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Conversations with the Dalaï Lama in Strasbourg

What do Mindfulness, Meditation and Neuroscience have in common? Neuroscientists met with the Dalaï Lama to find out

Conversations with the Dalaï Lama in Strasbourg

The Dalaï Lama visited the University of Strasbourg on Friday, 16 September 2016

The nexus of modern science, engagement, and meditation was the basis of a discussion between scientists from all over Europe and the Dalaï Lama on Friday, 16 September 2016 in Strasbourg. A host of one of the panel groups at this meeting was the Director of the Department of Neurology at the University Hospital Freiburg, Cornelius Weiller, discussing the clinical aspects of mindfulness and meditation. The meeting took place by invitation of the University of Strasbourg in the context of the Dalaï Lama’s official visit to Strasbourg (16-18 September 2016). With more than 15 scientists in four panels and an audience of 130 invited guests, the symposium was the first and most comprehensive of its kind. However, the diversity posed some challenges to the discussion – one being the pursuit of common ground in a dialogue of science and spirituality.

Wolf Singer, the Director Emeritus of the Max-Planck Institute of Brain Research in Frankfurt suggested an “ontological dualism” in the neuroscientific segment of the symposium. He presented his hypothesis that comparing neuronal network dynamics with the “social dimension” would enable a worldview where humans as cognitive agents could be compared to neurons, and concluded that a “naturalistic account of the spiritual dimension seems” possible. The Dalaï Lama suggested the need for a holistic perspective because the scientific approach to the spiritual has been shaped by a specifically scientific and technically inspired worldview. The Asian worldview, on the other hand, focussed instead on “paying attention to the mind.” However, the religious leader emphasized his appreciation for the dialog: “I really appreciate this kind of meeting as we can share our knowledge of the mind and you can share your technical knowledge of the brain.”

The second panel of the symposium considered the clinical aspects of meditation and mindfulness. One of the key questions posed by the host of this discussion, Cornelius Weiller, was, whether meditation required a sense of language. The 81-year-old Buddhist leader responded that “within the mental consciousness, there [were] conceptual and non-conceptual thoughts” and that while “one could relate to objects by language”, there was also the possibility of “relating to objects directly.” Furthermore, he remarked that in such a discussion one is able “to explain in broad terms how the mind works”, but that an in-depth consideration of the mind required “more specification and the identification of different states of mind.” Asked about the possibility of treating psychological conditions such as severe episodes of depression, his response was that “mental exercise always brings a calm mind.” 

The afternoon segment of the symposium focused on a conceptual consideration of empathy, compassion, and mental training. The discussion with Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, and Matthieu Ricard, French translator for the Dalaï Lama and biologist focused on the benefits of empathy and compassion-based meditation and training in adolescence as well as in professions which require strong emotional interactions with other human beings, such as in nursing and other medical professions. In the last panel, Steven Laureys from the Coma Science Group at the University Hospital of Liège in Belgium and the Physicist Michel Bitbol from the Archives Husserl discussed the scientific perspective of consciousness. Laureys asked the Dalaï Lama, whether there could be consciousness without a brain – citing a study in which over 70 patients stated that they had had conscious experiences during a coma – to which the religious leader responded: “In our brain there is matter we can measure. Our consciousness is not like that. I think there is no materialistic way to analyse the mind.”



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