All sentient beings, including ourselves, already possess the primary cause for enlightenment.
- GAMPOPA, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche
If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.
- ALBERT EINSTEIN
When you’re trained as a Buddhist, you don’t think of Buddhism as a religion. You think of it as a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a nonjudgmental way, with the view toward recognizing, “Oh, this is how my mind works. This is what I need to do to experience happiness. This is what I should avoid to avoid unhappiness.”
At its heart, Buddhism is very practical. It’s about doing things that foster serenity, happiness, and confidence, and avoiding things that provoke anxiety, hopelessness, and fear. The essence of Buddhist practice is not so much an effort at changing your thoughts or your behavior so that you can become a better person, but in realizing that no matter what you might think about the circumstances that define your life, you’re already good, whole, and complete. It’s about recognizing the inherent potential of your mind. In other words, Buddhism is not so much concerned with getting well as with recognizing that you are, right here, right now, as whole, as good, as essentially well as you could ever hope to be.
You don’t believe that, do you?
Well, for a long time, neither did I.
I would like to begin by making a confession, which may sound strange coming from someone regarded as a reincarnate lama who is supposed to have done all sorts of wonderful things in previous lifetimes.
From earliest childhood, I was haunted by feelings of fear and anxiety. My heart raced and I often broke out in a sweat whenever I was around people I didn’t know. There wasn’t any reason for the discomfort I experienced. I lived in a beautiful valley, surrounded by a loving family and scores of monks, nuns, and others who were deeply engaged in learning how to awaken inner peace and happiness. Nevertheless, anxiety accompanied me like a shadow.
I was probably about six years old when I first began to experience some relief. Inspired mostly by a child’s curiosity, I began climbing into the hills around the valley where I grew up to explore the caves where generations of Buddhist practitioners had spent their lives in meditation. Sometimes I’d go into a cave and pretend to meditate. Of course, I really had no idea how to meditate. I’d just sit there mentally repeating Om Mani Peme Hung, a mantra, or repetition of special combinations of ancient syllables, familiar to almost every Tibetan, Buddhist or not. Sometimes I’d sit for hours, mentally reciting the mantra without understanding what I was doing. Nevertheless, I started to feel a sense of calm stealing over me.
Yet even after three years of sitting in caves trying to figure out how to meditate, my anxiety increased until it became what would probably be diagnosed in the West as a full-blown panic disorder.
For a while I received some informal instructions from my grandfather, a great meditation master who preferred to keep his accomplishments quiet; but finally I summoned the courage to ask my mother to approach my father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, with my request to study formally with him. My father agreed, and for the next three years he instructed me in various methods of meditation.
I didn’t understand much at first. I tried to rest my mind in the way he taught, but my mind wouldn’t rest. In fact, during those early years of formal training, I actually found myself growing more distracted than before. All sorts of things annoyed me: physical discomfort, background noises, conflicts with other people.
Years later I would come to realize I wasn’t actually getting worse; I was simply becoming more aware of the constant stream of thoughts and sensations I’d never recognized before. Having watched other people go through the same process, I realize now that this is a common experience for people who are just learning how to examine their mind through meditation.
Although I did begin to experience brief moments of calmness, dread and fear continued to haunt me like hungry ghosts - especially since every few months I was sent to Sherab Ling monastery in India (the primary residence of the Twelfth Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the greatest masters of Tibetan Buddhism alive today, and one of my most influential teachers, whose great wisdom and kindness in guiding my own development are debts I can never repay) to study under new teachers among unfamiliar students, and then sent back to Nepal to continue training under my father.
I spent almost three years that way, shuttling back and forth between India and Nepal, receiving formal instruction from my father and from my teachers at Sherab Ling.
One of the most terrible moments came shortly before my twelfth birthday, when I was sent to Sherab Ling for a special purpose, one that I had been dreading for a long time: formal enthronement as the incarnation of the First Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.
Hundreds of people attended the ceremony, and I spent hours accepting their gifts and giving them blessings as if I were somebody really important instead of just a terrified twelve-year-old boy. As the hours passed, I turned so pale that my older brother, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who was standing beside me, thought I was going to faint.
When I look back on this period, and on all the kindness that was shown to me by teachers, I wonder how I ever could have felt as fearful as I did. In hindsight, I can see that the basis of my anxiety lay in the fact that I hadn’t truly recognized the real nature of my mind. I had a basic intellectual understanding, but not the kind of direct experience that would have enabled me to see that whatever terror or discomfort I felt was a product of my own mind, and that the unshakable basis of serenity, confidence, and happiness was closer to me than my own eyes.
