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama was scheduled to appear. We would attend several events, meet the organizers and even get a chance to meet His Holiness in person.

During my career as a science writer, I’ve had the privilege to meet some extraordinary people. But there was something different about the chance to meet the Dalai Lama, even if it was for just a five-second grasping of hands with no real chance to talk one-on-one. This is someone who is truly a global figure, whose name and influence cross all cultures and sectors of society. A true thought-leader.

It all seemed bigger than life, and in fact the opportunity somehow felt surreal. I didn’t tell anyone that I was going or, until now, that I had gone. The invitation to these events came through a colleague of my husband’s who became personally acquainted with His Holiness while trying to start up a hospital in India.

Symposium poster. Photo by P. Wysong.

Knowing almost nothing about the history of the 14th Dalai Lama nor of his brand of Buddhism, the Gelug school, I felt unprepared and scrambled to read about him.

I learned several intriguing things. One is that the Dalai Lama is actually a science geek and has an insatiable thirst to learn about areas relating to cosmology, physics, neurology, genetics, and more. In fact, he regularly invites small groups of top scientists to visit his home in Dharamsala in northern India to discuss recent scientific findings and trends. Plus, he makes sure that the education monks get has strong science content.

He has said that if an explanation of the natural world in the Buddhist texts is proven to be incorrect through scientific evidence -- then those sections of the Buddhist texts should be updated to stay current and accurate. In one place, he phrases this as, “...in the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be.”

He is co-founder of the Mind and Life Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring relationships between modern sciences, philosophy, the humanities and social sciences. A goal is to explore the effects of contemplative-based practices (such as meditation) on the brain and human biology and behaviour.

This brings us to Alabama, where the University of Alabama (UAB) hosted a public panel discussion, in honour of the Dalai Lama’s visit, on the theme of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt and change.

Dialogue on Neuroplasticity and Health took place at the Jemison Concert Hall. The participants were top neuroscientists Edward Taub, PhD; Michael Merzenich, PhD; and Toronto-based psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge.

The Dalai Lama, centre, with scientists. Photo by P. Wysong.
Dr. Taub is a behavioural neuroscientist at UAB, known for making vital breakthroughs in the understanding of the brain and neuroplasticity. He developed CI Therapy, now used on stroke survivors. Dr. Merzenich taught neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco and developed various therapies that affect behaviour, memory, and learning ability. Dr. Doidge authored the bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself. His Holiness periodically interjected with questions and comments.

Public dialogues with leading scientists is not an uncommon thing for the Dalai Lama to do, and through these efforts he is contributing to science literacy – and showing that spirituality and science can be complementary.

Why does a spiritual leader lean so heavily towards the sciences? Because science helps explain how the world around us works, who we are, what we are, and what our relationship is to the world. It also provides tools we can use to help make ourselves and the world a better place.

The Dalai Lama’s key message is about compassion. How can we learn to treat each other better? How can we push aside traits that make us angry, distrustful, or violent? How can we create a society that is peaceful, with people respecting and appreciating the differences in others, and avoid conflict?

One tool that could be added to efforts in these directions is neuroplasticity. Studies show that by doing certain types of brain training, people who suffer debilitating, periodic depression can become less depressed – and even reduce their need for medication. Through meditation, or other techniques that train the brain and alter neuro-wiring, people who were once quick to anger can learn to handle difficult situations more calmly and rationally. Numerous examples of using neuroplasticity are described in Doidge’s book.

As a spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama is keen on areas of science that can help people become happier. And there is no contradiction with the Gelug school going in this direction. The Gelug school is more philosophical than theistic – a specific god isn’t worshipped. Followers learn to find inner peace and enlightenment largely using meditation and teachings of ethics, mixed with its version of spirituality.

Regardless of religion, spirituality, or a lack of either, what everyone has in common is that we want to live peacefully with those around us, ideally in a compassionate society. And the Dalai Lama has embraced science to help in this quest.

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