Tibetan Buddhism and research psychology: a match made in Nirvana?

Collaborations between monks and psychologists yield new directions in psychological research.

Monitor staff

With an eye toward understanding the inner workings of the mind and using that knowledge to reduce human suffering, psychologists and Buddhist monks may have more in common than they realize, and possibly even compatible methodology. These commonalities are driving collaborations between some psychologists and Buddhist monks.

Richard Davidson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for one, believes that the shared goals and empiricism of these two traditions could lead to useful advances for each. Tibetan Buddhism, says Davidson, is not a dogmatic religion; knowledge in the tradition is gained by examining one’s own experience. Monks train for years to become expert observers of the inner workings of their own minds, he says. Research psychology, on the other hand, attempts to understand mental processes by focusing on third-person observation and de-emphasizing subjective observations of mental phenomena, he explains.

Davidson, who explores brain states and their relationship to human experiences such as consciousness and emotion, recently headed a conference titled “Investigating the mind: exchanges between Buddhism and the biobehavioral sciences on how the mind works.” At the symposium, which was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in September, researchers in psychology, neuroscience and other fields discussed theories of cognitive control and attention, mental imagery and emotion with Tibetan Buddhist scholars, including the Dalai Lama. The conference is the second in a series sponsored by MIT and the Mind and Life Institute. The meetings are part of an ongoing series intended to illuminate potential areas for fruitful collaboration between Western science and Tibetan Buddhism.

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2 thoughts on “Tibetan Buddhism and research psychology: a match made in Nirvana?”

  1. What is Tibetan Buddhism anyway?

    Tibetan Buddhism is the body of religious Buddhist doctrine and institutions characteristic of Tibet and the Himalayan regions, which include northern Nepal, Bhutan, India (Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Sikkim), Mongolia, Russia (Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva) and northeastern China (Manchuria: Heilongjiang, Jilin). It includes the teachings of the three vehicles (or yanas in Sanskrit) of Buddhism: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana[1].

    The occupation of Tibet by People’s Republic of China began in 1950 and led to armed conflicts in late 1950’s. The failed rebellion resulted in the Tibetan diaspora, which in turn eventually led to the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to many Western countries, where the tradition has gained great popularity.

    In the past, Tibetan Buddhism was referred to by some westerners (sometimes dismissively) as “Lamaism”, but this term is now considered by many to be based on a misunderstanding of the practice of guru yoga (‘guru’ is the Sanskrit equivalent of the Tibetan word ‘lama’ which means ‘spiritual teacher’) in Tibetan.

    Verhaegen (2002: p.28) frames the political and economical dynamic within the evolving context of Tibetan Buddhism:

    Being politically involved from its very beginning in Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism’s various schools and sub-sects, in order to further their own interests, had become allied with the hereditary nobility. The aristocratic families, seeking power, influence, and support, increasingly became the secular arms of the monasteries and sects they supported. In time, as the monasteries became increasingly economic and political entities, their power often eclipsed that of their patrons.


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