At the same time that I began my formal Buddhist training, something wonderful was taking place; though I didn’t realize it at the time, this new turn of events would have a lasting impact on my life and actually accelerate my personal progress. I was gradually being introduced to the ideas and discoveries of modern science - in particular the study of the nature and function of the brain.
A MEETING OF MINDS
We have to go through the process of sitting down and examining the mind and examining our experience to see what is really going on.
- KALU RINPOCHE, The Gem Ornament of Manifest Instructions, edited by Caroline M. Parke and Nancy J. Clarke
I was only a child when I met Francisco Varela, a Chilean biologist who would later become one of the most renowned neuroscientists of the twentieth century. Francisco had come to Nepal to study the Buddhist method of mental examination and training under my father, whose reputation had attracted quite a number of Western students.
When we weren’t studying or practicing, Francisco would often talk to me about modern science, especially his own specialty, the structure and function of the brain. Of course, he was careful to frame his lessons in terms a nine-year-old boy could understand.
As others among my father’s Western students recognized my interest in science, they too began teaching me what they knew of modern theories about biology, psychology, chemistry, and physics. It was a little bit like learning two languages at the same time: Buddhism on the one hand, modern science on the other.
I remember thinking even then that there didn’t seem to be much difference between the two. The words were different, but the meaning seemed pretty much the same. After a while, I also began to see that the ways in which Western and Buddhist scientists approached their subjects were remarkably alike.
Classical Buddhist texts begin by presenting a theoretical or philosophical basis of examination, commonly referred to as the “Ground.” They then move on to various methods of practice, commonly referred to as the “Path,” and finally conclude with an analysis of the results of personal experiments and suggestions for further study, typically described as the “Fruit.”
Western scientific investigation often follows a similar structure, beginning with a theory or hypothesis, an explanation of the methods through which the theory is tested, and an analysis comparing the results of the experiments against the original hypothesis.
What fascinated me most about simultaneously learning about modern science and Buddhist practice was that while the Buddhist approach was able to teach people an introspective or subjective method for realizing their full capacity for happiness, the Western perspective explained in a more objective fashion why and how the teachings worked. By themselves, Buddhism and modern science both provided extraordinary insights into the workings of the human mind. Taken together, they formed a more complete and intelligible whole.
Near the end of that period of traveling between India and Nepal, I learned that a three-year retreat program was about to begin at Sherab Ling monastery. The master of the retreat would be Saljay Rinpoche, one of my principal teachers at Sherab Ling.
Saljay Rinpoche was considered one of the most accomplished masters of Tibetan Buddhism of his day. A gentle man with a low voice, he had an amazing ability to do or say exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. I’m sure some of you have spent time around people who had a similar kind of impact, people able to teach incredibly profound lessons without appearing to be teaching at all. Just the way they are is a lesson that lasts for the rest of your life.
Because Saljay Rinpoche was very old, and this would most likely be the last retreat he might ever lead, I wanted very much to take part in it. I was only thirteen years old, however, an age generally considered too young to tolerate the rigors of three years in retreat. But I begged my father to intervene on my behalf, and in the end, Tai Situ Rinpoche granted me permission to participate.
Before I describe my experiences during those three years, I feel it’s necessary to take some time to speak a little bit about the history of Tibetan Buddhism, which I think may help to explain why I was so eager to enter the retreat.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LINEAGE
Conceptual knowledge is not enough . . . you must have the conviction that comes from personal experience.
- THE NINTH GYALWANG KARMAPA,
Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
The method of exploring and working directly with the mind that we call Buddhism has its source in the teachings of a young Indian nobleman named Siddhartha. Upon witnessing firsthand the terrible misery experienced by people who had not grown up in the same privileged environment he enjoyed, Siddhartha gave up the security and comforts of his home to find a solution to the problem of human suffering. Suffering takes many forms, ranging from the nagging whisper that we would be happier “if only” some small aspect of our lives were different, to the pain of illness and the terror of death.
Siddhartha became an ascetic, wandering across India to study under teachers who professed to have found the solution he was seeking. Unfortunately, none of the answers they provided and none of the practices they taught him seemed entirely complete. At last he decided to abandon outside advice altogether and seek the solution to the problem of suffering in the place he had begun to suspect it originated: within his own mind.
In a place called Bodhgaya, in the northeastern Indian province of Bihar, he sat under the shelter of a tree and sank deeper and deeper into his own mind, determined to find the answers he sought, or die in the attempt.
