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Dalai Lama, scientists consult on their experiences, beliefs about world
STANFORD -- It was a marvelous, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
That was the reaction of Stanford University professors Helen Blau and David Spiegel immediately after participating on April 19 in the first of two informal symposia at Stanford with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetans and a revered teacher to Buddhists around the world.
Blau, a molecular biologist, and Spiegel, a behavioral scientist, were joined by physicist Steve Chu and neurobiologist Russell Fernald in an informal, three-hour conversation with the recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize before a small audience in the Wattis Room. They listened attentively the next day as computer scientist Terry Winograd, philosopher John Perry, anthropologists Sylvia Yanagisako and William Durham and theologian Lee Yearley engaged the 14th Dalai Lama in yet more discussion.
Aided by two interpreters, the faculty members engaged in an extended dialogue with His Holiness on philosophical, ethical and religious issues raised by their research. Topics ranged from genetic engineering to the birth of the universe, from the mind-brain dichotomy to the use of self-hypnosis to reduce pain, from the role of creation stories in creating individual and community identities to the etiquette and ethics of cyberspace and religious choice.
Common ground: faith healing, medicine
First up was Dr. David Spiegel, professor of psychiatry, whose research involves the search for a common ground between the extremes of faith healing and what he called the "mindless materialism" of traditional medicine. He summarized the results of a treatment that has significantly reduced the pain and fear experienced by women with advanced breast cancer.
In addition, to Spiegel's surprise, women receiving the treatment lived an average of 1.5 years longer than women who did not receive it. What makes this remarkable is that this treatment involved participation in group meetings where the women were encouraged to form friendships, face their fears of dying and employ self-hypnosis to keep themselves calm and to reduce their sensation of pain.
The Dalai Lama was particularly interested in the women's ability to reduce their level of pain. He explained that Buddhists have developed mental disciplines that the highly accomplished can use to suppress physical pain but that, without such training, it is considered very difficult to do. So he was particularly interested in whether there was a reduction in the pain sensations themselves, or whether the reduction was in the patients' perception of pain.
Spiegel explained that his testing showed that the brain's response to the pain stimulus appears to be reduced. Is that perception or reality? Spiegel and His Holiness appeared to prefer different interpretations.
The brain, the mind and the power of meditation
Russell Fernald, professor of psychology, shifted the discussion to the nature of the brain, summarizing recent research that shows that the function and structure of the brain are not set early in life, but undergo fundamental changes depending on experience. Studies have shown, for example, that the brains of professional musicians are significantly different from those of non-musicians. Fernald concluded by asking the Dalai Lama's thoughts on how human behavior affects the brain.
If the discussion is limited to the brain, Buddhist tradition has very little to say, the Dalai Lama replied. If you expand the discussion to the concepts of mind and brain, however, then there are parallels to Buddhist concepts of mind and vital energies. In Buddhism, there are different degrees of consciousness. The lower or cruder levels are contingent on the state of the brain. Only the very highest levels of consciousness are considered to be independent of brain state. So it is not surprising that mental states might affect the structure or function of the brain. In fact, the Dalai Lama said that, unlike some scientists, he is open to the possibility that non-material ideas can affect consciousness and influence brain state.
The religious leader also was interested in Fernald's report that brain lesions can cause people to lose the ability to name certain classes of objects, such as vegetables. Is that also true for the class "human beings," the Dalai Lama asked. After thinking it over, the neuroscientist responded that it is quite possible that more important concepts, such as human beings, may not be stored in specific areas of the brain in the same fashion as the less important and more arbitrary categories, such as vegetables, that are imposed by language.
Gene therapy: beneficial vs. "indulgent" uses
The conversation then moved to gene therapy. Helen Blau, professor of molecular pharmacology, briefed the Dalai Lama on recent advances in the ability to insert genes into the body to cure various inherited illnesses. "It's a new kind of medicine, where we use the body to make the drugs it needs to cure a condition," she said.
Raising concerns that these powerful techniques also could be used for reasons other than treating very severe problems - for example, ensuring that a baby had blue eyes or a certain height - Blau asked the Dalai Lama's views on how to draw the line on how these treatments should be used.
His Holiness drew a clear distinction between two cases, those in which the therapy is clearly beneficial and those in which it is an indulgence. To a Buddhist, the latter use is a matter of complete indifference, he said.
If the treatment is clearly beneficial, however, he said, it is a good thing and should be used. The thought of interfering with nature did not bother him because a number of Buddhist mental techniques have a similar effect. The Dalai Lama said he even felt that the current principle that gene therapists have adopted - not providing treatments that might be transmitted to a patient's children - might be unnecessarily restrictive. "It is quite important to be sensitive to context, not to just apply a flat rule everywhere. If a procedure is a real advantage to future generations, it may not be necessary to restrict it," he said.
Physics, cosmology and Buddhist tradition
Steve Chu, professor of physics, began a new discussion by asking the Dalai Lama what he thought about the basic methodology of modern science. Science, Chu said, is based on two assumptions: that there is a reality separate from our individual consciousness that can be determined through experimental tests; and that complex matters can be reduced to a series of very simple questions and answers that individually seem trivial but that combine in very powerful ways.
The Dalai Lama's response was short and sweet: As far as he is concerned, the reductionist method is perfectly valid for the study of the physical universe.
Chu summarized some of the work done over the last 50 to 60 years that supports the theory that the universe began in a powerful explosion, called the Big Bang. The scientist asked the religious leader whether it bothered him that science was impinging on subjects like the origin of the universe that once were the sole province of religion.
