Robert B. Livingston

Robert B. Livingston

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SNOW LION NEWSLETTER ARCHIVE

Mind and Life: Buddhism and Science

The following article is from the Spring, 1988 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Mind and Life Conference:

Dialogues between

Buddhism and the Cognitive Sciences 

DHARAMSALA 1987

By Newcomb Greenleaf

 

In late October, 1987, five Western scientists met for a week with His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet. This gathering was inspired by a shared interest in establishing a dialogue between Buddhist thought and cognitive science which can illuminate these rich and distinct modes of exploring mind and life.

The discussions took place in the meeting room of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. They were styled not as a conference or a debate, but in an atmosphere of a living room conversation. Some sessions are structured as presentations on specific topics, with questions and answers aimed at clarification. Other sessions are designed as free flowing discussions with designated themes.

Discussion topics and experts included:

 

Mind & Life Conference: Buddhism, Cognitive Sciences,

Left to right: Jeremy Hayward, Eleanor Rosch, Alan Wallace, Francisco Varela, H.H. the Dalai Lama, Thubten Jinpa, Newcomb Greenleaf, and Robert Livingston

Background:

Mind & Life Conference: Buddhism and Science

Francisco Varela and H.H. the Dalai Lama

The idea of such a conference was born more than three years ago. It was brought to fruition by a committee chaired by Adam Engle of the Vajrapani Institute, Boulder Creek, California, under the scientific coordination of Dr. Francisco Varela of the Ecole Poly-technique in Paris. Michael Sautman of Berkeley, California was the third member of the committee. Earlier plans were more modest, but His Holiness had insisted that the meeting last for a full week and that it take place in Dharamsala, where he would be able to devote himself to it intensively.

Life and Mind Conference, Dharmasala, Francisco Varela and H.H. the Dalai Lama

Francisco Varela and H.H. the Dalai Lama

The goal of a 1 living room conversation was very closely realized. There were virtually no spectators, except for the organizing committee and the film crew. The six participants sat around a low table, with His Holiness and a scientific presentor at the head, flanked by two translators, a Tibetan and an American, who played a vital role in the proceedings.

Translators:

The Venerable Thubten Jinpa is a young monk and scholar of Buddhist epistomology and logic at Shartse College of Ganden University. He is one of the principal interpreters for His Holiness.

The other translator, B. Alan Wallace, has been a student of His Holiness since 1970 and was for many years a monk. Recently he returned to Western academia at Amherst College, where he studied the philosophical foundations of modern physics in light of Buddhist philosophy. He is currently the spiritual director of the Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington.

While His Holiness has a good command of English, a variety of technical terms from Buddhism and science required particular care in translation, and the expertise of the translators proved invaluable. At times they engaged in extended discourse in Tibetan with His Holiness and the two scholars who attended him, Geshe Yeshi Thapkay of the Institute of Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, and Geshe Palden Dakpa of Tibet House, Delhi.

Program of official sessions:

Mornings were devoted to presentations by the cognitive scientists. They were distinguished by the extremely close attention paid by His Holiness and by the acuity of his scientific intuition. Time and again he would anticipate the flow of logic or experiment.

The afternoon discussions ranged over many topics, but a common thread was an ongoing presentation by His Holiness of Buddhism as validated knowledge, hence as a form of science.


Two small episodes which made big impressions...

Rather than attempt to survey the vast array of ideas which were presented, I shall present two small episodes which made big impressions. The first concerns computers and reincarnation, and the second deals with the identity of a person who has received a heart or brain transplant.

Computers and reincarnation:

During my presentation on artificial intelligence, I recounted the belief of many scientists that, as computers become bigger, faster, and more complex, they will also get smarter, so that eventually they will be regarded as sentient beings. I then asked His Holiness if he thought it possible that this might occur through beings choosing to reincarnate within suitable computers.


We were presented with a vision of the relationship between evolution and reincarnation.

His Holiness discussed this question at some length with Geshe Thapkay and Geshe Dakpa. He finally reported to us that, while many might reject the suggestion as absurd, he did not. Reincarnation can take place whenever the material basis is suitable. We cannot reject the possibility that at some point a computer might be a suitable basis. His Holiness then turned to me and said,

"Should this happen, it will probably involve people such as you, who are very close to their machines."

