Interdependence: Science, Nature, and Consciousness
H.H. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama

-- Albert Einstein, the father of the theory of relativity; once remarked, "I determine the authentic worth of a man according to one rule alone: to what degree and with what purpose a man has fired himself from his ego." Your Holiness, to what extent does this rule seem to you to apply to the teachings of the Buddha, and constitute a preface to any fruitful dialogue between human beings?
-- At the heart of Buddhism and in particular at the heart of the Great. Vehicle (the Mahayana), great importance is placed on analytical reasoning. This view holds that we should not accept a teaching of the Buddha if we were to find any flaw or inconsistency in the reasoning of that teaching. It is advisable, therefore, to adopt a skeptical attitude and retain a critical mind, even with regard to the Buddha's own words. Does he himself not say, in the following verse, "0 Bhikshu, as gold is tested by rubbing, cutting, and melting, accept my word only on analysis and not simply out of respect." It is important to follow this advice. In such a context I see no problem in having a discussion with my scientific friends and I am always extremely interested in doing so.
To get down to the actual question, when we speak of the "apprehension of self," we must recognize different levels of this apprehension. I generally distinguish between two ways of thinking about the ego. The first, the thought of "I" which naturally springs to mind, is not only correct but also necessary. For example, to feel courage, we must have confidence in ourselves. To have great self-confidence, we must believe in our abilities and strengths, and to do this we must have a very strong idea of our self and our ego. This thought is therefore positive and constructive.
The other way of thinking of "me," "I," can lead to contempt for others. This is the apprehension of self-based on a vision of ourselves transcending reality, a false perception which cannot be dissipated s ply by prayer. We must reflect and meditate on the non-self of the individual, on the fact that all phenomena are empty, devoid of independent existence. The false apprehension of self grows weaker as the mind gradually becomes used to the view of the non-self of the individual.
All the ancient Eastern philosophies devote an important place to the analysis of the agent-self According to ancient non-Buddhist Indian philosophies, there exists a self called atman which is separate and different from the aggregates. According to Buddhist texts, on the other hand, there is no self that is different from the aggregates or separate from them. That is why we speak of the non-self, anatman. The existence of a permanent, single, independent self, different from the aggregates, is refuted. However, the existence of an agent-self is not refuted. The ego which exists, the conventional self, is designated on the basis of the aggregates. All systems of Buddhist philosophy agree in recognizing the existence of the ego in relation to the aggregates, but not all interpret the nature of the ego in the same manner.
First of all, one Buddhist philosophical school affirms that each of the five aggregates which make up a sentient being is the self Another school posits that the ego is the aggregate of consciousness. A third affirms that the ego is what we call the innermost consciousness, of "storehouse consciousness" (Sanskrit: alayavijnana). According to one of the views of the Madhayamika-Prasangika school, the ego surely exists in relation to the aggregates, but we would not be able to find it among them. It is affirmed that the ego exists simply as a label of simple designation on the basis of the five aggregates which make up the individual. When we use the expression "simple designation," this does not mean that the ego simply does not exist, but eliminates the notion that the ego exists by virtue of its own nature. There exists nonetheless an imputed self which is dependent.
And here we meet up with what Einstein said: according to Buddhist tradition, great importance is given to the absence of an absolute existence of the ego, for it is indeed thanks to the understanding of the non-self that we can weaken the various and very powerful mental factors, such as pride and jealousy, with which we are afflicted. In Buddhism not only does the individual entity exist, it progresses from the ordinary state of being into Buddhahood. Does this reply correspond to what you expected?
-- Yes, it does.
-- If you do not understand my answer to a question, I can go on until it is clearer. And if that it is still not clear, I will persevere to make it even clearer!
-- You have professed your interest in dialogue with scientists, regarding science in general and technological progress. Buddhism has taken root in Western countries that are strongly shaped by science and technology. Are you simply eager to obtain information or adapt to our culture, or do you think that modern science and Buddhist spirituality may have a reciprocal impact, that scientific process may be associated with a spiritual quest?
