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The Dalai Lama at a Mind and Life Institute meetingIn 1987, the Dalai Lama and a group of eminent scientists began a ground-breaking exploration of how science and Buddhism could help to create a better world. Over 20 years later, the Mind and Life Institute is the focal point for research into the benefits of meditation.

 

 

In 1985, the American businessman and entrepreneur R. Adam Engle received a telephone call from France. On the other end of the line was Dr. Francisco Varela, a Chilean-born neuroscientist based in Paris.

 

Varela had heard that Engle was planning to organize a meeting between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a group of western scientists, and he was calling to suggest a collaboration. Engle listened to what Varela had to say, and they agreed to work together.

 

Varela had already experienced first hand the Dalai Lama’s keen interest in science when he had found himself sitting next to His Holiness at a conference on science and spirituality in Austria in 1983. The Dalai Lama had bombarded him with questions about the brain. It gave Varela plenty of food for thought as he and Engle pushed ahead with their plans and reflected on the format the meeting should take.

 

Engle’s background was in law and finance, Varela’s in biology, but the two men had a common vision. Both had been Buddhist practitioners since 1974, and they were keen to explore the potential benefits of bringing together science and Buddhism, two distinct traditions that have made painstaking efforts to try to explain the nature of reality and to promote human well-being.

 

In October 1987, their vision began to take shape when the Dalai Lama welcomed a small group of prominent scientists to his home in Dharamsala, India, for a week of discussions.

 

The participants set about exploring the common ground between Buddhist thought and the cognitive sciences, addressing subjects such as perception, memory, consciousness, brain development, evolution and artificial intelligence.

 

His Holiness asked the scientists in the room if they would test these practices in their laboratories, to determine whether they were beneficial
The challenging task of translating the discussions fell to Geshe Thubten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator, and B. Alan Wallace, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and a prolific author, who is now at the forefront of scientific research into the benefits of meditation.

 

“When the meeting was over,” Engle recalled, “I asked the Dalai Lama if he wanted to do it again. He said 'Yes', and so we started planning for the next one. We did it like that, meeting by meeting, for the first ten years. After each meeting I’d say, 'Do you want to do it again?', and His Holiness would say 'Yes'.”

 

On each occasion, a book was published so that the fruits of the discussions could be shared with a wider audience. The first was Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind.

 

The second gathering, in California in 1989, focused on neuroscience and the mind/body relationship, and coincided with the announcement that the Dalai Lama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

The following year, after a third meeting in Dharamsala, an initial research project was launched to investigate the neurobiological effects of meditation on long-term meditators, and the Mind and Life Institute was formally set up as a non-profit organization.

 

The meetings became more and more frequent, addressing physics and cosmology as well as life science, and drawing in more leading scientists, philosophers, scholars and spiritual practitioners.

 

In 2000, the work of the Mind and Life Institute began to gain serious momentum. In his message for the new millennium, the Dalai Lama focused on 'secular ethics'—the need to promote basic human values for the benefit of all; and at a meeting to discuss the subject of destructive emotions in Dharamsala, he issued a challenge.

 

Engle explained: “His Holiness said he thought Buddhists and other contemplatives had developed practices that were beneficial for people in training their minds.

 

“So he asked the scientists in the room if they would test these practices in their laboratories, to determine whether they were beneficial; and, if the practices were beneficial, whether the scientists could find ways to teach them in a purely secular environment, so that more people could receive the benefits.”

 

In the room were a number of prominent researchers, including Dr. Varela, the psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman and Dr. Richard Davidson, a pioneer in developing techniques for measuring brain activity.

 

Also present was Matthieu Ricard, whose training as a cellular geneticist, combined with many years of spiritual practice, made him the perfect candidate to help devise and participate in the experiments. For his part, the Dalai Lama promised to supply lamas and monks— 'the Olympic athletes of mental training', as Engle calls them—for the research.

 

That meeting in Dharamsala, and a gathering the following year at Davidson’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, were the catalyst for a number of research projects to gather data about the benefits of meditation and other contemplative practices.

