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Visions of CompassionWestern Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human

Richard J. Davidson and Anne Harrington

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780195130430

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195130430.001.0001

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(p.247) Appendix: About the Mind and Life Institute

(p.247) Appendix: About the Mind and Life Institute

Visions of Compassion
Oxford University Press

The Mind and Life dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Western scientists were brought to life through a collaboration between R. Adam Engle, a North American businessman, and Dr. Francisco J. Varela, a Chilean-born neuroscientist living and working in Paris. In 1983, both men independently had the initiative to create a series of cross-cultural meetings between His Holiness and Western scientists.

Engle, a Buddhist practitioner since 1974, had become aware of His Holiness's long-standing and keen interest in science, and His desire to both deepen His understanding of Western science and to share his understanding of Eastern contemplative science with Westerners. In 1983, Engle began work on this project, and in the autumn of 1984, Engle and Michael Sautman met with His Holiness's younger brother, Tendzin Choegyal (Ngari Rinpoche), in Los Angeles and presented their plan to create a week-long cross-cultural scientific meeting. Rinpoche graciously offered to take the matter up with His Holiness. Within days, Rinpoche reported that His Holiness would very much like to participate in such a discussion and authorized plans for a first meeting.

Varela, also a Buddhist practitioner since 1974, had met His Holiness at an international meeting in 1983, the Alpbach Symposia on Consciousness. Their communication was immediate. His Holiness was keenly interested in science but had little opportunity for discussion with brain scientists who had some understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. This encounter led to a series of informal discussions over the next few years; (p.248) through these discussions, His Holiness expressed the desire to have more extensive, planned time for mutual discussion and inquiry.

In the spring of 1985, Dr. Joan Halifax, then the director of the Ojai Foundation, and a friend of Varela, became aware that Engle and Sautman were moving forward with their meeting plans. She contacted them on Varela's behalf and suggested that they all work together to organize the first meeting collaboratively. The four gathered at the Ojai Foundation in October of 1985 and agreed to go forward jointly. They decided to focus on the scientific disciplines that address mind and life, since these disciplines might provide the most fruitful interface with the Buddhist tradition. That insight provided the name of the project and, in time, of the Mind and Life Institute itself.

It took two more years of work and communication with the Private Office of His Holiness before the first meeting was held in Dharamsala in October 1987. During this time, Engle and Varela collaborated closely to find a useful structure for the meeting. Varela, acting as scientific coordinator, was primarily responsible for the scientific content of the meeting, issuing invitations to scientists and editing a volume from transcripts of the meeting. Engle, acting as general coordinator, was responsible for fundraising, relations with His Holiness and His office, and all other aspects of the project. This division of responsibility between general and scientific coordinators has been part of the organizational strategy for all subsequent meetings. While Dr. Varela has not been the scientific coordinator of all the subsequent meetings, he has remained a guiding force in the Mind and Life Institute, which was formally incorporated in 1990 with Engle as its Chairman.

A word is in order here concerning these conferences' unique character. The bridges that can mutually enrich traditional Buddhist thought and modern life science are notoriously difficult to build. Varela had a first taste of these difficulties while helping to establish a science program at Naropa Institute, a liberal arts institution created by Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa as a meeting ground between Western traditions and contemplative studies. In 1979 the program received a grant from the Sloan Foundation to organize what was probably the very first conference of its kind: “Comparative Approaches to Cognition: Western and Buddhist.” Some twenty-five academics from prominent North American institutions convened. Their disciplines included mainstream philosophy, cognitive science (neurosciences, experimental psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence) and, of course, Buddhist studies. The gathering's difficulties served as a hard lesson on (p.249) the organizational care and finesse that a successful cross-cultural dialogue requires.

Thus in 1987, wishing to avoid some of the pitfalls encountered during the Naropa experience, several operating principles were adopted that have contributed significantly to the success of the Mind and Life series. These include the following:

  • Choosing open-minded and well-respected scientists who ideally have some familiarity with Buddhism

  • Creating fully participatory meetings where His Holiness is briefed on general scientific background from a nonpartisan perspective before discussion is opened

  • Employing gifted translators like Dr. Thupten Jinpa, Dr. Alan Wallace, and Dr. José Cabezón, who are comfortable with scientific vocabulary in both Tibetan and English

  • Finally, creating a private, protected space where relaxed and spontaneous discussion can proceed away from the Western media's watchful eye

The first Mind and Life Conference took place in October of 1987 in Dharamsala. The meeting focused on the basic groundwork of modern cognitive science, the most natural starting point for a dialogue between the Buddhist tradition and modern science. The curriculum for the first conference introduced broad themes from cognitive science, including scientific method, neurobiology, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, brain development, and evolution. In attendance were Jeremy Hayward (physics and philosophy of science), Robert Livingston (neuroscience and medicine), Eleonor Rosch (cognitive science), and Newcomb Greenleaf (computer science). At our concluding session, the Dalai Lama asked us to continue the dialogue with biennial conferences. Mind and Life I was published as Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind, edited by Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela (Boston: Shambala Publications, 1992). The volume has been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Thai.

Mind and Life II took place in October 1989 in Newport Beach, California, with Robert Livingston as the scientific coordinator. The conference focused on neuroscience and the mind/body relationship. Participants included Patricia Smith Churchland (philosophy), Antonio R. Damasio (neurology), J. Allan Hobson (psychiatry), Lewis L. Judd (psychopharmacology), and Larry R. Squire (psychiatry). Coinciding (p.250) fortuitously with the announcement of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to His Holiness, the two-day meeting was atypical for the Mind and Life Conferences both in its brevity and its Western venue. It has been published as Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1999).

Mind and Life III was held in Dharamsala in 1990. Daniel Goleman (psychology) served as scientific coordinator. This meeting focused on the relationship between emotions and health. Participants included Dan Brown (experimental psychology), Jon Kabat-Zinn (medicine), Clifford Saron (neuroscience), Lee Yearly (philosophy), and Francisco Varela (immunology and neuroscience). Mind and Life III was published as Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions, and Health, edited by Daniel Goleman (Boston: Shambala Publications, 1997). That volume has been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, Italian, and Polish.

During Mind and Life III a new mode of exploration emerged: participants initiated a research project to investigate the neurobiological effects of meditation on long-term meditators. To facilitate such research, the Mind and Life network was created to connect other scientists interested in both Eastern contemplative experience and Western science. With seed money from the Hershey family Foundation, the Mind and Life Institute was born. The Fetzer Institute funded two years of network expenses and the initial stages of the research project. Research continues on various topics such as the effect of meditation on emotional processes, attention, and their neural substrates.

We met for the fourth Mind and Life Conference in Dharamsala in October 1992, with Francisco Varela again acting as scientific coordinator. The dialogue focused on the areas of sleep, dreams, and the process of dying. Participants were Charles Taylor (philosophy), Jerome Engle (medicine), Joan Halifax (anthropology, death and dying), Jayne Gackenbach (psychology of lucid dreaming), and Joyce McDougall (psychoanalysis). The account of this conference is now available as Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama, edited by Francisco J. Varela (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997). That volume has been translated into French, Spanish, German, Japanese, and Chinese.

After Mind and Life V, which took place in 1995, (the subject of this volume), Mind and Life VI opened a new area of exploration beyond the previous focus on life science. That meeting took place in Dharamsala in (p.251) October 1997, with Arthur Zajonc (physics) as the scientific coordinator. The topic was The New Physics and Cosmology. The participants, in addition to Dr. Zajonc and His Holiness, were David Finkelstein (physics), George Greenstein (astronomy), Piet Hut (astrophysics), Tu Weiming (philosophy), and Anton Zeilinger (quantum physics). The volume covering this meeting is in preparation.

The dialogue on quantum physics was continued at a smaller meeting held at Anton Zeilinger's laboratories at the Institut für Experimentalphysic in Innsbruck, Austria, in June 1998. Present were His Holiness, Drs. Zeilinger and Zajonc, and interpreters Wallace and Jinpa. That meeting was written up for a cover story in the January 1999 issue of GEO magazine of Germany.

In March 2000, our next meeting will be held in Dharamsala, with Daniel Goleman as scientific coordinator. The discussion will return to cognitive sciences, with a focus on destructive emotions.