Mundgod, Karnataka – Prof Svyatoslav V Medvedev of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Prof Alexander Yakovlevich Kaplan of Moscow State University, Russian members of their research team, and eight Tibetan monks who have undergone training in Russia met His Holiness the Dalai Lama this morning. A major focus of their work is investigating ‘thukdam’, the phenomenon that sometimes occurs when an accomplished meditator dies and their subtle consciousness remains, even after clinical death.
Telo Rinpoché told His Holiness that the team have visited the Abbots of the various monasteries and have set up a research laboratory at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Research teams have also been established in the monasteries. In October, the Russians visited Sherabling and Dolanji Monasteries in Himachal Pradesh and plan to make connections with Namdroling when they are next in Bylakuppe.
Eight Tibetan monks have undergone training at the Institute of the Human Brain, the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology and the Center for Consciousness Studies at Moscow State University. In addition to being given an understanding of the theory behind the research they are to participate in, the monks also received practical training in electroencephalography (EEG).
This is the Russian scientists’ second visit to the monasteries here in South India, in the course of which the monasteries have agreed to participate in the project.
His Holiness observed that a key factor to remember is the Buddha’s advice, “As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so, bhikshus, should you accept my words — after testing them, and not merely out of respect for me.” With these words he encouraged his followers to subject what they were told to scrutiny, to examine it and ask why it is so. His Holiness recalled that it was this advice that gave him confidence to enter into discussions with scientists almost 40 years ago.
“In the early 20th century,” he remarked, “for most scientists only the brain was a fit object of study. But by the final years of the century many had begun to accept the possibility that consciousness could affect the brain. I believe that if scientists pursue their investigations of consciousness and the brain, they may be able to offer solutions to many problems we face today.
“The understanding of the workings of the mind and emotions arrived at in ancient India may be recorded in religious texts, but today it can be studied in an entirely academic context.
“These days the public are more likely to pay attention to scientific evidence of the benefits of warm-heartedness that to religious advice. For example, the scientific observation that it is human nature to be compassionate because we are social animals dependent on our various communities complies with common sense. Evidence that warm-heartedness results in greater physical and mental well-being is a compelling reason for working to cultivate it. When an individual is happy, they contribute to making their family happy and happy families make happier communities.”
His Holiness was reminded of Dr Ian Stevenson who conducted extensive research into the memories some children have of previous lives. He mentioned cases he has personally encountered. Clearly the physical body of the child of the present life has no connection to the physical body of the life remembered, so the link has to do with continuity of consciousness. He spoke briefly of consciousness of different degrees of subtlety. Waking consciousness tends to be dominated by sensory input, but in the dream state sensory consciousness is absent. There are yet subtler levels of consciousness in deep sleep and at the time of death.
His Holiness suggested that the Russian team might like to investigate this aspect of consciousness too. Prof Medvedev responded that if His Holiness gave him this task, he would create a team to look into it and cooperate with the monks they already know. He added that he wanted to inform His Holiness that a couple of days ago he held discussions with Dr Richie Davidson, Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They established that they are following a common approach and have agreed to share research.
Citing an instance of a memory from a previous life, His Holiness reported that when he once met the great scholar Upadhyaya, the Pandit recited the opening verse from Chandrakirti’s commentary to Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’ in sonorous Sanskrit. It unaccountably moved His Holiness to tears.
“I have great respect for all religions that down the centuries have been of benefit to great numbers of people. But Buddhism is the only one that emphasizes the use of reason. As ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ states, the Buddha’s teaching is founded on the two truths and while the truth of cessation and the truth of the path are related to ultimate truth, the truth of suffering and the truth of its cause belong to conventional truth. And it’s on the basis of this that we explain the Three Jewels of Refuge.
“These days I urge my Indian friends to appreciate that India has the opportunity to combine modern education, which contributes to material development, with ancient Indian knowledge that contains the seeds of peace of mind.”
His Holiness suggested that scientific research would do well to examine the difference between monks meditating on emptiness, those meditating to develop a calmly abiding mind and those doing tantric meditation. He stressed that in the case of meditation on emptiness, it’s important that the meditator has a clear idea of the object to be negated. They have to see how things are dependently arisen and how things appear to the mind. As Tsongkhapa writes:
Appearances refute the extreme of existence,
Emptiness refutes the extreme of nonexistence;
When you understand the arising of cause and effect from the viewpoint of emptiness,
You are not captivated by either extreme view.
He added that reaching such a realization takes time.
As the meeting came to a close, His Holiness reminded the Russian team that during the life of the 13th Dalai Lama a Buddhist temple was constructed in St Petersburg. He also mentioned that with part of its territory in Asia and part in Europe, Russia can function as a bridge between East and West. He ended by expressing appreciation of their work.