Craving a Discourse: A Longtime Supporter of the Science and Religion Dialogue, the Dalai Lama Is Attracting Large Audiences-And a Little Bit of Controversy

By Nelson, Dean | Science & Spirit, January-February 2006 | Go to article overview

Craving a Discourse: A Longtime Supporter of the Science and Religion Dialogue, the Dalai Lama Is Attracting Large Audiences-And a Little Bit of Controversy


Nelson, Dean, Science & Spirit


as Tenzin Gyatso sat cross-legged in a straight-backed chair in Palo Alto, California, in November, comfortably discussing states of mind with an all-star panel of scientists, conference organizers in Washington, D.C., were fretting over protests and worrying about the reception the fourteenth Dalai Lama would receive a week later when he gave the keynote address at the annual gathering of the Society for Neuroscience, or SfN.

Stanford University's Neuroscience Institute was focused on synergies between neuroscience and Buddhism; the SfN organizers were concerned about the perceived conflict between science and religion. The gathering in Palo Alto took advantage of the opportunity to explore the ways in which reason and faith can enrich one another; the coming event in the nation's capital was riddled with opposition born of a protest aimed at disinviting the Dalai Lama, one of religion's most outspoken supporters of modern science.

More than 700 scientists signed the ultimately unsuccessful petition demanding SfN rescind its invitation and prevent the Dalai Lama from addressing more than 20,000-plus attendees. Because many of the signatories were of Chinese descent, some people speculated that politics played a role, but the explicit reason for the protest was that incorporating a religious leader's ideas into the proceedings would threaten the credibility of the scientific community.

"We are witnessing an anti-science movement in this country, in part from Washington, but all across the land," said Doctor Philip Pizzo, the dean of Stanford's Medical School. "But there is also an anti-religion movement that is coming from the science community. We have a chance to study the brain in a broad, interdisciplinary manner. We are not about to apply the scientific method to faith or apply faith to science. But we do acknowledge that they are part of the same dimension." Noting the protest in Washington, D.C., served only to illuminate the present polarization of discourse in the United States, Pizzo said it was more necessary than ever to respectfully integrate faith and science.

Those willing to embrace Pizzo's assessment were able to benefit from Gyatso's participation in "Craving, Suffering, and Choice: Spiritual and Scientific Explorations of Human Experience," a weekend event in which science and religion shared the stage in an open and honest exchange of ideas.

While one discipline uses methods developed in recent years to track activity in specific parts of the brain, and the other uses 2,500-year-old practices to develop introspective inquiry of the mind, both neuroscience and Buddhism address the same issue: suffering.

This shared purpose, according to Doctor William Mobley, director of the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford, is the reason he recently gathered experts in both fields, as well as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for a public discussion on the ground they share. "Both pursue knowledge about the brain and mind," he said. "They just go about it differently. I think we have something to learn from each other."

The Stanford conference explored scientific and Buddhist definitions of craving and suffering, along with a possible response to those conditions--the choice of altruism and compassion.

Craving, according to Buddhist thought and explained by Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, is "a kind of desire in which one falsely superimposes agreeable qualities upon an object, cognitively screens out its disagreeable qualities, and then desires the object as a true source of pleasure and well-being." Things commonly craved are wealth, sensual objects, praise, and the esteem of others, he said.

"None of these objects are actual sources of genuine well-being, nor does the experience of such objects have an invariable correlation with the experience of pleasure of any kind," Wallace explained. True well-being does not come from an outside stimulus, but from "a healthy and balanced mind," he said. …

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