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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rekindling Compassion in a Selfish World

Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of attending the Conference on Compassion Meditation at Emory University with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. At the conference, psychological, neurological, anthropological, behavioral and religious academics presented the findings of up to the minute scientific research on the human capacity for compassion.
Since 1998, the Emory-Tibet Partnership has fostered a relationship between western academics and Tibetan Buddhist monks in the interest of “bringing together the best of the Western and Tibetan Buddhist intellectual traditions for their mutual enrichment and the discovery of new knowledge for the benefit of humanity.” At the locus of the partnership is the twofold ideal taught by the Buddha. Compassion for all beings without judgment and the quest for knowledge chart the path to enlightenment. With Tibetan partners offering deep insight into thousands of years old Buddhist spiritual traditions, and Emory University and other academic institutions presenting the latest breakthroughs in science, the path meets.

For thousands of years, practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism have sought to clear their minds of destructive thoughts and attitudes as they reach towards spiritual fulfillment and an end to suffering. Thoughts, such as empathy, compassion, kindness and love are believed to further this aim, while anger, hatred, greed and judgment are thought to antagonize enlightenment. Emory scientists seek to prove through scientific means the basic premises of Buddhism: empathy and compassion lead to happiness and fulfillment, while judgment and other negative thoughts lead to discontent.

The day commenced with a presentation by Frans B.M. de Waal, a Professor of Psychology and primate behavioral scientist, on the nature of empathy and compassion in primates and humans. De Waal’s research indicates that numerous mammalian species have the capacity for empathy and compassion. Elephants will risk their own lives to aid distressed herd members, chimpanzees console one another with hugs and kisses, and even humans instinctively rise to the collective good when disaster unfortunately strikes. Contrary to some scientific theory, which insists humankind is cursed with a “selfish gene,” modern behavioral science proves we are also biologically inclined towards empathy and compassion.

Throughout the day, research scientists presented studies that seem to confirm the Buddhist hypothesis. Richard J. Davidson from the University of Wisconsin described a study which compared the brain activity of expert meditation practitioners to that of novices. Philippe Golden of Stanford University presented research which assessed the impact of compassion meditation on people who suffer from anxiety and depression. Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studied the effects of loving kindness meditation on fostering positive awareness. Noted author, PhD and Buddhist monk, Matthiew Ricard explored the question, “Can Altruism and Compassion be Cultivated?” Charles Raison of Emory University discussed the profound positive impacts resulting from teaching troubled teenagers in foster homes the practice of compassion meditation. Geshe Negi, spiritual director for the Drepung Loseline Monstary and Senior Lecturer at Emory University explained the secular-based cognitive-based compassion training (CBCT) used to foster well-being and productive thought processes in individuals previously prone to dysfunction. Doctoral student and research scientist, Brendan Ozawa-de Silva studied the capacity of small children to learn the techniques of mindfulness and compassion meditation.

The evidence is overwhelming. Intentional fostering of positive emotions through mindful meditation and in daily actions reduces stress, promotes physical health and increases happiness and well being in practitioners. While promoted by Buddhists for over two millennia, the data, which support these findings are not religious. One need not be Buddhist to embrace them. The Dalai Lama himself concluded at the end of the day’s session, “Secularism does not mean disrespect for religion. I think we have to promote the idea of modern ethics based on secularism.” If we respect one another without judgment regardless of our differences by cultivating compassion, we can create a world free from suffering. We now know there is a path to global enlightenment, and we need to follow it.

For further information regarding the 2010 visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Emory University, please view the official website at

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