“Someone ought to wire the Dalai Lama up to an EEG machine to see exactly what’s going on.”
It was an offhanded remark, made at the end of a Vipassana retreat by a gung-ho, fresh-out-of-college meditator, and as he calked more, it became apparent what he wanted was a shortcut to enlightenment. It was hard not to stumble over his lack of tact. But in fact, even as he spoke, in scientific labs across the country there was already a research initiative underway to study advanced Tibetan monks and seasoned Vipassana teachers. And the studies—sponsored by The Mind and Life Institute, a Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit organization—have the input and full support of the Dalai Lama.
It is even possible that at that very moment, in a stateof-the-art brain science lab at the University of WisconsinMadison, a Tibetan monk was lying on a hospital gurney with his head in the tight-fitting tube of a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine. As the monk generated compassion and other meditative states, the fMRI would record images of the cellular structure and functioning of his brain. After finishing the fMRI, he would be whisked down the hall to repeat the same protocol while hooked up to a high-resolution EEG. Analysis of the test results would keep a team of Ph.D.’s busy for months.
There are, however, significant differences between the experiment the enthusiastic meditator had in mind and the scientific work Mind and Life is doing. Mind and Life isn’t trying to discover the neurological basis of nirvana but rather to investigate the brain mechanisms at work during various meditative states, and gain insight into the impact of meditation on our thoughts and emotions. It may then be possible to objectively demonstrate the benefits of certain Buddhist contemplative practices—part of Mind and Life’s ongoing efforts to explore how science and Buddhism, as equal partners, can help each other.
Over the past sixteen years, Mind and Life has taken a practical approach to the partnership. Best known for its conferences—dialogues between the Dalai Lama and prominent Western scientists—Mind and Life has managed to avoid the partisan conflicts that often plague such encounters. “Mind and Life isn’t trying to bolster Buddhism,” explains R. Adam Engle, cofounder of the institute and chairman of the board, “but is looking to create a true collaboration between Buddhism and science to benefit humanity.”
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