SCIENCE for MONKS

creating science learning communities with tibetan buddhist monastics since 2001

Cosmology & Consciousness Conference 2013

Cosmology & Consciousness Conference Abstracts

How Do We Know?

Engaging the World

Geshe Tenpa Phakchokbio
Drepung Gomang Monastic University

How the mind engages with objective world has very detailed descriptions in Buddhist tradition and I will try to cover some points about how we examine the world through seven types of mind. There are specific ways by which one particular mind engages with the objective world and roles played by that type of mind. When we talk about the mind engaging with the objective world, we need to talk about how we perceive things and here comes the Buddhist epistemology. I will talk about what is a valid cognition and what is mistaken cognition, and also how we know a valid cognition is valid. There is a sequence of the way the mind engages with the object starting from the mistaken state to the valid cognition. First out of ignorance, one either exaggerates or belittles the object and thus a mistaken perception arises. Then through logical analysis and deeper reflection, the mistaken mind gradually transforms successively into doubt, correct assumption, inferential cognition, and finally into direct perception. The process of the mind engaging into the object could be conceptual as well as non-conceptual. It could also be engaging through the process of elimination and affirmation. This process of the mind engaging into the object is very similar to the scientific explanation of the cognition of the object.

How We Know What We Know

Dr. Christopher Impey bio
University Distinguished Professor, Department of Astronomy, University of Arizona

Science is unparalleled as a method for knowing and understanding the natural world. From it's origins with the birth of mathematics and philosophy 2,500 years ago, it has grown to encompass robust theories of the microscopic structure of matter, the origin and evolution of the universe, and the mechanism for the evolution of function and form in living organisms. Applications of these theories have led to modern technology and huge strides in raising humans out of poverty and in combating disease. For all this success, science has limits and there are some things that are unknowable in principle and others that may be unknowable in practice. This talk will cover the strengths and limitations of science and give a sense of where the limits of knowledge lie.

Knowing in Tibetan Medicine

Dr. Sonam Dolma bio
Tibetan Medical Doctor, Men-Tsee-Khang Institute.

The Tibetan medical system is based on a set of established theories and principles that describe the subtle relationship between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic world. The diagnostic methods adopted in Tibetan medicine is devoid of any equipment and instruments. By merely touching, looking and talking with a patients, a Tibetan doctor can identify a variety of health issues and risks facing the patient. Tibetan medical text explains in great length the diagnostic principles and methods which needs to be adopted in treating a patient. In my presentation, I will touch on some of the important factors of the diagnostic methods, as well as the effectiveness and the limitation of Tibetan Medicine in the modern world.

How Do We Extend Our Knowing?

Dharmanauts: Contemplation and Science in the 21st Century

Dr. Rajesh Kasturirangan bio
Professor National Institute for Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science

Much of the dialog between science and contemplative traditions assumes that science is modern and contemplation is ancient. In my presentation, I want to reverse the relationship between the two, that when it comes to certain key developments of the 21st century, contemplative traditions are the future, while scientific inquiry is still stuck in the past, and that much progress will come out of recognizing this role reversal.

What do I mean by the provocative statement in the last line of the previous paragraph? For most of the last four hundred years, science has rejected the study of subjectivity, consciousness and being and concentrated on third-person objective inquiry instead. The objective method has been remarkably successful, but it’s reaching its limits now. Further, the great challenges of the 21st century are either centrally tied to subjectivity – such as the study of the brain – or tied to human impact on nature – such as climate change. Technological advances in big data, neuro-engineering and synthetic biology also promise dramatic changes in who we are as much as what we know. The sciences, because of their focus on third person inquiry, are uncomfortable with studying practices that lead to self-transformation. That’s a glaring fault at a time when scientific and technical progress promises massive self-transformation.

You can see where I am going. Contemplative traditions have engaged with practices of self-transformation for millennia. They provide us both with a theoretical framework and with a moral compass when it comes to self-transformation. I believe that in the coming years, contemplative understanding will (or should!) become mainstream, of great interest not only to people seeking the end of suffering, but also companies like Google that will create products and collect data about 1st person experience at a massive scale. The goal of my talk is to bring Gurus and Google together.

