For the Dalai Lama, a Meeting of Brain and Mind

(Lois Raimondo - Twp)
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The Dalai Lama, believed by millions to be the 74th manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the enlightened Buddha of compassion, made his way across the stage of DAR Constitution Hall yesterday more as the peasant he was born than the international icon he has become.

He walked slowly and half-bowed, smiling broadly and with a playful glint in his eye. And why not: The audience of several thousand -- scientists, meditators, spiritual seekers and monks in scarlet robes -- had gathered for a tutorial that has been going on for him since he was a young boy. Tibetan religious teachers began the process, but for almost 20 years the Dalai Lama has actively sought to expand his knowledge of several disciplines of science by attracting top researchers from around the world to his Indian mountain home to discuss their latest work.

Yesterday's gathering was the second time his sessions with scientists have gone public -- a kind of living-room gathering for thousands to watch and listen. The 70-year-old Dalai Lama, aka His Holiness, perched at the lectern, spoke briefly about his boyhood love of technology and science in faraway and then-closed Lhasa, and hinted at the high-minded and sometimes complex scientific and philosophical discussions to come.

"After these sessions, sometimes I cannot really remember what has been said," he said, a humility that his writings tend to dispute. "But I think it leaves an imprint in my brain."

How much of an imprint has become a surprisingly controversial issue on the Dalai Lama's 10-day visit to Washington. The Dalai Lama already is a major religious, political and literary figure, but his emerging role as a scientific leader has for the first time encountered some significant pushback.

Not at the Constitution Hall gathering, sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, a group that he helped found. (The official topic for the three days of discussion will be meditation, and how cutting-edge science is beginning to understand more about its highly active nature and how it can enhance and heal the human mind and body.)

But trouble looms this weekend at the Washington Convention Center, where the Dalai Lama is scheduled to give an hour-long keynote address Saturday to the annual convention of the Society for Neuroscience.

A petition drive, begun primarily by Chinese American researchers, seeks to have the Dalai Lama's appearance canceled. The protesters, who argue that a religious leader should not be given such a prominent role at an important scientific conference, say they have gathered at least 600 signatures. There have also been competing letters and an editorial in the journal Nature.

"The presentation of a religious symbol with a controversial political agenda may cause unnecessary controversies, unwanted press, and significant divisions among SFN members from multiple geographic locations, and with conflicting religious beliefs and political leanings," reads the petition, which was signed by several hundred non-Chinese researchers and academics as well.

"Inviting the Dalai Lama to lecture on 'Neuroscience of Meditation' is of poor scientific taste, because it will highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromised scientific rigor and objectivity at a prestigious meeting attended by more than 20,000 neuroscientists."

That anti-Dalai Lama effort quickly gave birth to a counter-petition in favor of his address, as well as speculation about the motives of the original group of petition writers. Relations between China and once-independent Tibet have been badly strained for half a century, and the Dalai Lama is at the center of the dispute.

"Chinese protests against high-profile visits of the Dalai Lama are routine wherever he travels," said John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet and one of the sponsors of the Dalai Lama's Washington visit. Ackerly said that the speech is part of a series called "Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society" and that architect Frank Gehry is scheduled to be next year's speaker.

"The Dalai Lama has had a long interest in science and has maintained an ongoing dialogue with leading neuroscientists for more than 15 years," said Carol Barnes, the society's president. "Which is the reason he was invited to speak."

Speaking to reporters before the Mind and Life conference sessions began yesterday, the Dalai Lama said he understood the controversy: "When people heard that I would be speaking, that meant that the Dalai Lama -- from a 500-year institution that symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism -- would be meeting with scientists," he said. "Yes, it's a little bit strange. But on the other hand, when scientists come into our Tibetan monastic institutions, that also looks a little strange."

During yesterday's sessions, the Dalai Lama sat cross-legged in a chair onstage as he listened with other presenters. Each presenter wore a headset microphone. (The Dalai Lama blew his nose constantly, sometimes into his own mike.)

The Dalai Lama can't simply attend a convention. He requires no Hello-My-Name-Is badge. He is religious leader, student, attendee, celebrity, exile.

Adam Engle, the president of the Mind and Life Institute, announced that today's afternoon session would start late, as the Dalai Lama has back-to-back meetings with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. This pleased audience members, who cheered -- it's always a good thing for the Tibetan cause when the Dalai Lama gets into the White House.

His recent book, "The Universe in an Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality," tries to make the case that modern science and Buddhist thought have surprisingly similar aims, methods and sometimes conclusions -- though he resists efforts to see the world in purely material terms. (Some of his thoughts about limits to the theory of evolution when it comes to how life and consciousness began earned him a rather harsh book review in the New York Times, including a suggestion that he was proposing a Buddhist version of intelligent design.)

During yesterday's session, some of those parallels between Buddhist thought and cutting-edge science were on display.

Wolf Singer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, explained how his research has found that neuronal coordination within the brain is key to human understanding and performance -- a conclusion that Buddhist thought intuited long ago.

Richard Davidson, a research psychologist at the University of Wisconsin whose pioneering (and peer-reviewed) work on meditation was also criticized by the petition writers, described research into how "plastic" the brain actually is and how meditation has been found to change the nature and intensity of brain waves. Stanford's Robert Sapolsky explained research into the harmful physical and mental effects of stress, and how lab rats given constructive outlets to relieve their stress suffered fewer problems.

By day's end, it was more clear why the Dalai Lama finds his scientific explorations to be so compelling. What the scientists were discussing -- and with the help of the Mind and Life Institute are increasingly researching -- is the most current biological, chemical and psychological findings about how certain kinds of human suffering can be understood and alleviated. Precisely what might appeal to the man known as the present-day Buddha of compassion.

While politics and religion are always important to the Dalai Lama, aides say, his involvement with science is especially significant to him. Given the frequent hostility between religious and scientific thought in the United States, many find the Dalai Lama's explorations into such subjects as quantum physics, or the neuroscience of consciousness, or evolution and the physical nature of emotions to be remarkable.

And he has been known to back that up: He often says -- and affirmed again in front of yesterday's audience -- that when science proves that Buddhist scriptures are incorrect, then the scriptures should be rejected.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company