Friday, November 19, 2010

International Forum on Buddhism and Medicine at Lerab Ling

It was forecast to rain but the sun shone brightly as almost 1,000 healthcare professionals and members of the general public descended on Lerab Ling recently for the Third International Forum on Buddhism and Medicine. In previous years the forum had been held in Montpellier and so this was the first time it was to be in such an environment, and indeed the first time many of these people had ever seen a temple like this.

As Sogyal Rinpoche said in his opening speech, this was a sacred place, and the atmosphere created by just being in the space of the temple was palpable. Some connected immediately, for others it was more challenging, but all were here to find out more about what such an ancient tradition had to offer them and the healthcare community at large.

Buddhism and medicine were deeply intertwined in the lives of traditional practitioners in the East, indeed Buddhism played an important role in the development of traditional Indian medicine as well as interacting with many indigenous medical traditions across Asia. In the West a much stronger separation between secular medicine and religion exists, but the two share a common goal, to free beings from suffering.

Buddhism's holistic approach of not recognising a dualistic separation between mind and body, as Jon Kabat-Zinn mentioned in his presentation, is now being confirmed by neuroscience itself. This shifting perception of the interaction between mind and body opens the way even more for a dialogue between the eastern science of the mind, Buddhism, and western science.

Many of the participants were completely new to meditation. The Buddha always said not to take his word for it, but to investigate for ourselves whether his methods worked. And here we were with world-renowned scientists such as Clifford Saron and Erika Rosenberg from the Shamatha Project, neuroscientist Sara W. Lazar, and of course Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of the secular use of meditation techniques, all of whom had put in the groundwork to show on our Western scientific terms that meditation had real effects and benefits.

Participants were also able to try out the techniques themselves in guided meditation practices. Speakers such as Lucio Bizzini and Ursula Bates outlined ways in which meditation and mindfulness were already being put into practice in health care settings, providing real inspiration and guidance for those wanting to integrate some of what they had heard into their professional lives.

Events like these are particularly helpful for young people who have grown up in our cynical, science based society. Seeing the research can give confidence in our own first hand experiences, and make it easier to explain our beliefs to family and friends who are not so receptive. From my personal point of view what was truly inspiring about the forum was the idea that Buddhism could reach beyond the walls of a 'religion' and be of huge benefit to those suffering around the world who are not open to it in its traditional form.

Jon Kabat-Zinn recalled what the Dalai Lama had said to him the first time he presented his work on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to His Holiness. “There are four billion people in the world. One billion of them are Buddhists, but all four billion of them are suffering.” The world's population may have grown a little since then, but the sentiment remains the same. If we are truly striving for all beings to be happy and free of suffering, we have to recognise that it is not realistic or even skilful to expect everyone to be able to follow the same path. This does not diminish the importance of what Buddhism has to offer the world at large, and events such as the International Forum on Buddhism and Medicine are key in furthering the dialogue between the two worlds.

As the forum came to a close, one couldn't help but wonder where the research will go next and the different areas in which meditation and mindfulness can be applied. Even more exciting though was thinking about the people who attended and what they would now do with what they had heard. It is not hard to imagine some of them up on stage in the future, presenting their own ground-breaking research or application. The possibilities are as vast as suffering itself, and the potential for benefit immense.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Where practice really matters: an accident

It actually already happened a few months ago, but I was too busy too
blog beforehand. At the end of August, I was involved in an accident:
I broke five ribs and had stuff in my lungs (pulmonary contusions)
because I was hit by a car while I was biking. It was a great
lesson in the power of practice. Even though I am by no means a great
practitioner, I started to get a sense of what the masters mean when
they say that they welcome obstacles and suffering, as fuel for their
practice. It is during suffering that you can see how powerful the
practice is, even if you feel you are mostly distracted when sitting
on your cushion.

When the accident happened, somehow there was no fear, because there
is always the refuge in the lama, and in Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche
is such a powerful Buddha that you are protected, no matter what. When
an accident like this happens, I pray with all my might and feel his
blessing, as in the Heart Practice described in the Tibetan Book of
Living and Dying. After they had made all the diagnosis, I was taken
to the Intensive Care unit. My job was simply to breathe, because
breathing deeply would prevent the contusions from turning into
pneumonia. It was thus literally "breathing as if your life depended
on it," as Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to say. Since I had nothing with me,
not even a cell phone, I just spent the first 24 hours mostly
breathing, and meditating. It was like an involuntary retreat. What
was amazing was that the nursing staff seemed to really appreciate the
atmosphere it created in the room. I also spent some time doing the
practice of Tonglen, for all those people suffering much more than I
did, and especially for the driver of the car who had hit me. Focusing
on others' suffering really makes your own suffering decrease.

I also appreciated the teachings on emptiness when I had a lot of
pain. When you contemplate the impermanence and interdependence of
things, somehow the reality, including the pain, becomes less
solid. And it turned out the pain was really not so bad. In fact, my
suffering was so much eased by this tremendous gratitude that I had
the teachings, and that I had so many wonderful people around me who
came to visit, who called, who prayer for me, and who helped me in
many ways. I was really protected by the Buddha, the Dharma and the