Why the Dalai Lama comes to Stanford

Stanford researchers and the Dalai Lama focus on the neuroscience of compassion – an effort that finds a natural ally in Tibetan Buddhism. But Stanford's ties with Tibet go deeper than that.

Jack Hubbard

Stanford neurosurgeon James Doty is the director and founder of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, one of the hosts of the Dalai Lama's visit.

The Dalai Lama returns this week on his third visit to Stanford in recent years, but it's more than palm trees and sunshine that draw him to the heart of Silicon Valley. It's the research.

Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE, pronounced "see care") is at the forefront of a growing movement to bring the tools of psychology and neuroscience to the study of empathy, compassion and altruism.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is more than an interested bystander at CCARE – he is a benefactor. The project grew directly from his visit in 2005, when he was involved in discussions with scientists and Buddhist scholars on research findings about craving, suffering and choice.

After he returned to Dharamsala, India, the base of the exiled government of Tibet, the entrepreneur, philanthropist and Stanford neurosurgeon James Doty continued the discussions. In 2008, the Dalai Lama donated $150,000 from his book sales – his largest donation to a non-Tibetan cause – and CCARE was born.

As part of the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences, CCARE brings together a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, neuroscientists, physicians, religious scholars and a variety of other scientists and researchers. Some are leading figures in their fields.

According to Philip Pizzo, the dean of Stanford's medical school, "While neuroscience often focuses on cognition, behavior and the intricacies of brain development and function, CCARE is unique in its focus on seeking to define the biological underpinnings of compassion and altruism.

"This is a unique focus that can only be approached in an institution with a broad and deep commitment to interdisciplinary research and education."

CCARE has already held two major conferences since its founding by Doty. A third all-day conference, "Scientific Explorations of Compassion and Altruism," with the Dalai Lama is being held Friday.

Researchers from CCARE have studied the use of neuroscientific models to understand how people make decisions about altruistic giving. They have analyzed the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging and other psychological measures to determine the effects of compassion training. Among the researchers are Buddhist and Catholic contemplative practitioners.

L.A. Cicero Thupten Jinpa and the Dalai Lama

In this 2005 photo, the Dalai Lama addresses the crowd at Maples Pavilion with his longtime interpreter, Thupten Jinpa, left.

While CCARE's interests may sound technical and complicated, the problems they hope to solve are not: How can we prevent caregiver burnout? Why do some kids become bullies? Can we teach people to be more compassionate?

For Doty, the mission is an urgent one: "No longer do I believe compassion and love are luxuries.  As His Holiness says, these are necessary if we are to survive."

Even a decade ago, a project such as CCARE would have aroused more skepticism than interest. Doty himself encountered resistance when he first floated the notion of the center; some faculty suspected a religious agenda. They needn't have worried.  Doty cheerfully admits that he is an atheist.

"Our goal is to design techniques we all can use to develop compassion in ourselves," he said. "Evidence suggests that, by doing so, it makes healthier people, and happier people. This isn't something you have to sell too hard to anybody."

Doty is one of the interesting personalities pulled into the CCARE orbit. Another is the medical school's visiting research scholar Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama's principal English translator, a former monk who holds a doctorate in religious studies from Cambridge and is an adjunct professor at McGill University in Montreal. He spends on average two weeks every two months at Stanford.

Jinpa's role is far from symbolic or ornamental: he developed an eight-week course, a compassion-cultivation training protocol, that is being used and tested at Google.

Jinpa said CCARE will foster the "deliberate cultivation of practices for compassion that you find in various religious traditions – it's particularly strong in Buddhism." He suggested that "the possibility of the deeper development of compassion can lead to a more positive self-understanding about ourselves as a species" and give us "the capacity to transcend our various prejudices."

Well-known psychologist Philip Zimbardo, also on CCARE's board of directors, works closely with Doty to brainstorm projects and programs centered around compassion, which Zimbardo calls "the highest personal virtue."

The Stanford psychology professor emeritus said he has conducted a variety of experiments and surveys under the CCARE aegis around issues related to heroism, which he calls "the highest form of civic action." One, updating the controversial 1961 experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram, uses assessment tools to measure empathy and altruism and then puts subjects into a situation where they must resist authority to prevent harm to others.

"My goal is to better understand how to transform compassion into heroic action, and to educate the general public, especially children, how to be wise and effective 'everyday heroes'," he said.

CCARE is not the only thrust of Tibetan activities at Stanford, which has a very lively series of speakers and events thanks to students' "Stanford Friends of Tibet" and the Tibetan Studies Initiative.  The latter is headed by Tenzin Tethong, president of the Dalai Lama Foundation and Chair of the Committee of 100 for Tibet. He is also the former chairman of the Kashag, the Tibetan Cabinet, and the U.S. representative of the Dalai Lama. He teaches in history and continuing studies at Stanford and is also on the executive committee for CCARE.

Like many Tibetans, Tenzin has given his entire life to the Tibetan cause, almost from the time he helped teach other children in the refugee schools of Darjeeling.

Though he is frank about the discouraging prospects for Tibet's future under Chinese rule, he refuses to be daunted: "Who knows the future, really? All we can do is work to make that future better. What really happens seems difficult to predict. People often assume things will happen in a certain way, but we're often proven wrong."

Look at the Soviet Union, he said – "Months before it happened, hardly anyone had even an inkling it was about to break down."