Monks in the Laboratory

October 1, 2007

The 14th Dalai Lama, widely recognized as the public face of modern Buddhist practice, wrote to the New York Times in the aftermath of 9/11:

“I believe that there are practical ways for us as individuals to curb our dangerous impulses …

For the last 15 years I have engaged in a series of conversations with Western scientists. We have exchanged views on topics ranging from quantum physics and cosmology to compassion and destructive emotions. I have found that while scientific findings offer a deeper understanding of such fields as cosmology, it seems that Buddhist explanations — particularly in the cognitive, biological and brain sciences — can sometimes give Western-trained scientists a new way to look at their own fields …

I have been encouraging scientists to examine advanced Tibetan spiritual practitioners, to see what benefits these practices might have for others, outside the religious context. The goal here is to increase our understanding of the world of the mind, of consciousness, and of our emotions.” (NY Times, April 26, 2003)

These experimental studies, still ongoing, have uncovered remarkable aspects of awareness and consciousness, and especially, how these attributes can be cultivated through patient long-term training. Monks in the Laboratory follows the participants in these studies, the scientists and the monks, from temple to university laboratory to mountain hut again.

Watching a minivan filled with instruments and scientists negotiate a washed out road on an Indian mountainside tells you all you need to know about the dedication of these scientists. Still, the potential for cultural clash is enormous. When a monk, his head buried inside the magnet of an MRI device, requests 60 seconds of additional time to enter a meditative state, the scientist’s frustration at being asked to alter experimental protocol is palpable.

But the movie does not dwell on conflict, nor does it reveal much concerning the outcomes of these experiments (for this, one should consult the publications of the Mind & Life Institute). Rather, we spend 50 minutes peering over the shoulders of scientists and monks as they search together for “deeper understanding”.

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