Dialogue between Russian and Buddhist Scholars - Understanding the World

His Holiness the Dalai Lama addressing the Dialogue Between Russian and Buddhist Scholars in Dharamsala, HP, India on May 3, 2018. Photo: TPI/Yeshe Choesang

Scientific Studies
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Dharamshala, India — The second Dialogue between Russian and Buddhist Scholars - "Understanding the World", was attended by about 150 observers including 75 Russians, 18 Tibetan Buddhist monks who have experience of studying science, and over 100 guests and students from various Tibetan institutions and schools based in Dharamshala, India.

The two-day (May 3-4, 2018) event was organized by the Center of Tibetan Culture and Information (Moscow), Save Tibet Foundation (Moscow), and the Dalai Lama Trust, with the support of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the Lomonosov Moscow State University and the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Science.

Telo Rinpoche, Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Office of Tibet in Moscow, briefly introduced this second Dialogue between Russian and Buddhist Scholars in Dharamsala. He welcomed the Russian scientists, as well as people viewing the webcast online, noting that proceedings were being made available in English, Russian, Chinese and Tibetan.

Moderator Prof Konstantin Anokhin thanked His Holiness for taking part in the meeting. He informed him that all the participants had read and been impressed by his book ‘Universe in a Single Atom’ and they intended to found this dialogue on ideas taken from it. He asked if His Holiness had any remarks to open with.

“Brothers and sisters, that’s what I believe we 7 billion human beings are,” His Holiness began. “A lot of the problems we face today are of our own making. And yet scientists say that our basic human nature is essentially compassionate. We create problems because we are under the sway of emotions and because we view other people in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Out of short-sightedness we forget that we are all part of humanity, which leads to our doing others harm. We consider that the destruction of our foes is our victory, and in the past that may have been true. But, today, we are so interdependent that when others are harmed, we’re harmed as well, besides which we have to deal with problems like climate change that affect us all.

“What’s more, at this very moment, people are being killed elsewhere in places like Syria and Yemen, while others are dying of starvation. And worst of all there are people killing each other in the name of religion. We contradict our compassionate nature out of a short-sighted failure to recognise the oneness of 7 billion human beings.

“As social animals we depend on our community so the time has come to educate people about our all being the same in being human. Our future depends on each other. Being too self-centred is to be unrealistic. Narrow minded self-interest is uneducated thinking.

“For thousands of years religious traditions have conveyed a message of love for all human beings, but with limited effect. Now, modern education is oriented towards materialistic goals instead. And yet it is our common experience to have been born and cared for by our mothers, consequently young children reveal a fresh, compassionate nature.

“Scientists warn that constant fear and anger are bad for our health, while being compassionate and warm-hearted contributes to our physical and mental well-being. Therefore, just as we observe physical hygiene to stay well, we need to cultivate a kind of emotional hygiene too.”

His Holiness mentioned that he has been engaged in dialogue with scientists focused on cosmology, neurobiology, physics and psychology for more than 30 years. He noted that these are fields modern science and Buddhist science have in common. For example, there is a general agreement about the arising, abiding and destruction of galaxies and the possibility of there having been more than one ‘big bang’ in the past.

As far as physics is concerned, His Holiness reported that nuclear physicist Raja Ramana had told him that quantum physics was new to science, but corresponding concepts can be found in the writings of the Buddhist master Nagarjuna. In terms of psychology, there is a need for more education about how to tackle our emotions. His Holiness remarked that we need to learn how destructive anger and a general lack of concern for others can be. Weapons and the use of force solve no problems, he added, confirming that violence just leads to counter violence, and so it goes on.

He advised that a peaceful mind is good for our health and that our goal should be to avoid violence and make this a century of dialogue. He observed that while not everyone accepts religion any more, scientific findings have a more universal appeal. Therefore, one of the purposes of meetings like this is to discuss how to educate people from a secular point of view of the need to cultivate warm-heartedness.

“In this context,” His Holiness said, “Russia has a particular role between the cultures of East and West. When I was young, there were Russian scholars, Buryats, Kalmyks and Tuvans, in our monasteries, so we already have a connection. Also, during the time of the 13th Dalai Lama, there was some contact with the Tsar. Accordingly, I’m very happy to have this opportunity to meet and hold discussions with you scholars from Russia.”

Neurobiologist Prof Pavel Balaban opened the conversation, telling His Holiness that he studies the brain, especially the function of the emotions. He remarked that while rats can be shown to have pleasure centres in their brains that can be stimulated revealing an emotional response, he is also interested to see if apparently uncommunicative snails also have emotions.

His Holiness was prompted to repeat a question he often puts to scientists. He explained how sometimes, when he is confident there is no malaria present, he allows a mosquito to drink his blood. However, once it is full it flies off with no sign of appreciation. So, his question is how big does a brain have to be before it’s capable of showing appreciation? Balaban reported that his investigation of rats showed that they are like other species among which 30-40% reveal a natural sense of compassion. His Holiness responded that mammals do seem to respond this way, but it would be interesting to observe reptiles like turtles that hatch from eggs with no direct relationship to a mother and no immediate need for compassion to survive.