The importance of this remark was quite vast. We were presented with a vision of the relationship between evolution and reincarnation. Evolution might proceed mechanically until a suitable material basis for reincarnation is produced, at which point its beings would be enlivened by sentience and the course of evolution profoundly effected.

How is the identity of a person who has received a heart or brain transplant affected?

The discussion of transplants occurred late one afternoon when Dr. Livingston asked His Holiness about the identity of someone who has had a transplant. The first question involved actual operations.

Suppose that Alice dies and her heart, in good condition, is transplanted to Bob, who is healthy except for his heart. This combination of Alice's heart with the rest of Bob, is it Alice or Bob? His Holiness replied, to everyone's satisfaction, that it is Bob.

Then Dr. Livingston posed the same question with respect to a hypothetical operation, which might be possible someday, in which Alice's brain is transplanted into Bob. This creature, Alice's brain in Bob's body, is it Bob or Alice?

His Holiness went on to explain that Buddhism sees the identity of the individual as centered within the breast, near to but not in the heart. Bob might have some difficulty adjusting to Alice's brain, but would still be Bob.


we were shown other ways that things might be seen, and provoked to think of an experiment which could confirm or deny.

As happened so often during the meetings, we were shown other ways that things might be seen, and provoked to think of an experiment which could confirm or deny. At the conclusion of the meetings, both the Dalai Lama and the scientific participants expressed the hope that further dialogues should take place, both for the benefit of the Tibetan people and of the West.

Personal Reflection on the Journey to Dharamsala:

Let me give a more personal account of our journey and stay in Dharamsala.

As the day of departure approached, the news was dominated by reports from Tibet of the protests against the Chinese occupation. I doubted that His Holiness would be able to take a week for such relatively esoteric matters. These fears proved unfounded, the meetings went on as scheduled, and His Holiness participated intensely in all sessions, five hours a day.

It is not easy to get to Dharamsala, which is located in the foothills of the northern Himalayas. After the flight to Delhi, arriving in the wee hours, there is an overnight train ride to Pathankot and then a terrifying, breakneck, three hour taxi ride up into the hills. We were shepherded throughout the trip by Adam Engle, and in Delhi by the agency Middle Path Travel, who formerly arranged only the passages of the Dalai Lama.

What a relief to arrive at Kashmir Cottage, a guest house run by Tenzin Choegyal, the gracious younger brother of the Dalai Lama, and to experience the warmth of Tibetan hospitality. We felt at home from the start, even as we overfilled the accommodations so that the dining room was turned into a bedroom and dining was moved to the patio. Fortunately the weather was perfect, with the sun breaking the night chill just in time for breakfast.

Kashmir Cottage is perched on the side of a very steep hill, with the view from the patio over the center of Dharamsala and across the plains. There we took all our meals, which were delicious and plentiful, and there we tended to linger over tea. The patio became the locus for an extension of the dialogue, between Buddhism and science and for a somewhat separate dialogue between American Kagyupas and American Gelugpas.


The patio became the locus for an extension of the dialogue, between Buddhism and science and for a somewhat separate dialogue between American Kagyupas and American Gelugpas.

Four of the participants were students of the Vidyadhara, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. Alan Wallace and Adam Engle were the resident Gelugpas.

Frequently they were joined by Michael Sautman and by John Avedon, author of In Exile from the Land of the Snows, who is currently writing a book about a Nobel Prize neurophysiologist. Several times Thubten Jinpa had lunch with us and then conversation turned to logic and to Oxford, where he plans to study.

The compound of His Holiness was a short but very steep climb above the cottage. Sometimes we would walk down, but we always went up in jeeps that were sent for us. The roads were steep, winding and narrow, often skirting the edge of a large drop off, but the drivers, most of whom were monks, were, unlike our taxi drivers, cautious and skillful.

The compound is the seat of the Tibetan Government in exile and is adjacent to a monastery with a large temple under construction. It commands a magnificent view of the snowy peaks above, themselves mere foothills by Himalayan standards.

