The World Wide Web
The Dalai Lama's unique, decades-long relationship with fellow Buddhists and UW researchers in Madison
Photo illustration by T.Earl; Source photos from dalailama.com and Jeff Miller/UW Communications
On an otherwise nondescript day in 1992, UW neuroscience professor Richard Davidson sat in a small waiting room outside the personal residence-in-exile of Tenzin Gyatso—better known as the fourteenth Dalai Lama—in Dharamsala, India. He’d been summoned by a faxed letter with a seemingly simple premise: His Holiness was tired of scientific researchers putting all the focus on negative emotions such as anxiety and depression. He wanted Davidson and his colleagues to study kindness and compassion using the tools of modern neuroscience.
Davidson, meanwhile, was not only a respected psychologist and neuroscientist with a healthy roster of awards and accolades to his name; he was also a self-professed “closet meditator” and spiritual seeker. As he sat waiting to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama face to face for the very first time, Davidson suddenly began to sweat. His heart began to race. He couldn’t catch his breath. The man who’d built a career cataloguing physical symptoms like these in others but had never considered himself high in anxiety recognized on a cognitive level exactly what was happening.
“I was really having all the signs of panic. I know what they are, but I’ve never had a panic attack,” says Davidson. “I absolutely had no idea how I was going to begin.”
The doors swung open and staff members collected Davidson, escorting him to where the Dalai Lama stood waiting.
“I have this very vivid recollection of this extraordinary transition over the course of maybe fifteen seconds,” he says. “You know, this dramatic emotional change. I just felt every smidgen of anxiety completely and totally just absolutely gone. And I felt like this was the most secure place for me on the planet.”
From that day forward, Davidson’s scientific yang began to curl itself more comfortably against the spiritual yin he’d been secretly harboring for years. His academic training didn’t present a dichotomy against this mindful energy; it hummed with a thrilling synergy. Davidson doesn’t remember what was said, exactly. But he’s certain the Dalai Lama knew precisely what he was doing when he seemed to intentionally and immediately ease Davidson’s extreme physical symptoms.
“I came to see that that is the power of compassion,” says Davidson.
Compassion is now a core component of Davidson’s groundbreaking work at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, the brain research facility at the Waisman Center where the Dalai Lama visited for its grand opening and to which he recently made a rare personal donation of $50,000. The Dalai Lama’s compassion has also influenced the work of Davidson’s friend Jonathan Patz, the Nobel Prize–winning professor and director of the Global Health Institute at UW–Madison.
After working closely with the Dalai Lama at a May 2011 conference in India titled “Ecology, Ethics and Interdependence,” Patz and Davidson decided to produce the upcoming “Change Your Mind Change the World” event, slated for May 15 at Overture Center, featuring nine leaders who fundamentally get this idea of mindful, interconnected health—including the Dalai Lama. The exiled Tibetan leader will also spend the preceding day, May 14, leading teaching events at the Alliant Energy Center, sponsored through Deer Park Buddhist Center and Monastery in Oregon, Wisconsin, where head abbot Geshe Sopa resides (read more about both events here). Sopa’s sixty-plus-year friendship with the Dalai Lama is the reason His Holiness began traveling to the Madison area in the first place. He continues to visit with remarkable frequency, due to this unique, decades-old web connecting the university, Sopa, Davidson and now Patz.
“I think there is something about the prairie and the Midwest,” says Davidson, who famously turned down a named-chair position at Harvard—one of any university’s top honors—in 1998 to stay at UW–Madison. “Egos are not grown as large here as they are on the coasts. Barriers are more permeable. The opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration, I think, is more real here than it is in most other places. And I think that His Holiness sees that and really, deeply appreciates that. I think for those reasons he has a real fondness for Madison in particular and for the Midwest more generally.”
It’s more than just an interesting, feel-good story—some academics still scoff at these interwoven concepts of compassion, mindfulness, interdependence, ethics, science and spirituality, but people like Davidson and Patz believe they not only harmonize, they are the heartbeat of global health.
“We have really big ambitions for this work,” says Davidson. “It’s not just to conduct mundane scientific research but it’s really to transform the world.”
Fat flakes swirl softly against the windshield, yet another snowstorm in a seemingly relentless line-up this long, late winter. Slick roads force a slow, deliberate drive through rural Oregon, past the dairy farms and sleepy ’70s split-levels tucked against the dormant wooded hillside. I actually gasp when I first see Deer Park Monastery on the left. It’s enormous and ornate, a square-brick Tibetan palace. It’s so out of place and unexpected, a bright gold tooth in a crisp white grin. It’s the last thing you’d expect to find in the Wisconsin countryside, no doubt, but that’s not what’s so jarring. It would be stunning anywhere.