-- From my own experience and the discussions and contacts I have had with the scientific community, I have noted that there is room for exchange in certain fields, in particular cosmology, neurobiology, particle physics, and psychology. On the one hand, I think that the way in which Buddhist texts treat these different disciplines can without doubt offer a new approach in the study of these sciences. In addition, I believe that the great development through science of experimental technical studies and their results can bring many things to Buddhists themselves. Both will certainly enjoy great mutual benefits.
Whether this remains on the level of acquisition of information or leads to a more personal application will depend on each individual. I would even venture to say, without talking about science, that for some people the teachings of Buddhism do not go beyond the of information and are therefore not implemented. Yet believers are reminded that everything we perceive is a teaching. In any the global approach of Buddhism is to determine the nature of reality and distinguish truth from falsehood. Once the nature of reality has been understood in aft its details, the means to progress on spiritual path can be explained on that basis. Although the understanding of the nature of reality is not directly connected to the practice of the Way, in the end the purpose of its search turns out to the practice itself Scientific explanations can he of great assistance helping us to establish the nature of reality and can ultimately he useful in spiritual practice.
-- When you meet Western physicians and medical researchers, do you get the impression that the scientific method they use in experiments, which we call the scientific method, reflects their cultural origins, which are basically Christian Judeo-Christian, and that as such their method explores only one aspect of biological and bacteriological reality? Or, on the contrary, do you have the impression that the slate has been wiped clean of Western religious and philosophical traditions, and that scientific method is therefore universal?
-- I think that scientists certainly have as their guiding principle to examine reality as objectively as possible, but despite this they are influenced by their own culture. The practitioner of science remains an individual, and consequently is influenced by his or her socio-cultural environment; hence the importance of objective analysis. Does this answer your question?
-- Buddhism is sometimes presented in the West as a rational religion, and this explanation seems capable of putting an end to the old debate often instigated by the religions of the Book-Judaism, Christianity and Islam with regard to the opposition between reason and faith. Do you think that a formula such as 'rational religion" might signal a reconciliation of diverse spiritual traditions, and a better understanding of certain affinities between contemporary science and Buddhism, a spiritual path that rightly or wrongly, seems as pragmatic as possible to us here in the West?
-- There are, according to Buddhist texts, in particular the Abhidharmakosha by Vasubhubandu, three different types of faith: "conviction faith," or confidence, "clear faith," or admiration, and "emulation faith." We can also speak of two sorts of faith. The first is founded on reason, which, when we examine the authentic foundations of that faith, will be found among those whose intelligence is sharpest. The other, more spontaneous and simple, is born of certain conventions among those of lesser intellectual faculties. Of the two, the former, founded on reason, is the more important. We can see, therefore, that reason and faith are intimately connected in Buddhism, since faith itself is generated on the basis of reason or logical comprehension.
There are several ways in which we can proceed with a logical analysis, depending on which of the three types of objects we are analyzing. In the first case, the object of analysis will be an apparent phenomenon. In the second, it will be hidden, and in the third, very hidden. These three types of objects correspond to the three types of existent phenomena. The manifest phenomena will be apprehended by initial perceptions known to be direct; the hidden phenomena by perceptions of the inferred type, based on irrefutable proof, and the very hidden phenomena by inferences founded on the validity accorded to the texts.
The significance of a very hidden phenomenon cannot he immediately determined by logical reasoning, and still less by sensory perception. We can only understand its meaning by relying upon what has been said by a dependable, trustworthy, and infallible third party, whose statements, to be believable, must be logical and must not contradict each other. Reason, which does not intervene directly to establish the existence of a phenomenon of the third type, does nevertheless have a role to play, insofar as we make use of it to determine the reliability of the person revealing the very hidden phenomenon.
This all goes to show that reason is always implicated in well-founded faith. I often have the opportunity to talk about this topic. With regard to religions essentially founded on "blind" faith, Buddhism is not a religion, but rather a science of mind, a form of atheism. Yet compared to radical materialism, it is indisputably a spiritual path. It depends on our point of view. In summary, we might say that Buddhism is distinct from either of these approaches, or even that it is a bridge between them.
