By Hara Estroff Marano, published on September 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 30, 2006
I don't know about you, but it isn't every week that I get an opportunity to spend three days in the company of the Dalai Lama. Yes, that Dalai Lama. So I jumped at the chance to attend a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that His Holiness would be presiding over. In fact, one that he had more or less convened, and been convening for more than a decade in more private places.
This is the amazing thing about the Dalai Lama. He is phenomenally interested in modern cosmology, physics, neuroscience and psychology. He has been having informal dialogues with scientists for many years, sometimes inviting them to Dharamsala, India, where he heads the Tibetan government in exile, sometimes meeting with them wherever he travels.
This conference was called "Investigating the Mind." It was developed by the Mind & Life Institute, a Boulder, Colorado, organization set up in 1990 just to explore the intersection between Buddhism and science. It was the eleventh such conference the institute arranged between the Dalai Lama and world-class scientists, but the first one that was open to the public.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about the conference was this: it was sold out months ago, within two hours of the registration being opened. Immediately, a waiting list of 1600 was created. That's how much interest there was in these dialogues.
The audience was quite impressive, with heavy doses of students and faculty from MIT and Harvard. There were also Buddhist scholars and Buddhist monks from many parts of the world. There were well-known scientists who were physicists, neuroscientists, mathematicians, psychiatrists. There were psychologists who had pioneered the use of meditation for treatment of stress-related disorders. And just plain practicing psychologists. There were lawyers who were bringing Buddhist principles of perspective and understanding to reforming the law. I met several women who were U.S. operating-room nurses by training and profession. They were spending their "off time" organizing and participating in medical teams that were doing extraordinary things in Tibet, like saving the 39 percent of infants who now die just after birth. Their efforts were made all the more imperative by the two-children-only rule the Chinese are enforcing on the population. There was a significant number of philanthropists, attentive to new cultural developments. Oh, I almost forgot to mention. I saw Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn.
But the real star was the Dalai Lama, seated always at center stage, between the scientists and the Buddhist monks and scholars who came to discuss the human mind as an instrument of observation and investigation. He listened to every word, frequently commented or asked further questions and often displayed a genuine sense of mirth.
The conference was epochal. If you listened carefully, you could hear the ground shift beneath your feet. This was no Woodstock nation. This was a gathering of doers and thinkers—and funders of doers and thinkers—discussing in concrete and abstract ways how to transform emotions and how to expand the knowledge base for improving lives and conditions on this planet.
Buddhism, all the participants agreed, has much to contribute to science as we know it. By experiencing reality the way Buddhists are trained to do, science can have access to the ultimate frontier, where physics and psychology meet, the nature of consciousness. But—and here's the interesting art—the information doesn't flow just one way. The Dalai Lama told us he was encouraging Buddhist scholars to take an interest in Western science. And towards that end, he had recently begun offering a science curriculum to selected students in Buddhist monasteries.