While the Dalai Lama usually answers questions about the nature of life, the tables are turned in Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of the Mind, edited by Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela (Shambhala Publications, 1992). These provocative discussions about Buddhist dharma and cognitive science were recorded in Dharamsala in 1987; yet nothing about this inquiry is more compelling than these questions asked of Western scientists by the Dalai Lama himself:
♦ On the level of sub-atomic particles, is there really any fundamental distinction between totally inert or inanimate things like rocks as opposed to that which goes into flesh?
♦ A proton may last for seventeen billion years, but on a momentary basis is it not subject to change?
♦ Would you consider a one-celled creature like an amoeba a sentient being?
♦ Does a one-celled creature like an amoeba have the whole range of cognitive events, such as desire, sexual desire, feeling, and so on?
♦ In your personal view, is a bacterium a sentient being? The question is important in the Buddhist context, because when you take the life of a sentient being, that constitutes a wrong deed. So is it wrong to kill an amoeba? Buddhists would say that if the amoeba feels pleasure and pain, wishes to be happy and free of suffering, then it is wrong to kill it, and otherwise it is not wrong.
♦ Let’s imagine that a sentient being is instinctively a plant eater; but while its natural instinct is to eat vegetables, by a process of conditioning, it is taught or learns to eat meat. In this case—in which there is a shift in programming—is there a corresponding shift in the neurons that respond to certain kinds of stimuli?
♦ You maintain that bacteria also have the faculty of feeling, as in feeling pain and pleasure. If that is the case, then even plants also have this kind of faculty?
♦ The whole science of neurobiology is undertaken on the basis of some physical matter like the brain. But is the whole question of consciousness as Buddhists speak of it—which is formless and of the nature of clarity, and so forth—just ruled out?
Images: Top, marine foraminifera of the species nomonia depressula. Above, radiolarian.
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