-- Over the last few years the physics community has shown increasing interest in questions dealing with the understanding of a reality which seem to escape scientists, despite the great precision and powers of prediction of modern theories, such as quantum physics. Generally a physicist seeks not only to report on appearances and the sequence of an event's cause and effect, but also to perfect an intelligible way of interpreting what we call "nature." Our creativity seems to depend largely on this. In order to accomplish this we create representations in terms of atoms, particles, forces, energies, space, time, etc.
The Buddhist tradition contains a great number of texts dealing with the nature of phenomena, discussing the reality of atoms, the nature of space and time. Would you explain to us why Buddhist teachings insist on this question? Do you feel it is important for scientists in their research to take into consideration the explication found in the Middle Way which refutes the inherent existence of phenomena?
-- This is why when followers of this school speak of negations they refute exclusive negations and admit only evocative negations. The followers of the Sautrantika school hold that certain phenomena, such as negations, are merely imputations or designations of discursive perceptions. This is the case, for example, with space, with compound phenomena dissociated from the form and the mind or the individual. Having said that, the meaning assigned here to the word "designation' or "imputation' differs slightly from that of the Madhyamika school, according to which all phenomena exist merely by imputation or designation.
According to the Chittamatra school, it does not matter whether we are speaking of the nominal basis of designation, of the nominal designation "form" applied to a form, or finally of the conceptual basis of the representative perception of the form as form-the form is believed not to exist by itself, in an exterior manner. However if we look again at the earlier Sautrantika tradition, the form, as the conceptual basis of the representative perception apprehending it, exists by virtue of its own characteristics.
Up to this point, all Buddhist schools affirmed that all phenomena have an absolute existence. The followers of the Madhyamika school, however, refute the absolute existence of phenomena. Among these followers, those of the first sub-school, the Sautrantika, consider phenomena to exist conventionally, on their own. The other subschool, the Prasangika, holds that even conventional phenomena do not exist through their own characteristics. All schools accept non-self, but the way in which it is conceived becomes progressively more and more subtle.
One question must be asked. If by "reality" we mean that once we have sought a designated object it can be found and is sufficient unto itself, then Buddhist philosophy denies the existence of such a reality. Reality does exist, however, if we define it as a situation where, although we cannot find the conceived object as such when we seek it, we nevertheless accept its existence as a designation. The Madhyamika or Middle Way philosophy places great emphasis upon the elimination of the two extremes.
What in physics is called "undiscovered" refers to a field which is infinitely partial and restricted in relation to the Buddhist notion of the "unfindable" character of the analyzed object. For Buddhists it is not enough to assert that the apprehension of self is false and that it will automatically disappear once we have understood that the object of our erroneous perception does not exist. We must eliminate this erroneous perception of our ego, that is, our apprehension of self, and not the perception of self as a simple designation. Why go to such trouble?
As I already explained briefly at an earlier stage, from this false perception an exaggerated vision of the ego will arise, one which is far removed from reality, and from that point we can divide the world in two: on the one hand, everything which has to do with self, and, on the other, everything else. We feel attachment for the first and aversion toward the second. It is precisely to weaken this attachment and aversion that we strive to eliminate the erroneous perception of the ego.
The Middle Way seeks principally to eliminate the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. If we do not eliminate the extreme of eternalism we will not have the means to eliminate the false perceptual of our ego. At the other extreme, nihilism totally denies the existence of an ego. If we do not eliminate that extreme by reaching certainty with regard to the positive and negative aspects of an act and its agent on a conventional level, we will likewise reject the law of cause and effect, and that is something, which is inadmissible. By ruling out d~ extreme of nihilism, we affirm that whoever creates or accumulates cause must necessarily experience the results thereof By refuting extreme of eternalism, we avoid an exaggerated apprehension of ego. This is the explanation of the Middle Way of the Madhyamika.