His Holiness recommended that as human beings we need to assess whether anger has any value---noting that it destroys our peace of mind. Compassion, on the other hand, brings optimism and hope. He remarked that some religious traditions rely on fear to bring about better behaviour. He rejects this because it tends instead to lead to pessimism and discouragement.

His Holiness introduced two questions related to the mind. Regarding the first he asked if a perfect sperm meets a perfect ovum in a perfect womb, will life begin? And if not, what is the third factor? Secondly, he mentioned a phenomenon observed among some accomplished meditators when they die. Although clinical death has taken place, the body remains fresh for some days because, it is said, the subtlest consciousness still remains. So far, scientists have no answer as to what’s going on.

Until late in the 20th century scientists took interest in the brain, but not the mind, he said. However, more recently they have acknowledged that neuroplasticity can be observed as a result of mental training. Consequently the relationship between the brain and the mind is beginning to be investigated. Buddhist science describes different levels of mind, ordinary sensory consciousness, awareness in the dream state that is subtler, in deep sleep that is subtler still and the consciousness that manifests at the time of death that is subtlest of all. His Holiness indicated that this mind has neither beginning nor end.

Prof Svyatoslav Medvedev told His Holiness that he has examined the nature of the relation between mind and brain in connection with his research into how the brain maintains attention. He remarked that there are things like the laws of thermodynamics that can be demonstrated mathematically but are not easily proved by experiment. He favours taking a more logical approach to some questions. He noted that Pavlov had referred to bright spots on the brain, but it is only now, a century later, that it has been possible to demonstrate what he was talking about.

“We are now moving from pure theory to actual practice,” Medvedev asserted. “We are trying to understand the brain. It may be that consciousness exists separately and that the brain is a kind of interface.”

Summarizing the three instances of the Buddha’s teachings known as the turnings of the wheel of dharma, His Holiness explained that in the first he taught the four noble truths. In the second he elaborated on the third of those truths, the cessation of suffering in relation to overcoming ignorance. Ignorance is defeated by knowledge—in this case an understanding of the reality that things are empty of intrinsic existence. That does not imply nothingness but that things only exist by way of designation. His Holiness clarified that for those who found this explanation too difficult to deal with, the Buddha gave a third group of teachings that took a different approach in discussing consciousness and how the subtlest consciousness can be thought of as Buddha nature.

He further touched on three objects of knowledge—things that are obvious to us, things that are slightly obscure but can be understood through reason and inference, and things that are obscure and can only be understood by relying on others’ testimony. In addition he mentioned the four principles of reason—nature, dependence, function and evidence.

Following a short break for tea, Prof Nikolai Yankovsky, a leading Russian expert on genetics explained that genes can affect whether you are inclined to meditate or benefit from psychological therapy. Similarly, genes can affect susceptibility to anger. His Holiness wondered whether the role of genes may be comparable to the role of subtle energy that goes together with the mind described in the tantras.

Yankovsky said that editing gene code is expected to contribute to remedies for certain kinds of illness. He also remarked that genetic manipulation could be used in the form of a weapon, which raises the question of morality. He pointed out that when scientists make a new discovery morality is not necessarily an issue, but once they try to use it in practice, the question of ethics arises. His Holiness responded that since all sentient beings seek happiness, what brings about benefit and happiness is regarded as good, whereas what causes suffering is regarded as bad.

He also made clear that since anger is part of the mind, its antidote has to be applied within the mind. He observed that scientists have confirmed to him that rocks and the brain consist of the same kind of particles at a subtle level. At a certain point the arrangement of matter in the brain is such that it becomes a basis for consciousness. Then life, a being with feelings of pleasure and pain occurs. He encouraged the scientists to take this up with younger scholars whose brains are fresher in the afternoon.

Prof Evgeny Rogaev described his research into the brain, looking at what genes give rise to schizophrenia. He stated that genetic research confirms His Holiness’s assertion that we are all brothers and sisters and that we do not have to go very far back to find that we all have ancestors in common. He spoke of work that is being done to create models for transforming aggressive into peaceful behaviour involving taming Siberian wild foxes.

Prof Alexander Kaplan told His Holiness of the interest his students in Moscow are taking in this meeting. He mentioned his attempts to make direct contact with the brain in work with stroke victims who have lost the ability to speak or move. He described how their choice of letters displayed on a screen can be gleaned from responses in their brains that enable communication to take place. He sees this as having potential for understanding the workings of emotions in otherwise healthy people.

His Holiness commented that the innermost subtle consciousness that is described as Buddha-nature has immense potential and people are trying to explore it, but it will take a great deal of time.

He concluded the session by thanking everyone for coming and assuring them he would see them again tomorrow. He left the temple and returned to his residence. Participants in and observers of the meeting then enjoyed lunch served in the temple yard and gathered for another session of discussions in the afternoon.