 

The scientists’ task was aided by recent advances in brain imaging technology. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for example, which was just one of the tools Davidson had at his disposal in his laboratory, enabled them to monitor and record moment-by-moment changes in brain activity.

 

In May 2001, Varela, who had undergone a liver transplant in 1998 in an attempt to prolong his life, passed away at the age of fifty-four. Just a week earlier, he had participated in the meeting in Wisconsin via a live video connection.

 

Antoine Lutz, Varela’s Ph.D. student at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, has made sure that his mentor’s work continues to this day, collaborating closely with Richard Davidson at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior in Madison, Wisconsin.

 

In September 2003, the Mind and Life Institute staged its first public event, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) near Boston. Earlier that year, the bestselling author and Mind and Life board member Daniel Goleman had written Destructive Emotions, a book based on the meetings of 2000 and 2001.

 

The Mind and Life Institute’s vision is for the world to recognize that mental fitness is critically important for health and well-being
It was the first Mind and Life book to be published by a mainstream publisher, and it created a buzz of publicity for the meeting at MIT, which was designed to stimulate a collaborative research effort between cognitive scientists and Buddhist practitioners. One thousand two hundred people were there to witness lively discussions on the main topics of attention, emotion and mental imagery.

 

By now, Mind and Life meetings were annual events. The gathering in 2004 focused on 'neuroplasticity', the discovery by neuroscientists that the brain can change its structure and function in response to experience. Results of research involving experienced meditators, including Matthieu Ricard, were produced to show that it is possible to 'rewire' the brain, to cultivate positive emotions and to train the mind in compassion.

 

The discussions inspired science writer Sharon Begley to author a book entitled Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain—one of a growing number of books that have been written about neuroplasticity in recent years.

 

In 2005, another public meeting in Washington DC shared research on the clinical applications of meditation. The meeting was co-chaired by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Mind and Life board member whose Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme has provided considerable evidence of the health benefits of meditation, and the contribution it can make to the fields of medicine and psychiatry. MBSR is now offered in more than two hundred medical centres, hospitals and clinics around the world.

 

One of the Mind and Life Institute’s key goals for the future is to stimulate the development of programmes based on training the mind for use in many different areas of society.

 

As Engle explains: “There are tremendous opportunities, in children’s education, life-long education in a secular setting, in leadership, teaching, healthcare—any place where there is human endeavour.

 

“The Mind and Life Institute’s vision is for the world to recognize that mental fitness is critically important for health and well-being, in the same way that scientific research on nutrition has stimulated people to adopt better nutritional practices, and research on physical fitness has stimulated millions of people to engage in exercise.”

 

At the Mind and Life gathering in Dharamsala in April 2009, participants were given an update on the 'Shamatha Project' devised by B. Alan Wallace and Clifford Saron, an assistant research scientist at the University of California, Davis. The project is perhaps the most ambitious scientific study of meditation to date.

 

Participants are asked to spend eight to ten hours each day focusing on shamatha meditation and compassion practices during three-month periods of retreat at Shambhala Mountain Centre in Colorado. A range of different methods are used to monitor changes in their levels of focus and attention, emotional responses, stress levels and the strength of their immune system. The final results are eagerly awaited.

 

As research continues apace in the emerging fields of 'contemplative neuroscience' and 'contemplative clinical science', the future for the collaboration between science and Buddhism looks increasingly promising.

 

Every year, a number of young scientists join scholars and Buddhist practitioners at the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute to present research and discuss topics for future investigation. There is a grant programme in place to encourage graduate and post-doctoral students to pursue ideas developed at these meetings.

 

The Dalai Lama continues to act as the focal point for the science-Buddhism dialogue, and to champion the practical benefits that it can bring to society. In addition, several of the younger generation of Tibetan Buddhist masters have also shown an active interest in science. The seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Ling Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche, for example, have all attended recent Mind and Life meetings.

 

By Andy Fraser

 

Photograph courtesy of the Mind and Life Institute

 

First published in View, August 2009

 


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