No suffering in dialogue between Dalai Lama, neuroscientists

Is craving a good thing or a bad thing? Buddhists and scientists try to reconcile different views of its value

L.A. Cicero

Dean Philip Pizzo talked with the Dalai Lama before the panel discussion.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has demonstrated his many gifts as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, but how often does he get asked to become a reviewer for a neuroscience journal?

That proposal came at a medical school panel on Nov. 5 at Memorial Auditorium from a neuroscientist who had just heard the Dalai Lama's critique of her imaging study. While her suggestion was somewhat tongue in cheek, she was dead serious in her admission that she might have conducted her research differently if she had spoken with him first.

The study showed that empathy for others causes activity in the same areas of the brain as does pain itself. The researchers used loved ones to elicit empathy from the test subjects. In Buddhism, the belief is that empathy and compassion for loved ones is an extension of the self. But real compassion comes from feelings for those unrelated—or even enemies. So a more telling experiment, the Dalai Lama remarked, would be to examine such feelings toward these less-related people to see if activation arises in the same areas of the brain.

It was but one of many shared insights in an all-day discussion that featured the Dalai Lama and a panel of 15 neuroscientists, psychologists and Buddhist scholars. The event was titled, "Craving, suffering, and choice: Spiritual and scientific explorations of human experience."

"This was an important event that truly helped create a sense of mutual enlightenment and engagement," said medical school dean Philip Pizzo, MD, adding that the discussion was "not about applying the scientific method to religion, or faith to research." It was about accepting the reality that humans are multidimensional and that they can learn from different perspectives.

The question of the day, posed early on by event organizer William Mobley, MD, PhD, the Cahill Professor in the School of Medicine, and echoed throughout the day was: "Can neuroscience, with its tools and concepts, bring to Buddhism, with its contemplative practice, something useful and vice-versa?" The discussions then sought to identify the common ground between the fields that could lead to greater insights.

To keep the panel focused, Mobley, who is the director of the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford, said there were certain concepts they would not address—such concepts as reincarnation, karma and enlightenment. "Neuroscientists avoid all kinds of things we don't understand," he said.

Instead, the participants concentrated on the concepts of craving and suffering. One challenge was reaching a consensus on the meaning of the term "craving." In Buddhism, a craving, by its very nature, is an afflicted state. In Western science, craving is simply something that motivates someone to make a decision. After much discussion, the group agreed that a different word might have to be used, maybe "desire."

As the dialogue delved deeper, easy answers were not immediately apparent. At one point even the Dalai Lama admitted he was "so confused" about how to determine when there are unhealthy levels of desire and if there is a form of desire that is not a form of suffering.

Still, there were many "aha" moments on both sides.

In reference to a study published last year showing that the brains of experienced meditators have long-term changes in activity, the Dalai Lama said, "Now they are beginning to realize that our approach is something useful. I am extremely happy to see more and more science showing interest in our approach."

In a presentation of the neuroscience perspective of craving, Howard Fields, MD, PhD, director of the Wheeler Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction at UCSF, mentioned a drug called Rimonabant, which acts on the area of the brain associated with craving to decrease smoking in smokers. They also lose weight, an announcement that elicited a collective gasp from the audience.

Fields posed the question about whether it was a good approach to use pharmacological intervention to decrease craving—or could there be a way to use cultivated feelings of wisdom and compassion to shift decisions in patients?

The Dalai Lama contemplated this idea and wondered whether there was such a drug that would reduce or eliminate all forms of craving. While that concept might represent spiritual enlightenment to Buddhists, Fields replied that such a drug might be the equivalent of inducing a state of coma. To this the Dalai Lama commented, "That is a disaster."

Throughout the day, the discussion of the concept of "suffering" also underscored significant cultural differences in the meaning of that word. The Western world attempts to avoid suffering and alleviate it if it occurs. In Buddhism, it is an expected part of life.

Maybe, as Helen Mayberg, MD, professor of psychiatry and of neurology at Emory University, observed, the extreme pain of illness must be reduced—through drugs, deep brain stimulation or therapy—to let the mind reach a more positive state. People could try to do this on their own, but she asked was it necessary that it be so hard and take so long?

The Dalai Lama, who sat cross-legged in his chair in his flowing red robe, provided a koan-like answer. He scratched his head. He talked about flowers growing and yogic energy. Apparently, it's just the way things are.

Throughout the day, the participants defined the common ground: an emphasis on finding the truth, the need to rescue minds from "hijacking" and the goal of achieving transformation. This, of course, meant they had to acknowledge points of divergence. Stanford professor of neurobiology William Newsome, PhD, noted, "Neuroscience may not be ready to address the high-level craving of Buddhism yet."

But there was much hope for future dialogue. The concept of "choice" in determining decisions and feelings is one that both Western science and Tibetan Buddhism share, and it provides a foundation for continued inquiry.

"The conference was a true success and certainly exceeded my hopes and expectations," Pizzo said afterward. "While this is still a beginning it offers guidance for new roads to travel."