Before joining the dialogue between Russian and Buddhist scholars this morning, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave an interview to Stanislav Kucher. Kucher began by asking about spreading human values by non-religious means. His Holiness responded that the current situation in the world is not happy.
“There are many problems. People are killing each other because they are under the sway of anger and hatred. They tend to be self-centred and see other people in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But nothing can completely eliminate your opponents. We have to live together.
“The way these emotions affect us won’t change in a hurry. Our generation needs to take a new approach to education to bring a new generation up from the beginning on the basis of secular ethics. After 30 years or so of such training they’ll be different from their predecessors. At the moment we don’t pay enough attention to inner peace, we have to focus more on simple human well-being and peace of mind. There needs to be greater awareness of the benefits of warm-heartedness—that it’s good for us. It’s the possibility of people benefiting in this life here and now that concerns me. I’m not trying to propagate Buddhism. I’m not interested in converting others and I’m a bit sceptical about those who are.”
Kucher asked about the disappointment apparently expressed in America, Russia, and Turkey.
“Things are changing,” His Holiness told him. “Even in Britain there are still a lot of people who see value in remaining in the EU. When the Iraq crisis was about to break out millions marched against further use of violence. We shouldn’t only pay attention to leaders we should take account of the public view. It seems to me there is a widespread sense of being fed up with violence.
“The Russian people are a great people. I have mentioned before an idea that may be an empty dream, but if NATO were to shift its headquarters to Moscow it might allay whatever misapprehensions Russians may feel.”
“I believe in the people,” His Holiness declared. “The world belongs to 7 billion human beings, not just a handful of leaders, dictators or kings and queens. Each country belongs to the people who live there—and I believe the people are becoming more mature.”
At the meeting between Russian and Buddhist scholars, His Holiness announced that at the age of 82 he might need to take more rest, but he hoped to stay until half past two. “But,” he said, “there are all these other monks here for you to hold discussions with even if I have to go.”
Prof Anokhin, the moderator, introduced the day’s first speaker, David Dubrovsky, who, as the oldest man in the room, His Holiness has shown a special fondness for. Citing his poor English, he asked a colleague to read his paper on ‘Perspectives of Neuroscientific Approaches to the Problem of Consciousness: Relationship to the Global Crisis of Civilization’ for him. He began by stating how impressed he has been by His Holiness’s humanistic thought based on universal ethics and a sense of our fundamentally good human nature.
“Despite the widespread awareness of the problems we face, no decisive action has been taken that can change the situation. We are in need of a change of human consciousness. Instead consumer greed and aggressiveness threaten our self-destruction. While extreme self-centredness and aggression threaten the future of humanity, it seems Buddhism allows us to develop compassion and warm-heartedness.”
His Holiness expressed his appreciation of the views expressed, but suggested that we could not hope for change only on the basis of the brain. Instead it’s the mind that can be trained and enlightened. Consciousness in relation to the brain is relatively coarse. He gave an example of the rough consciousness of a growing embryo that kicks in the womb. It’s only when the child is born that it even begins to see the world.
He told a story from a completely different perspective of a Lama, Thubten Rinpoche, who died in New Zealand. He had remained seated in meditation, in what Buddhists call ‘clear light’ for four days after being declared clinically dead. At that point, overnight, the position of his hands changed with his left taking hold of the ring finger of his right hand. His Holiness said he chided those looking after him for not having arranged a camera to record what was happening—but no one has an explanation of what happened. Dubrovsky conceded that he had no explanation either.
The morning’s second presentation was given by Maria Falikman of Lomonosov Moscow State University, with expertise in Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Science and Experimental Psychology. Her topic was ‘Cultural-Historical Activity Perspective on Human Attention: Possible Insights from Meditation Studies’. She said, “Human attention is clear. You can see when someone is attentive, it’s obvious in its effects.” She cited William James, the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, and his cause and effect theories about attention. She mentioned that Buddhist ideas of mental factors make a useful contribution to understanding attention.
His Holiness asked whether anything has been observed about the brain functions of social animals. He noted that birds and dogs, which are social creatures, will show appreciation if you feed them. However, it has been his experience that when he allows a mosquito, not an obviously social animal, to suck his blood, it shows no appreciation when it’s had its fill.
