Francisco Varela, eminent biologist and co-founder of the Mind & Life Institute, died in Paris in May after a long struggle with liver cancer. He found death in peace, meditating into his final hours, and surrounded by his wife, Amy Cohen Varela, his four children, and his father and brother.
Born in the Chilean Andes, Varela came of age during the 1960s, a fertile period in the Chilean academic community. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970, Varela, together with Humberto Maturana, helped to develop the radical theory of autopoiesis, or “self-production,” which explains how a living system maintains a consistent identity when its components are in constant flux. Their seminal work, The Tree of Knowledge, extends autopoietic theory to all forms of life, from the single cell to entire communities.
In 1974 Varela was introduced to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The meeting occurred at an opportune time for Varela, who, after his exhaustive scientific studies, could find no satisfying resolution to the rootlessness he felt in the wake of Pinochet’s coup d’etat and the ensuing persecution. When he spoke with Trungpa of his confusion, Trungpa responded: “Why do you want to do something? How about doing nothing?”
For a man whose mind had been trained in rational methodology, this question opened his world—though he still managed to “do” quite a lot. Later that same year he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who shared a keen interest in science. This encounter would ultimately evolve into the Mind & Life Conferences, which continue to provide a biennial series of private dialogues between Western scientists and His Holiness and to promote collaborative research between Western science and Buddhism. The Mind & Life Institute was founded in 1987 by Varela and R. Adam Engle, its current chairman. Following Trungpa’s death, Varela became a student of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and dzogchen practice formed his path for the remainder of his life.
In his transition from “doing” to “not doing,” and beyond, Francisco Varela discovered both the soul of his science and the science of his soul.