Some people meditate to reduce everyday stress. Others do it to achieve nirvana. If the Dalai Lama is striving for the latter, should he be a spokesman for meditation research taking place in neuroscience labs at Harvard and Princeton universities?
"Without investigation, you cannot see reality," the Buddhist leader declared last November at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., which drew more than 30,000 researchers. The conference included six presentations on meditation research, including a study by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin that was supported by the Dalai Lama's Mind and Life Institute, in which the brain waves of meditating Tibetan monks were monitored and compared with those of novice meditators.
At a time when many scientists feel under siege by proponents of intelligent design, the Dalai Lama's championing of science provoked polarized responses. Some attendees saw his speech as a refreshing attempt to break down intellectual boundaries. Others questioned the validity of having a religious figure discussing the latest trends in neurobiology. An online petition demanded cancellation of the talk, and six presenters withdrew their posters. Some of that revolt may have been politically motivated—many of the protesters were of Chinese origin—but a number of participants sincerely worried that the integrity of the conference was at stake.
"I think the science behind meditation is actually quite good," says Matthew Stanford, a neuroscientist at Baylor University in Texas who signed the petition and who is working on an article about Christianity and psychology. "But you might as well have Jerry Falwell tell you about the neuroscience of prayer. I'm very interested in the connection between religion and science, but you can't talk about religion and say it's science, and you can't talk about science and say that it's religion."
Although the Dalai Lama presumably adheres to the Buddhist perspective that, as with prayer, there is a supernatural aspect to meditation, he received a standing ovation from thousands of conference attendees, suggesting that most in the neuroscience community were appreciative of his broad-based call for religious and scientific harmony. "There is a potential conflict in that some of his beliefs are not addressable by science," says Bruce O'Hara of the University of Kentucky, a self-proclaimed "agnostic-slash-atheist" who presented research comparing meditation and sleep. "But I think that's OK as long as there is a reasonable context for the conversation."