His Holiness replied that he saw no fundamental incompatibility between the scientific method and Buddhist tradition, which includes an appreciation of the possible discrepancy between appearance and reality.
Buddhism has a tradition of empirical methodology itself, he said. "If a theory says something should appear, but it doesn't, then the theory is probably wrong!"
Chu responded that it would seem His Holiness is a scientist himself, drawing a round of laughter from the participants and the audience.
The Dalai Lama went on to add that there is a fundamental point of disagreement: the scientific view that everything that exists must be physical. What, he asked, is the scientist's view of time, which to a Buddhist is neither a mental nor a physical entity, but which exists.
"Time is a very embarrassing thing, even to scientists," Chu acknowledged. At the atomic level, it appears that time can run forward or backward. But, at the human level, we all get older, and time seems to run in only one direction, he said.
At the end of the session, there were a few minutes for questions from the audience. One questioner asked the Dalai Lama whether, if it were possible to switch two brains, would the souls of the two people be switched as well? After a long discussion between His Holiness and his two translators, the answer emerged: "That's very difficult to answer. If it's ever possible, let's test it empirically."
Community ethics in cyberspace
Terry Winograd, professor of computer science, launched discussions on Wednesday, April 20, by asking His Holiness to think about the potential social impact of the "electronic frontier," where people communicate via computers outside of normal physical constraints. This so-called cyberspace allows individuals to take on identities separate from their historical and physical identities, he said, and to create imaginary meeting places that are new forms of community. Because members can remain anonymous, some engage in behavior that would normally be considered anti-social. Since their community is not physical, people who feel violated cannot call the police to arrest offenders of community standards, Winograd said.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama said, there is a process where people assume imagined identities and create an imaginary world. Those who participate must first be well grounded in their normal self-identity, he said, so they do not become separated from it, or exorcised. The positive benefits of such imaginary worlds, he said, include heightened creativity and awareness, better brainstorming and testing of ideas.
Whatever etiquette or morality evolves for cyberspace, he said, it must be relevant to human feelings of sorrow and happiness, as all moral standards must be.
Reincarnation and memory
Philosophy professor Perry asked the Dalai Lama to confront what Perry said he understood to be a conflict between Western science and the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. Science, he said, normally distinguishes between real and apparent memories by insisting that "the same person with the same body" report on the "physical process" of remembering. "What makes memories real without a physical link?" Perry asked.
The Dalai Lama said through his interpreters that "any notion of a permanent, unified self is refuted in Buddhism." What connects one life to another, he said, can be a subtly designated self. Memory of a past life exists for some and is concealed from others. As a person develops his or her mental capacities through meditation or other methods, the memory of past lives may be revealed.
Cultural beliefs about family, procreation
Sylvia Yanagisako, professor of anthropology, turned the subject to forms of identity rooted in people's beliefs about their origins and families. Western anthropologists have long studied different family systems, she said, as an important element of social order. She compared Western family ideas to those of the Pacific Trobriand Islanders, who when studied 70 years ago lived in large matrilineal clans. A child at birth belonged to its mother's clan and inherited rights and property accordingly. A woman's lover, she said, had no authority over the child and tied to this was a belief that the embryo was a reincarnated spirit of a past member of the clan, planted in the woman's womb by a spirit, not by the woman's lover.
In contrast, she said, Western patrilineal society is reinforced by a creation story in which a male God creates the world, or nature, which is represented as female. Before science established a woman's genetic contribution to the embryo, she said, the man was assumed to create the embryo, which he planted in the womb; this belief led to a patrilineal identity system. In light of these examples, she asked the Dalai Lama to explain why all Dalai Lamas had been men and whether it was possible for Buddhist holy beings to reincarnate across gender lines.
His Holiness said a future Dalai Lama could be a woman if there is a future society where women have social eminence. Dalai Lamas always have been born into the social caste that was most influential, he said. Currently, the priestly class is more in a position to be influential than the aristocratic or royal class of past prominence.
"Selfish gene" theory
William Durham, a professor of anthropology and human biology, turned the discussion to biological evolution and its implications for human nature. He asked if the Dalai Lama had any disagreement with scientific conceptions of the "selfish gene" theory, which argues that human beings are "survival machines" for their genes, best understood as temporary vehicles of DNA. Selfish gene theory, he said, argues that many human attributes and behaviors are adaptations that allow survival in a particular Himalayan environment. Durham cited some Tibetans' practice of polyandrous marriage as an example.
Many factors, including sparse population and isolation, the Dalai Lama said, could be implicated in marriage practices in Tibet. Buddhist beliefs, he said, do not conflict with science on the level of physical organism evolution, he said, but rather with the idea that a physical beginning - a single Big Bang - precedes consciousness.
After huddling with interpreters to try to find the right way to explain this more thoroughly to Durham and the audience, the Dalai Lama summed it up neatly in English: "No beginning, no end."
If scientists can someday prove there was only one Big Bang, he added, smiling and pointing to his head, "Buddhists will have to think very hard."
As clocks in the Wattis Room signaled that there was indeed an end looming to the Dalai Lama's time at Stanford, Lee Yearley, professor of religious studies, squeezed in one final question: How would His Holiness compare the attractiveness of the world's religions, and how much religious choice was desirable?
On the premise that the aim of all the world's religions is to help a person become a "better human being, more kind and responsible," the Dalai Lama said that maintaining religious choice was important.
Whichever religion a person finds most effective in pursing his or her aim of becoming a better person is the best for him or her, he said, and it's not likely to ever be the same one for all.
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