2008/10/06 10:22 NPO
Mind Games: The Dalai Lama Takes Harvard
The Dalai Lama addresses an audience on the campus of Harvard University.
Steven Senne / AP
The Dalai Lama is a lot more playful than your average Harvard professor, which is one reason his appearance at a Harvard psychology conference on Friday was so entertaining. The Dalai Lama — who at 73 has an agile, mischievous mind and an abiding interest in psychology — accepted Harvard's invitation because he wanted a lively debate about the latest science on mental health. He wanted to play. What he got was an audience of earnest academic worshippers. He played anyway.
The occasion was Harvard's fourth annual conference on the massive changes that meditation and mindfulness techniques are bringing to everyday psychology. Whereas many psychologists in the postwar era tried to "correct" negative thinking by asking patients didactic questions ("You say you can't do anything right at work — is that really true, or are you being too extreme?"), the latest wave of therapy is all about watching your negative thoughts flow through you instead of trying to fix them. Mindfulness means disentangling yourself from your thoughts, which is what monks like the Dalai Lama have been doing for centuries. (See TIME's photos: "The Dalai Lama: Six Decades of Spiritual Leadership")
The Dalai Lama is just as interested in shrinks and academics as they are in him. In 2005, he met in Sweden with Dr. Aaron "Tim" Beck of the University of Pennsylvania, the inventor of cognitive therapy and, at 87, one of the most influential psychologists in the world. He's also met several times with neuroscientists specializing in research on brain mechanisms associated with various kinds of meditation.
The latest such research shows that daily meditation can improve mental and physical health, but at Harvard the Dalai Lama wasn't convinced by some of the comically deferential — and facile — extrapolations made from there. When one Harvard psychologist suggested that Western cultures defy the biological imperative to connect with others an make it more challenging to be compassionate, the Dalai Lama paused for 20 seconds before answering. "Firstly," he said, "some people make a distinction between West and East. And there are some lifestyle differences ... but in the mental area, I don't think there are differences ... At the mental level, I don't think there's any sort of demarcation between East and West."
Other researchers also seemed to puzzle the Dalai Lama. Conference organizer Christopher Germer, author of the forthcoming book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself From Destructive Thoughts and Emotions, asked His Holiness whether he would "lead us in a brief meditation that the therapists in this room could practice at home to cultivate compassion for themselves as well as for their patients." The Dalai Lama shot him a skeptical look that got everyone laughing. He was sweet about it, but meditation isn't a "brief" trick.
The Dalai Lama seemed at every turn to want to soften the hard intellectual mood — to have a flickering back-and-forth with the other panelists. He took his shoes off at one point and carefully folded his legs underneath him — first the left, then the right. He loudly blew his nose into a tissue at one point, and he laughed a lot with those great sparkly eyes.
Finally, one of the panelists responded to his body language. Marsha Linehan, one of the world's leading psychologists, invented Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a highly effective, widely replicated treatment for suicidal and self-harming patients that includes mindfulness. Before Linehan spoke, the Dalai Lama had asked a playful question: "What, exactly, is psychology?" No other panelist answered him, but Linehan addressed the question as soon as she spoke. She called psychology "the science of behavior, including the behavior of the mind."
And for the first time, the Dalai Lama seemed truly delighted, since here was something, and someone, to engage. "You mean psychology is not just the mind itself?"
"No," Linehan answered. "It is the study of the mind. You study it also, of course."
Playful as always, he looked at Linehan approvingly and said, "Now, your answer, instead of solving the problem, creates more confusion ... I feel I am still in kindergarten." And with that, he laughed like a little kid, and finally, so did everyone else.
See TIME's photos of the Dalai Lama at home
See TIME's photos of a new Tibet
Dalai Lama to Stay Quiet on Tibet's Future
The Dalai Lama gives public talks at Nottingham Arena in England on May 25,2008
CARL DE SOUZA / AFP / Getty Images
After a stunning Oct. 25 announcement in India that he had "given up," the Dalai Lama reiterated during a visit to Japan this weekend that he is losing faith in talks with the Chinese government over Tibet's future. Having served the Tibetan people for 68 years as their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama said that the situation for Tibetans is deteriorating and that Chinese rule in Tibet is "almost like a death sentence." The leader has declared a position of complete neutrality, intending to stay silent on how the Tibetan people should engage with the Chinese government in upcoming talks in Dharamsala and New Delhi.
The Dalai Lama's latest comments come as his representatives, having left for Beijing on Oct. 29, are expected to visit with Chinese officials in the latest dialogue between the Tibetan government-in-exile and Beijing since July. The Dalai Lama did not say when the talks would begin. During a weeklong visit to Japan — his first overseas trip since undergoing surgery to remove gallstones in early October — the Dalai Lama is scheduled to meet with Buddhist monks and speak on spirituality. He will not, however, meet with politicians, as the Japanese government is careful to avoid criticism from China by meeting with the leader, whom Beijing accuses of fomenting riots in China and anti-China demonstrations.
The Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, based in Dharamsala, India, has been engaged in talks with China since 2002. He has sought autonomy for Tibet — a status described as a middle ground between Tibet's current place under the People's Republic of China and full independence. He now, however, views this "middle way" approach as having failed to produce "positive results," and he is therefore changing his course of action — by stepping back. "My trust in the Chinese government has become thinner, thinner, thinner," the Dalai Lama said to reporters on Monday, reiterating statements he has made over the past week that his faith in Beijing is waning. "I cannot take direct responsibility dealing with the Chinese government," he said. "If I say, 'I think this is better or that is better,' then people may not express freely," he said on Sunday. "Now it's up to the people."
Stepping aside on the political front would allow a younger generation of Tibetans, in whom the Dalai Lama has stated he has confidence, to carry the torch of responsibility for what happens next. The Dalai Lama has said that he wants Tibet to enjoy the prosperity of China while maintaining Tibetan language and culture. Buddhist monks also want more religious freedom, and one peaceful protest to that end in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, in March caused the city to fall into chaos and violence. There is increasing division among Tibetan monks over what should be done. Some even advocate the use of violence to achieve Tibetan independence — something the Dalai Lama has never done.
This month, however, there will be many opportunities to discuss what the right way forward may be. The Dalai Lama has called for a special weeklong meeting, starting on Nov. 17 and convened by the government-in-exile in Dharamsala, to discuss how to engage the Chinese government. At the end of November, international supporters of the Tibetan cause are expected to meet in New Delhi.
The Dalai Lama said on Sunday that he does not know what will come of the meetings. Now 73, he said he is looking forward to complete retirement. "My retirement is also my human right," he said, laughing during Monday's press conference in Tokyo. "Since 16 years old, I carried this responsibility. There should be a limit." And though his negotiating life may be coming to an end, as far as his being Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama says he will remain committed until death.
(See photos from the Dalai Lama's 68 years of spiritual leadership here.)
(See photos of the Dalai Lama at home in India here.)