The future belongs to the Dharmanaut; a person who combines a deep understanding of the fundamental issues raised by contemplative inquiry, but who is simultaneously fluent in the language of science and technology. My presentation will cover the scientific and contemplative issues involved in this new imagination, hint at work that we are doing to take this vision forward and speculate (somewhat wildly) on what the future might bring.

Recent Findings from Neuroscience on how Contemplative Practices Affect the Brain

Dr. Gaëlle Desbordes bio
Research Fellow, Center for Biomedical Imaging, Harvard Medical School

Contemplative practices derived from the Buddhist traditions, such as shamatha-vipashyana meditation or the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion through lo-jong methods, have become a topic of significant interest for scientists investigating how the human brain works. This talk will provide an overview of recent scientific research within the burgeoning field of contemplative neuroscience, which concerns itself with the scientific investigation of the effects on the brain of various forms of contemplative practice. We will briefly review brain imaging studies from the past decade which indicate that contemplative practices may indeed change the brain structure and how the brain functions. Several studies to date suggest that individuals with extensive meditation experience exhibit differences in their brains compared to non-practitioners, both in terms of anatomy of specific brain regions, and in terms of patterns of brain activity. In addition, there is mounting evidence that training in meditative practices yields changes in the brain that can be measured over time in beginning practitioners after only a few months – or even shorter periods of time. Overall, these studies point to the general notion that contemplative practices affect the brain in measurable, objective ways. This finding has major implications towards understanding how the brain works and how it can be trained.

Cultural Subjectivity – Building Bridges Between Science and Buddhism

Karma Thupten bio
Science Staff, LIbrary of Tibetan Works & Archives

The connection and relationship between English and Tibetan language is relatively new. Until recently these languages and cultures were highly isolated. In the last decade many scientific words have been coined in Tibetan, and likewise, many words from Buddhist philosophy have been coined in English. However, there are often significant differences between these words that can lead to great misunderstanding during dialogue and exchanges between traditions. Often equivalent terms do not exist. Sometimes one Tibetan term can be used for four or five scientific terms, and sometimes there are numerous terms from the Buddhist tradition that are without an English equivalent. We are not only talking about two different definitions but cultural backgrounds that can confuse understanding of words that may appear similar. The correct meaning, is often unique to the culture and the cultural connotation of the words. Understanding these issues can help avoid misunderstandings and misconceptions. Just knowing that they have different meanings might encourage you to be cautious. But to really understand, it takes time. If we are careful as speakers and as listeners, and avoid jumping to conclusions, we can build more effective bridges between Buddhism and science.

The Hum of the Universe Within

Nishant Seth bio
Graduate Student Researcher, National Institute for Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science

In recent years a lot of groundbreaking work has been done in the area of brain-machine interfaces (BMI), and more generally, what we may call brain-body-machine interfaces. This includes both BMIs where brains control machines, as well as Sensory Substitution Devices where artificial sensors extend the abilities of existing sense organs. These interfaces have chiefly been seen as feats of engineering, while the philosophical questions they raise have been ignored. In this presentation I will frame some of these questions in the context of a novel interface designed in our lab.

The central question we’re exploring is whether the brain is the sole player when a person adapts to such an interface. What about the role of agency and other intentional phenomena that can’t be localized in space? Through this line of inquiry we hope to build on the extended mind hypothesis and related ideas that try to understand the relationship between the mind and the dynamics of the brain-body-environment system.

Specifically our interface connects two users by enabling one to ‘listen’ to the other’s brain-activity in a natural setting. We want to study how the users’ intentions structure the dynamics of this system. Also, by making brainwaves a part of our perceptual domain, we hope to open up a whole new world for scientific and experiential exploration.

