MINDSCIENCE: An East-West Dialogue
Edited by Daniel Goleman and Robert A. F. Thurman.
Wisdom Publications: Boston, 1991.126 pp. $12.50 (paperback).
IN THE SPRING OF 1991, East met West in a one-day symposium on the nature of mind. Intended as a first step in promoting dialogue among Buddhist scholars—including His Holiness the Dalai Lama—and Western psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, and neurobiologists, the conference was like most first steps: a bit clumsy but promising. More than saffron robes and dark suits separated the participants, especially as many of the Westerners—all distinguished in their fields—grappled for the first time in a public forum with such concepts as karma and emptiness. This book is an edited version of the symposium, which I attended; it was sponsored jointly by the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard Medical School and New England Deaconess Hospital and Tibet House, New York.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is the Dalai Lama's ability to synthesize scientific materialism and Western psychology with the ancient Buddhist science of mind—without any apparent contradiction. "Buddhist thinkers also find it extremely beneficial to incorporate into their thinking the insights of various scientific fields, such as quantum mechanics and neurobiology, where there are also equally strong elements of uncertainty and essencelessness," he said. And in describing the line of demarcation where natural law is superceded by karmic law, he explained that "it is only when the existence of external objects causes sentient beings to experience things like pain and pleasure that the karmic force comes into the picture."
Though not all the Westerners were as familiar with Buddhist inner science as His Holiness is with Western science, the spirit of the day was one of genuine inquiry. A number of provocative questions were raised—which is about the most you can expect when ambassadors of radically different disciplines sit down and talk for the first time.
Fortunately, in addition to the Dalai Lama, other master synthesizers—notably psychologist and author Daniel Goleman and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman—were on hand to bridge the conceptual gaps. In an illuminating discussion of psychology East and West, Goleman explored the overlaps and differences between the two systems, suggesting that, in fact, they complement each other and together form a more complete model of mental health. "By and large, psychotherapy focuses on the content of consciousness," he said. "It does not attempt the more radical transformation posited in the Tibetan Buddhist approach, which focuses on the process of consciousness." And though Freud believed that the best we could hope for from psychotherapy was to replace neurotic conflict with everyday unhappiness, Goleman concluded that Tibetan Buddhist psychology picks up where Freud left off, showing us "a way for civilization to grow beyond its discontents."
At the conference itself, Thurman, in a rapid-fire form that made the packed house nearly breathless in its effort to keep up, made a compelling case for applying the wisdom of Buddhist inner science to the problems of the world today. (The good news, gentle reader, is that you can take your time digesting the material on the printed page.) "We have abolished many diseases and improved some conditions of life, to be sure, but thereby we have drastically unbalanced our population in relation to the Earth and our environment," he said. "We have brought warfare to an unimaginable pitch of destructive efficiency, but thereby we have put ourselves in immediate danger of self-caused planetary extinction. In essence, he concluded, "our powers to affect the outer reality have far outstripped our powers over ourselves."
In a practical demonstration of what Thurman calls the "software" needed to check the "hardware" of Western scientific materialism, Mind/Body Medical Institute president Herbert Benson reviewed his research on the physiological effects of meditation. "What we are finding through these experiments is that meditative processes lead to rather striking physiological changes in the body," he explained. "These changes have direct health implications to the extent that any disorder is caused or made worse by stress." And in a discussion of how Western thought has emphasized logical-mathematical intelligence at the expense of emotional, motivational, and spiritual matters, Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University, also helped pave the way for further integration of Eastern "software" into the Western model of the mind.
Though MindScience, like the conference, is uneven, with some of the contributors speaking in their own, rather rarified tongues, the book nevertheless offers a worthy glimpse of Buddhist psychology and its potential applications in the West. As Goleman points out in the introduction, the impact of meditation research on medicine has already been significant. However, he adds, "Meditation is but one of many applied tools from the psychologies of the East. As we explore what else of value for modern life is to be found from that source, we may discover that there are yet more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our psychology." This volume, he says, represents the next step.
Barbara Graham is a playwright and journalist who writes frequently about medicine.