MindScience - Preface

An East-West Dialogue

The talks published here were originally delivered at a symposium called Mind Science: A Dialogue between East and West. Part of a program of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Continuing Medical Education, the symposium took place on March 24, 1991, at the Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, under the joint auspices of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and Tibet House New York. It gathered together experts from the fields of medicine, psychiatry, psychobiology, neurobiology, education, comparative religion, and Indo-Tibetan Buddhism in open dialogue and exchange on the various concepts, approaches, and understandings, East and West, of the science of mind. Guest of honor was His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

The symposium celebrated more than a decade of collaborative research between the Tibetan Buddhist community and Harvard Medical School. This work had its genesis on October 18, 1979, when I met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his first visit to Harvard University. On this occasion, I had explained our laboratory’s experiments on the physiological effects of simple meditative techniques, and requested permission to study several of the advanced meditative techniques of Tibetan Buddhism.

The rationale was straightforward: If simple meditative techniques resulted in such notable physiological changes as decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing, as well as distinctive brainwave patterns, what could the effects of advanced meditative techniques be? Could they possibly demonstrate even more striking mind/body interactions? We had been attempting to investigate these advanced techniques for several years, but could find no practitioners who would consent to be studied—they had little interest in the scientific documentation of their practices.

I had just finished reading Alexandra David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet, which contained her early-twentieth-century accounts of tumo yoga being performed by Tibetan Buddhist monks. In this practice, an internal heat, which is generated for religious purposes, has demonstrable effects on the body. David-Neel described what she saw in a midwinter encounter:

The neophytes sit on the ground, cross-legged and naked. Sheets are dipped in the icy water, each man wraps himself in one of them and must dry it on his body. As soon as the sheet has become dry, it is again dipped in the water and placed on the novice’s body to be dried as before. The operation goes on [in] that fashion until daybreak. Then he who has dried the largest number of sheets is acknowledged the winner of the competition.

Besides drying wet sheets on one’s body, there exist various other tests to ascertain the degree of heat which the neophyte is able to radiate. One of these tests consists in sitting in the snow. The quantity of snow melted under the man and the distance at which it melts around him are taken as measures of his ability.

I hoped that with the permission of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I would be allowed access to study the remarkable alleged mind/body effects of tumo.

Our October 1979 meeting took place in the living room of the Dana-Palmer House in Cambridge, an 1823 building in which William James had lived and where he is believed to have conceived his idea of a pluralistic universe. After I had explained my rationale for requesting to study practitioners of tumo , His Holiness replied, “It will be very difficult to measure these abilities. The people who practice this meditation do so for religious purposes. It must be experienced in order to feel the benefits. You must experience it first.” Then he added, “Still, our culture is undergoing many changes. We have been forced out of our homeland into exile…perhaps there is some worth in allowing this study to be done.”

Several months later I received a letter from His Holiness’s office inviting us to study three tumo practitioners who lived near Dharamsala, India. Some of the successful and striking results of these studies and others are described in this book. We determined through scientifically based investigations that advanced meditative techniques do indeed lead to profound, hitherto unrecognized human mind/body capacities.

In the autumn of 1990, we believed that it was time to take stock of where these experiments had brought us, and thus the Mind Science Symposium was conceived. His Holiness agreed to attend, and the dialogue was further expanded to embrace Eastern and Western concepts of the mind.

I am grateful to all those who attended and made the symposium such a success. My hope is that it will not only act as a watershed for the decade of fruitful mind science interactions between East and West, but also point to future advances in our continuing collaboration.

Herbert Benson, MD
Boston, 1991

 

How to cite this document:
© Mind/Body Medical Institute Inc. & Tibet House New York Inc., MindScience (Wisdom Publications, 1991)

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