A couple of years ago, as a member of the Institute of Mind and Life, I was asked to give a series of lectures on life science in a Buddhist monastery in Bhutan—a request that you cannot refuse. The Mind and Life Institute where the Dalai Lama is the spiritus rectus, was founded by the neurobiologist Francisco Varela and an American business man, Adam Engle, with the purpose of establishing a dialogue between classical Western science and Buddhism, specifically on the sciences of mind.

One side-activity of this Institute is to provide the monks with information about contemporary science, so I accepted and went, although they told me, when I was already in my journey, that the monastery was a nunnery: about ninety nuns ranging from 13 to 60 years old, in the Sishina temple, near Timpu, the capital (a city with 40,000 people, one hour from Paro, the only airport). For four hours a day for two weeks, my task was only to inform them about some aspects of life sciences, certainly not to force on them our philosophical views. However, also due to the unexpected presence of a few Lama who came from neighboring places, the course evolved into a confrontation between Science and Buddhism. I have already written a longer report on this experience at the Rendiconti Accademia dei Lincei [1] also talking about my social and political interviews with government people and ordinary citizens in Bhutan - but this shorter report focuses primarily on the science topics that were more controversial, as they are probably the most interesting for the western reader. I present this in two parts, one for each of the two week of classes.

Regarding Bhutan, before I went there I knew what everyone knows: it’s a monarchial regime, a land comparable in size to Sicily, situated on the flanks of the Himalayas and south of Tibet. It is Buddhist in the most traditional way and one of the few places in the world that still evokes a sense of mystery and attraction for travelers. I had read that the people of Bhutan speak Dzongkha, similar to Tibetan, and use the phrase Tashi Delek as a greeting, the equivalent of our bye-bye, or ciao. And that it was the place where the government, instead of our GNP, used the Gross Happiness Program as a measure to establish the well-being of the citizens (about 700,000 people). It is also a place where the interdependence between state and religion was complete: in every house or shop, close to the image of Buddha, there was the picture of the very much respected and loved king and queen, a beautiful couple indeed. Additionally, most of the ministers and government men were or had been Buddhist monks (no women).

My course title was From the origin of life to consciousness, and the idea was to start from the Big-bang theory and work our way to the origin of life on Earth, then on to the question of what is life in the context of science, with emphasis on cellular life—something very basic on genetics and evolution, including some experiments of cloning and their ethical implications. The course would finish with the notions of human evolution and consciousness. I would teach for a total of 48 hours, which would include exercises (questions that they would answer in a written form), and several hours of discussion with the nuns.

The nuns, although very shy at the beginning, came out soon as fierce and merciless opponents of some of our scientific concepts. Needless to say, it was all very interesting, challenging, and a lot of fun. At my lessons, I had the honor of having the participation of the region’s most famous Rinpoche, Khyentsee Yangsi Rinpoche. Rimpoche means “precious one” or “jewel,” and is commonly used to denote respect and honor for those who are incarnated or older, but in Tibetan Buddhism the term is mostly used for a Tulku, that is a ‘reincarnated Lama.’ (A Lama is an accomplished teacher, corresponding to the Sanskrit term guru). Khyentsee Yangsi Rinpoche is the reincarnation of the most famous and revered Tibetan spiritual master of the twentieth century, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who was also a teacher of the present Dalai Lama. In the Buddhist world, the fact that someone is considered to be the reincarnation of an old master is quite widely accepted. This concept is so normal for them that I had ceased long ago to ask western types of questions about this.

The first week

I started with the Big-bang theory, with the idea that I would only say a couple of words about it, but the nuns quickly stopped me, as they could not grapple with the idea of a “Big bang” coming from nothing. “Why did it happen? Where did it come from? How can something come out of nothing?” were some of the questions they asked.

The western idea of creation from nothing, which is so accepted in our Christian world, was alien to them. But when I explained it as an endless cycle of Big Bang and Big Crunch, without a beginning or an end, they began to embrace the idea. Let me remind you here that Buddhism is a religion that does not have a God. Reality is an endless chain of mutually dependent causalities: all things are mutually linked and causally interdependent, at the same time continuously changing (according to the law of impermanence, the other important principle of Buddhism), so that the entire universe is a dynamic, totally interactive process.

