The World Wide Web

The Dalai Lama's unique, decades-long relationship with fellow Buddhists and UW researchers in Madison

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Davidson and colleagues scanning the brain of Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard in 2008; Davidson meditating at home (all Jeff Miller)

 

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.”

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