After many days and nights he finally discovered what he was looking for: a fundamental awareness that was unchanging, indestructible, and infinite in scope. When he emerged from this state of profound meditation, he was no longer Siddhartha. He was the Buddha, a Sanskrit title that means ‘the one who is awake.”
What he had awakened to was the full potential of his own nature, which had previously been limited by what is commonly referred to as dualism - the idea of a distinct and inherently real “self” that is separate from an apparently distinct and inherently real “other.” As we’ll explore later, dualism is not a “character flaw” or defect. It’s a complex survival mechanism deeply rooted in the structure and function of the brain - which, along with other mechanisms, can be changed through experience.
The Buddha recognized this capacity for change through introspective examination. The ways in which mistaken concepts become embedded in the mind and the means for cutting through them were the subjects of the teaching he gave over the next forty years of his life as he traveled throughout India, attracting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students. More than 2,500 years later, modern scientists are beginning to demonstrate through rigorous clinical research that the insights he’d gained through subjective examination are amazingly accurate.
Because the scope of the Buddha’s insight and perception extended far beyond the ordinary ideas people hold about themselves and about the nature of reality, he was compelled - like other great teachers before and after him - to communicate what he’d learned through parables, examples, riddles, and metaphors. He had to use words. And though these words were eventually written down in Sanskrit, Pali, and other languages, they’ve always been handed down orally, generation after generation. Why? Because when we hear the words of the Buddha and of the masters who followed him and achieved the same freedom, we have to think about their meaning and apply that meaning to our own lives. And when we do this, we generate changes in the structure and functions of our brains, many of which will be discussed in the following pages, creating for ourselves the same freedom the Buddha experienced.
In the centuries following the Buddha’s death, his teachings began spreading to many countries, including Tibet, whose geographical isolation from the rest of the world provided a perfect setting for successive generations of students and teachers to devote themselves exclusively to study and practice. The Tibetan masters who achieved enlightenment and became Buddhas in their own lifetimes would then pass on everything they had learned to their most promising students, who, in their turn, passed this wisdom on to their own students. In this way, an unbroken lineage of teaching based upon the instructions of the Buddha, as faithfully recorded by his early followers, and on the detailed commentaries on those original teachings, was established in Tibet.
But the real power of the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, what gives it such purity and strength, is the direct connection between the hearts and minds of the masters who passed the core teachings of the lineage orally, and often secretly, to their students.
Because many areas of Tibet are themselves isolated from each other by mountains, rivers, and valleys, it was often difficult for masters and students to travel around, sharing what they’d learned with one another. As a result, the teaching lineages in different regions evolved in slightly different ways. There are currently four major schools, or lineages, of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug.
Although each of these major schools developed at different times and in different areas of Tibet, they share the same basic principles, practices, and beliefs. The differences between them, similar to the distinctions, I’m told, that exist between various denominations of Protestantism, lie mainly in terminology and often quite subtle approaches to scholarship and practice.
The oldest of these lineages, established between the seventh and early ninth centuries C.E., when Tibet was ruled by kings, is the Nyingma school - nyingma being a Tibetan term that may be roughly translated as “the old ones.” Sadly, the last of the Tibetan kings, Langdarma - for political and personal reasons - initiated a violent repression of Buddhism. Although Langdarma ruled for only four years before he was assassinated in 842 C.E., for nearly 150 years after his death the early lineage of Buddhist teachings remained a kind of “underground” movement, as Tibet underwent massive political changes, eventually reforming itself into a series of separate but loosely federated feudal kingdoms.
These political changes provided an opportunity for Buddhism to slowly and quietly reassert its influence, as Indian teachers traveled to Tibet and interested students made the arduous trek across the Himalayas to study directly under Indian Buddhist masters.
Among the first schools to take root in Tibet during this period was the Kagyu order, which takes its name from the Tibetan terms ka, roughly translated into English as “speech,” or “instruction,” and gyu, a Tibetan term essentially meaning “lineage.” The basis of the Kagyu school lies in the tradition of passing instructions orally from master to student, preserving in this way an almost unparalleled purity of transmission.
The Kagyu tradition originated in India during the tenth century C.E., when an extraordinary man named Tilopa awoke to his full potential. Over several generations the insights Tilopa had achieved, and the practices through which he achieved them, were passed from master to student, eventually reaching Gampopa, a brilliant Tibetan who’d given up his practice as a doctor to pursue the teachings of the Buddha.
Gampopa transmitted everything he’d learned to four of his most promising students, who established their own schools in different areas of Tibet.