In short, we must endeavor to eliminate the erroneous perception of the ego and reinforce the correct view of the ego, without limiting ourselves to a strictly intellectual comprehension of these notions. Once we have understood this, we must continue to reflect and meditate on the subject so that a true inner transformation can take place, These notions will be more and more beneficial to us as our min gradually becomes familiar with them.
-- You just said, a few minutes ago, that emotions can be a source of suffering. Do you have a definition for illness specific to Buddhism? Is illness the sign of an anomaly in one's biological or psychological behavior, or is it a physical disorder pointing to a psychological disorder? Isn't it normal that at certain times in life a human being will become ill? And what should the attitude of the medical profession be in these conditions,' should it seek to remove the anomaly by any means possible, or help the human being live with it?
-- With regard to the states of mind sometimes referred to as "emotions," we can distinguish positive ones and negative ones. Thus we say that feelings such as kindness, love, and compassion are positive emotions. But this is tantamount to saying that emotions subsist the flow of consciousness of Buddhas, since such qualities emanate from their minds. This must not be confused with the affirmation that Buddhas are always concentrated on emptiness. Once Buddhahood is attained there is no longer any representative or discursive perception. What remains is direct comprehension of emptiness. But when they meditate on the wisdom of which emptiness is a part, all the qualities such as love and compassion are present in the minds of Buddhas.
As for the negative states of mind, we speak of the three main kleshas-- afflicting emotions (literally, "poisons" of the mind) attachment, aversion, and ignorance. From the point of view of a practicing Buddhist, these afflicting factors or mental poisons are the true mental illness. But we will not he cured of this illness until we achieve liberation. Before we reach that point, we will speak, therefore, of illness on a less subtle level.
In our society in general we consider a person to he perfectly healthy when his or her mind is not troubled or deeply perturbed by the three afflictions of the mind, even if these negative factors remain present in that person. It does occur, however, that under the influence of the three kleshas the mind, deeply disturbed, will lapse into confusion. At this point we can speak of mental illness. We distinguish two levels of mental illness: gross and subtle; both may he associated with physical illness. For this reason, Tibetan medicine regards a patient as a whole entity, taking into account not only his or her body but also his or her mind. This is why there are those who treat mental illness by combining Western psychotherapy with Buddhist methods. I think this is an excellent method.
Now, what should our response to illness be? It is perfectly obvious that all beings aspire to happiness and that they have every legitimate right to seek it. At the same time, they wish never to he afflicted by illness or any form of suffering whatsoever. We must try to prevent suffering and, in this context, preventive medicine is judicious. We must try to prevent illness in every way possible. If in spite of our efforts, certain conditions lead to illness and suffering, we must try to think clearly and not add to our suffering by worrying.
-- The film "Why Did Bodhidharma Go to the East?" allowed us, through its very beautiful images, to gain experience and understanding of the extent to which spiritual liberation goes hand-in-hand with the enlightenment of consciousness that comes about in the interaction of human beings with their natural environment. But Buddhism also professes the absence of the actual existence of phenomena which, naively, we consider to be natural. " Would you tell us what place the idea of nature nonetheless occupies in Buddhism, and how the recognition 6f the emptiness of phenomena can lead us to alter our way of looking at the environment?
-- It is said that inanimate objects do not have an inherent existence but a conventional one. This applies not only to inanimate objects but also to animate objects-that is, to beings endowed with consciousness. In this respect, the inanimate world is on an equal basis with the animate world of living beings. As far as the relation between the external world and the inner world (the mind) is concerned, according to certain philosophical schools, in particular the Yogacharya Sautrantika (a sub-school of Madhyamika) and the Chittamatra, external phenomena do not exist; A that exists is of the nature of the mind. Relativity is explained principally by the Prasangika branch of the Madhyamika. school. According to the Madhyamika-Prasangika school, external phenomena exist and are not of the nature of the mind . They have no inherent or ultimate existence, but their nature is different from that of the mind. The outer world exists in dependence on the mind, insofar as it exists as a designation made by the mind. It does not, therefore, exist independently from the mind's imputation, nor is it of the nature of the mind. Therefore, an external world which can be examined objectively does exist.
