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Matthieu Ricard started his professional life as a molecular biologist. Now, after many decades as a monk, his molecules have become the subject of study for biologists. His discussions with physicist Trinh Xuan Thuan, published as The Quantum and the Lotus, and his vigorous give-and-take with his father, the renowned philosopher Jean-François Revel, published as The Monk and the Philosopher (a best-seller in France) demonstrate his ability to discuss Buddhist understanding deftly outside the context of Buddhism. This has made him an ideal participant in Mind and Life dialogues and a laboratory subject who can report his subjective experience with scalpel-like precision.
Ricard is concerned that the average person is afraid of the mind, and that this fear is taking a great social toll. If you ask someone to look into their mind, he says, "A surprisingly common reaction is ‘I don’t want to look into my mind. I’m afraid of what I’m going to find there.’" He feels that many people may find the notion of meditation and working with the mind more attractive if they can see that "we vastly underestimate the magnitude of change that is possible. If studies can provide robust evidence for the effect of mind training, that will be of great value to society."
When his father the philosopher challenges superstition in Buddhism, Ricard makes a strong case that contrary to popular belief, Buddhists do rely on verifiability. Buddhists are asked to examine what they have been taught and they commonly trust what they are told by a teacher by "evaluating all sides of their character." He says that faith has a place in life, but not blind faith. The average person is constantly holding beliefs because "they accept the competence of those who provide the information." He believes that "many people need to hear information about meditation from people they deem competent." His book The Case for Happiness, now being translated into English, is part of that campaign. "I am willing," he says, "to take a few trips a year to the States from Nepal to spend a few weeks on this research. It is time well spent, if I can serve as a bridge between worlds. The culture is training people’s minds in one direction right now. They need to see that another direction is possible."
In his concluding statement in The Quantum and the Lotus, Ricard says that one of the main reasons that "science has been led into a dialogue with Buddhism" is the dilemma that has emerged through quantum mechanics and relativity of "trying to reconcile the apparent reality of the macrocosm with the disappearance of solid reality as soon as we enter the world of particles." Arthur Zajonc (rhymes with science), editor of The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, is a physicist who has peered, at times side by side with the Dalai Lama, into the topsy-turvy world that lies far beneath the naked eye.
Zajonc notes that there is a kind of natural kinship between Buddhism and neuroscience, since Buddhism has had so much to say about the mind and can provide reliable evidence of effectiveness. "When you switch over to the physical sciences," he says, "you are in a very different territory." Buddhism could be said to offer a science of the mind, but there is nothing in Buddhism that looks much like the highly mathematical world of Western physics. If physics were limited to predicting what happens when a hammer hits a nail, there wouldn’t be much to talk about, but because physicists since Einstein have strayed into looking into the nature of reality, it engages the philosophical side of Buddhism and doctrines like emptiness of inherent nature and codependent origination. The philosophical convergences lead to seminars like "Quantum Nonlocality & Emptiness in Madhyamika Prasangika," recently presented by physics professor Vic Mansfield as part of the Namgyal Buddhism and Science Dialogue.
Referring to a meeting in 1998 with the Dalai Lama at the Institute for Experimental Physics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, Zajonc says, "We really worked on the nature of reality, why things look the way they look, when deep down they are actually quite different." This question relates to two "problems" in modern physics. The first is the nonlocality problem: in the so-called "macro" world, we think of objects as discrete and unconnected, but at the quantum level, there really are no objects; everything is intimately connected with everything else. The second is the measurement problem: at the quantum level, the data that comes back to you is completely different depending on the question. It’s as if you were to ask a person, "Are you a boy?" and they say yes, but when you ask, "Are you a girl?" they also say yes. This kind of breakdown in logic has caused physicists to regard the quantum arena as random, despite Einstein’s retort that "God does not play dice with the universe."
Buddhists and cosmologists can also get into a tangle on the beginning of the universe, since Buddhists are into beginninglessness. At the same time, notions of time seem to provide a point of convergence, since many Buddhist teachings upset conventional notions of time in the same way as the principle of relativity does.
Just like the mind scientists, Zajonc does not seem motivated by figuring out who’s right. In his book, he describes many points in dialogues when everyone breaks into peals of spontaneous laughter. "It’s amazing," Zajonc says. "It literally breaks you up. It breaks up your ideas and leaves a kind of humor. Nonlocality, randomness, interdependence - these are like quantum koans. If you try to think them out in a conventional way, you will fail. Sometimes I think one needs a new level of insight to be able to put your mind around them. Furthermore, our technological advancement far outstrips our ethical development, our capacity to make sound judgments about what we’ve unleashed."
On this point, Zajonc is passionate. "At the beginning of our scientific revolution," he says, "there was division of labor. Science would take care of natural knowledge. All ethical considerations would be given to the church. The yogi knows that this is not actually possible. Knowledge brings power. As a scientist, you have the power, but you should also know the value of interconnectedness. When the genetic researcher Eric Lander was in dialogue with the Dalai Lama, he was struck when the Dalai Lama asked about the intention behind it all. Science has an ethic of leaving intention out of the picture, but with the nuclear problem and biotechnology, we find ourselves with moral dilemmas that our Enlightenment worldview is not fully able to handle.
