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Two Sciences of Mind

BARRY BOYCE reports on the dialogue between cutting-edge science and Buddhism's 2500-year study of the mind.

In 1979, two cognitive scientists, Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch, and a computer scientist named Newcomb Greenleaf — all freshly minted Buddhists — organized what was to be a groundbreaking conference at The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Recently established by Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the institute was designed to be a place where meditation traditions and western scholarship would meet on common ground.

The conference, entitled "Comparative Approaches to Cognition: Western and Buddhist," would be an exciting convergence of East and West. While some participants remember it as stimulating in new and different ways, Rosch describes it as combative, an intellectual melee just short of chair-throwing. As she tells it, "We thought naively that the things we were discovering about mind through Buddhism were so meaningful and right-on that our colleagues would immediately want to sit down and discuss how this deep understanding of the mind fit into the various sciences. Wonderful things would happen. Instead, they looked at the thick reader we compiled, largely from Buddhist sources, and said, ‘What is this?’ When Francisco and the rest of us gave talks, they would say, ‘Huh?’ When the meditation sessions on the schedule failed to immediately provide the ‘information’ that they needed to ‘understand’ what we’d been saying, they reacted, ‘We’re at a conference and you’re asking us to sit here and do nothing?’ When it came time to discuss, they simply revolted. Clearly, we hadn’t gone where they were." The Buddhism-science dialogue was off to a difficult start.

Francico Varela, the conference’s leading light, was a walking Buddhism-science dialogue. As an undergraduate student in biology in his native Chile in the early sixties, he had burst into the office of professor Humberto Maturana and blurted out that he wanted to study "the role of mind in the universe." Maturana, always a free-thinker, replied, "My boy, you’ve come to the right place." The professor became his mentor and allowed him to explore notions about mind and body incorporating ideas from French phenomenology. Varela went on to Harvard and proved he had no fear of detail by earning his Ph.D. for a study of information processing in insect retinas. He was sure his career would take off in Salvador Allende’s new Chile, but not long after he returned home, the political tides turned, and he had to flee Colonel Augusto Pinochet’s military regime with only $100 in his pocket.

Varela ended up back in the United States, and in 1974, at a point when he felt cast adrift, he encountered an old friend he had met while living in Boston, Jeremy Hayward, a physicist who was a student of Trungpa Rinpoche. Hayward arranged for Varela and Trungpa to meet, and when Varela let on that he was struggling to find what exactly to do, Trungpa Rinpoche offered to teach him how to "do nothing," quite a feat for someone with a mind as active as Varela’s.

He took to meditation with a vengeance. He saw it as the means for inquiring into his favorite subject, "mind in the universe." While behaviorism had long since thrown out subjective investigation as so much twaddle, Varela was determined, according to Eleanor Rosch, "to reinstate first-person experience as a source of scientific knowledge, and open scientific inquiry to methods such as meditation."

When Rosch met Varela in the late seventies at one of Trungpa’s programs, she had just started practicing Buddhism. She had made some pioneering discoveries in the emerging field of cognitive psychology and, like Varela, she saw meditation as the ultimate research tool, the one she had been looking for all her life. The Naropa meeting whetted their appetites, but it left them wanting something more - and better.

Meanwhile, the man whose name is now listed as Tenzin Gyatso at the top of the roster in every Mind and Life meeting was quietly having discussions with scientists every chance he got. His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama grew up in a place of extremely advanced learning that was nevertheless unblessed by the hand of Western science and technology. Yet every book, every vehicle, every machine, every device that came to him from the West while he was growing up became an object of intense curiosity, something to tear apart and put back together. The world of mechanisms was meeting the world of meditation.

When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 at age twenty-four, he quickly saw how much the Western scientific ethos dominated affairs in the larger world. He had some catching up to do. He was determined to learn more and test what he knew, having just passed the difficult examinations for the Geshe Lharampa degree, the equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy.

Before the Dalai Lama became a celebrity and a Nobel Prize winner, he was a humble monk leading a country that didn’t have a seat at the United Nations. People didn’t defer to him the way they do now. Nevertheless, he was able to develop friendships with a number of prominent European scientists, who were quite kind to him and genuinely enjoyed his company as an interlocutor. One of the first was Carl von Weizsäcker, brother of the one-time president of West Germany and assistant to the quantum physics luminary Werner Heisenberg.

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