Always and everywhere, humans have faced
two major life passages in which our habitual mind seems to dissolve and enter
a radically different realm. The first passage is sleep, humanity¼s constant
companion, transitory and filled with the dream life that has enchanted cultures
from the beginning of history. The second is death, the grand and gaping enigma,
the final event that organizes so much of individual existence and cultural
ritual. These are ego's shadow zones, where Western science is often ill at
ease, far from its familiar territory of the physical universe or physiological
causality. In contrast, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is fully at home here;
in fact, it has accumulated remarkable knowledge in this area.
This book is an account of a week-long exploration of these two great realms of radical transformation of the human body and mind. The exploration takes the form of a unique exchange between the Dalai Lama, with a few of his colleagues in the Tibetan tradition, and representatives of Western science and humanism. The exchange was the fourth in a series of biennial meetings called Mind and Life Conferences. It was a private, highly structured dialogue, that took place over five consecutive days in October 1992 in Dharamsala, India.
On Monday morning, all the participants gathered in the Dalai Lama's living room to begin our journey. His Holiness the Dalai Lama appeared promptly at nine o'clock, as was his habit. He entered, beamed at everyone, and invited us to sit down. The speakers were grouped in an inner circle of comfortable couches, with observers and advisers in an outer circle. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal: no television cameras, no high podium, no formal speeches. The unique magic of the Mind and Life Conferences was being created once again.
The Dalai Lama opened with some friendly words. "Welcome to all of you! There are many old friends among you, and perhaps you have the feeling that coming to Dharamsala is like coming home. I am very happy to have another Mind and Life Conference. I believe our previous conferences were of great benefit, at least to me and to people interested in these issues."
He then turned to a more global perspective. "Since our last conference there have been many changes on this planet. One of the most important is the disappearance of the Berlin Wall. The threat of a nuclear holocaust is now more or less gone. Although problems remain, the world is now more favorable for genuine, lasting peace. Of course, killing continues here and there, but overall the situation has improved. Everywhere people are talking about democracy and freedom. That also is of great significance. I believe that the desire for happiness is an essential part of human nature. Happiness comes from freedom. On the contrary, dictatorship of any kind is very harmful for the development of the community. In the old days, certain people had some enthusiasm for authoritarian regimes, but nowadays this has changed. The younger generation is devoted to freedom and democracy. We may change the world, at least in terms of social inequalities. The strength of the human spirit again has the upper hand."
His Holiness went on to set the context for our meeting. "Now we have these two fields, science and spirituality, in which we are supposedly involved," and as he said this he laughed wholeheartedly and contagiously. That laughter was to be as present in the days to come as was the probing intelligence of all the participants, and the group was never far from a sense of humor. "It seems that scientific research reaches deeper and deeper. But it also seems that more and more people, at least scientists, are beginning to realize that the spiritual factor is important. I say 'spiritual' without meaning any particular religion or faith, just simple warmhearted compassion, human affection, and gentleness. It is as if such warmhearted people are a bit more humble, a little bit more content. I consider spiritual values primary, and religion secondary. As I see it, the various religions strengthen these basic human qualities. As a practitioner of Buddhism, my practice of compassion and my practice of Buddhism are actually one and the same. But the practice of compassion does not require religious devotion or religious faith; it can be independent from the practice of religion. Therefore, the ultimate source of happiness for human society very much depends on the human spirit, on spiritual values. If we do not combine science and these basic human values, then scientific knowledge may sometimes create troubles, even disaster. I think the achievements of science and technology, for all their awful destructive powers, are immense. But because they bring us fear, suffering, and anxiety, some people consider them to be negative.
"Scientific knowledge can be seen as a faculty of human intelligenceãit can be used either positively or negatively, but in itself it is morally neutral. Whether it becomes beneficial or harmful depends on one's motivation. With proper motivation scientific knowledge becomes constructive. But if the motivation is negative, then the knowledge becomes destructive. These conferences will eventually demonstrate ways for science and spirituality to work together more closely. I think each of us has already made some contribution in this respect, and I'm quite sure this conference will as well. We may contribute something, and if not, at least there will be no harm." This sentence was followed by a good laugh from everyone. His Holiness concluded with a beaming smile, "So that's good. For these reasons, with these feelings, I welcome you all to my home."