"Our knowledge cannot be so object-oriented. In contemplative traditions like Buddhism, knowledge is insight-oriented. You don’t ingest units of knowledge; you transform how you see reality. If we educated people in a way that transformed their experience rather than just filled them with information, it would be an enormous help, but we tend not to. We have examples in the West, such as Goethe’s attempt to develop a contemplative science of insight, but the Buddhists have been doing it that way for a couple thousand years."
Eleanor Rosch is skeptical about the Buddhism and science dialogue. She thinks it may be heading in an unhelpful direction. "For many it’s not a dialogue," she says. "There’s a frenzy about this kind of thing. I get frequent e-mails from people who want to study meditation from the scientific point of view so they can ‘get rid of all that mystical Eastern stuff and find out what’s really going on’ - by which they mean neurons firing in the brain and similar functions. Then there are Buddhists who want to ‘prove’ that meditation ‘works.’ Often research shows more about the preconceptions of the researchers and audience than it does about the mind. For example, what metaphysical beliefs might you harbor that would make you wildly excited to learn that when people pay attention in meditation, they show the same pattern of brain activity as when they pay attention anywhere else? Rather than scientists and Buddhists stretching their minds together, I see Buddhism frequently colonized as a feel-good, flat-abs caricature of itself no different from any other materialist reductionist doctrine.
"I respect the Dalai Lama’s desire to establish a universal ethic of compassion by means of science," she continues, "but given the present world dynamic, is allying Buddhism with the extremes of secular rationalism the way to do that? People ignore good science all the time. Buddhism might offer something unique to religious polarization: a middle way of spirituality beyond ego. It can stimulate religions to excavate the contemplative and meditative paths in their own heritages, such as the Jewish meditation movement and Christian centering prayer. What people really need is to find deeper contemplative experience before their competing thought systems lead them into a massive conflagration."
Matthieu Ricard would respectfully disagree with Rosch about the value of the dialogue and the direction of the research. "I don’t see that what we are doing affects Buddhism negatively. We are not making Buddhism-lite. I am very disturbed when that happens. Buddhism remains Buddhism. We are simply offering food. To offer someone food that we know how to produce and that they need now, we don’t have to turn them into horticultural specialists." As far as reductionism goes, Ricard contends that "No one doing sound science could gain any support for the reductionist viewpoint from what we’re doing. You can never answer the question of who decided to meditate on compassion in the first place. That is beyond the scope of scientific research."
Questions about fortifying materialistic thinking and the possibility of co-opting Buddhism will undoubtedly remain. Some will question whether this dialogue helps in the development of a genuine contemplative tradition, as Arthur Zajonc seems to believe, or may lead us away from it, as Eleanor Rosch suggests. But the research will go on. Grant applications for research at prominent institutions like the National Institutes of Health, MIT, and Princeton that contain "mindfulness" or "meditation" are no longer scoffed at, and research centers focusing on meditation are likely to spring up.
Alan Wallace, a former Buddhist monk who studied with Arthur Zajonc, has been an interpreter and an active participant in every Mind and Life conference. He is also the author of the anthology Buddhism and Science and recently founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. The institute has picked up on work that Paul Ekman was doing at the behest of the Dalai Lama on "cultivating emotional balance," and is training schoolteachers, nurses, and other health professionals in "secularized meditation" techniques and other forms of working with emotions. The Mindful Attention Program will study whether meditation can aid people with attention deficiency hyperactivity disorder. Finally, the Shamatha Project will observe people meditating in a special facility over the course of a year.
Paul Ekman, who is on the board of the Santa Barbara Institute, is excited about this study, but he says, it’s the "second-best study." The best study, he says, would be "to do something like what was done in the famous studies of cardiac disease, where they started with 4,000 people. If we started to look at 4,000 teenagers in the Bay Area, and studied them every few years, inevitably some of them would get involved with meditation. We would have known what they were like and who it was who got involved. Then, we would follow them for the next twenty-five years. That is the research that needs to be done.
"The only problem with the Santa Barbara Institute study is that people willing to spend a year in a meditative retreat are not Buddhist virgins. We’ll see what changes over time, and we’ll see what their nervous systems and their emotional lives are like at the start and how they change. We’ll learn a lot from it. But I would have liked to have seen them twenty years earlier, to find out what they were like before they got involved, and what it was that got them involved. Someday, someone will do that. It takes dedicating a lifetime to it. My mentor did a forty-year study of hypertension. It takes a career to do it. People who have been influenced by Buddhism, I would think, would be more willing than others to dedicate the time, since they are less preoccupied with their own cravings for glory and recognition."
On March 24, 2000, Francisco Varela took the floor in the Dalai Lama’s meeting hall to give the last of his many presentations in the dialogue between Buddhists and scientists that he had done so much to get started. On the verge of tears, in his gestures and soft words he implicitly thanked the Dalai Lama for making it possible for him to be there. Several years earlier, when he was dying of cancer, he had been ambivalent about receiving a liver transplant. Suddenly he received a fax from the Dalai Lama encouraging him to prolong his life. Now, although frail, he was back in action, flashing a PowerPoint slide onto the screen. He made the case for Buddhists and neuroscientists to collaborate for the good of the human race, a case he had been making for more than twenty years, since a time when there were few people actually called neuroscientists, a time when people were laughing him out of the building. By the time the proceedings were published, he would be dead, but the movement he helped to start flourishes.
Originally published in the September 2005 Shambhala Sun magazine.