The Monastery and the Microscope: A Book Review

The Monastery and the Microscope: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mind, Mindfulness, and the Nature of Reality

The Dalai Lama believes if Buddhist ideas of intelligence and consciousness cannot be verified by Western science, then they remain constructs at best. He has long encouraged neuroscientists to study the meditative states of monks (vs. novices), using MRI etc. There have been fruitful results: mindfulness meditation can alter the endocrine system and the brain. The Monastery and the Microscope is a record of the dialogue during a week-long gathering in southern India of the Mind and Life Institute in 2013, when the Dalai Lama and his monks engaged in conversations with Western scientists.

One surprising revelation is that the Western scientists who find the most sympathy with Buddhist thoughts are the physicists, through quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman, the late Nobel physicist, famously said that no one really understood quantum mechanics. He was likely thinking of a human bias: the certainty and purpose of their own existence and their own perception – which does not include what they don’t see or can’t imagine. Western science has searched the material world and found many answers, developing technologies to improve life. It does not believe this cannot continue – as expressed by Christof Koch, the neurobiologist who participated in the conversations. He said, “I see no reason to believe that we will not have a full theory of consciousness in due time.”

Michel Bitbol, who holds degrees in medicine and physics, also participated. He wondered as a child riding a bicycle why the trees were rushing by him and yet the moon was always following him (that’s because of the distance of each from him). This is a great philosophical revelation: the distance from which we see things. Newtonian physics can explain gravity and the speed of trains and other phenomena. But when it comes to finding the smallest unit of matter, the subatomic particles, scientists have discovered only space. Arthur Zajonc, a participant says: “…two coins cannot overlap, but two atoms not only can overlap, they can occupy the same space and remain distinct…The atom is not solid…”  In this sense, matter ends up as void. This is also the Buddhist conclusion. How does physics represent something that is a void?

They have tried, according to Bitbol. “[Niels] Bohr’s idea was that we have to change our idea of understanding the world into an idea of understanding our relation with the world.” Werner Heisenberg (uncertainty principle), another luminary of early quantum physics also said: “…quantum theory provides us not with an image of nature, but with an image of our relations with nature.” How we look affects what we see, as our consciousness (and our instruments) change. (Italics are mine).

One great virtue of this book is how the physicists explain quantum mechanics to the five-thousand plus monks and nuns in attendance. The reader of this book will no doubt benefit as well. The same goes for the presentations and subsequent discussions (sometimes heated) of other Western scientists: the molecular biologist Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk; the experimental psychologists Richard Davidson and Tania Singer; and the director of the Mind and Life Institute, Arthur Zajonc (physicist), among others. In participation, along with the Dalai Lama, was his principal translator, Thupten Jinpa. Jinpa holds a Ph.D. degree in philosophy from Cambridge University as well as the highest degree of geshe Iharampa (A Buddhist academic degree that takes over 20 years of study).

After one of the heated discussions, the Dalai Lama was delighted (as the diplomatic Zajonc was apologetic). He brought up the term du dra, “the elementary debate technique in Tibetan monastic education, [which] is when you are able to prove that what is, is not, and what is not, is.” There is no better illustration of the multiple perspectives required in Buddhist thinking – how to see things through another’s eye. It is the beginning of empathy. It is also one that forward-looking Western scientists are interested in.

Such multiple perspective-taking, incidentally has occupied Western artists since Monet and Cézanne, who inspired Picasso. With its fractured picture plane, a Cubist painting is often not clear about what it represents – and that is Picasso’s point: art cannot represent anything. It changes as he paints it and it continues to live “only through the man who is looking at it,” he says. This essence of processes and relationships echoes quantum physics and Buddhism thinking.

And this is where I might respectfully criticize the book – or the dialogue – for not including a visual artist (there is a musician). The importance of the eye in Buddhist thought is noted by the Dalai Lama who talks about “subtle mind” as the ultimate source of consciousness, with “…substantial causes and contributing conditions. For example, a substantial cause is eye consciousness, and the contributing conditions are the eye organs…” On the other hand, one current neurobiological view of consciousness as defined by awareness is “the process of attending to one thing in the visual field, ignoring others.” (according to Robert Desimone of MIT, who was not a participant. See report here).*  This differs from Dalai Lama’s “subtle mind” which continues after clinical death. So, it appears that the definition of consciousness is itself a problem. Here a Western visual artist might have made contributions.

Having established the plasticity of our brain, and our ability to learn regardless of age, the remainder of the discussion turns to learning and the wider application of mindfulness meditation in schools. This becomes a minefield of (polite) disagreements: The Western ideas of effective interventions and measurable results vs. the Buddhist tradition of life-long cultivation. In this regard, perhaps the best starting point is early childhood – considering the greater plasticity of young brains. In fact, early childhood education has been the focus in the US in recent years: The Harvard University Zaentz Initiative (2016), the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (2015), and the recent Jeff Bezos Day 1 Academies Fund (2018) are just a few examples.

The message in this book is ultimately an optimistic one. After all, Buddha, and the Dalai Lama himself, were ordinary people who achieved enlightenment not by birth or by miracle, but by study and meditation.

*   See also my post here on the importance of the eyes in art and our consciousness. 

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