The last few decades have witnessed tremendous advances in the scientific understanding of the human brain and the human body as a whole. Furthermore, with the advent of the new genetics, neuroscience’s knowledge of the workings of biological organisms is now brought to the subtlest level of individual genes.
This has resulted in unforeseen technological possibilities of even manipulating the very codes of life, thereby giving rise to the likelihood of creating entirely new realities for humanity as a whole.
Today the question of science’s interface with wider humanity is no longer a matter of academic interest alone; this question must assume a sense of urgency for all those who are concerned about the fate of human existence.
I feel, therefore, that a dialogue between neuroscience and society could have profound benefits in that it may help deepen our basic understanding of what it means to be human and our responsibilities for the natural world we share with other sentient beings. I am glad to note that as part of this wider interface, there is a growing interest among some neuroscientists in engaging in deeper conversations with Buddhist contemplative disciplines.
Although my own interest in science began as the curiosity of a restless young boy growing up in Tibet, gradually the colossal importance of science and technology for understanding the modern world dawned on me.
Not only have I sought to grasp specific scientific ideas but have also attempted to explore the wider implications of the new advances in human knowledge and technological power brought about through science.
The specific areas of science I have explored most over the years are subatomic physics, cosmology, biology and psychology. For my limited understanding of these fields I am deeply indebted to the hours of generous time shared with me by Carl von Weizsacker and the late David Bohm, both of whom I consider to be my teachers in quantum mechanics, and in the field of biology, especially neuroscience, by the late Robert Livingstone and Francisco Varela.
I am also grateful to the numerous eminent scientists with whom I have had the privilege of engaging in conversations through the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute which initiated the Mind and Life conferences that began in 1987 at my residence in Dharamsala, India.
Some might wonder: “What is a Buddhist monk doing taking such a deep interest in science? What relation could there be between Buddhism, an ancient Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, and modern science? What possible benefit could there be for a scientific discipline such as neuroscience in engaging in dialogue with Buddhist contemplative tradition?”
Although Buddhist contemplative tradition and modern science have evolved from different historical, intellectual and cultural roots, I believe that at heart they share significant commonalities, especially in their basic philosophical outlook and methodology.
On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes, whether conceptualised as a transcendent being, as an eternal, unchanging principle such as soul, or as a fundamental substratum of reality.
Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect.
From the methodological perspective, both traditions emphasize the role of empiricism. For example, in the Buddhist investigative tradition, between the three recognized sources of knowledge – experience, reason and testimony – it is the evidence of the experience that takes precedence, with reason coming second and testimony last.
This means that, in the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be. Even in the case of knowledge derived through reason or inference, its validity must derive ultimately from some observed facts of experience. Because of this methodological standpoint, I have often remarked to my Buddhist colleagues that the empirically verified insights of modern cosmology and astronomy must compel us now to modify, or in some cases reject, many aspects of traditional cosmology as found in ancient Buddhist texts.
Since the primary motive underlying the Buddhist investigation of reality is the fundamental quest for overcoming suffering and perfecting the human condition, the primary orientation of the Buddhist investigative tradition has been towards understanding the human mind and its various functions. The assumption here is that by gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying propensities so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way of being can be found.
It is in this context that the Buddhist tradition has devised a rich classification of mental states, as well as contemplative techniques for refining specific mental qualities. So a genuine exchange between the cumulative knowledge and experience of Buddhism and modern science on a wide-ranging issues pertaining to the human mind, from cognition and emotion to understanding the capacity for transformation inherent in the human brain can be deeply interesting and potentially beneficial as well.
In my own experience, I have felt deeply enriched by engaging in conversations with neuroscientists and psychologists on such questions as the nature and role of positive and negative emotions, attention, imagery, as well the plasticity of the brain. The compelling evidence from neuroscience and medical science of the crucial role of simple physical touch for even the physical enlargement of an infant’s brain during the first few weeks powerfully brings home the intimate connection between compassion and human happiness.
Buddhism has long argued for the tremendous potential for transformation that exists naturally in the human mind. To this end, the tradition has developed a wide range of contemplative techniques, or meditation practices, aimed specifically at two principal objectives – the cultivation of a compassionate heart and the cultivation of deep insights into the nature of reality, which are referred to as the union of compassion and wisdom. At the heart of these meditation practices lie two key techniques: the refinement of attention and its sustained application on the one hand; and the regulation and transformation of emotions on the other. In both of these cases, I feel, there might be great potential for collaborative research between the Buddhist contemplative tradition and neuroscience.
For example, modern neuroscience has developed a rich understanding of the brain mechanisms that are associated with both attention and emotion. Buddhist contemplative tradition, given its long history of interest in the practice of mental training, offers on the other hand practical techniques for refining attention and regulating and transforming emotion. The meeting of modern neuroscience and Buddhist contemplative discipline, therefore, could lead to the possibility of studying the impact of intentional mental activity on the brain circuits that have been identified as critical for specific mental processes.
At the very least, such an interdisciplinary encounter could help raise critical questions in many key areas. For example, do individuals have a fixed capacity to regulate their emotions and attention or, as Buddhist tradition argues, their capacity for regulating these processes are greatly amenable to change, suggesting similar degree of amenability of the behavioural and brain systems associated with these functions?
This is the first of two articles on science, philosophy and Buddhism by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.