Today I had the delight of paragliding over Dharamsala, a colorful town situated at 7,000 feet on the edge of the Himalayas. It is home to the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan exile community, and this week it is the site of the latest Mind & Life Institute meeting, continuing a dialogue between scientists and contemplatives from around the world on the topic of Reimagining Human Flourishing.
Trudy and I have joined the gathering at the Dalai Lama’s temple, adjacent to his palace, from where we can see the busy markets of Dharamsala, surrounded by a wide swath of steep green forest and, above it all, spectacular Himalayan snowy peaks. And in this marvelous atmosphere the dialogue began.
Everyone is excited to be with the Dalai Lama, and his humor, curiosity and laughter punctuate the meeting. But the questions he poses and we all carry are serious ones: how can we foster peace and understanding, compassion and well-being for humans and for all beings?
We know this is possible individually. In our practice and teaching of mindfulness, loving-kindness, compassion, forgiveness and other trainings of the heart, we have seen the benefits. These are the same practices that you who are reading have learned in classes and retreats, and you know how transformative they can be.
But can their understandings be spread in a positive and secular way to benefit people worldwide? Neuroscientists at the meeting describe how positive epigenetic and brain changes can happen in even 8 hours of loving-kindness training. And developmental psychologists report our inborn compassion: research shows how even tiny infants respond to the real-time distress cries of other babies, but not to recordings of their own cries! They can tell when the distress is from others. We need to support the natural compassion in our children from the first.
Educators at the meeting show studies of the profound benefits wherever Social and Emotional Learning is woven into the lives of schools, teachers and parents …and how it has now spread to 10,000 school systems.
Still, we all know it is not enough. The world is awash with weapons and we need to de-militarize the world, to learn to solve our conflicts in a sane way. Divisiveness and ignorance are still widespread and climate change and environmental destruction are upon us.
We consider how to solve these problems with a positive spirit and altruistic intentions. Yet none of us has the full answer. We don’t know exactly how to make these changes become truly global. But we do know which direction to follow—that of compassion for all. And in reflecting together we find ourselves learning strategies, science and practices from each other, the collective embodying more wisdom than anyone alone can know.
In some way, the mountains around reflect the levels of this diverse gathering. At one level we can see the busy roads and marketplace reflecting the many human activities and the difficulties that we face. And yet looking up with a vast eye there are the ever-present mountains clear and shining with new snow.
Like the mountain peaks there is a shining beauty born in each child, a fundamental dignity and goodness in the human spirit, sometimes called true nature. This is our human birthright and our task is to see this in everyone we meet.
The conference ends on a positive note.
We know that suffering is not the end of the story. It is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, but this is followed by the Truth of the Causes of Suffering and the Path to the End of Suffering. We can follow this path by developing virtue and understanding, a clear, quiet mind and a loving heart. Then we can plant seeds of goodness in our families, our communities and the world that so needs it.
Humanity can flourish.
The very human troubles we face are a call to compassion and wisdom. And they are a call to action:
The Dalai Lama encourages us.
“As long as space and time exist,” he says, “may we bring benefit and freedom to all.”