It’s too icy to park up on the hill and so I trudge, slowly, leaving the only footprints in this fresh snow. Penny Paster and her friend Mary Bennett are waiting for me, swinging a side door open wide in a puff of warmth as I scurry in out of the cold. I follow the two women down a dark hallway and up a short flight of stairs, watch them slip off their shoes and I follow suit, dump my hefty winter boots and slide sock-footed after them into the temple. I gasp again. They both look at me, then at each other and smile. “It takes you away, doesn’t it?” Penny says in a whisper. Everybody has this reaction.
There are prayer cushions scattered all across the floor and we each pick one, drop cross-legged to the ground and look up, around, out. The ceiling must be forty, maybe fifty feet high, the altar wall painted a blue so bright it doesn’t seem a human-made color. It’s the backdrop to a dozen or more gold figures and, at the center, a huge dazzling Buddha. Directly in front of him is an ornate throne-like chair where—I read up on this before I arrived—only the Dalai Lama is allowed to sit. He’s been to Deer Park eight or nine times over the years. Nobody can quite remember exactly how many.
The friendship between Richie Davidson and the Dalai Lama gets a lot of attention around here but there’s an older story that began with a man named Geshe Sopa, the guy who built this place. Sopa is eighty-nine years old now and he’s no longer giving interviews, but he does have a new book out. I make a mental note to buy it.
Sopa, like a hundred thousand of his countrymen, was exiled from his Tibetan home in 1959 after the Chinese invasion. By that time he was already a really big deal, a highly esteemed spiritual leader who even served as one of the debate examiners during the Dalai Lama’s final Geshe examinations, the rigorous Tibetan equivalent of at least one Ph.D. Maybe two.
Shortly after their exile, in an attempt to preserve the Tibetan Buddhist culture and continue to spread its teachings, the Dalai Lama asked Sopa to go to the United States and so he did. He was out east for a few years but in 1967 UW–Madison scooped him up. He couldn’t even speak English yet, the story goes, when he was hired here as a teaching assistant. Over the next twenty-nine years he became the first Tibetan to get tenure at an American university, built a renowned Buddhist Studies program, attracted a community of Tibetan-Americans in Madison that now numbers around five hundred and retired professor emeritus. In 1975, he founded Deer Park, first a modest temple and eventually this 20,000-square-foot, $6 million working monastery home to a fluid number of monks and nuns. The world’s most eminent Tibetan scholars come from all over to absorb Sopa’s teachings and lead their own, including the Dalai Lama. In 1981, His Holiness arrived at Deer Park to lead the Kalachakra, a complex teaching ceremony some Buddhist masters say is the most advanced form of Vajrayana practice. It was the first one ever performed in North America and it marked the Dalai Lama’s second visit to the Madison area.
“Very well respected teachers in India were telling people, ‘My teacher, Geshe Sopa, is in Madison, Wisconsin. If you want a continuing study, that’s the absolute best place to go,” Bennett says to me. She’s a Tibetan Buddhist who’s been coming to Deer Park for more than thirty years. We’ve been talking in hushed whispers, a slow, meandering interview about as informal (and, admittedly, awed) as they come. Every once in a while I jump up to examine the tapestries, the bowls of water, the golden statues. I find a jar of brightly colored hard candies hidden behind one.
“If one realizes the worldwide respect that Geshe Sopa holds, even though he’s completely humble and kind and so sweet, it’s—don’t be fooled,” she says. “He’s an amazing scholar. An amazing, amazing mind. He’s also the living practice of the teachings. The people around here are because of him … It’s all a result of his generosity and his vision for Buddhism to survive and thrive.”
Paster silently nods in agreement, or maybe it’s just contemplation. Either way, she seems to nod more than she does speak. I’ve been trying all morning to ask her about her connection to Deer Park but she’ll only admit to cleaning the toilets. I eventually figure out she’s married to family doc and radio host Zorba Paster, that the two go way back with both the Dalai Lama and Sopa, whom she calls “Geshela,” a term of endearment.
“If you were to go into any bookstore and look at the Buddhist books, many, many, many of those teachers have taught here,” says Paster. “Because of Geshela. And they’ll all say, ‘He’s my teacher.’”
“What about when the Dalai Lama visits?” I ask. “What’s it like? What are they like together? Who’s the teacher then?”
Paster smiles. “They’re always laughing,” she says. “They’re so happy to be together. And Geshela is just … well, if he [bowed] any lower he would be on the ground.”
