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Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Emory-Tibetan Science Initiative Examined; Dalai Lama Discusses Mediation Practices. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired February 25, 2017 - 14:30   ET



[14:31:11] DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: The colors, the architecture, it's like from a postcard. This is Drepung Lachi Monastery, part of a Tibetan colony in Mundgod, India.

We're in a remote part of southern India where this really unique partnership is starting to take shape. It's a partnership between scientists and Tibetan Buddhist monks.

This is "VITAL SIGNS." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Call it a convergence between science and spirituality, forming insights into mindfulness, into meditation, even happiness, and the impact all of that can have on our physical health. And the champion of this cause is none other than the Dalai Lama himself.

Some 13,000 Tibetan monks in exile live here. and this particular monastery is now celebrating its 600th anniversary. There's also this air of anticipation as a very special guest is set to make an appearance. The Dalai Lama has been the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people. The Nobel Peace Prize winner is here for a meeting of the minds between scientists and Buddhist monks.

It's called the Emory-Tibet Partnership, and it started in Emory University in Atlanta nearly 20 years ago. Right from the start, the Dalai Lama puts everyone at ease with his classic smile, some candy, and a white washcloth on his head to cool him down. And then we had the honor of sitting down with him ourselves, one on one.

You taught me yesterday to have a genuine smile. You said you should smile genuinely, right.

DALAI LAMA, TIBETAN SPIRITUAL LEADER: Right. We are social animal. We need friend. In order to develop genuine friendship, trust, very important. For trust, if you show them genuine sort of respect, genuine love, then trust come. So here I think that the expression of genuine freely smile, I think part of that. That is genuine smile.

GUPTA: The Dalai Lama smiles and laughs a lot, and there's something to that. Research shows that laughing doesn't just signal happiness, it produces it. And in the presence of his holiness, you can't help yourself.

When you smile, I notice everyone around you smiles. It's very contagious as well. What keeps you happy? With so much that's going on in the world, how do you maintain your happiness and your optimism?

DALAI LAMA: Your own attitude, honest, truthful. And then try to some service to others. Some scientists say basic human nature is compassionate. Then also they say, the medical scientist, they also say, constant anger is very bad for our health. I try to keep compassion, and then surrounded by compassionate people, health much better.

GUPTA: The Dalai Lama strongly believes we can practice compassion through education and training. And studies show compassion benefits our health by altering the brain networks associated with emotion, attention, and empathy. Compassion meditators show less anger and focus more on problem solving.

[14:35:08] Buddhist monks dedicate lives to practicing compassion and mindfulness meditation, an ancient concept focusing on presence of mind and paying attention to the present moment free of judgment.

While the Buddhists are experts on mindfulness meditation, it's the science that the Dalai Lama wants to hone in on. He's been speaking with modern scientists for decades. And at the core of his partnership with Emory is the development of a science curriculum for monks to study. And that means changing the existing monastic curriculum. That's something that hasn't been done in more than 500 years. Professor Arri Eisen is helping develop the biology curriculum.

ARRI EISEN, BIOLOGY PROFESSOR, EMORY UNIVERSITY: How ironic is it that the Dalai Lama is more open to science than many scientists are more open to spirituality or religion. Science is supposed to be the great open-minded, test everything, we'll test anything place, right? I think we can learn from the Dalai Lama, we can learn from the monks, how do you hold science and medicine together, the best of science and medicine together with the best of religion, which are the things the Dalai Lama talks about, compassion, love, the things that all religions preach. How can you bring those together in an effective way?

GUPTA: I think part of all this means a completely new language. Much of the scientific words simply don't exist in Tibetan, so translators are working to update the vocabulary. And it goes both ways. There are Tibetan words that get lost in translation. For example, the word "mind" in English does not have an exact equivalent in Tibetan. There are multiple words to capture the nuances of mind and consciousness, and it all depends on the context.

In some ways, maybe that's not surprising. English speaking western countries typically place less emphasis on the science of our emotions like compassion, and that's what Buddhism is teaching science.