Dmitry B Volkov also of Lomonosov Moscow State University spoke about ‘Self as a useful fiction – a narrative approach’. He asked what self is, suggesting that there is a problem in identifying a person at different times. There is a bodily approach that assumes the body and brain remain the same. There is also a psychological approach and he proposed uploading someone’s mind and mental functions to a computer. A problem of reduplication could arise and with it the question which was the real self. Volkov concluded that a solution to the problem of self could be found in taking a narrative approach.
In his response His Holiness mentioned that people have speculated about self for more than 3000 years. Ancient India accepted the idea of life after life and that it is clearly not the body that goes on to the next life. A soul, or self, known as ‘atman’ held to be a permanent, single and independent entity was proposed. The Buddha, however, said no to this. He said that grasping at such a self, misconceiving such a self, is like having an evil thought.
This is the nature of ignorance and countering it is at the core of the four major Buddhist schools of thought. While suggesting that personal identity is based on the continuity of mental consciousness, the highest of these schools, the Madhyamaka or Middle Way, rejects an independent self. His Holiness quoted a verse from Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom’:
That which is dependent origination
Is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.
He explained that it’s being a dependent origination defends against the extreme of eternalism, while it’s being a dependent designation defends against the extreme of nihilism. He feels that the quantum physics’ observation that nothing exists objectively, that it depends on the presence of the observer, reflects a similar insight. Buddhism uses such understanding, as cited in Nagarjuna’s verse, as an antidote to fundamental ignorance.
He mentioned what American psychiatrist Aaron Beck told him he had learned while treating people struggling with anger. Although for many the object of their anger seemed completely negative, Beck judged that 90% of this was mental projection. His Holiness feels this complies with Nagarjuna’s advice:
Through the elimination of karma and affliction there is nirvana.
Karma and affliction come from conceptual thoughts.
These come from mental fabrication;
Fabrication ceases through emptiness.
After lunch, Viktoria Lysenko of the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences gave a presentation on the theme ‘What Kind of Philosophy Can Be a Bridge between Science and Buddhism?’ She proposed that intercultural philosophy, which presupposes a multicultural education, allowing the scholar to talk in terms of more than one tradition may answer the question. She offered the example of Theodor Stcherbatsky (1866-1942), who translated Dharmakirti’s ‘Drops of Reasoning’ into English for the first time, as a pioneer of comparative philosophy and a proponent of intercultural philosophy.
She mentioned Stcherbatsky’s student Rosenberg, who studied for several years in Japan and gained experience of meditation there. She also referred to Alexander Piatigorsky a Soviet dissident, philosopher, scholar of South Asian philosophy and culture, historian, philologist, and writer, who knew Sanskrit, Tamil, Pali, Tibetan, German, Russian, French, Italian and English and is remembered fondly by his students at the School of Oriental & African Studies, London.
In his concluding remarks, His Holiness pointed out that the Pali tradition, which encompasses the fundamental teaching of the Buddha, depends for its elucidation on scriptural quotation. The Sanskrit tradition, however, relies on reasoning and investigation. This was introduced to Tibet when the Emperor, Trisong Detsen, invited the great Indian philosopher and logician Shantarakshita to establish Buddhism in the Land of Snow. By engaging in rigorous study and debate, succeeding generations of Tibetans have fulfilled his ambition and kept this tradition alive.
“We all wish to be free from suffering, that’s something that requires no further proof. Key to this is coming to understand the workings of the mind as revealed in those ancient Indian traditions that include shamatha – concentration – and vipashyana – special insight. The Buddha appears to have propounded different explanations at different times. This was not because he was confused, nor because he was trying to confuse others, but because he was teaching what was most appropriate to people of different capacities and dispositions.
“As a Buddhist monk, I’ve learned a great deal from scientific findings and scientists have learned about the mind, and how to tackle destructive emotions, from us. When our conversations began nearly 40 years ago, there was some resistance in our monasteries—not any more. In future I hope it may be possible to invite Russian scientists to take part in our meetings with scientists from the West.”
Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the co-ordinator of this meeting thanked His Holiness for taking the time to attend this meeting and for being accommodating about rescheduling changes. Tatyana Chernigovskaya, on behalf of all the presenters, offered His Holiness ‘a small gift’ that was in fact a large book entitled ‘Holy Russia’ featuring icons from collections in St Petersburg. He accepted it and expressed his appreciation before retiring for the day.