Beyond the compound lies the village of MacLeod Ganj, once the summer residence of the British Governor General, and now a tiny Tibetan enclave.

While very poor, the village is fall of zest and cheer. Within it, monks and lay people often carried malas and did their practice as they walked about. The sight of this integration of spiritual and secular was very moving. I began to yearn for a more extended visit to a Tibetan community.

For more information:

The event will be videotaped in full; copies of the tapes will be made available to the Tibetan Government for use in their schools and monasteries, and to the Western public for use in furthering understanding. Edited versions will be prepared for more abbreviated viewing, for transcription into books or articles and perhaps for broadcast.

For more information:

H.H. the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is considered the foremost Buddhist leader of our time. The exiled spiritual head of the Tibetan people, he is a Nobel Peace Laureate, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, and a remarkable teacher and scholar who has authored over one hundred books.

Francisco J. Varela, PhD, was Fondation de France Professor of Cognitive Science and Epistemology at the École Polytechnique and the Institute of Neuroscience of Paris. He is also the author of Principles of Biological Autonomy.

Jeremy Hayward

Jeremy Hayward is the international education director of Shambhala Training. He is the author of Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science, and Awareness in an Enchanted World and Shifting Worlds, Changing Minds: Where the Sciences and Buddhism Meet. He teaches warriorship retreats around the world.

B. Alan Wallace

B. Alan Wallace has authored, translated, edited, and contributed to more than forty books on Tibetan Buddhism, science, and culture. With fourteen years as a Buddhist monk, he earned a BA in physics and the philosophy of science and then a PhD in religious studies. After teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies to explore the integration of scientific approaches and contemplative methods.

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Mind and Life Conference Report

The following article is from the Spring, 1988 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

 

A Report On Mind and Life Conference (1987)

By Adam Engle 

Day 1: Dr. Jeremy Hayward

Jeremy Hayward, Shambhala Training, Tibetan Buddhism

Jeremy Hayward, international education director of Shambhala Training.

The first day of the dialogues were opened by Dr. Jeremy Hayward, who introduced the subject of how western science validates and proves itself. He gave an historical perspective of the beginnings of western science and the culture within which it was developed.

He spoke about the scientific method and reductionism and scientific empiricism. This provided a framework for the Lamas to understand the way western science thought about itself.

During the afternoon session that day, His Holiness spoke about how Tibetan Buddhist cosmology is investigated and validated. Using the tools of the mind and introspection, Buddhist scholars and yogis have developed an equally intricate understanding of reality.


the scientists took off their purely scientific hats and engaged in discussions from the standpoint of their own personal sensibilities.

Day 2: Francisco Varela

Day two began by Francisco Varela making a presentation of how the Western neuroscientists view the operation of the brain with focus on the process of vision.

Dr. Varela drew a distinction between plant and animal life based on the greater ability of animals to move. He focused attention on the progression from single cell animals to complex multi-cell animals. Using a series of slides, Dr. Varela described the way the neurons of these organisms of varying degrees of complexity organize themselves to form a brain.

He completed his presentation with descriptions of experiments relating to the operation of the eye and visual cortex to create vision.

Dr. Varela added this observation:

Much water will flow under the bridges before Buddhadharma becomes an integral part of Western cultures, in an as yet uncertain future. Of one of these changes we can be certain: a mature dialog with science, so that both partners in this dance are modified. When Buddhism arrived in Japan, it found a culture enamored with warriorship, just as much as our culture holds science at its core.

Over a few hundred years, a unique breed of Zen was born for benefit and delight of generations to come. What form will the creative embrace of science and Buddhism take? For the time being we have only a few fragmentary bridges worthy the attention.

 

It must be noted that during the morning sessions, all the scientists were extremely careful to present their fields of expertise from the standpoint of what is generally accepted by the mainstream thinkers in their field.

During the afternoon sessions, however, the scientists took off their purely scientific hats and engaged in discussions from the standpoint of their own personal sensibilities. This provided an environment whereby the current thinking of modern science could be clearly identified and more probing discussions of the relationship between western science and Buddhist contemplative science could be studied.