Buddhism perceives the environment, in general, to be composed of infinitesimal particles; in particular, it views human beings as part of nature and for this reason there is, naturally, a link between human kind and our environment. Clearly, our happiness depends a great deal on the environment. This is why Buddhist texts explain how one should behave with regard to nature. For example, one of the monastic rules forbids the contamination or destruction of vegetation.
According to accounts of the Buddha's life, it would seem that he had a very deep relationship with nature. He was not born in the royal palace but in a park, under a sala tree. He attained complete enlightenment under the bodhi tree and left this earth to enter Parinirvana, again, between three sala trees. It would seem that the Buddha was very fond of trees.
-- Interest in the discoveries of modem astrophysics and the "big bang" theory reveal both a great fascination in the cosmos and a probing interrogation by members of our generation into their origins, their destiny and the meaning of their existence. The "big bang" theory has had a significant impact on our way of looking at matter and nature; it has introduced considerable conceptual innovations. The formation of the structures of the universe, which function in. interdependence, and which new research continues to reveal is a seemingly endless source of wonder. Like all spiritual traditions, Buddhism conveys a cosmogonic myth. And yet Buddhism rejects the idea of creation. Why?
Most Western scientists think that life and consciousness are a magnificent result of the universe's material evolution, and yet they know neither how nor why matter emerged in such a way as to fulfill the conditions necessary to engender life and consciousness. What they do know is that these conditions are very strict, yet have nevertheless been fulfilled in our universe in an astonishing way. You have a very different point of view on this subject. Would you therefore speak to us about consciousness in its relation to matter and the universe?
-- Why is there no creation possible in Buddhism? It has been said that one cannot find living beings at the beginning of the universe for the essential reason that causes have no beginning. If there were a beginning to the universe, there would also have to be a beginning to consciousness. If we accepted a beginning to consciousness, we would also have to accept that its cause has a beginning, a sudden cause which would have instantly produced consciousness; this would lead to a great many other questions. If consciousness had arisen without cause, or from a permanent cause, that cause would have to exist on a permanent basis, always, or not exist at all, ever. The fact that a phenomenon exists intermittently proves that it depends on causes and conditions. When all the conditions are met, the phenomenon is produced. When those conditions are absent or incomplete, the phenomenon does not appear. As causes have no beginning and stretch back to infinity, the same thing must apply for living beings. Creation is therefore not possible.
Let us now consider a particular phenomenon, a glacier for example: it does indeed have a beginning. How was it created? The outside world appears as a result of the acts of sentient beings who use this world. These acts, or karmas, in turn originate in the intentions and motivations of those beings who have not yet taken control of their minds.
The "creator of the world," basically, is the mind. In the Sutras, the mind is described as an agent. It is said that consciousness has no beginning, but we must distinguish here between gross consciousness and subtle consciousness. Many gross consciousnesses appear as dependents of the physical aggregates, of the body. This is evident when you consider the different neutrons and the functioning of the brain, but just because physical conditions are met does not mean that this is enough to produce a perception. In order for a perception which will have the faculty to reflect and know an object to arise, it must have a consubstantial cause. The fundamental consubstantial cause, of the same substance as its result, will in this case be the subtle consciousness. It is this same consciousness or subtle mind which penetrates the parental cells at the moment of conception. The s de mind can have no beginning. If it had one, the mind would h to be born of something that is not the mind. According to the Kalachakra Tantra, one would have to return to the particles of spate to find the fundamental consubstantial causes of the external physical world as well as of the bodies of sentient beings.
