London -- At a lunch in the crypt at St. Paul's Cathedral before the Dalai Lama received the Templeton Prize on Monday, I was seated next to Canon Mark Oakley. "We need to move beyond relevance to resonance," he said.
It was a call to move beyond the shallows to the depths, beyond the passing novelties of the moment to the echoes of the soul. The Canon summed up the vicious circle we too often find ourselves caught in: "We are," he said, "spending money we don't have on things we don't want in order to impress people we don't like."
To find the peace of mind that alone can replace this aimless search which has led to an epidemic of stress, anxiety, and drugs -- legal and illegal -- the Dalai Lama is looking to science (specifically neuroscience) to convince a skeptical, increasingly secular society of the power of contemplation and compassion to change our lives and our world.
As he wrote in his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality:
The great benefit of science is that it can contribute tremendously to the alleviation of suffering at the physical level, but it is only through the cultivation of the qualities of the human heart and the transformation of our attitudes that we can begin to address and overcome our mental suffering... We need both, since the alleviation of suffering must take place at both the physical and the psychological levels.
It is for this decades-long passion to bring together science and spirituality that he was awarded the Templeton Prize, a $1.7-million honor given to "entrepreneurs of the spirit" who make "an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works." The prize, the motto of which is "how little we know, how eager to learn," has been given annually since being established in 1972.
In awarding the Templeton Prize to the Dalai Lama, the organizers cited his "engagement with science and with people far beyond his own religious traditions," and the fact that "for the past 25 years, he has focused on the connections between the investigative traditions of science and Buddhism and encouraged serious scientific investigative reviews of, for instance, the power of compassion and kindness and its broad potential to address the world's fundamental problems."
Contained within that citation are three themes I focused on in my interview with him: his work combining scientific investigation with religious exploration; his thoughts on compassion; and his techniques for increasing our capacity for it, including, of course, sleep!
Of course, these three themes are all inextricably bound together. According to the Dalai Lama, science and Buddhist thought share many things:
On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes. ... Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect. From the methodological perspective, both traditions emphasize the role of empiricism.
While the Dalai Lama contends that religious claims must give way to the empirical findings of science, he also believes we must "ensure that science never becomes divorced from the basic human feeling of empathy with our fellow beings."
Or, as he put in his 2004 book, The Wisdom of Forgiveness, co-authored with Victor Chan, "To utilize technology more constructively, inner peace is the most important factor. That's the main reason to have closer relations between modern science and ancient human thought."
When the two come together, the result is the cultivation of connection -- of empathy and compassion. What's extraordinary about the Dalai Lama is his capacity for empathy in the face of all that he's endured -- sustained onslaughts not just against his people but against him, as well. China, of course, has been brutally occupying his homeland since 1951, and he has been in exile since 1959. The list of human rights abuses against the people of Tibet is appallingly long, and those abuses continue to this day. According to the Human Rights Watch, China responded to a 2008 uprising in Tibet by "brutalizing detainees and torturing suspects in custody." In the past year alone, some 30 Tibetan monks have self-immolated in protest.
And though the Dalai Lama has been in exile for over 50 years and strictly advocates non-violence, such is the power of his teachings that the Chinese government treats him as an enormous threat. Among the attacks it has made on him are claims:
- That he encourages the monks to set themselves on fire: "The Dalai Lama is deliberately encouraging Tibetans to self-immolate."
- That he enjoyed the deaths of Chinese earthquake victims: "Sources said that the Dalai Lama was in inexplicable ecstasy."
- That he's like Osama bin Laden: Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama was as if China met with "Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda leaders."
- That he's like Hitler: "The Dalai Lama's speeches can't help but make people think of the fanatical Nazis during the second world war."
- That he loves Hitler: Because he's said that his rules of compassion must apply even to Hitler, the official news agency Xinhua says he "cherished the memory of Hitler."
Despite this relentless demonization, he's remained among the world's foremost practitioners of the cultivation of compassion.
"We have to make every effort to promote human affection," he says. "While we oppose violence or war, we must show there is another way -- a nonviolent way. Now look at humanity as a whole. Today's reality: whole world almost like one body. ... Our future depends on global well-being."
At the heart of this approach is the Buddhist belief in the mutability of consciousness -- the idea that we can, through certain practices, change our inner being. "It means that the cultivation of loving-kindness can over a period diminish the force of hate in the mind," he explains. Unlike our physical qualities, "the qualities of the mind have the potential for limitless development," which means that "it is possible for a mental quality like compassion to be developed to a limitless degree."
How can this be done? One way is through the practice of mindfulness, focusing one's mind by focusing on a single process, most commonly breathing. Another technique is one he calls "giving and taking." This is how he describes it: "I make visualization: send my positive emotions like happiness, affection to others. Then another visualization. I visualize receiving their sufferings, their negative emotions. I do this every day. I pay special attention to the Chinese -- especially those doing terrible things to the Tibetans."
One of his goals in bringing science and Buddhism together is to study and enhance the transformative effects of these practices. Since 1987, he's been organizing dialogues between scientists and Buddhist thinkers and practitioners on a range of subjects, from physics and astronomy to empathy and compassion.
"These are times," he says:
...when destructive emotions like anger, fear and hatred are giving rise to devastating problems throughout the world. But I believe we have a valuable opportunity to make progress in dealing with them, through a collaboration between religion and science...
Experiments have already been carried out that show some practitioners can achieve a state of inner peace, even when facing disturbing circumstances. The results show such people to be happier, less susceptible to destructive emotions, and more attuned to the feelings of others. These methods are not just useful, but cheap: you don't need to buy anything or make anything in a factory. You don't need a drug or an injection.
So how can we spread these ideas? How can we scale them to meet the huge challenges we're facing all over the world? A good way to start is by trying to emulate this remarkable man's approach to living: "The important thing is that my daily life should be something useful to others," he said last year. "As soon as I wake up in the morning, I shape my mind. The rest of the day, my body, speech, mind are dedicated to others."
Call it step one on our journey from "relevance to resonance."
Watch my conversation with the Dalai Lama here (with a video slideshow here).
Add your voice to the conversation on Twitter: twitter.com/ariannahuff