Frankfurt, Germany – In the Jahrhunderthalle for a symposium of ‘Western Science and Buddhist Perspectives’ today, moderator Gert Scobel announced that to begin with a tribute would be paid to German physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker who died ten years ago. His son, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, a biologist and co-president of the think-tank the Club of Rome, was present for the occasion.
In his opening remarks, His Holiness the Dalai Lama noted that it was an honour to be sitting with his teacher, von Weizsäcker’s son and his old friend, Wolf Singer—a happy reunion of old friends. He mentioned that he regarded David Bohm and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker as his tutors in relation to quantum physics, but that they had discussed many other issues too.
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker suggested that his father would have been proud to know that his memory was being honoured in this way. He mentioned discussions that have taken place in the Club of Rome about the need for a new enlightenment, one that balances short term and long term goals, as well as balancing the demands of the market and the state.
In presenting an ‘Update on Western Science’, Wolf Singer suggested that human beings can be both altruistic and cruel. Because we have language, we have the ability to communicate. He suggested that we are fully responsible for our own lives and that of the planet.
Gert Scobel presented an ‘Overview of Ethical Contributions to Western Society’ in which he placed the Buddha in an historical context. He compared the approaches of East and West, with their differences of first and third person perspectives. He also explored the meaning and place of secular ethics.
Elaborating on ‘Neuroscience and Mindfulness’, Britta Holzel mentioned the recent huge growth in interest in mindfulness in connection with stress reduction, the abating of heart disease, pain management, as well as improved compassion and general well-being. She also referred to its role in attention regulation, emotional regulation, improved self-awareness and self regulation.
Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi focussing on ‘Cognitively-based Compassion Training and SEED (Social Ethical Emotional Development)’ acknowledged the material progress that has been made in the world, but pointed out the need to see corresponding progress in the happiness people experience. He referred to the ‘World Happiness Report’ and mentioned his work at Emory University, where the structure of his framework is drawn from Goleman and Senge’s book ‘Triple Focus’ and the content is derived from His Holiness’s ‘Ethics for a New Millennium’ and ‘Beyond Religion’. He described the teaching programs that are being designed to foster social, emotional, ethical learning, and the crucial role that teacher preparation workshops play.
“I really admire your expert presentations of the work you’re doing,” His Holiness commented. “I am reminded that everything is due to other factors and nothing exists independently.
“Modern education is inadequate on a mental level. We need to supplement it from other sources. By and large, ordinary people are readier to accept what is borne out by scientific findings. I believe that our ethics education must be based on these, as well as on common experience and common sense. Generally, we might say that ethical actions give rise to happiness, while unethical actions give rise to pain. Therefore, we need to encourage education about warm-heartedness, in the knowledge that it is a cause of better personal health and well-being, as well as greater individual, family and community happiness.”
His Holiness then entered into a dialogue with Wolf Singer that touched on the scientific view earlier in the 20th century that mind is but a product of the brain. Towards the end of the century there seemed to be an acceptance that some mental activity can affect the brain. Singer replied that the prevailing view is that mind is an emerging property of the brain, but some reciprocal functions may have been underestimated.
His Holiness also wanted his opinion on whether a brain exists at the time of conception and Singer told him it has only potential existence at that time. He went on to ask if, on a subtle level, we can say that particles that constitute a brain and the particles that make up rocks and plants are the same. Singer conceded that the matter is the same, but it is organized differently.
Repeating a question he has asked others, His Holiness wanted to know if a perfect sperm encounters a womb and ovum in perfect condition it is 100% certain that conception will take place. Receiving a negative answer, he wanted to know what third factor might be involved. Singer told him a sperm is a living being, but conceded that it has no consciousness.
A member of the audience asked if the conversation hadn’t focussed too much on the brain and not enough on the heart. His Holiness remarked that the heart is controlled by the brain. He asked rhetorically what controls the altruism and love we associated with the heart and Singer replied, “The brain.”
Nevertheless, His Holiness concluded that a lot of the problems human beings face are a result of a lack of concern for the well-being of others, which can be tackled not by technological solutions, but by a ‘change of heart.’
After lunch, His Holiness drove to the newly established Tibet House where he was received by the founder, Dagyab Rinpoche and the local Mayor, Uwe Becker. He formally cut the ribbon, lit the lamp and recited verses of consecration to indicate the inauguration of the institution.
Mayor Becker welcomed His Holiness and introduced him to gathered members of the media.
“The world is becoming smaller due to technological developments,” His Holiness told them. “Therefore, it’s important to know about different cultural heritage. I believe that Germans interested in Tibet came to Lhasa before the Second World War.
“After the war, a new nation arose from the ashes of ruin and yet I’ve been struck by the lack of resentment for what happened among my German friends.
“Since first coming to Europe in 1973 I’ve visited Frankfurt several times and have often passed through the airport on the way to other destinations. I’m happy to see a German Tibet House set up here. Amongst our rich cultural heritage, we Tibetans have kept the Nalanda Tradition alive with its exercise of logic and understanding of the workings of the mind and emotions. It’s my hope that this may become a centre of learning where people can study these things in an academic way.”
Asked his view of the refugee crisis with which Europe is still grappling, His Holiness expressed admiration for German efforts to extend help. However, he compared the various refugees to Tibetans who have not given up their fundamental expectation to eventually go home. In that context, he said that it is good to offer shelter and education facilities for the young. The long term aim though should be for them ultimately to return home once peace has been restored.
His Holiness agreed with another questioner that it is unfortunate that concern for violations of human rights in places like Tibet takes second place to economic considerations. He asserted that he has no argument with the Chinese people as such, although he resists hard-line government policy.
The matter of sexual abuse in Buddhist organizations came up and His Holiness acknowledged that he knows Sogyal Rinpoche, who has been the target of recent complaints, and accepted that his students have spoken out. He stated that respect for the spiritual teacher is important, but quoted the ‘Stages of the Path’ which in turn cites the Vinaya: “If a teacher’s explanation accords with wholesome practice, pay attention and follow it. If it is unwholesome, do not follow it. If the teacher advises something that is against the Dharma, oppose it.”
Turning to the members of the media themselves, His Holiness encouraged them to help promote human values and inter-religious harmony. He told them they had a responsibility not only to report sensationalist negative stories, but also some of the positive events, like the finding that basic human nature is compassionate, that we otherwise take for granted. He reminded them to tell people that humanity is not doomed, and that if appropriate efforts are made now, a happier, more peaceful world can be achieved.
Tomorrow, His Holiness leaves Frankfurt for Sicily in southern Italy.