Buddhist cosmology establishes the cycle of a universe in the following way: first there is a period of formation, then a period where the universe endures, then another during which it is destroyed, followed by a period of void before the formation of a new universe. During this period, the particles of space subsist, and from these particles the new universe will be formed. It is in these particles of space that we find the fundamental consubstantial cause of the entire physical world. If we wish to describe the formation of the universe and die physical bodies of beings, all we need do is analyze and comprehend the way in which the natural potential of different chemical and other elements constituting that universe was able to take shape from these space particles. It is on the basis of the specific potential of those particles that the structure of this universe and of the bodies of the beings present therein have come about. But from the moment the elements making up the world begin to set off different experiences of suffering and happiness among sentient beings, we must introduce the notion of karma- that is, positive and negative acts committed and accumulated in the past. It is difficult to determine where the natural expression of the potential of physical elements ends and the effect of karma- in other words, the result of our past acts -begins. If you wonder what the relation might be between karma and this external environment formed by natural laws, it is time to explain what karma is.
Karma means, first of all, action. We distinguish one type of karma which is of a mental nature, a mental factor of volition or intention. There also exist physical and oral karmas. To understand the connection between these physical, oral, or mental karmas and the material world, we must refer to the tantric texts. The Kalachakra Tantra in particular explains that in our bodies there are to be found, at gross, subtle, and extremely subtle levels, the five elements which make up the substance of the external world. It is therefore in this context, I believe, that we must envision the connection between our physical, oral, and mental karmas, and the external elements.
-- I have yet another doctor's question for you. In France, and in the medical field in particular, we often hear of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Many current medical techniques such as reanimation, surgery transplants, and intensive chemotherapy in cancer treatment, contribute to the notion that a patient's death is a failure on the part of medicine. In France, for example, 70 percent of deaths occur in hospitals, where the last of a Patient's life are often spent in intensive care. For this reason, not often speak to the patient about his or her imminent death; on the contrary, everything is done so as to sustain the patient's hope and will to live. It would seem, moreover, that it is important to keep hope alive, but in a number of cultures, including, if I have understood it correctly, the Buddhist tradition, preparationfor death is part of a human being's rights and responsibilities.
In your opinion, is death a biological and medical event, or is it simply personal and spiritual? Is it tight that we do everything in our power to save or at last prolong for a few years the life of a human being? Or conversely, is it unfair to impose the risk that death will occur in a highly technical medical context, where the patient is cut off from family and friends? According to a report of the World Health Organization, life is not absolutely good, nor is death absolutely bad. What is your position on this? And finally, do the efforts of Western medicine to thwart death seem questionable to you? If, on the contrary death belongs to the dying and their close friends and family at what point should the physician withdraw? Under what conditions must we inform the patient that death can no longer be avoided?
-- First of all, we should realize that death is truly part of life and that it is neither good nor bad in itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, to which you just referred, has this to say: "What we call death is merely a concept." In other words, death represents the end of the gross consciousness and its support, the gross body. This happens at the gross level of the mind. But neither death nor birth exist at the subtle level of consciousness that we call "dear light." Of course, generally speaking, death is something we dread. However, death, which we want nothing to do with, is unavoidable. This is why it is important that during our lifetime we become familiar with the idea of death, so that it will not be a real shock to us at the moment it comes. We do not meditate regularly on death in order to die more quickly; on the contrary, like everyone, we wish to live a long time. However, since death is inevitable, we believe that if we began to prepare for it at an earlier point in time, on the day of our death it will be easier to accept it.
I think that there is no general rule with regard to the intensive care often given to patients in order to prolong their lives. It is a complex problem, and in examining it we must take numerous elements into account, according to each set of circumstances, each particular case. For example, if we prolong the life of a person who is critically ill but whose mind remains very lucid, we are giving him or her the Opportunity to continue to think in the way only a human being can think. We must also consider whether the person will benefit from prolonged life or whether, on the contrary he will experience great physical and moral suffering, physical pain, or extreme fear. If the person is in a deep coma, that is yet another problem. The wishes of the patient's family must also be taken into account, as well as the immense financial problems that prolonged care can create. I think the most important thing is to try and do our best to ensure that the dying person may depart quietly, with serenity and inner peace. There is also a distinction to be made between those dying people who practice a religion and those who do not. Whatever the case, whether one is religious or not, I believe it is better to die in peace.

Special thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Sacksree for retyping this article.