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The Dalai Lama Comes in Peace
The world's most famous Buddhist monk visited New England to discuss science and meditation


ADAM HUNGER—REUTERS

The Dalai Lama greets a crowd of
16,000 at the New England Patriots’
football stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

A 73-year-old Buddhist monk dressed in orange and maroon-colored robes had audiences in the Boston, Massachusetts area spellbound last week. The smiling monk spoke like a wise teacher, but also often laughed and cracked jokes. The visitor was the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the people of Tibet, a region of China that has struggled for independence from the Chinese government for decades. The Buddhist leader fled Tibet when the struggle turned violent and has lived in exile in the neighboring country of India for 50 years. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his efforts to end the suffering of the Tibetan people.

The Science of Inner Peace

Last week, the Dalai Lama once again urged a peaceful solution to the conflict, but he also had another reason to visit: To talk to scientists. He had been invited to participate in the inauguration of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values (transformative is a word that means “to have the power to transform, or change”) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).

Beginning in the 1980s, the Dalai Lama has encouraged and participated in many discussions with scientists who study how the mind works. There are similarities between Buddhism and psychology, especially when it comes to the practice of meditation. One concern they both share: How do we create and maintain a healthy mind? In 2003, the Dalai Lama participated in a large scientific conference at M.I.T. The meeting brought together scientific researchers and Buddhist monks to discuss meditation and neuroscience, the study of the brain. People joked that it was a meeting of folks who wore either robes or lab coats.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin who spoke at M.I.T. last week, has studied Buddhist monks who have practiced meditation for tens of thousands of hours. Davidson and others have shown that meditation can actually help people who suffer from depression, as well as improve overall physical and mental health. Davidson told the audience that researchers are also showing that meditation can help kids who have emotional problems or difficulty in paying attention. Daniel Goleman, another expert who spoke, asked the audience to imagine exercising a muscle: “What meditation does is strengthen the muscles of the mind.”

Can We Learn to be Happier?

When the Dalai Lama addressed the packed audience at M.I.T., he emphasized that we are one human family. “There is no ‘we’ and ‘they,'” he said, but then teased, “unless we discover a threat from space!” We must find effective ways to teach ethics, compassion and open-mindedness to more people in the world, said the Dalai Lama, “We all want happiness and there are ways to increase happiness.”

These are the basic principles that will guide M.I.T.’s new center, director Tenzin Priyadarshi told TFK. “I’ve already been informally visiting some lower and middle schools simply to introduce kids to the idea of calmness and how to be more attentive, how to observe their own thoughts… My hope is that maybe in a year’s time, we will be able to take some of the workshops that we are running here and introduce them into more schools.” Priyadarshi admits, however, that it can take time for school officials and parents to overcome the fear that meditation is a religious practice.

The reception so far, says Priyadarshi, has been tremendous. “Sometimes kids who are 9 or 10 get the message more clearly than adults do.” They also have lots of good questions, says Priyadarshi. “They range from ‘What’s the point of sitting in meditation and watching my mind?’ to ‘Who designs your robes?'”