“And what about Wisconsin?” I ask before I can help myself, a little embarrassed. I often want to know what outsiders think of my favorite place on earth, especially famous people. I really, really want to know what the happiest man in the world thinks of it.
“He likes Wisconsin,” she says. “He enjoys just riding [in the car] when there are not hundreds and hundreds of people marking his way. He’ll get out of his car in the summer and just walk along the wildflowers. He feels at home here, that’s what he says.”
It’s a lovely image, although a hard one to conjure up on a day like today. But I like the answer very much.
Jonathan Patz is a professor of environmental studies and population health sciences and director of the UW’s Global Health Institute. His longtime work with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change helped earn that organization and him the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (along with a guy named Al Gore), not to mention the attention of the Dalai Lama. In 2011, the Mind and Life Institute asked Patz to co-chair their annual conference in India with the Dalai Lama. That year’s theme was “Ecology, Ethics and Interdependence.” It was the first time that meeting had addressed environmental issues, and Patz’s work illustrating the disproportionately negative impact of global warming on the world’s poorest countries was a perfect fit.
“For me, the pivotal moment was when I was showing this global map to His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” says Patz, referring to two side-by-side cartograms in which the size of each country was drawn according not to geographical size, but to the numbers it represented. One map illustrated which countries were pumping out the most harmful levels of greenhouse gas emissions; the other map illustrated the numbers of people ill from climate-sensitive diseases like malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. The United States loomed largest on the first map, inflicting some of the worst environmental damage cumulatively over the past fifty years. The poorest countries in Africa and southeast Asia were largest on the second map, clearly absorbing the worst of the impact over time. The Dalai Lama looked back and forth between the two maps, and then turned to Patz.
“I’ll never forget this,” says Patz. “He said, ‘Now that you know that global warming pollution hurts people, that’s not very compassionate.’ That, you know, now that we have that knowledge that air pollution is dangerous to breathe and is also destabilizing of the climate, it’s ethically unacceptable that we are completely lacking compassion on our energy consumption and how it adversely affects other parts of the world. He said something like, ‘Your country’s not showing much compassion.’”
It was such a simple statement—essentially, when you know better, why not do better?—and typical of the way the Dalai Lama “cuts right through,” Patz says. His breath quickens as he describes the experience, saying it thrilled him. “He was the most attentive and insightful audience that I’ve ever had,” he says.
Patz says the Dalai Lama is just like everybody says, that when he walks into the room everybody and everything lights up. He says it’s the attentiveness, the mindfulness, the compassion—that it’s palpable. That it seems to physically move everybody who finds themselves in its presence. And I can’t help but thinking, this doesn’t sound like science speak.
I get compassion. I feel it in my gut and I know the role it plays in my own life. But I don’t understand what it’s got to do with science. Doesn’t the statistical data provide enough evidence in itself that we should probably do better with our greenhouse gas emissions? Why bring feelings into science?
“What is compassion? Compassion is caring,” Patz answers me. “Scientists do science because they care about something. Most scientists are working toward improving the world in some way. They have a wish to have their science make a difference, to improve the condition of the world. To, in the case of global health, make populations healthier for today and for tomorrow. So I think it’s hard to draw a black and white line between what’s science, what’s ethics, what’s compassion.”
Clearly the Dalai Lama agrees, as does Davidson. It was at that 2011 conference that the idea for “Change Your Mind Change the World” was born. Patz, Davidson, who is a longtime member of the Mind and Life Institute board of directors, and the Dalai Lama started a conversation there that led to the creation of the event, and the Dalai Lama enthusiastically accepted yet another invitation to Madison, Wisconsin.
“This is where Richie Davidson and I felt like our work really came together,” says Patz. “You can think about healthy minds and being compassionate to others around you. But you can also scale that up to a different level, thinking about creating pollution and hurting people in a different way … If we’re really serious about trying to make the world a better place, it happens at the individual level, it happens at the group level and it is definitely about working collaboratively.”
Of course this interdependence fits neatly with the Dalai Lama’s teachings—Buddhism is based on the fundamental tenet that there’s no such thing as a self independent from the rest of the universe. But it’s also right in line with the Wisconsin Idea, the University of Wisconsin’s philosophy that what is learned there in theory should be applied directly to help the rest of the state. That, as Wisconsin environmentalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” And that if we don’t cultivate a careful awareness of others, unexpected and devastating outcomes can arise.
