|“They thought something was wrong with the machine”|
Mingyur Rinpoche belongs to a pioneering group of lamas and monks who agreed to have their brain activity measured by scientists conducting research into the benefits of meditation. In this interview, he talks about his experiences in the laboratory.
Rinpoche, how did you first came into contact with science when you were young?
When I was about nine or ten years old, I met a great scientist named Francisco Varela. He had come to Nepal to receive teachings from my father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. At that time I was very little, but I was interested in the stars, galaxies and those kinds of things. I would ask him a few questions and he would tell me about his special interest in the brain. Through this, I developed an interest in science.
Then I did a three-year retreat and after that I joined a traditional shedra (monastic college). Every year, the shedra had two months of winter holidays and I would sometimes go to France or the USA. There I had the opportunity to meet many scientists and to join meetings of the Mind and Life Institute.
I found it fascinating that there are so many parallels between science and Buddhism. In Buddhism we have known for a long time that phenomena are impermanent, created by causes and conditions, and emptiness. But it is only more recently that scientists have said that the atom is impermanent. One hundred years ago, they didn’t believe that.
They also thought that the atom was singular, but now they accept that atoms are made of sub-atomic particles. Buddhists learned this through a kind of 'thought experiment', but they learned it through mathematics and scientific experiments. So it’s all very, very fascinating.
How did you come to be a 'guinea pig' for scientific experiments?
The Mind and Life Institute facilitated research on the brains of meditators. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had said in meetings that it would be good to do these tests, and after that they asked me to take part. I thought, “Why not”, and so I became a 'guinea pig'.
The experiments were done at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They have a big fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine.
The difference between a regular MRI and fMRI is that MRI is more like a photo, while fMRI is more like video. With an fMRI image you can see what the neurons are doing and how the signal is moving inside the brain.
The machine is shaped like a big white coffin, and the area where I had to lie down looked a bit like a big tongue. I had to lie down on this tongue, like a corpse. They even gave me a blanket because the temperature inside was very cold. It has to be very cold for the magnetic power, which is very strong.
They tied my head so I couldn’t move it at all, and they gave me some earphones to wear. Then they put me into the machine. I felt like I was being swallowed up. It was very dark inside.
Then they asked me to meditate in three different ways. First, they asked me to remain open and present, to rest in the nature of mind; second, I had to meditate on loving kindness and compassion; and for the third exercise I practised shamatha with an object.
At first I could not find the object, because it was completely dark and enclosed like a tunnel. Finally I saw a little dot, very close, so I crossed my eyes and focused on the dot.
The results, from the point of view of the scientists, were quite incredible. They thought the machine was broken, didn’t they?
At first they said I was totally crazy. I was very upset about that, because I thought maybe they might tell me I was enlightened! I’m just joking!
Yes, at first they thought there was something wrong with the machine, because the gamma waves, the frequency of electrical signals occurring in the brain when many neurons work together, increased a great deal, as did the activity in the left side of the brain. Normally, when the level of gamma waves gets to a certain point, you are totally crazy, out of control.
They got these results from many other meditators too, not just me. When we meditated, the gamma waves increased above normal levels, and when we stopped meditating, the waves went down.
When they tested me, I had to meditate for about two minutes and then stop. Meanwhile, the scientists were in another room, having fun and drinking coffee. Sometimes they would say loudly: “Compassion, please.” Then, two minutes later, “Stop compassion!” Then, “Please meditate on compassion again.” And, “Stop meditating on compassion!” And then: ”Focus!” “No focus!” “Focus!” “No focus!” And then: ”Be present!” “Don’t be present!” It was quite difficult. They did this over and over.
In your book, The Joy of Living, you describe how, when you were young, you conquered your panic attacks and your fear. Could you explain to us, scientifically, how that worked?
I’m not a scientist, so I cannot tell you exactly. But I had panic attacks when I was young, and after that, when I entered into three-year retreat, I used my panic as a support for meditation. I applied meditation very strongly.
Scientists have told me that there are many neurons in the brain, and that these neurons are able to make new connections with each other. The stronger the connection becomes, the more powerful the message will be. That’s why, if you panic, at first it may be small, but if you always think about it, then the connections become bigger and bigger, and the panic stronger and stronger.
Researchers found that meditation is one of the best ways to change your brain. It can even change the structure of your brain and develop new cells. Even if there is some damage, you can naturally rebuild the brain. This is what they call neuroplasticity.