An introduction for most interesting discussions on Eastern and Western views on psychological theories and practice...

Day 3: Dr. Eleanor Rosch

Professor Eleanor Rosch cognitive psychology, University of California, Berkeley

Professor Eleanor Rosch

The next day saw Dr. Eleanor Rosch introduce the subject of cognitive psychology by giving a brief history of modern psychology as it wound its way through various theories to the present day. This provided a format for most interesting discussions on Eastern and Western views on psychological theories and practice.


What is artificial intelligence? The study of AI has caused scientists to rethink the whole notion of what intelligence really is.

Day 4: Professor Newcomb Greenleaf

Professor Newcomb Greenleaf introduced day four with a presentation on computer science with emphasis on artificial intelligence: how humans are trying to build and program machines that think.

Among other things, he noted that the study of artificial intelligence has caused scientists to rethink the whole notion of what intelligence really is. In decades past, it was thought that development and completion of complex mathematical models presented some of the highest forms of intelligence known.

Although computers can be easily programmed to perform such functions, it has remained very difficult to teach them how to see, to think or to tie a shoelace. Therefore, scientists are now considering that very simple tasks actually require a high degree of intelligence.

Dr. Greenleaf's presentation touched on various forms of logical systems which greatly interested His Holiness and the Geshes.


 How humans are trying to build and program machines that think?

Day 5: Dr. Robert Livingston 

Dr. Robert Livingston began day number five by showing a 20 minute film which he produced in the brain science laboratory at the University of California at San Diego. Dr. Livingston's current field of research involves creating a computerized mathematical model of the brain and, in doing such, he has dissected and photographed hundreds of brains to chart their neurological pathways.

He noted that while all brains are roughly similar, each has its distinctive patterns, in much the same way no two snowflakes are identical. Dr. Livingston described the development of the brain and nervous system from an embryo to a mature neurological system.

Day 6: Dr. Luigi Luisi

Dr. Luigi Luisi from Zurich began day six with a short introductory presentation on molecular biology and biochemistry, demonstrating the way molecules arranged themselves into patterns and that these patterns to a large extent define life.

Dr. Varela then gave a presentation on the Western history of evolutionary thought.

Day 7: Gratitude

Day number seven was marked with deep felt expressions of thanks and appreciation by all participants in the conference, the interpreters, the organizers, and invited guests, together with presentations of offerings and gifts.

The translation was handled marvelously by very effective interplay between Alan Wallace and Thubten Jinpa. His Holiness would turn to one or the other of them depending on the nature of the inquiry and with each one checking the other's understanding and interpretation, and with His Holiness checking them both, everyone felt the interpretation's accuracy was virtually perfect.

The conference was recorded in full on both video and audio cassette. The cassettes have been transcribed and the raw transcription runs 440 pages. The coordinating committee is presently deciding the most effective way to make the fruits of this conference available to the public. In addition, follow-up meetings and discussions are planned.

For further information or inquiries, go to Mind and Life Institute's website.

For more information:

H.H. the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is considered the foremost Buddhist leader of our time. The exiled spiritual head of the Tibetan people, he is a Nobel Peace Laureate, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, and a remarkable teacher and scholar who has authored over one hundred books.

Jeremy Hayward

Jeremy Hayward is the international education director of Shambhala Training. He is the author of Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science, and Awareness in an Enchanted World and Shifting Worlds, Changing Minds: Where the Sciences and Buddhism Meet. He teaches warriorship retreats around the world.

Francisco J. Varela, PhD, was Fondation de France Professor of Cognitive Science and Epistemology at the École Polytechnique and the Institute of Neuroscience of Paris. He is also the author of Principles of Biological Autonomy.

B. Alan Wallace

B. Alan Wallace has authored, translated, edited, and contributed to more than forty books on Tibetan Buddhism, science, and culture. With fourteen years as a Buddhist monk, he earned a BA in physics and the philosophy of science and then a PhD in religious studies. After teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies to explore the integration of scientific approaches and contemplative methods.

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