issue 21 autumn 03
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Destructive Emotions

How Can We Overcome Them? - A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama
Edited by Daniel Goleman
Bantam Dell 2003, $26.95/£16.99 h/b

Are certain emotions and expressions of emotion cross-culturally universal? Have some of our emotions - anger, for example - evolved as positive evolutionary adaptations? And are they, thus, a fundamental and unchangeable part of human nature? In what way do the perspectives of western psychology and ethics differ from traditional Buddhist views regarding what constitutes a 'destructive' or an afflictive emotion? What does current research in neuro-physiology indicate about the 'plasticity' or malleability of our brains and our emotions? And what have neuro-scientists in several prominent research laboratories in the US and France learnt about the brain from sophisticated functional MRI studies of virtuoso meditators? How is the emerging field of cognitive science revising the mind-brain problem? And what does any of this have to do with one's day-to-day practice of the Dharma?

These questions (and many more) are explored in this captivating survey of research presented at a colloquium that brought a small but prominent group of western neuro-scientists, psychologists, and ethicists to Dharamsala at the Dalai Lama's invitation in March 2000. Since his childhood the present Dalai Lama has been fascinated with western science and technology, and he has increasingly expressed his conviction that Buddhism must engage in a constructive dialogue with science if the Dharma is to remain a viable spiritual path in the 21st century.

In 1985 the Mind and Life Institute was founded to foster just this type of dialogue. To date, 10 small but intense colloquia have taken place, each bringing together an impressive group of western specialists from fields including cognitive science, neurobiology, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, quantum physics, cosmology, evolution, philosophy of science, and ethics.

Most of these colloquia have resulted in a published summary of the presentations, and this volume is the best in the series to date, in large part because of the skill Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) demonstrates in capturing not just the content of the discussion but also the more elusive sense of cross-fertilisation and excitement that animated the event. This volume conveys more than just a wealth of information about current research on meditation and the emotions. Goleman also conveys the richness of personality of the colloquium participants as well as the stimulating spontaneity of their interactions with each other and with the Dalai Lama. Accessible and provocative, the dialogue reported here exemplifies dharma-katha or spiritual discourse at its best.

Saramati (Alan Sponberg) writes on Buddhist history and ethics