Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Art also plays a role in all of this, but for now....

I am still trying to absorb the implications of the Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal functioning as the keynote speaker at the Symposium on Compassion Meditation on the second day of the Dalai Lama's visit to Emory and at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in ten days' time, both events following his October 17 New York Times op-ed "Morals Without God":
—an essay copiously illustrated by images from Hieronymus Bosch, incidentally.

The Dalai Lama, as one might expect, was fascinated with the notion that empathy exists in species that have the mirror-recognition capacity (i.e., the capacity to recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability thus far discovered in dolphins, elephants, apes, and humans) and wanted to know if self-recognition and empathy was possible in other species. De Waal opined that dogs seem to have a certain empathic capacity without the mirror-recognition facility, and certain birds, suggesting that the link between avian and mammalian species would be the reptilian, where crocodiles share the capacity for proto-empathy in that they nurture their offspring. (There was much else said about all this, some of it leading one audience member to remark that they could have used an evolutionary biologist up there among the psychologists and primatologists, to straighten out the details of which species possessed which capacities and why.)

The keynote address to the AAR will also be on empathy in mammalian species, the subject of de Waal's latest book. The panel discussion was on how empathy evolves into actively self-aware compassion in human beings and whether there are practices that can heighten compassion by inducing changes in brain physiology.

The Dalai Lama's visit was inaugurated with the presentation of four new science textbooks from the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a project to make all 20,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns literate in the basics of contemporary scientific disciplines. Paging through the new books on Evolution, Cells and Genes, and, I believe, brain physiology (I didn't see two of the four titles), I reflected that this was uncompromisingly serious material, introductory but not oversimplified, and that I rather wished I could buy copies and refresh my own knowledge with the English text on the left-hand pages.

The most promising candidates from the monasteries will be sent to Emory to pursue advanced study in physics, psychology, et al., having completed the advanced course of study in Tibetan Buddhist academic institutions. The intent is to create an intensive dialogue between Tibetan Buddhist knowledge of the mind and body and the scientific disciplines as presently constituted in world society.

The Dalai Lama was once again fascinated by the results of experiments conducted with compassion meditation techniques in terms of measurable changes in the amygdala and other physiological as well as psychological results. The aforementioned skeptic in the audience suggested that at the very least the variables of age and cultural experience of the research subjects should have been factored into the experiments.

Whatever one thinks of the adequacy of the experimental parameters (and it seemed to me that the mere fact that the research subjects were motivated to enroll in the experiment was a variable to be considered, though control groups given standard cognitive-psychology methods were used as well as meditators), what seemed most significant was the fact that three different universities (Stanford, Wisconsin, and Emory) have considered secularized forms of Tibetan meditation worthy of study as behavioral modification techniques measurably affecting brain physiology, and that the spiritual head of the world's Tibetan Buddhists was eager to absorb any and all such materially based insights into the structure of Buddhist education.

The outcome of the scientific education of 20,000 practitioners of a sophisticated Buddhist system of psychological education and theoretical debate will be fascinating to witness. Leafing through the textbook on evolution, I found myself thinking that standard Buddhist notions regarding conditioned origination would be reinforced by the shifting degrees of reproductive success found in changing environmental circumstances. The Dalai Lama has pointed out that the Buddha insisted that when a doctrine has been found to be contradicted by the facts, it must be discarded. Thus traditional Tibetan cosmology is to be replaced by contemporary models of the universe, for example.

At the same time, what John Blofeld wrote some decades ago regarding Tibetan Buddhism still obtains: the practice is culturally specific, even though it encodes a level of psychological insight that Blofeld had not discovered elsewhere. He was fearful to discard what seemed to be extraneous aspects, lest they turn out to contain some key element he didn't understand was such. This hasn't changed among American adherents.

Thus at the North American seat of Drepung Loseling monastery, there are an impressive array of teachings and empowerment ceremonies by visiting Tibetan spiritual teachers, all of them arisen from the circumstances of a culture at the far end of the Silk Road where practices and beliefs from Isfahan and Alexandria mingled with those of India and Central Asia. The cultural differences matter; for example, the colors of the robes that were meant to make the monks physically unattractive to laypersons turn out to be enormously appealing to American audiences. There are issues of cultural collision and fusion to be addressed that lie beyond the immediate challenge of reconfiguring Tibetan Buddhism for its historic adherents while preserving the essence of Tibetan culture in the diaspora. (A two-day conference on this latter topic is in progress as I write this.)

But the experiment of bringing a formerly isolated spiritual practice into the twenty-first century is one that raises so many compelling intellectual and existential issues that I am truly delighted to see it taking place. These confrontational times scarcely seem propitious for the rise of a radical religious empiricism, but that is what seems to be evolving at a speed I wouldn't have thought possible.

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