What can science learn from Buddhism?

DALAI LAMA: The last 30 years my own experience, my observation, many scholar when they heard the explanation quite detailed, the system of our emotion. And also, these emotions, many scientists really show an interest. So obviously, therefore, they can take some new outlook into our inner world.

GUPTA: The exchange of our information is not only happening here in India but halfway around the world at Emory University.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll try my best to say bacteria and solution.

GUPTA: And the Dalai Lama extends an incredibly special invitation. We get to experience something rarely ever seen on camera.


[14:41:44] GUPTA: Biology class at Emory University.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll try my best just to say bacteria and solution.

GUPTA: At first, nothing out of the ordinary, until you realize this is a very special group of students to be sitting in a science lab. Six Buddhist monks, part of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative, have been studying here in Atlanta, Georgia, for a year and a half. They have taken classes in astronomy, physics, neuroscience, and this one, biology. For 34-year-old Tinzen, one of the best things about taking classes at Emory has been his interaction with the other students.

TENZIN, STUDENT, EMORY-TIBETAN SCIENCE INITIATIVE: I have experience working with my friend, then they feel love and they feel stress. If engaging the meditation, breaking meditation, it helps a lot.

GUPTA: Tenzin plans to return to his monastery in southern India after his studies are complete and he wants to teach science to the monks there. He sees Buddhism and science as natural partners. And Topden agrees.

GESHE TOPDEN SHRESTHA, STUDENT, EMORY-TIBETAN SCIENCE INITIATIVE: If too traditional together, then it will be like lead to compassionate and peaceful world.

GUPTA: You can see the enthusiasm from the monks. Back at the monastery in Mundgod, India, a science fair of sorts gives students a chance to show off what they learned.

Those are supposed to be neuro-chemicals that are actually going down this axon. And this is what's it's all about, really, this collision of neuroscience and Buddhism. I guarantee you've never seen anything quite like this before. This room is filled with monks who are learning about the brain and how it works, the various senses, the anatomy of it. And then they're going to take all of this knowledge they've gained back to their own monastery to teach other people. That's how they'll put science out there in the world of Buddhism.

EISEN: As one of the monks put it, I was talking to him, he wants to -- he studies science so he can understand his Buddhism better. How many westerners would say something like that? we're hoping to get to the point where a westerner would say I'm studying Buddhism so I can understand my science and medicine better. You can see that in the monks, I'm hoping one day. And it's beginning. You'll start to see that in scientists.

GUPTA: There's more we can learn from traditional Buddhist practices as well, including the way we learn. Buddhist monks spend their day studying and memorizing texts, but instead of written exams, they engage in what they've learned by participating in debates like this one.


GUPTA: It's loud, it's dynamic, with the claps accentuating every point. But this isn't a debate in the traditional sense with a winner and a loser. It's all about learning.

CAROL WORTHMAN, ANTHROPOLOGY PROFESSOR, EMORY UNIVERSITY: We have looked at this a lot. I think that speaking past difference, engaging with difference, is the great issue of our day. In western debate, it's just the way you say it in the sense that you have one point, you have another point, and the whole point is to win.

[14:45:04] And so that's how we saw it at the beginning, that is the challenger and the defendant, right? But no, it's a mutual learning process. The goal of debate is to remove your ignorance, to remove your confusion.

GUPTA: People who may be watching and hearing about this sort of partnership for the first time and wondering, how does this benefit me or how do I incorporate some of this into my own life ultimately? I'm wondering what you would tell them, and maybe also how you've incorporated some of this into your own life?

WORTHMAN: This is a community in exile. But they're not victims. They're engaging the challenges that are confronting them, and reaching out to others to play with them, right? And we all are reasons to feel disempowered or disengaged. So how to take joy in that project, how to be proactive and attentive and constructive, I think it's a fantastic model.

GUPTA: The Dalai Lama has been living in exile from Tibet since 1959. That's after the Chinese government took control of the region. He hasn't been home for nearly six decades, and yet he's revered by the Tibetan people as well as Buddhists from around the world.

