MindScience - Introduction
A Western Perspective
It was the historian Arnold Toynbee who predicted that one of the most significant events of the twentieth century would be the coming of Buddhism to the West. For modern psychology, that may be so in a special sense: as a discipline we are awakening to the fact that there is a more ancient science of mind, and perhaps a wiser one, than our own, and that its fullest articulation is in Buddhism.
Modern psychology has had a myopic historical vision, assuming that the psychological endeavor began in Europe and America within the last century or so. We have lost sight of the deeper roots of our discipline in philosophy, and, in turn, of philosophy in religion. Few psychologists, for example, remember that William James, one of the fathers of modern psychology, was a member of the philosophy department at Harvard until he founded the psychology department there near the turn of the century.
But Buddhism confronts modern psychology with two facts: that the systematic study of the mind and its workings dates back to well before the Christian era, and that this exploration is at the heart of spiritual life. Indeed, every major world religion harbors an esoteric psychology, a science of mind, usually little known to its lay practitioners. In Islam, for instance, it is to be found in Sufism; in Judaism, in the kabbalah; in Christianity, in monastic meditation manuals.
In Buddhism, the classical mind science is called “Abhidharma.” Developed, systematized, and refined over the thousand years after Gautama Buddha’s teaching in the fifth century b.c.e., Abhidharma is an elaborate model of the mind. Like any thorough psychological system, it describes in detail the workings of perception, cognition, affect, and motivation. A dynamic model, Abhidharma analyzes both the roots of human suffering and a way out of that suffering— the central message of Buddhism cast in the technical language of a psychology.
Apart from the metaphysical context of Abhidharma, it represents a significant entity from the perspective of modern psychology: it is a psychological system with completely different roots. As such, for the first time it offers modern psychology something akin to a “close encounter of the third kind”—a meeting with an alien intelligence that few, if any, really thought existed. Certainly, most psychologists and psychiatrists, if asked, would have said that there is no other fully mature psychology beyond the fold of modern Western thought. Now, though, it is clear that there is one, and that it has something of significance to say to the psychologies of the West.
Buddhist psychology offers modern psychology the opportunity for genuine dialogue with a system of thought that has evolved outside the conceptual systems that have spawned contemporary psychology. Here is a fully realized psychology that offers the chance for a complementary view of many of the fundamental issues of modern psychology: the nature of mind, the limits of human potential for growth, the possibilities for mental health, the means for psychological change and transformation.
This symposium marks a beginning of that dialogue. As it continues, Western psychologists will discover that, just as there are many schools of thought in Western psychology, there is an equally diverse range of schools within Buddhist psychology—Abhidharma is the classical Buddhist psychology, but there are several versions of it by now. And, especially within Tibetan Buddhism, there are many more psychological systems, each elaborating its own practical applications in psychospiritual development.
The structure of this book follows the order of the symposium, its two parts marking the division between the morning and afternoon sessions.
In chapter 1, His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes the Buddhist concept of mind, bridging the views of scientific materialism and religion. He points out that understanding the nature of mind is fundamental to Buddhist thought. Tibetan teachings include a detailed map of how changes in the mind and body affect each other, and techniques for bringing those affects under voluntary control. The Tibetan view of the subtle relationships between mind and body holds that it is possible to separate mind from body—one of many notions that can be tested by researchers as their studies enrich our understanding of mind/body links.
In the dialogue with neuroscientists that follows in chapter 2, His Holiness addresses several issues that are particularly challenging to Western science. These include whether or not mind can observe and understand its own nature; similarities between mathematical lawfulness of occurrences and the workings of karma; the Buddhist concept of emptiness and the ultimate nature of mind; the roots of psychological confusion and disturbances. Also explored is the question of gross and subtle levels of mind, and the provocative possibility that a subtle level of mind might exist independent of body.
Dr. Herbert Benson, in chapter 3, reviews his pioneering research on the mind/body relationship, and especially on the “relaxation response,” which combines ancient meditation techniques with modern medicine. He also describes his more recent work in which advanced Tibetan meditators were studied practicing tumo yoga and striking changes in oxygen consumption and body temperature were found. Such work, he hopes, can increase our understanding of how the mind can influence the body.
In chapter 4, Robert Thurman addresses the question as to what Western cognitive science and neuroscience stand to gain from Tibetan mind science. He traces the development of Buddhist mind science, arguing for its pressing relevance by making the point that in the West our power to affect outer reality has far outstripped our power over ourselves. In suggesting what Tibetan mind science has to offer he cites as an example the remarkable diagnostic abilities of those trained in the Tibetan medicine method of pulse-taking. And he describes the inner states of the tumo practitioner—the inner technology that creates the changes Dr. Benson has measured.
Howard Gardner’s topic in chapter 5 is the modern Western view of the mind as found in cognitive science. His focus is on hard cognition: thinking, intelligence, rationality—as opposed to feeling, spirit, and consciousness. And his plea is that we make use of all the disciplines and experience available—“what is in the East as well as what is in the West”—in a spirit of ecumenicism in which each system mutually shapes the understanding of the other. He proposes a genuine dialogue, with a promise of a final synthesis greater than where each began.