It was my turn, as chairman and scientific coordinator, to reply to his welcoming words. By then, it was easy to say that we were all quite moved to be there and to have the opportunity to be part of this singular adventure.
Charting Ego's Shadow Zones
I went on briefly to set the stage for the week's agenda. Basically, we would focus on areas of mind that are essential for human existence, yet difficult for Westerners to understand: sleeping, dreaming, and dying. In keeping with the spirit of these meetings, we wanted to address these topics in the widest possible sense, so that broad surveys of what is happening in the West would be presented by researchers involved in their respective fields. The first three days would be devoted to sleep and dreaming, and the last two days to dying. I will briefly describe the reasons for these thematic choices, and introduce the invited speakers. Detailed biographical sketches of participants can be found at the end of this book. The first day on the topic of sleep and dreams was devoted to neuroscience, which studies the brain's involvement in sleep as a biological process. It was essential to have on hand some basic results of one of neuroscience's most active fields: sleep research. This first morning presentation had been entrusted to a specialist in the field, Michael Chase (University of California at Los Angeles), who had to cancel at the last minute. Fortunately we had a distinguished group of neurobiologists present in Dharamsala: Clifford Saron (University of California at San Francisco), Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin at Madison), Gregory Simpson (Albert Einstein School of Medicine), Robert Livingstone (University of California at San Diego), and myself (Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris). Collectively we prepared a presentation on basic sleep mechanisms, and it was decided that I should present it to His Holiness.
The second day would address dream work in psychoanalysis, which is somewhere between a scientific psychology and a humanist practice. It is a tradition that has left a deep mark on Western views of the structure of mind and the role of dreams. Although some readers might prefer that another psychotherapeutic school had taken its place at the conference, it seemed to me that the Freudian tradition was the most influential and pervasive. The point was not to champion contemporary Freudian schools, but to bring to the discussion a sense of how dream work has become part of Western thinking and culture. Joyce McDougall, a well-known and respected figure in contemporary psychoanalysis in both Europe and in the larger English-speaking world, was chosen as the presenter.
During the third day we would move to a more recent and controversial area within the study of dreams: the phenomenon of lucid dreaming. We chose this topic because on the one hand it has received some scientific attention in the West, and on the other hand it has been a very active field of study in the Buddhist tradition. We hoped that some connections with Tibetan Buddhism would emerge. Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist at the University of Alberta who had been active in this field for some years, would be the presenter.
On the fourth and fifth days we were to cover the issue of dying. We reduced this enormous topic to two main themes. On the fourth day we wanted to cover the biomedical understanding of the process of dying. Although medicine pervades our lives, once a person is considered over the threshold, the entire observational and experimental machine of modern biomedicine grinds to a halt. Little is known about death's intimate, final stages. We called on Jerome ("Pete") Engel to fulfill this difficult task. As a member of a large biomedical facility at the University of California at Los Angeles, and a world-renowned neurologist, he seemed better prepared than other professionals to explore this uncharted ground.
Finally, we would close on the fifth day with our second death-related theme, a view of recent research on how humans have traditionally grappled with death through so-called near-death experiences. These were, again, controversial waters for established science, but they are areas that are clearly evoking a huge interest in the West. We hoped to find links between this research and one of the most original areas of experiential and philosophical importance in the Tibetan tradition, the human encounter with death. As the day's speaker, we chose Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist who had been a pioneer in this field in the sixties and seventies, and had extended her observations to shamanic traditions.
