Dalai Drama Averted?

The Saturday afternoon lecture at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, DC, by the Dalai Lama had been widely anticipated, and had sparked a petition of protest organized by mainly Chinese-origin researchers. In the end, however, there was just one protester standing silently outside the press conference room, holding up a conference tote bag with the words ?Dalai Lama NOT qualify to speak here? inscribed in barely legible ballpoint ink. Instead, thousands of conference atten

By | November 14, 2005

The Saturday afternoon lecture at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, DC, by the Dalai Lama had been widely anticipated, and had sparked a petition of protest organized by mainly Chinese-origin researchers. In the end, however, there was just one protester standing silently outside the press conference room, holding up a conference tote bag with the words ?Dalai Lama NOT qualify to speak here? inscribed in barely legible ballpoint ink. Instead, thousands of conference attendees gathered to pass through heightened security and then listen as His Holiness stayed safely within the bounds of his expertise, talking about the importance of compassion and ethical consideration in an age of scientific advances. In hesitant English and frequent help from his translator, he emphasized that such ethics do not have to be religious in nature but rather based on universal, ?human values.? Squinting behind square, tinted glasses and adjusting his robe around his shoulder, he outlined how his childhood curiosity in cosmology led him to promote modern science to Buddhist audiences and to support research on the neuroscience of meditation, his current scientific passion. Empiricism, he said, is fundamental to Buddhism. If scientists develop a surgery to remove hatred and jealousy from the brain, ?I?ll be the first patient,? he declared. The petitioners had argued that the study of meditation is a shaky field with ?hyperbolic claims.? I spoke with Michael Baime, who leads a brain imaging study on the meditation class he teaches to medical students at the University of Pennsylvania. Preliminary results suggest that the practice enhances attentional focus. While Baime says there ?was some suspicion? of meditation when he started such work fifteen years ago, the ?entire cultural perspective on meditation has changed? to accept the practice as a ?scientifically validated, completely secular tool for improving quality of life.? However, the Dalai Lama said surprisingly little on this issue. He responded diplomatically to questions about animal research and was quick to admit when he was ?ignorant? about a subject such as intelligent design in U.S. education. He later told the press, however, that ?science is in a way more important than religion, because it reaches everyone, believers and non-believers both.? No doubt a message that the Society for Neuroscience was happy to hear.

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