Then, I explained to them what science posits as the origin of life on earth, coming from what we call inanimate matter, a progression from aggregated molecules slowly developing into structures and functions growing more and more complex, up to the formation of cells able to reproduce themselves. The ‘principle of continuity’ from the inorganic world to the living world was unremarkable to the nuns. But when we arrived at a discussion of unicellular organisms—what science considers the simplest form of life—it was a different matter.

I had to explain to them that for science, a bacterium is alive, and even considered a cognitive being. But be careful, I was quick to add, ‘cognitive’ does not necessarily mean being equipped with mind or consciousness. It only means that the internal organization of the living organism specifically recognizes its own environment and makes possible a positive interaction, eventually an adaptation, with the environment. So it is for a fish in the water, a caterpillar on a leaf, an ant on an anthill, etc. They are cognitive organisms, but not aware of what they are doing. No consciousness, no transcendence, just chemical interactions.

The nuns’ reaction was a powerful wave of disapproval. No, I was told, this makes no sense: if something is alive, that ‘something’ has to have a kind of sentience. The microbes look for food, right? So they must have motivation, which, in turn, assumes consciousness, however primitive it might be. No, I replied. Motivation in an amoeba exists solely in the mind of the observer. We think that the amoeba moves up in a sugar gradient in order to feed itself, but can only say that it reacts with bodily contractions to the concentration difference from one point to the other. Can one say that the watch has the intention to mark the time? The intention is in the mind of the watchmaker, not in the clock. And take the case of a robot that serves tea at five o’clock every day. Can you say that the robot has a motivation for bringing the tea? The robot blindly obeys a mechanical program. In the case of a bacterium, instead of a mechanical program, it has a blind genetic program.

No, the nuns, my students, were not convinced in the least. Sure, they said, the robot does not have any awareness of intention. But the robot is not alive so the example is not valid. Agreed, I said. But what is your evidence that a microbe has consciousness? Because it is alive, was the answer. And what is your definition of life? To have consciousness. No, this is a tautology. We cannot conduct scientific inquiry in this way. Listen… No, they didn’t listen.

I was unable to persuade them of the facts of my scientific reasoning, but persuasion was not the purpose of my teaching. They were more accepting, however, of the general view of life I gave, a view based on system thinking. This view says that, looking at an organism like a butterfly or a mammal, life is seen as an integrated system, where all parts are connected with each other and none of them can be seen as an isolated, independent component. Life is a whole web of interacting parts, without a center of localization, without any prima causa. This was a concept they could accept.

They also found both fascinating and moving the story of how a mother cell, due to the action of a spermatozoa, becomes an embryo and then a fetus. The nuns followed all my slides and videos with open eyes. When the video showed a woman giving birth to a child (I had asked permission of their director for that), one could see such strong emotions on their faces. Many of them were smiling happily, some clapped hands, a couple of them cried. There were then a lot of questions regarding conception, also questions which, for western girls of that age, would be of incredible naivety. But this was to be expected. I answered with great patience and commitment, and I thought that I had done a good job.

However, at the end of the class, one of the nuns approached me with a worried expression on her face. We were alone, and she asked, ‘‘Yes, but tell me, how can a baby really be born?’’. At the beginning, I was disconcerted. What? She had not understood anything? Then I was the one who understood. You can explain everything you want using all the science at your disposal, but then, exactly how a living human results from all these scientific, biological processes, is simply a miracle. It cannot be really comprehended.

We ended the week discussing the cloning of Dolly, the sheep. At this point, they did their exercises, answering the question who, in their view, was the mother of Dolly: the sheep that furnished the embryo, or the sheep who gestated the fetus and gave birth to Dolly? I also asked them to comment about the woman who, helped by an Italian doctor, became a mother at the age of 60 years. We had a spirited debate, which was very similar to what we would have had in a class in our university. This was how we ended the first week of classes.

Continues on the 23th of November

[1] P.L. Luisi, 2013, The origin of life at a Buddhist monastery, Rendiconti Accademia dei Lincei, October 2013
P.L. Luisi, The Emergence of Life, Second edit., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2016
H. Maturana and F. Varela, The Tree of knowledge, Shambala, revised edition 1998
F. Capra and P.L. Luisi, The systems view of life, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014, italian edition Vita e natura. Una visione sistemica Aboca Museum