Patz always tells his students about the well-meaning World Health Organization’s 1950s effort to reduce malaria in Borneo by spraying pesticides. They set out with noble intentions but ultimately triggered a typhus epidemic. There’s another example he teaches with, UNICEF’s efforts to solve a contaminated-water problem by drilling thousands of wells. It inadvertently led to devastating arsenic groundwater poisoning.
“You try to solve one problem and if you go in with a comprehensive understanding, with an interdependent way of thinking about health, environment, economics, social values, and try to approach those problems in a more integrated fashion, hopefully you’ll avoid some of those unintended consequences,” says Patz.
Patz knows this awareness of our interdependence is critical to trending issues such as healthcare, the economy and social issues. Davidson knows it too, and so does the Dalai Lama. They all hope that the May event will clue the rest of us in. That we’ll be inspired to explore all of this in greater detail. For Patz and Davidson, at least, UW–Madison is the perfect place to showcase these questions.
“We have a very connected and interconnected university, with very low barriers between departments and schools, and the Global Health Institute is coming out of that mold,” says Patz. “We want to be the most interconnected, interdisciplinary global health effort in the country.”
Meanwhile, Richie Davidson’s plans are no less lofty or ambitious. That 1992 meeting led to years of visits from Tibetan monks, sent to UW–Madison by the Dalai Lama so Davidson could examine their brains. And while that earlier work focused on longtime “professional” meditators, one of his recent studies is with novice practitioners—studying the brains before and after of people who have never before attempted meditation. Davidson claims that after just two weeks of meditating thirty minutes a day, the brains of these new meditators show measurable, demonstrable changes.
But it’s not just about the findings; it’s about using them to help others. The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds has two major prongs: One, it conducts fundamental, neuroscientific, biological and behavioral research in its laboratory. Two is translational research—studying real people in real contexts with very real impact. For example, Madison’s preschool 4K students, particularly the more socioeconomically stressed segment, are now learning simple techniques with Davidson to cultivate mindfulness and kindness. And his work with PTSD-impacted soldiers is one of the subjects of a new Danish documentary called Free the Mind. Davidson says not all forms of meditation produce the same kinds of changes, that there are “literally hundreds” of different ways in which to meditate, and so one future challenge is to better match meditation styles to individuals. Ultimately, he hypothesizes that mind-control techniques such as meditation can facilitate health in this country in many ways, from decreasing bullying to combatting the obesity epidemic.
“If this turns out to be true, every health care insurance company in the nation is going to want to be on this bandwagon,” says Davidson. “It’s kind of like physical exercise was in the 1950s, when the vast majority of the population did not engage in regular physical exercise [and now most do]. I think it’s not unreasonable to expect that twenty years from now the same thing is going to be said of these mental practices.”
And get this: Davidson says he and his colleagues are nearly ready to publish a paper on their research looking at changes in epigenetics—the regulation and expression of genes—exploring whether it’s possible to influence the expression of our genes through mental practice.
“I think the implications of this work are really revolutionary,” says Davidson. “I believe when this is published it will make major headlines because this is absolutely groundbreaking. It’s never been shown before. We see changes in gene expression over the course of just eight hours of practice.”
It’s no wonder the Dalai Lama is so interested. His Holiness first got to see his mountaintop request come to fruition when he attended the grand opening of Davidson’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds back in 2010. The two men continue to meet three or four times a year.
“One of the amazing things he says is that he has two priorities for the rest of his life,” says Davidson. “One is to work on behalf of the Tibetan people. And the other is to keep meeting with scientists. Those are his two priorities. For someone like him to say that is incredible.”
And no, Davidson has never studied the Dalai Lama’s brain. He did ask him—once—back in 2001. It was more a formality, the kind of thing he would have forever kicked himself for if he hadn’t—but he says he knew the Dalai Lama would say no, and he did. Davidson has, on occasion, however, taken a peek at his own brain, but he doesn’t keep any kind of data. “That’s not why I practice,” he says. For him, it’s a bigger picture thing. Playing his part in the global whole, this web that connects us all to one another. It’s about interdependence. Ethics. Science. Spirituality. Compassion.
“I think that any kind of change has to begin with ourselves, and I think most people would agree that we’re in a friggin’ mess right now in the world,” says Davidson. “And the mess has been created by us. It’s a product of greed, it’s a product of lack of compassion, it’s a product of not being able to understand our interdependence among ourselves and among the physical resources on the planet. And in order to promote more positive change I think that we need to each embody it ourselves first.”
It’s heady stuff. And it’s all happening right here.
“I think that Madison is the epicenter of this work in the world right now,” he adds. “And I think it will, for the foreseeable future, continue to be.”
Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.