11 NOV 2005


NPR News
Health & Science

by Jon Hamilton

Morning Edition, November 11, 2005 · The Dalai Lama
will present a lecture to the world's largest group of
brain scientists this weekend. He's scheduled to speak
at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience,
which begins Saturday in Washington, D.C.

Some researchers are profoundly unhappy about the
religious leader's scheduled speech. Hundreds have
signed a petition protesting it.

But the Dalai Lama and brain scientists have more in
common than you might expect.

Richard Davidson, Ph.D., of the University of
Wisconsin, is one of several scientists who will
present research on meditation at the neuroscience
meeting. He says there's nothing flaky about the idea
of studying whether a mental activity like meditation
alters the brain's circuitry.

"Most Americans now realize that if they go to the gym
or exercise several times a week, they will observe
systematic changes occurring in their body," Davidson
says. Meditations, he explains, is "exercising the
mind in a particular way."

Some small studies have suggested that meditating on
compassion can affect parts of the brain associated
with positive thoughts. The Dalai Lama's talk will
discuss meditation as a way to promote well-being and

Davidson says the Dalai Lama has been encouraging
research on meditation for more than a decade.

"He has been very interested in investigating the
brain function of monks who have practiced for many,
many years, to investigate how their brain function
might have been changed by their practice," Davidson

The Dalai Lama spends a lot of time with scientists.

Earlier this week in Washington, he shared the stage
with several prominent brain researchers. They were at
a meeting put together by the Mind & Life Institute,
Georgetown University and John Hopkins University.

One speaker was Wolf Singer, M.D., Ph.D., the director
of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in
Frankfurt, Germany. Singer said meditation is a highly
active mental state. He described studies indicating
that certain brain waves become synchronized when a
person's mind is attentive -- or meditating.

Singer's talk was a bit beyond many members of the
public in audience. But not the Dalai Lama. Through an
interpreter, he asked for more details several times.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a researcher at Harvard who studies
meditation, says it's really not so odd to find the
Dalai Lama deeply involved in neuroscience.

"There are a lot of parallels between Buddhist
philosophy and Western scientific philosophy," she
says. "Definitely there are some exceptions,
reincarnation being one of them.

The Dalai Lama explores the parallels between Buddhism
and science in his latest book, The Universe in a
Single Atom.

In one passage he writes, "My confidence in venturing
into science lies in my basic belief that as in
science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of
reality is pursued by means of critical

So far, scientific studies appear to support Buddhist
claims that the mind can be trained to ward off things
like negative thoughts. But in his book, the Dalai
Lama says Buddhists should embrace scientific evidence
even if it contradicts their beliefs.

"If scientific analysis were conclusively to
demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false,"
he says, "then we must accept the findings of science
and abandon those claims."

But the Dalai Lama also says science has limits.

He rejects so-called scientific materialism -- the
idea that consciousness, for example, is no more than
a series of chemical reactions in our brains. That
wouldn't allow for reincarnation.

Davidson of the University of Wisconsin says at some
point, science and Buddhism must take separate paths.

"There are certainly beliefs in traditional Buddhism
that conflict with basic principles of scientific
understanding," Davidson says. "We can't make sense of
those beliefs in any kind of scientific framework."

That's one reason some brain researchers aren't
comfortable with the Dalai Lama's appearance at the
neuroscience meeting.

But Davidson says many scientists have shown it's
possible to do research on evolution and still believe
in God. He says it also should be possible to study
the science of meditation regardless of your views on