One of these students, Dusum Khyenpa (a Tibetan name that may be translated as “the seer of the three times” - the past, the present, and the future), founded what is today known as the Karma Kagyu lineage, which derives its name from the Sanskrit word karma, which may be roughly translated as “action” or “activity.”
In the Karma Kagyu tradition, the entire set of teachings, representing more than a hundred volumes’ worth of philosophical and practical instruction, is transmitted orally by the master of the lineage, known as the Karmapa, to a handful of students - several of whom incarnate through succeeding generations specifically in order to transmit the entirety of the teachings to the next incarnation of the Karmapa - in order to preserve and protect these incalculable lessons in the pure form in which they were delivered more than a thousand years ago.
There’s no equivalent in Western culture for this kind of direct and continuous transmission. The closest we can come to imagining how it might work is to think of someone like Albert Einstein approaching his most able students and saying:
“Excuse me, but I’m now going to dump everything I’ve ever learned into your brain. You keep it for a while, and when I come back in another body twenty or thirty years from now, your job is to dump everything I’ve taught you back into the brain of some youngster you’ll only be able to recognize as me through the insights I’m passing on to you. Oh, and by the way, just in case anything goes awry, you’ll need to pass everything I’m now going to teach you to a few other students whose qualities you’ll be able to recognize nothing gets lost.”
Before he passed away in 1981, the Sixteenth Karmapa transmitted this precious body of teachings to several of his main students, known as his “Heart Sons,” and charged them with transmitting it to the next incarnation of the Karmapa, while at the same time ensuring that they were preserved intact by passing them on in their entirety to other students.
One of the most prominent of the Sixteenth Karmapa’s Heart Sons, the Twelfth Tai Situ Rinpoche, considered me a promising student and facilitated my travel to India to study under the masters assembled at Sherab Ling monastery.
As I mentioned earlier, the distinctions between the different lineages are very small, usually only involving minor variations in terminology and approaches to study. For example, in the Nyingma lineage - of which my father and several of my later teachers were regarded as especially accomplished masters - the teachings on the fundamental nature of the mind are referred to by the term dzogchen, a Tibetan word meaning “great perfection.” In the Kagyu tradition, the lineage in which Tai Situ Rinpoche, Saljay Rinpoche, and many of the teachers assembled at Sherab Ling were primarily trained, the teachings on the essence of mind are collectively referred to as mahamudra, a word that may be roughly translated as “great seal.” There is very little difference between the two sets of teachings, except perhaps that the dzogchen teachings focus on cultivating a deep understanding of the view of the fundamental nature of mind, while the mahamudra teachings tend to focus on meditation practices that facilitate direct experience of the nature of mind.
In the modern world of airplanes, automobiles, and telephones, it’s a lot easier for teachers and students to travel around, so whatever differences may have developed with different schools in the past have become less significant. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the importance of receiving direct transmission of the teachings from those who have mastered them. Through direct connection with a living master, something incredibly precious is transferred; as if some living, breathing thing is passed from the heart of the master into that of the student. It is in this direct way that the teachings given during the three-year retreat are passed from master to student, which may perhaps explain why I was so eager to enter the retreat program at Sherab Ling.
MEETING MY MIND
Just realizing the meaning of mind encompasses all understanding.
- JAMGON KONGTRUL, Outline of Essential Points, translated by Maria Montenegro
I’d like to say that everything got better once I was safely settled among the other participants in the three-year retreat at Sherab Ling. On the contrary, however, my first year in retreat was one of the worst of my life. All the symptoms of anxiety I’d ever experienced - physical tension, tightness in the throat, dizziness, and waves of panic that were especially intense during group practices - attacked in full force. In Western terms, I was having a nervous breakdown.
In hindsight, I can say that what I was actually going through was what I like to call a “nervous breakthrough.” Completely cut off from the distractions of everyday life, I found myself in the position of having to directly confront my own mind - which at that point was not a very pleasant bit of scenery to stare at day after day. With each passing week it seemed that the mental and emotional landscape I was looking at grew more and more frightening. Finally, as that first year of retreat came to a close, I found myself having to make a choice between spending the next two years hiding in my room or accepting the full truth of the lessons I’d learned from my father and other teachers: that whatever problems I was experiencing were habits of thought and perception ingrained in my own mind.
I decided to follow what I’d been taught.
