What the Dalai Lama’s dialogues can – and can’t – teach us about the mind

Last month His Holiness the Dalai Lama held the 18th of his celebrated “Mind and Life” conferences – inviting notable neuroscientists to India in the hope that when Buddhist epistemology and western neurology compare notes, the results are educational for everyone.

It’s the sort of communication that Saybrook faculty say they’d like to see more of:  different intellectual approaches coming together to get a bigger sense of the picture.

“Exchanges between spiritual understandings of consciousness and scientific understandings can be mutually enriching,” says Amedeo Giorgi, a Saybrook faculty member in psychology who is a major figure in contemporary phenomenology.  “Such exchanges can only be helpful.”

They have born fruit in the past, according to an article in the London Guardian:


 (C)onferences have spurred the development of research programmes that examine the effects of Buddhist contemplative techniques and how they might be applied more widely to benefit humanity. They have, for example, been instrumental in the work of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, whose brain imaging studies found that experienced meditators show increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with emotional well-being, as well as having stronger immune systems.

But Saybrook psychology faculty Stanley Krippner, long at the forefront of the exploration of consciousness, says he always has mixed feelings when he hears about the Mind and Life conferences – because he thinks they could be taken to the next level.

The neuroscientists invited, Krippner says, tend to be “brilliant but reductionistic,” and “limit consciousness to the brain and the body, cut off from entanglement with other people and with nature in general.”  

As a result, they’re often as notable for what they don’t talk about as what they do.  “I do not see these dialogues involving a discussion of reincarnation – a concept that few of his invitees from mainstream science would find congenial,” Krippner says. 

Likewise “I have never seen a discussion of sexuality at any of these conferences,” says Krippner.  “Some prominent Buddhists (including one who spoke at a Saybrook residential conference) have stated that sexuality is an impediment to spiritual development,” a view he finds well worth challenging.

So, useful as they are, Krippner suggests that the Mind and Life conferences go best with some supplemental reading. 

“The new book by Kramer and Alstead, The Passionate Mind Revisited, includes a thoughtful critique of Buddhist doctrines and serves as a useful aticdote to the naive romantic view of Buddhism so prevalent – even among many Saybrook students,” Krippner says.  Likewise “the secular humanist wing of humanistic psychology proposes that values and ethics can be derived from scientific principles and that institutionalized religion is outdated, if not dysfunctional.  I do not agree with everything they say, but their ‘Humanist Manifesto’ is well worth reading and studying.”


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