Extending and Restraining Our Senses

Geshe Lhakdor bio
Director, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

Within the realm of forms the five senses are termed as internal forms as they can be perceived by only mental consciousness. The sense organs do not refer to the gross external organ but to the actual physical mechanism of perception. Each of the senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) have a different consciousness, that is at each moment of experience there is different experience as well as a different object of experience. The importance of the role played by these sense cannot be downplayed. Even in the briefest of experiences, each of the six sense consciousness occur: one sees, hears, tastes, smells, touches, and one thinks. However in Buddhism, unchecked desires are like the rubber band and stops only when it breaks. The five senses are the outlets allowing you to engage in the sensual objects. If our inner consciousness has no say then our senses, mind, and intellect will not know where to draw the line. Therefore one of the important conditions for successful meditation is putting restraint on the sense outlets. Real happiness does not come from sensual pleasures. Gratification of the senses leads to more desires which actually act as fuel to the fire. If seeking happiness is a natural human instinct, what really makes one happy is not self-indulgence, but transcending sensual desires and finding fulfillment in a higher spiritual plane and bringing happiness to others. We need to respond carefully to situations in life. A great many of our physical sicknesses could be avoided if we could only change our attitudes. Happiness, at its core, is about discovering meaning, and counting your blessings, not your woes.

How Do We Act?

Neurotechnology: Promises and Perils

Dr. Eric Chudler bio
Research Associate Professor, Department of Bioengineering, Executive Director, Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle

Neurological disorders affect approximately 1 billion worldwide. In the United States alone, movement disorders that require 24 hour care, 7 days a week, cost $500 billion each year. There is a clear need for technologies to assist people with neurological problems and tremendous progress has been made by researchers to build systems and devices that interact with the nervous system to assist these patients. Although scientists and engineers "can" develop these new neurotechnologies, many ethical concerns and questions about how researchers "should" proceed are raised. The current state of neurotechnology research and the following neuroethical issues and questions raised by this research will be discussed:

The Road Less Traveled

Geet Oberoi bio
President and Founder, Orkids Foundation

Until very recent times, contemplative practices have been believed to be the privilege of the learned few. The so called common man delved in spirituality usually when in a place of worship or when on a pilgrimage. Spirituality and living our lives at its best were compartmentalized, like two linear parallels, never meant to intersect. Ten years ago to say that I could integrate spiritual teaching and education, would have been scorned at. However that didn't stop certain individuals and institutions to put into practice their beliefs. Orkids is an organization which has been working in the field of special education for almost 20 years. Starting with providing services likes remedial education to children, Orkids expanded into professional development. Our vision of making education possible for all children irrespective of ability was reinforced by being instrumental in changing the mind-sets and quality of skills of the trained professional. We at Orkids believe that gaining knowledge about the outer universe can be further enhanced if we are in touch with our inner universe. The more we go within, the better we are at living our best in this world. My presentation will throw light on how we work with the realities and practicalities of our world of schools and colleges, lack of awareness, insensitivity, lack of accountability, teacher trainings, jobs, exams, marks, grades and the list goes on. And at the same time how we gain strength from our strong empowered self which holds happiness dearly. A balancing act - an act which has over time produced children who are proud of their diverse neurodevelopmental profile, teachers who are sensitive to all needs of all children and an environment which believes that differences are criteria for celebration and not segregation.

Hands-on, Eyeball-to-Eyeball, The New Philanthropy

Bobby Sager bio
President and Founder, Sager Family Foundation

For over a decade, the Sager Foundation has employed a special brand of philanthropy that focuses on building personal connections and leveraging business sensibilities. For the individual, this means contributing your time, energy and talents, rather than just your money to maximize the return on investment you get from philanthropy. This is far from the tradition of writing a check and going to an annual dinner.  It is about accountability, and applying business skills to make strategic and smart decisions about how to cleverly deploy limited resources. The Sager’s approach emphasizes going beyond our immediate bubble of experience, to listen carefully, and to immerse oneself in the issues facing the community. By being hands-on, looking people in their eyes, feeling their humanity, and letting them feel yours, vibrant and open relationships that bring about change for the greater good are established. It isn’t just helping, it’s a way to live life to the fullest.

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