Do you feel a lot of pressure being the Dalai Lama? Is it a sense of obligation?

DALAI LAMA: Pressure? I think much dependent on your own attitude. So if you feel some sort of frustration or something, then pressure, it seems like pressure. But if you have some contribution, some service, then no reason to feel pressure. That is our meditation. I do my meditation period, each day, five hours. So these meditation, not just chanting or something, but analytical meditation, analyze. So this I think meditation, analytical medication, also I think is very, very helpful to maintain sharpness of mind.

GUPTA: Analytical meditation is just one kind. So what's the Dalai Lama's secret to meditation? He's going to share it with us. That's next.


[14:50:21] GUPTA: We're about to do something very special and very rare. His holiness, the Dalai Lama, has invited to come and meditate with him to better understand how he meditates, how he becomes mindful. We can all possibly learn from that. Let's go.

As he does every day, the Dalai Lama has been up since 2:40 this morning meditating. And he has invited us to join him in private, an incredibly rare honor. Try it with us. Concentrate on your breathing, one of the simplest meditation practices, but also one of the most effective at focusing your mind on the present.

People often think you have to clear your mind when you're being mindful or you're meditating, but you say you should think about something.

DALAI LAMA: Yes. Like my body, speech, mind, dedicated.

GUPTA: Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can be beneficial to our physical health in many ways, including pain reduction, lowering stress and anxiety, depression, as well as posttraumatic stress disorder. Some schools have even started implementing mindfulness meditation in the classroom, and even some police forces are using it in training.

DALAI LAMA: Optimism. That also helps body. Lost hope, then what else? I think there's a very close connection, mental state and physical element, yes.

GUPTA: You say when you have inner peace, you look young. I mean, you have no wrinkles on your face. Your face does look young. You think that comes from inner peace?

DALAI LAMA: I think so. I think so. My friend asked me, oh, you're not like, looks not like 81 years old but rather late 60s or like that. And then some people ask me, what's your secret? And I say, that's my secret, I don't share with other people.


DALAI LAMA: That I explain. There's nothing.

GUPTA: At 81, the Dalai Lama's mind is sharp. You might say there's no secret, but his consistent meditation practice is a likely contributor, because here's what happens when you concentrate on mindfulness. Gray matter density is increased in the regions of brain associated with attention and sensory processing. Essentially meditation can help offset aspects of aging in the brain. Now, if you think meditating can be difficult, you're in good company.

People who try to be mindful, who try to meditate but say they have difficulty doing it.

DALAI LAMA: Yes, no question, difficulties. Me, too. Not easy. You should see, 81-year-old person is the last 50, 60 years, daily effort, effort. Then some experience come.

GUPTA: The lessons and the impact the Dalai Lama has on people is clear. We don't have to go very far to see it for ourselves. After meditating, it's time for the last session of the symposium at the monastery down the road. The Dalai Lama has been trying to walk more. He has a bad knee, so we're going on foot. The road is lined with Tibetans, young and old, sick and healthy, desperate to be in his presence.

It's so profoundly emotional to see how people react to his holiness. People who are sick, people who are hoping just to get a glimpse of him.

What do you want people to know about the Dalai Lama that they don't know, before because they see the formal Dalai Lama, they read your books. They hear your lectures. But what do you want people to know about you they don't know?

[14:55:00] DALAI LAMA: I usually just a monk, so I always consider I am just a human being. I always telling, I am one of 7 billion human beings. We're all mentally, emotionally, physically same. All have some sort of desire to have happy life. We all have the right. So then we are social animal. So individuals have been as dependent on rest of society, finally, rest of the humanity.

A problem which we are facing today is too much emphasis is individual, sort of individual nation or individual society or individual religious belief. So the world, 7 billion human being, consider a big human family. And these different sort of minor differences, you see that, not important. When we face a lot of manmade problem due to level of differences, the only answer to reduce this, we must go deeper, we are same human being.