[Buddha-l] Editorial Nature on HHDL at SfN meeting

Rob Hogendoorn r.m.hogendoorn at umail.leidenuniv.nl
Sun Aug 21 13:08:54 MDT 2005

Science and religion in harmony

A spiritual leader with an interest in research has encountered  
opposition to his plans to speak at a
scientific meeting. But he is perfectly entitled to do so.

The Dalai Lama is due to speak at the annual Society for Neuroscience  
meeting in Washington DC on 12 November, and
some neuroscientists don’t like it (see Nature 436, 452; 2005).
But the Buddhist leader’s talk is part of a lecture series that the
society is laudably conducting on the science and society — and it
should go ahead as planned.

The invitation of the Dalai Lama to the meeting will be interpreted
in some quarters as an insult to his nemesis, China. And, citing the
oft-repeated refrain that science and religion should be kept  
separate, some neuroscientists are calling for the lecture to be  

The critics accuse the Dalai Lama of trying to use the meeting to
sell science that they regard as substandard: research on the  
relationship between meditation and physiological changes in the brain.
Even the researchers directly involved in these studies, many of
whom are working with the encouragement and support of the Dalai
Lama, say that the work is in its early stages.

But the society did not invite the Dalai Lama to speak as a  
scientist. He will be in Washington to kick off its lecture series on  
“Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society”, in which non-scientists
are expected to address “subjects of interest to neuroscientists”. The
second such lecture will be given by Frank Gehry, the architect who
designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Since Nature first reported on this story three weeks ago, several
neuroscientists have written to us criticizing efforts to stop the
lecture (see page 912, for example). It seems reasonable to assume
that a fair number of the 30,000 delegates expected to attend one of
the world’s largest scientific meetings will be interested to hear what
the Dalai Lama has to say.

The Dalai Lama will not be a complete outsider at the meeting.
Through the Colorado-based Mind & Life Institute, he has already
interacted with many reputable neuroscientists. According to the
society, he was invited, in part, because “he has already had an  
influence on the design of experiments of great interest to  
neuroscientists”. As even one opponent of the talk admits: “He has  
views on

controlling negative emotions, which is a legitimate area for  
neuroscience research in the future.” But his lecture does not  
constitute an endorsement of his views by the society.

Critics counter that the talk threatens to “entangle the Society for
Neuroscience with religious activities”. The invitation for the Dalai
Lama to speak will give him a chance to sell his religious beliefs in
the guise of neuroscience, they claim. Their petition opposing the
lecture even draws comparisons between the Dalai Lama, with his
belief in reincarnation, and creationists.

But speakers at meetings — non-scientists or scientists — should
not be barred on the basis of their religious beliefs. Well-known
scientists including Newton have had religious beliefs that many
people would disagree with, but these have no bearing on the  
credibility of their scientific ideas.

Furthermore, in stark contrast with the approach of most religious
leaders, the Dalai Lama has tried for many years to encourage  
empirical research into the claims he makes for the value of meditation.
He encourages monks to take “The Dalai Lama
part in such experiments. Resulting studies have appeared in  
encourages monks to take
respectable scientific journals. part in experiments.

It is true that the invitation Resulting studies have
could be interpreted as an insult appeared in respectable
to China. But the manner in
which it was issued — by a sci-scientific journals.”
entist who was attending a meeting on neuroplasticity at the Dalai
Lama’s home in India — implies that the neuroscience society
harbours no such intent.

It is not unreasonable for the researchers who object to the  
invitation to protest against it, and to seek to draw attention to  
the limitations of the Dalai Lama’s credentials as a speaker. But now  
that the
point has been made, they should withdraw their threatened boycott
of the meeting, and instead raise their issues in the open forum that
will follow his talk.

www.nature.com/nature Vol 436 | Issue no. 7053 | 18 August 2005

More information about the buddha-l mailing list