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Mind set: Groundhog Buddhism

April 14, 2009

Times of India
Shobhan Saxena
April 12, 2009

"Monks and neuroscientists are trying to find
common ground in the discovery of self." -- Timothy Leary.

Unlike the Harvard guru who turned on, tuned in
and dropped out of sight till the law caught up
with him, weatherman Phil Connors was not
dropping acid. But he was having bizarre visions.
Or just one vision; the same every day. He would
wake to the Sonny and Cher ‘I got you, babe’
number, stare at the ceiling, drink coffee, drive
to work with the usual set of lousy people and
hit the same old sack on his return home.

Life, for Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’, was a
drag. Tomorrow never arrived and yesterday kept
replaying itself in slow motion. Connors found a
way out: trying to exit by tossing a live
electric toaster into his bath tub. But Sonny and
Cher were back again next morning, telling him
there was no escape from suffering. There was a
serious problem: his mind didn’t understand him.
Or perhaps he didn’t understand his mind.

The movie, now a cult flick, ends with Nat King
Cole’s ‘Almost like being in love’ as Murray
falls for his dream woman and walks with a spring
in his step. The change comes about slowly as
Murray realizes that the world was not repeating
itself before him; it was he who was at fault. He
realized he had been self-centred, looked down
his nose at those around him and failed to help
others. He kept repeating himself till he
realized his true self. Finally, Murray figured
out the mantra of life: Renew yourself each day;
do it again, and again, and forever again. The
Hollywood film ends with this Buddhist sutra. It
also raised a profound question: can the self
guide itself out of its self-created misery?

This is what was discussed all this week in a
cosy conference room in the middle of a pine
forest right under the snow-capped mountains. The
Dalai Lama and a select group of neuroscientists,
philosophers from some of America’s leading
universities and a bunch of dharma followers,
including Hollywood star Richard Gere, were
locked in intense discussion on the issue of
self. For five days, they discussed the concepts
of attention, memory and the phenomenological
study of the mind as part of the Mind and Life
Dialogue ­ an interface between Buddhist monks
and neuroscientists to find cross-cultural ground
between the two traditions. They did not reach
firm conclusions but the dialogue ­ the 18th in
the 22-year-old series ­ explored the concept of
“mind and self” from two different perspectives ­ spiritualism and science.

Logically, the two perspectives should’ve been at
odds with each other. Instead, the monks and
scientists complemented each other. The dialogue
caught the attention of the world’s scientific
community in 1994, when the faculty of Stanford
University engaged the Dalai Lama in a long
dialogue. They called it a “once-in-a
lifetime-experience”. The Stanford faculty’s
discussion ranged across multiple issues from the
“selfish gene” to the Big Bang theory; from
mind-brain dichotomy to the use of self-hypnosis
to ease pain. Even the “ethics of a cyber hacker”
was discussed with the Tibetan spiritual leader.
The Dalai Lama, in turn, posed questions on the
role of creation stories in creating individual and community identities.

The high point -- and most contentious one -- of
that debate came when Russell Fernald, professor
of psychology, talked about the nature of the
brain. He argued that "the function and structure
of the brain are not set early in life, but
undergo fundamental changes depending on
experience”. Quoting studies that have shown that
the brains of professional musicians are
different from those of non-musicians, the
Standford don asked the Dalai Lama to elaborate
“how human behavior affects the brain”. This was
to be Bill Murray’s problem in the film Groundhog Day.

The Dalai Lama’s answer was simple: "If the
discussion is limited to the brain, Buddhist
tradition has very little to say. But if you
expand the discussion to the concepts of mind and
brain, there are parallels to Buddhist concepts
of mind and vital energies. In Buddhism, there
are different degrees of consciousness. So it is
not surprising that mental states might affect
the structure or function of the brain.”

The monk concluded by saying that he is open to
the possibility that "non-material ideas can
affect consciousness and influence brain state."

Both monks and scientists are divided on issues
of "self -- and "consciousness." Many a monk has
argued that the ‘self ’ is "an illusion caused by
ignorance." Many a scientist has agreed, at least
in part because the brain’s neural structure is
known to change its form every second and the
challenge is to know how to maintain the idea of
‘self’ in a brain that is in a state of flux. But
Tibetan Buddhist spiritualism and science do not
agree on the concept of consciousness. The monks
argue that there are many kinds of consciousness
­ eye, ear and so on. But the scientists say
there is only one ­ the mind. They clinch the
argument by citing the effects of morphine. “You
put that into the brain and the whole body goes to sleep.”

So, can spiritualism and science ever agree? What
is the point of the Mind and Life dialogue?
Interestingly, the two sides often differ on the
facts and agree on approach. For instance, during
a recent debate, professor of physics Steven Chu
summarized the Big Bang theory and asked the
religious leader whether it bothered him that
“science was impinging on subjects like the
origin of the universe that once were the sole
province of religion”. The Dalai Lama replied
that he saw no incompatibility between the
scientific method and Buddhist tradition. “If a
theory says something should appear, but it
doesn’t, then the theory is probably wrong.”

He was, of course, drawing from the "scientific
philosophy" propounded by the Buddha, who
described the universe as an infinite number of
systems forming, disintegrating and re-forming,
without beginning or end. Within these worlds,
the Buddha said, living beings undergo repeated
birth, death and rebirth based on their innate
misconception of reality. All creatures conceive
of things existing independently; in truth
nothing is self-originated. He called this
interdependence emptiness ­ the lack of an
ultimate self. When the mind realizes that its
identity is merely illusion, it achieves freedom.

Bill Murray’s wisecracking and cynical character
in ‘Groundhog Day’ finally sees the light when he
detaches himself from his self-centred existence.
How did he do it? Did his brain guide him? Or did
he guide the brain? The questions remain.

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