For three days I stayed in my room meditating, using many of the techniques described later in this book. Gradually I began to recognize how feeble and transitory the thoughts and emotions that had troubled me for years actually were, and how fixating on small problems had turned them into big ones, just by sitting quietly and observing how rapidly, and in many ways illogically my thoughts and emotions came and went, I began to recognize in a direct way that they weren’t nearly as solid or real as they appeared to be. And once I began to let go of my belief in the story they seemed to tell, I began to see the “author” beyond them - the infinitely vast, infinitely open awareness that is the nature of mind itself.
Any attempt to capture the direct experience of the nature of mind in words is impossible. The best that can be said is that the experience is immeasurably peaceful, and, once stabilized through repeated experience, virtually unshakable. It’s an experience of absolute well-being that radiates through all physical, emotional, and mental states - even those that might be ordinarily labeled as unpleasant. This sense of well-being, regardless of the fluctuation of outer and inner experiences, is one of the clearest ways to understand what Buddhists mean by “happiness,” and I was fortunate to have caught a glimpse of it during my three days of isolation.
At the end of those three days, I left my room and rejoined the group practices. It took about two more weeks of concentrated practice to conquer the anxiety that had accompanied me throughout my childhood, and to realize through direct experience the truth of what I’d been taught. From that point on, I haven’t experienced a single panic attack. The sense of peace, confidence, and well-being that resulted from this experience - even under conditions that might objectively be regarded as stressful - has never wavered.
I take no personal credit for this transformation in my experience, because it has only come about through making the effort to apply directly the truth handed down by those who’d preceded me.
I was sixteen years old when I came out of retreat, and much to my surprise, Tai Situ Rinpoche appointed me master of the very next retreat, which was to commence almost immediately. So, within a few months, I found myself back in the retreat house, teaching the preliminary and advanced practices of the Kagyu lineage, providing the new retreat participants access to the same line of direct transmission I’d received. Even though I was now the retreat master, from my point of view it was a wonderful opportunity to spend nearly seven continuous years of intensive retreat practice. And this time I didn’t spend a single moment cowering in fear in my own little room.
As the second retreat came to a close, I enrolled for one year in Dzongsar monastic college, quite near to Sherab Ling. The idea was suggested by my father, and Tai Situ Rinpoche readily agreed. Under the direct guidance of the head of the college - Khenchen Kunga Wangchuk, a great scholar who had only recently arrived in India from Tibet - I had the great good fortune to further my education in the philosophical and scientific disciplines of Buddhism.
The method of study at a traditional monastic college is quite different from that at most Western universities. You don’t get to choose your classes or sit in a nice classroom or lecture hall, listening to professors give their opinions and explanations of particular subjects, or write essays and take written exams. In a monastic college you’re required to study a vast number of Buddhist texts, and almost every day there are “pop quizzes” in which a student whose name is pulled from a jar is required to give a spontaneous commentary on the meaning of a specific section of a text. Our “exams” consisted sometimes of composing written commentaries on the texts we’d studied, and sometimes of public debates in which the teachers would point unexpectedly to individual students, challenging them to provide precise answers to unpredictable questions on the fine points of Buddhist philosophy.
At the end of my first year as a student at Dzongsar, Tai Situ Rinpoche embarked on a series of worldwide teaching tours and assigned me the task of overseeing, under his direction, the day-to-day activities of Sherab Ling as well as the responsibility for reopening the shedra on the monastery grounds, studying and working as an assistant teacher there. He also charged me with leading the next several three-year retreats at Sherab Ling. Since I owed so much to him, I didn’t hesitate to accept these responsibilities. If he trusted me to carry out these duties, who was I to question his decision? And, of course, I was fortunate enough to live in an age when I could always count on telephone calls to receive his direct guidance and direction.
Four years passed in this way, overseeing the affairs of Sherab Ling, completing my education and teaching at the new shedra, and giving direct transmissions to the students in retreat. Toward the end of those four years, I traveled to Bhutan to receive from Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, a dzogchen master of extraordinary insight, experience, and ability, direct transmission of oral teachings known as Trekcho and Togal - which might be translated roughly as “primordial purity” and “spontaneous presence.” These teachings are given to only one student at a time, and I was, to say the least, overwhelmed at being chosen to receive this direct transmission, and cannot help but consider Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, alongside Tai Situ Rinpoche, Saljay Rinpoche, and my father, to have been one of the most influential teachers in my life.