That was, in a nutshell, the agenda of the meeting in regard to its scientific content. However, as in the previous Mind and Life Conferences, we found it essential to include an overview of the philosophical underpinnings of the Western perspective on these topics. This was crucial, though it might at first glance seem surprising. Clarifying the conceptual basis of a discipline or a history of ideas lays out fertile terrain on which to build discussion. The Tibetans, masters in the art of conceptual clarity, were always very receptive to this dimension of our previous discussions. We had asked Charles Taylor from McGill University to fulfill this role now, since he was known for his perceptive studies on the modern self and its historical roots.
By Dalai Lama
Brothers and sisters, I am very happy to be here and to meet people who are taking a keen interest in the Buddhadharma. I can see many familiar faces in the audience and am very glad to have this opportunity to spend some time with you once more.
During the next three days, I will be speaking on Buddhist thought and practice according to the Tibetan tradition. My talks here will follow two main themes. As to the first [Parts 1 and 3], I will be giving a general introduction to the Buddhist path, a broad outline of the theories and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. I usually explain that the Buddhism of Tibet is perhaps the most complete form of Buddhism. It includes all the essential teachings of the various traditions of Buddhism that exist in different parts of the world today. Since many of you have received a number of tantric initiations and teachings, I think an overview of Tibetan Buddhism for the purpose of providing a comprehensive framework of the Buddhist path may prove helpful in deepening your understanding and practice of Dharma.
The second theme [Part 2] concerns the altruistic attitude that characterizes a bodhisattva. In drawing from Santideva's Bodhi-caryavatara (Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life), I will offer some comments on important sections of the text, concentrating mainly on the practices of love, kindness, and compassion. Intimately related to these practices are the issues of how to cultivate tolerance as well as the appropriate attitudes one should adopt towards one's enemy.
During these first three days, instead of being the Dalai Lama or Bhiksu Tenzin Gyatso, I am Professor Tenzin Gyatso. On the fourth day, however, there will be a Green Tara initiation, and on that day I will become Guru Bhiksu Tenzin Gyatso!
As I mentioned earlier, a number of us here already know each other. Since our last meeting, many of us have led very busy lives. Whether we are doing something good and worthwhile with our lives or not, time never waits but keeps flowing. Not only does time flow unhindered, but correspondingly our life too keeps moving onward all the time. If something has gone wrong, we cannot turn back time and try again. In that sense, there is no genuine second chance. Hence, it is crucial for a spiritual practitioner constantly to examine his or her attitudes and actions. If we examine ourselves every day with mindfulness and mental alertness, checking our thoughts, motivations, and their manifestations in external behavior, a possibility for change and self-improvement can open within us. Although I myself cannot claim with confidence to have made any remarkable progress over the years, my desire and determination to change and improve is always firm. From early morning until I go to bed and in all situations of life, I always try to check my motivation and be mindful and present in the moment. Personally, I find this to be very helpful in my own life.
Over the three days we spend together, I shall be discussing various methods that we can employ as tools to examine ourselves, enabling us to embark upon a path of self-discovery and development. Taking your own body and mind as the laboratory, see if you can use these different techniques: that is to say, engage in some thorough-going research on your own mental functioning, and examine the possibility of making some positive changes within yourself. This is how a practicing Buddhist should perceive all the essential elements of the Buddha's teaching. There are also people here who, although not considering themselves practicing Buddhists, have a genuine desire to learn more about Buddhism in general, and the Buddhism of Tibet in particular. This also includes those who, while practicing their own religion, take a keen interest in other spiritual traditions. I am certain that they can find within the Buddhist teachings various common concerns, such as meditation or contemplation on love and compassion, that can be incorporated into their own tradition and practice. Hence, such an ecumenical pursuit has great potential for benefit. Finally, there might be some people here who do not have any particularly strong feeling for spirituality but have come with honest curiosity and openness. These people can just sit and listen to my talks as one listens to a lecture. If, in the course of listening, you find something interesting, you can pay closer attention. Similarly, if there is nothing of much interest and value, you can take the session as a time for rest. However, if you do use it as rest time, please do so discreetly. Especially if you happen to doze off, do not start snoring, for you might disturb your neighbors!