His Holiness the Dalai Lama's second day of dialogue with scientists in Tokyo

November 7th 2012

Tokyo, Japan, 7 November 2012 - The second day of His Holiness’ first major, multi-day discussion on science in Japan began with Dr. Masashi Yanagisawa, of Tsukuba University, delivering a talk on “The Mystery of Sleep and Waking.” Sleep, the professor pointed out, is only a time for the brain to rest; but the electricity in the brain is not turned off during sleep. It’s just set on “maintenance mode,” as it were. The amount of sleep each animal needs varies greatly—from 4 hours a day for sheep to 17 hours for hedgehogs—but there’s no species that does not require sleep. “Why do we have to be unconscious one-third of our lives?” Dr Yanagisawa asked, especially given the environmental danger involved.

A rich variety of examples followed, including experiments with mice and instances of narcolepsy, and as soon as Professor Yanagisawa concluded, His Holiness asked, “Can plants sleep?” The scientist replied that in his field sleep “is defined very strictly. If there is a well-developed nervous system, then creatures can sleep. Even fruit flies and fish sleep. But though plants can rest for a while, it’s not like sleep.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama enjoys a moment of laughter during the second day of the dialogue with Japanese scientists in Tokyo, Japan, on November 7, 2012. Photo/Office of Tibet Japan
“I think sleep has to do with the mind,” His Holiness replied. “Modern science has to do with the physical, which we can measure. But the mind is very mysterious.” The fact that he could change his sleep-cycles when he flew across 9 time-zones, but couldn’t alter his body, suggested, he said, that sleep is determined by the mind. Indeed, in dream time, sensorial consciousness is not so strong, so you can really investigate mental consciousness.

Then Dr. Naoki Yahagi, a doctor of medical science from Tokyo University, described some case studies from his personal experience. The first involved a 26 year-old woman he’d treated in an emergency ward who had, in a state of depression, thrown herself from a 10th floor window. Miraculously, she had survived, and when she recovered, spoke of seeing a strong light and getting a sudden realization that she had to live. The doctor himself had suffered a series of falls, twice while climbing mountains in the Japanese Alps, and had heard a voice telling him never to come near the mountain again, moving him to give up his dream of becoming a mountain-climber, and later he’d encountered a healer of sorts.

“You have experienced mysterious things,” His Holiness said, when Dr. Yanagi had finished. “But we cannot apply them on a universal level. I do not generally believe in healing powers and these things, though in special cases” (here he nodded graciously towards Dr. Yahagi), “it’s possible.” When people came to hear him out of curiosity, “that’s perfectly all right. Some may came because they feel the Dalai Lama has some kind of miraculous power. That’s nonsense! Some people may feel the Dalai Lama has some kind of healing power. But if there are some real 100% guaranteed healers here, I’d like to show them my knee. It’s been giving me problems!”

Finally, Dr. Norie Kawai, a doctor of medical science from Waseda University, came forward to deliver a talk entitled, “Can we measure the happiness that the human brain feels?” After spending ten years in a Balinese village, she explained, she had finally won the locals’ trust enough to put electrodes on ritual dancers to test their responses while in trances. It took three more years to achieve clean data, but finally she found that the noradrenaline, dopamine and B-endorphin levels were much higher in dancers in a trance, and that gamelan music could increase happiness at inaudible, high-frequency levels.

“Since my childhood,” His Holiness said, “I’ve been very familiar with oracles. I and some friends have always wanted to check, when people are in trances, what kind of change there is in their physical condition. So far, there’s been little chance to analyze this. So your research is very helpful.

“Now, from the Buddhist viewpoint, these spirits are different forms of life. These sorts of spirits should not be considered sacred or important. They’re just another form of sentient being. As with human beings, there are good beings, bad and neutral in the world of spirits. But we should not be confused and think, `Such beings are remarkable.’ If you emphasize such spirits too much, and take refuge there, you are no longer a Buddhist.

“We should never say that these spirits come from Heaven. In Heaven, there has to be some real inner spiritual quality. Real joy or peace of happiness comes from training of the mind. That is the real purpose of spiritual practice.”

The participants now broke for a lunch together and then reassembled, before a completely full ballroom, for a final 90-minute discussion to gauge the previous day and a half of presentations. The first question that came up was whether plants have minds.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and participating Japanese scientists gather on the last session to discuss the two days of dialogue that took place in Tokyo, Japan, on November 7, 2012. Photo/Office of Tibet Japan
His Holiness stressed that that he always thought of how Lord Buddha was born not in his palace, but under a big tree. He found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree; he died under some trees. But still, in Buddhism, he stressed, plants don’t have a mind. Jains and practitioners of other religious traditions impute minds to plants, but Buddhists took a different position.

A professor of religious studies now spoke about the “three stories” of the human experience: the visible, the level of prayer and meditation, “half-transparent and half-oblique,” and the highest level, which belongs to eternity. His Holiness didn’t quite agree with this vision, though he acknowledged that Buddhism speaks of three levels: the obvious, the hidden and the very hidden. “But we must go back to the original Nalanda tradition,” he stressed. “The texts written by Nalanda teachers such as Nagarjuna. Otherwise, as Buddhism gets mixed with local spirits, the original teaching gets diluted and degenerates.”

Peace will never come through prayer, he remembered saying at a meeting of Nobel Laureates in Hiroshima; it can come only through our actions. In order to help others, we have to develop peace inside ourselves. And religion will never be universal. The only thing that can cover 7 billion human beings is common sense, “based on scientific findings.”

When asked about the after-life, and then The Tibetan Book of the Dead, he said that it was much more important to talk about this life, and what we could do to make it meaningful and constructive. “Practice more compassion. Unlike laughter”—here he laughed merrily at Professor Murakami, who had made this point the previous day, only for a later speaker to challenge it—“it has no side effects!”

As the program moved to a conclusion, His Holiness stressed how happy he was that such a discussion was taking place in Japan. “Your land is not very big, but people are quite smart, hard-working. After the Second World War, your whole country was devastated, but you built a new one out of the ashes, though your determination, your hard work. Please pay some attention to inner value.”

As he was walking out of the auditorium, after a jam-packed two days of give-and-take and analytical richness, he was stopped by a television crew, and a journalist asking him how he felt. “For many years,” said His Holiness, “I’ve had this dream of seeing a dialogue between ancient science and modern science. Such a dialogue is of mutual benefit. For over 30 years I’ve been part of such dialogues in the West. But now for Japan—a great nation, a Buddhist nation—to host such discussions over the last two days leaves me feeling very, very satisfied. I believe this is just the beginning. In the future, I hope many more such discussions will continue.”

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