In chapter 6, I compare Tibetan and Western models of mental health. Like Western psychology, the Tibetan system offers a model of the mind and its workings, as well as a definition of mental health and a way to achieve it. But the vision of human possibilities in the Tibetan model holds forth a model of mental well-being that offers a challenge to the paradigms of Western perspective psychology: it asserts that cessation of the suffering caused by clinging and anger and the attainment of states such as equanimity and compassion are not just desirable but possible.
Finally, in the concluding panel discussion in chapter 7, several of the issues raised in the symposium are further discussed and elaborated upon, particularly some that suggest a fertile meeting point between the psychologies of East and West.
For me, this dialogue under the auspices of Harvard Medical School marks a full circle in a personal journey. I first encountered Abhidharma—and Tibetan Buddhism—in 1970, while on a Harvard predoctoral traveling fellowship in India. I was fascinated: here was a psychological system with a radically different set of premises from any to which I had previously been exposed. It was a system that not only explained how the mind worked, but how it could be methodically transformed. And it was a psychology that held out as the ideal of human development spiritual values like equanimity and compassion—a vision far more hopeful than that of any modern psychology.
On my return to Harvard I found the beginnings of research into meditation, the applied technology of Buddhist and other Eastern psychologies. At the Medical School, Herbert Benson was engaged in his pioneering work on the relaxation response; in my own department of psychology, Gary Schwartz, Richard Davidson, and I began a similar program of research on meditation.
While the fruits of research on meditation for behavioral medicine have been great, this dialogue represents a next stage. 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 in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our psychology.
A Tibetan Perspective
Tibet has the inner science civilization par excellence. In her mountain remoteness, her finest minds developed and refined the inner sciences received from the rich and ancient Indian Buddhist civilization. The monastic universities in which Tibetans lived and worked, some with over ten thousand scholars resident, were utterly dedicated to a curriculum that centered on these inner sciences. And the entire Tibetan nation was utterly dedicated to the flourishing of those monastic universities.
Bertrand Russell once said that each of the three great philosophical civilizations, the Western, the Chinese, and the Indian, had its own specialty. The Western excelled in exploring the relationship between humanity and nature, and so developed the extraordinary sciences of the material universe. The Chinese excelled in exploring the relationships within society, and so developed a remarkably peaceful history and an elegant civilization, presently challenged by the difficult encounter with modernity. But the Indian excelled in exploring the human’s inner world, and so developed the supreme knowledge of the self, its depth consciousness, its processes of knowing and expressing, and its extraordinary states.
Over a period of millennia, the Indian Buddhist civilization profoundly influenced all the other civilizations of Asia. Eventually Buddhism was lost in India, and the twentieth century has seen its disappearance from much of the rest of Asia, as well. But in the seventh century C.E., the Tibetan civilization opened itself in a unique way to receive the great treasures of Indian Buddhism, and, over the next thirteen centuries, the Tibetan people became more and more devoted to it, as it transformed their lives, land, society, and deepest hearts.
The Tibetans’ greatest gifts to the world today are their knowledge of these matchless inner sciences and their mastery of the rich panoply of the arts of transformation of the human mind that derive from these inner sciences. Although the West appreciates other cultures for various excellences and exotic beauties, such as their spiritual treasures or works of art, it tends to consider itself the dominant intellect on the planet because of its mastery over the material universe.
But this might be a logical error. Perhaps those who choose no t to develop such power over external nature understand it best. Perhaps those who make it a priority to understand themselves and control their own minds and actions have the superior intellects. Perhaps we in the West have something scientific to learn from them.
The Mind Science Symposium had an atmosphere of inspiration and delight for all concerned, because it was grounded on mutual respect. Westerners as well as Easterners were open to the possibility that they could learn from each other.
Tibet House New York was established in 1987 to help preserve Tibetan civilization, which has been threatened by the most devastating kind of encounter with modernity—military occupation and industrial colonization. While the world of officialdom tries not to recognize the suffering of Tibet and her people, a grass-roots movement from thirty-seven countries proclaimed 1991 to be the International Year of Tibet. It is altogether fitting and deeply moving that the intellectual jewel of Tibet, the healing medicine of Tibet, the unique gift of Tibet—its inner arts and sciences—should have been celebrated at the very beginning of the International Year. I am grateful to Herbert Benson and his colleagues at the Mind/Body Medical Institute for working with Tibet House to honor Tibetan civilization and its ancient tradition of inner science in this way.
Around 1,350 years ago, Tibet was a great military empire in the heart of Asia. But her emperors eventually tired of war and conquest and invited the inner scientists of India to establish their teachings and institutions in Tibet. They thus began the long transformation of Tibet from a culture of violence that held the conquest of others to be the highest goal, to a civilization of nonviolence where the conquest of self was the highest goal. It is my hope that the inner science conferences and studies of the past decade and the ongoing work of the future will all contribute to the world becoming a more peaceful place.
Robert A. F. Thurman
How to cite this document:
© Mind/Body Medical Institute Inc. & Tibet House New York Inc., MindScience (Wisdom Publications, 1991)
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