The opportunity to receive these transmissions also taught me, in an indirect way, the extremely valuable lesson that to whatever degree a person commits himself or herself to the welfare of others, he or she is repaid a thousandfold by opportunities for learning and advancement. Every kind word, every smile you offer someone who might be having a bad day, comes back to you in ways you’d never expect. How and why this occurs is a subject that we’ll examine later on, since the explanation has a lot to do with the principles of biology and physics I learned about once I’d begun traveling around the world and working more directly with the masters of modern science.
LIGHT FROM THE WEST
One single torch can dissipate the accumulated darkness of a thousand eons.
- TILOPA, Mahamudra of the Ganges, translated by Maria Montenegro
Because my schedule during the years following my first retreat was rather full, I didn’t have much time to follow the advances taking place in neuroscience and related fields of cognitive research, or to digest the discoveries in physics that had entered the mainstream. In 1998, however, my life took an unexpected turn when my brother, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who’d been scheduled to teach in North America, couldn’t make the trip and I was sent in his place. It was my first long visit to the West. I was twenty-three years old. Though I didn’t know it as I boarded the plane to New York, the people I would meet during this tour would shape the direction of my thinking for many years to come.
Giving generously of their time and providing me with a mountain of books, articles, DVDs, and videotapes, they introduced me to the ideas of modern physics and the latest developments in neuroscientific, cognitive, and behavioral research. I was very excited, because the scientific research aimed at studying the effects of Buddhist training had become so rich and detailed - and, most important, comprehensible to people like me who weren’t trained scientists. And since my knowledge of the English language wasn’t advanced at that point, I’m doubly grateful to the people who took so much time to explain the information in terms I could understand. For example, there are no equivalent words in Tibetan for terms like “cell,” “neuron,” or “DNA” - and the verbal somersaults people had to go through to help me comprehend such things were so complicated that we almost always ended up in fits of laughter.
While I’d been busy with my studies in and out of retreat, my friend Francisco Varela had been working with the Dalai Lama to organize dialogues between modern scientists and Buddhist monks and scholars. Those dialogues evolved into the Mind and Life Institute conferences, during which experts in various fields of modern science and Buddhist studies came together to exchange ideas on the nature and workings of the mind. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the conference in Dharamsala, India, in March 2000, and the conference at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003.
I learned a lot about the biological mechanisms of the mind during the Dharamsala conference. But it was the MIT conference - which focused on the correlations between the introspective Buddhist methods of exploring experience and the objective approach of modern science - that got me thinking about how to bring what I’d learned during my years of training to people who weren’t necessarily familiar with Buddhist practice or the intricacies of modern science.
In fact, as the MIT conference progressed, a question began to emerge: What would happen if the Buddhist and Western approaches were combined? What could be learned by bringing together information provided by individuals trained to offer detailed subjective descriptions of their experiences and the objective data provided by machines capable of measuring minute changes in the activity of the brain? What facts might the introspective methods of Buddhist practice provide that Western lines of technological research cannot ? What insights might the objective observations of clinical research be able to offer to Buddhist practitioners?
As the conference ended, participants from both the Buddhist and the Western scientific panels recognized not only that both sides stood to gain enormously through finding ways to work together, but also that the collaboration itself represented a major opportunity to improve the quality of human life.
In his closing remarks, Eric S. Lander, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology at MIT and the director of the Whitehead InstituteMIT Center for Genome Research, pointed out that while Buddhist practices emphasize attaining increased levels of mental awareness, the focus of modern science has rested on refining ways to restore mentally ill patients to a state of normalcy.
“Why stop there?” he asked the audience. “Why are we satisfied with saying we’re not mentally ill? Why not focus on getting better and better?”
Professor Lander’s questions set me thinking about creating some way to offer people an opportunity to apply the lessons of Buddhism and modern science to the problems they face in their everyday lives. As I learned the hard way during my first year in retreat, theoretical understanding alone is simply not enough to overcome the psychological and biological habits that create so much heartache and pain in daily life. For real transformation to occur, theory has to be applied through practice.
I’m extremely grateful to the Buddhist teachers who provided me, during my early years of training, with such profound philosophical insight and the practical means of applying it. But I’m equally obliged to the scientists who have given so generously of their time and effort, not only toward reevaluating and rephrasing everything I learned in terms that are perhaps more easily accessible to Westerners, but also toward validating the results of Buddhist practice through extensive laboratory research.
How lucky we are to be alive at this unique moment in human history, when the collaboration between Western and Buddhist scientists is poised to offer all humanity the possibility of achieving a level of well-being that defies imagination! My hope in writing this book is that everyone who reads it will recognize the practical benefits of applying the lessons of this extraordinary collaboration, and that they will realize for themselves the promise of their full human potential.