Friday, December 10, 2010

Interacting Processes at the 3rd World Conference on Buddhism and Science

The deep yearning for knowledge, particularly solutions to the problem of suffering, are stimulating many kinds of dialogue, particularly between and among Buddhism and Science. Thus the 3rd World Conference on Buddhism and Science that took place 1-2 December 2010 at the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol University (Salaya), provided a good opportunity to facilitate such activity. A prime mover behind this kind of meeting space is Dr. Alan Wallace, who is actively promoting the scientific analysis of meditation and its benefits.

I was able to join this conference series for the first time and find out about some of the recent developments in this field and present ideas of my own. The 2 day event was compact, with about 20 speakers in all, allowing for closer discussions. In fact, quite a few of them can be seen on the following brightly-decorated open air shuttle bus (or 'rail car' as it's known locally)!

Mahidol Salaya shuttle bus taking speakers to conference venue

That was taken shortly before 7am on the first day.

The conference was formerly opened by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand, who arrived right on schedule at 9am to give a supportive speech, highlighting the qualities of compassion and the importance of ethics for human well-being, an underlying goal for this conference. Her Royal Highness subsequently stayed on to listen to 4 keynote speakers (and meet them afterwards), taking notes at a desk placed close to the speakers. One of my cousins informed me that at the end of the year the Princess compiles a book from the notes taken, indicating considerable conscientiousness.

The presentations were very diverse, covering various aspects across the three themes of Buddhism and Natural Science, Buddhism and Cognitive Science, and Buddhism and Social Science. I'll only touch on a few here, but very conveniently a complete set of papers is available for download. Despite the diversity, there appeared to be some common patterns in much of the research articulated. The scene was very well set by a fluent presentation from Professor Denis Noble who gave a few notes, as it were, from his book, the Music of Life. I attempt to paraphrase what he said (I have studied very little biology!) As a systems biologist he emphasized interaction of processes as the characteristics of life, rather than any genetic code or other building blocks. For him, the human being needs to be treated as a whole, with no control centre; changes are effected in multiple directions, so you can't predict human behaviour by unravelling the human genome - such DNA provides only templates for proteins. This has led to reflections on the Buddhist concept of anatta, though I think it can only be properly understood through meditation at an advanced level.

Process-oriented views were repeatedly echoed by speakers in neurological reports, particularly neuroplasticity arising from meditation practice. Although it was observed that many presentations about science came from a particular Western epistemological perspective, at least the encounters with Buddhist teachings were generally encouraging more 'plasticity' in the research approaches. It is only early days. One speaker applauded the fact that in Thailand the integration of scientific methods with traditional Thai medicine is formally recognised at the national level, contrasting it with the rather constricted approaches in Britain and the United States - often treating symptoms, not causes. Some of what was presented I had heard before, particularly the work by Prof. Ian Stevenson at Virginia's Division of Perceptual Studies, relating to recollections by children of previous lives. Whilst the evidence continues to accumulate and I've long been persuaded myself, I wonder how much traction they are getting in general amongst the skeptical elements in the scientific community?

I don't have much formal training in the sciences (apart from computer science), but I have been practising meditation for quite a while and keen to see it adopted universally. So I was very keen to hear Rasmus Hougaard of the Potential Project, which provides mind training (meditation) for corporations. This looks like a recipe for success that has the right ingrediences: a programme that draws multiple meditation traditions (including the Thai Forest Tradition of Ven. Ajahn Chah), teachers experienced in meditation and the corporate world, training that applies throughout the day in whatever activities are engaged, a language that business people can relate to and the development of local facilitators to ensure continuity of practice. One limitation still to be addressed, and an important one in view of increasing movements between jobs, is that of supporting someone when they leave the company. At present it seems they're on their own...

It was fitting then that we could join in two meditation sessions - both courtesy of the jovial Malcolm Huxter, who had previously been a bhikkhu. Coupled with monks chanting the metta sutta (and excellent food), the conference had a very pleasant feel, though some of the organisation was a bit 'just in time', which is not unusual for Thailand!

There was another personally significant aspect. In 1993, Fuengsin Trafford, my mother, had helped organise a joint conference on 'Death and Dying' between Mahidol University and Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham. With her language skills (Thai and English), she was responsible for many of the communications; she also presented on Thai death rituals. So I was very pleased to be able to visit the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol, particularly to meet Dr. Pinit Ratanakul, who had been a member of the group visiting the UK.

For a cosmologist's perspective, you can read the thoughts of keynote speaker, Adam Frank, who writes on Buddhism And Science: Promise And Perils.

No comments: