The Monastery and the Microscope

Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mind, Mindfulness, and the Nature of Reality

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Wendy Hasenkamp, Janna R. White
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , September
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Monastery and the Microscope emerged from the XXVI “Mind & Life” conference in Mundgod, India, in 2013. “Mind & Life” has become a well known label for a series of meetings between the current Dalai Lama and Western scientists, initiated by the late Francisco Varela and others in 1987. Their overall aim, including that of the publication at hand, has been to explore if and how Western science on the one side, and Buddhist practice, ethics, and philosophy on the other side can come together to promote well-being and alleviate human suffering. The book assembles transcripts of the dialogue, illustrated by several figures taken from presentations and scientific literature that is summarized. Though the contributions occasionally raise important questions of recent research, the volume as a whole is not addressed to a scientific audience but popularizes the idea of a fruitful dialogue that may result in a “contemplative science” uniting meditative practices of Buddhism (such as generating and cultivating compassion), introspective methods of investigation, and insights of neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychotherapy, respectively. However, nearly all topics described below have been treated (often by the same contributors) in earlier “Mind & Life” dialogues, such that this volume is essentially a snapshot of an ongoing enterprise. It may suffice in this review to highlight only some aspects that shed light on how the dialogue unfolds. It may be of interest to some readers that the actual presentations of the 2013 conference can be viewed on the YouTube channel of the Dalai Lama.

The introduction by the editors describes the setting of the conference and the overall project from a bird’s-eye view. Interesting here, for scholars of religion, is the general optimism in regard to the “future of Western science in the monastery” (13). The book no longer argues merely for the necessity of educating Tibetan nuns and monks in Western science, as earlier Mind & Life conferences did, or underscores the role that Western science should play in substantiating with its methods the rich wisdom and knowledge of Buddhism (see, for example, 303). In addition, neuroscientist Richard Davidson muses that there may come “a time in future when monasteries may have an MRI scanner…to investigate changes in the brain” (340). In other words, the future may bring Western technology into the monastery, to be used by Buddhist meditators as a modern means to visualize externally and “objectively” their cultivation progress, or even to develop new “scientific” methods of meditation. This program of a “scientification of religion” fits neatly to the Dalai Lama’s differentiation of Buddhism as “science” in contrast to Buddhism as “philosophy” and as “religion” (mentioned in the introduction, 7-9). Part 1 of the book, “Matter and Mind,” focuses on quantum physics, the relationality and relativity of observation, Buddhist views of consciousness, the “two truth” theory, and conscious experience. Each of its eight chapters starts with a longer presentation, followed by a Q&A section. Noteworthy, however, is the fact that the subsequent discussion does not always result in harmonious agreement: there are occasional fundamental differences in interpretation (see, for example, 180-91). Whereas Arthur Zajonc emphatically embraces a concept of Buddhism and “quantum holism” (cf. 30-31), brain researcher Christof Koch stays true to a narrower view of the physiological basis of consciousness (cf. 127-41), pointing to scientifically problematic concepts such as “karma” or postmortem consciousness (166). Part 2 of the book assembles seven chapters under the heading of “Transformations.” With a focus on practical consequences, chapters discuss attention and emotion, empathy and compassion, mindfulness training, and contemplative techniques in education. The chapter on mindfulness is an interesting case in point, outlining differences between training in empathy and training in compassion. Presenter Tania Singer demonstrated that in these two trainings different neuronal networks are activated. This leads to a discussion on “empathic distress” (240) and compassion as a “coping strategy” (246-55). In general, the space devoted to the discussion of the latest research in neuroscience exceeds by far the space allocated to Buddhist philosophy, abhidharma, or Buddhist concepts of compassion—topics only occasionally referenced with Indian or Tibetan Buddhist texts. Obviously, the Tibetan interlocutors, most prominently the Dalai Lama and Thubten Jinpa, but also the geshes (scholars) Ngawang Samten, Dadul Namgyal, and Lobsang Tenzin Negi, gained over the years an intimate familiarity with the respective scientific theories of brain science (or, to be more precise, with certain interpretations thereof). Due to this coevolution, only rarely are questions raised that touch upon more substantial differences of Buddhist and Western scientific interpretations, or offer a specifically Buddhist philosophical critique of the foundations of Western experiments. Mostly, the questions of the Dalai Lama fit well into the scientific framework—see, for instance, his comments on fear (218), on the importance of “intelligence” (255), or the background of mindfulness research (275). Sometimes it seems that the Dalai Lama even apologizes for sticking to Buddhist truth claims and doctrines such as reincarnation or karma (see, for example, 163).

For scholars of contemporary religion, the extended discussion on quantum mechanics, social neuroscience, or mind-body relations are probably less relevant (though fascinating and, for other contexts, highly relevant: see, for example, the discussion of emotion regulation, 212-19). The same holds true for the shorter parts on Buddhist philosophy or meditation techniques. Readers will find them more thoroughly discussed in recent contributions by scholars of Buddhism. Particularly weak are some parts dealing with “religion” (e.g., 338-39), in which interlocutors argue that “scientists” have no special competence in regard to “religion”—a statement, however, that builds on the narrow definition of science as “hard science.” Somewhat disappointing is also the presentation of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in clinical psychology (Sona Dimidjian), followed by a disengaged discussion. Nevertheless, taken as a document of both the Dalai Lama’s attempt to modernize Tibetan Buddhism and of recent trends in establishing a “contemplative science”—in other words, taken as an object of study itself—the book is a rich source and worth reading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jens Schlieter is Professor in the Science of Religion at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wendy Hasenkamp is science director at the Mind & Life Institute and teaches contemplative science at the University of Virginia. As a neuroscientist and a contemplative practitioner, she is interested in understanding how subjective experience is represented in the brain, and how the mind and brain can be transformed through experience and practice to enhance flourishing.

Janna R. White is a writer and editor who specializes in Buddhist and South Asian materials. She has numerous academic volumes to her credit, including Caring Economics, which is also based on a Mind & Life dialogue. Her writing explores cross-cultural conceptions of religion, health, and family.

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