Saffron Robes and Lab Coats

Buddhists and neuroscientists search for common ground

| May-June 2006

Last fall, more than 700 scientists signed a petition demanding that the Society for Neuroscience rescind its invitation to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, to deliver the keynote address at the society’s annual gathering in Washington, D.C.

The petition, which was ultimately unsuccessful, held that incorporating a religious leader’s ideas into the proceedings would threaten the credibility of the scientific community.

“We are witnessing an antiscience movement in this country, in part from Washington, but all across the land,” said Philip Pizzo, dean of Stanford University’s medical school. “But there is also an antireligion movement that is coming from the science community. We have a chance to study the brain in a broad, interdisciplinary manner. We are not about to apply the scientific method to faith or apply faith to science. But we do acknowledge that they are part of the same dimension.” Noting that the protest in Washington served only to illuminate the present polarization of discourse in the United States, Pizzo said it was more necessary than ever to respectfully integrate faith and science.

Those willing to embrace Pizzo’s assessment were able to benefit from Gyatso’s participation in a different, less controversial event last fall: “Craving, Suffering, and Choice: Spiritual and Scientific Explorations of Human Experience.” In this forum at Stanford, science and religion shared the stage in an open and honest exchange of ideas.

While one discipline uses methods developed in recent years to track activity in specific parts of the brain and the other uses 2,500-year-old practices to develop introspective inquiry of the mind, both neuroscience and Buddhism address the same issue: suffering. This shared purpose, according to William Mobley, director of Stanford’s Neuroscience Institute, is the reason he organized the conference. Both disciplines, he said, “pursue knowledge about the brain and mind. They just go about it differently.”

The conference explored scientific and Buddhist definitions of craving and suffering, along with possible responses to those conditions—altruism and compassion.