The Mind/Life Conference
Dharamsala, India, 1990
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
I was living in Dharamsala, India, in
the autumn of 1990, when a group of scientists arrived (mostly American,
with one Chilean who lived in France) for the Mind/Life Conference
with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL), which lasted five days,
with sessions both morning and afternoon. I was delighted to be
able to be a spectator to the scientists' presentations to HHDL
and their subsequent discussions. HHDL's
open-mindedness and curiosity about new things was an impressive
example for us all. He asked the scientists so many appropriate
questions that demonstrated his understanding of the process of
scientific research that one scientist said, "You can come
work in my laboratory any time!"
A philosopher started the conference with
a presentation of different ethical systems as found in the West
and the doubts people have about compassion as the basis for ethics. Of course, this jarred me, for compassion
is so admired in Buddhism. But he pointed out that in the West compassion
often means a higher person condescendingly helping a lower one.
Also, many religions which talk about compassion also use their
religion to justify sexism and racism. For this reason too, many
people doubt the effectiveness of compassion. A lively discussion
ensued. But four days later, at the end of the conference, when
HHDL talked on the necessity of compassion and affection to have
satisfaction and happiness both within individuals and within society,
people were so moved that nearly everyone had tears in their eyes.
One scientist presented research about emotional
states and brain activity which prompted a discussion about just
what was meant by emotion. This is especially interesting because
there is no word in Tibetan for the broad category of "emotion"
as we mean it in the West. Are emotions to be cultivated or abandoned?
Do Buddhas have emotions? We concluded that some emotions are beneficial
while others are destructive, and that since Buddhas have love and
compassion, they also have emotions.
I enjoyed the discussions most of all, for many
points came up that aren't usually covered in Buddhist teachings
or in the scientific talks. For example, one person asked, "Do
new emotions come into being as our language and literature evolve
or are we just identifying emotions that have been there all along?
When a language has a word for a particular mental state, does it
encourage the people who speak that language to experience that
state?" What came to my mind was guilt: in Tibetan there's
no word for guilt, nor do they seem to have the same problems with
guilt that we have in the West.
Sharon Salzburg from Insight Meditation
Society, a Theravada group in the USA, brought up something
that I too have noticed while teaching Westerners: we have a hard
time loving and forgiving ourselves. We tend to have low self-esteem
and varying degrees of self-hatred, together with a feeling that
we're unlovable. Thus, Westerners often misinterpret Buddhist teachings
on cherishing others to include, "I'm so bad. I don't deserve
to be happy because I'm so selfish and angry, so I have to sacrifice
myself for others to make up for this."
HHDL was very surprised to hear this, and
when he asked the roomful of scientists and spectators, all of whom
were successful in their own fields, "Who has this low self-esteem?"
we all unabashedly said, "All of us do." Shocked, HHDL
said, "Previously I thought I understood the mind pretty well,
but now I have my doubts."
He questioned us on why we have this feeling, and various reasons
came up: from babies' lack of parental love and physical contact
with their parents to competition in society to the Christian idea
of original sin. HHDL proposed a few meditations to help overcome
low self-esteem: meditating on the fact that all of us have the
Buddha nature and the potential to develop ourselves; contemplating
the fact that we've been the recipient of others' help, love and
kindness, and thus cultivating affection for others. He concluded
by saying, "Yes, it's appropriate in Buddhist practice to cultivate
love for oneself without selfishness."
The following day, the scientists were
equally surprised at something HHDL said. One scientist told of
his work with torture victims and refuges. HHDL commented that very
few Tibetans who were tortured by the Chinese communists have Post-traumatic
Stress -- nightmares, painful flashbacks, disorientation. The scientists
were amazed. How could this be? HHDL suggested some reasons: Perhaps because the Tibetans had firm
refuge in the Three Jewels and understood the law of karma; perhaps
because they knew they weren't being imprisoned because they had
done anything wrong. It was for freedom that they endured this.
Several scientists presented research of the
effects of stress vs. a calm mind on health and the ability to recover
from illness. All evidence pointed to the fact that the more people
felt peaceful inside and connected to others, the better their health.
"You're giving me more ammunition (to show others that detachment,
patience, kindness and compassion are beneficial for self and others),"
The last day, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist
talked of his work at the University of Massachusetts' Medical Center:
he ran a stress reduction clinic. His clients were people who were
being treated for other illness (cancer, heart problems, etc.) and
referred to his clinic by other doctors to help them recover. He
described teaching people mindfulness meditation as generally taught
in the Theravada tradition. He did this with no religious orientation.
They started with being mindful of the breath and later were mindful
of feelings in their bodies, etc.. They also did hatha yoga. The
results were impressive and again gave HHDL "more ammunition."
I thought that this kind of work must make HHDL very happy for it
reached out to many people and benefited them without any religious
doctrine. Throughout the conference
HHDL stressed that what was important was the 5 billion people in
the world, 4 billion of whom don't have any firm religious grounding.
We have to show them the value of ethical conduct and compassion
- two things essential for the survival of our planet - without
bringing in religious beliefs.
The conference gave all of us a lot to think
about. Personally, I thrive on discussions with people who have
different beliefs and perspectives on life than I do. They teach
me many new things and inevitably deepen my conviction in the Buddha's
teachings. Also, it makes me aware that people have so many different
inclinations and interests, and that it'd be good to learn how to
communicate with everyone effectively.