Your brain is capable of change, and the best way to change it is to practise meditation on a daily basis. That change is also good for your physical body. Research by Dr. Richard Davidson has shown that meditation is good for the immune system and for high blood pressure, and I think there is a lot of other research on these benefits too.
Perhaps these experiments confirm for scientists their belief that the mind is a function of the brain, and that you can train the brain and be happier in this life. But for them there is no concept of enlightenment. Is this something that makes you uncomfortable, or that you try to point out when you speak about the similarities between science and Buddhism?
The point of Buddhism is to benefit other sentient beings. It is appropriate for some teachings, such as shamatha, loving kindness and compassion, to be shared with everybody, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. If benefits come from that, that’s great—no problem. That’s why I don’t feel uncomfortable about that.
For scientists, the important point is to benefit your own health, to become happier or a better person, something like that. If someone practises loving kindness and compassion, it is very beneficial, even if they don’t believe in Buddhism. I’m very happy if everyone learns about loving kindness and compassion.
But I think the main point is that the scientists don’t believe in enlightenment; they cannot say there’s no enlightenment, nor can they say there is enlightenment. They cannot say either.
Another important point is that if you are training your brain by practising Buddhism, then you are doing so in order to benefit others. But from the scientist’s point of view, you train your brain for your own benefit. So the motivation is a little bit different.
Do you think Buddhist practitioners need to study science?
By studying science, you may become more open-minded. That’s very important. As Buddha said: “Just as gold is tested by being burnt, cut and rubbed, the learned should accept my words only after examining them, not simply out of faith or other such reasons.” Scientists have the same goal, at least the good ones do: they want to know the truth. For this reason, it can be very beneficial to study science.
It seems that there are a lot of parallels between science and Buddhism. But if we look at science, however far and however deep scientists go, it seems that they never go beyond matter. Isn’t science limited to explaining only relative truth?
I think the main difference between science and Buddhism is that Buddhism is facing in to look at your experience, to look at your mind. Scientists are facing out.
But some scientists, for example those working in the field of quantum mechanics, and especially quantum gravity, explained to me that when studying the nature of matter on a minute scale, everything loses meaning. Time, space, energy, it all loses meaning; and that’s why you go beyond matter. I joked with them: “You say space collapses, time collapses, everything collapses. Even scientists collapse.” They said: “True.”
At this level, they cannot even apply mathematics. If there is no space, no time, then you cannot use mathematics, can you? So everything is lost. They are not sure how to handle their findings. Some of them find this a bit scary and don’t like what they have discovered.
In the future, perhaps we will find a way to bridge Buddhism and science. At the Mind and Life Institute’s meetings, it is often said that we need 'the brain of a scientist and the heart of a Buddhist'. Meaning that we need to be intelligent, yet have a warm heart as well. If we put these two together, we can help make the world a better place, whereas if we use knowledge in the wrong way, it can harm others.
Do you think that science will ever be able to find what constitutes the mind?
The Dalai Lama recommended to scientists that they study 'dying meditation'. When accomplished practitioners die in Tibet, they can remain for some time, seven days, even two weeks, in meditation. They continue to sit upright even though their brain waves have stopped. Everything has died, but still their faces are very bright. Sometimes the chest may even remain a little bit warm. My father, for example, sat like that for three days. Chogyeé Trichen Rinpoche, a great Sakya master who recently passed away, sat like that for weeks, I heard.
Scientists are starting to look at this. Richard Davidson thought that this would be a very good time to see the mind; the brain has stopped, there’s no normal functioning, but still there’s something happening.
What have you had learned from your association and collaboration with science? Has it affected your teaching style and the way you think about things?
It has been of great benefit for my teachings on emptiness. If I teach emptiness according to Abhidharma, as I learned it, everybody says, “This is so boring!” But if I discuss emptiness in scientific terms, it has the same meaning, but everyone says, “That’s interesting, that’s great!” From this point of view, scientific research provides many good examples that I use in my teaching.
Studying science has also been good for my own practice of analytical meditation on emptiness, and for understanding the different qualities of the mind. For example, Abhidharma describes the gap between the instant you perceive an object without concept, and the instant the conceptual mind comes in, and this is also described in neuroscience.
Interview by Andy Fraser
First published in View, August 2009