Sikkim Conference: part three Science, Art and Meditation by Annie Dibble



sunset over Gangtok

On day 4 of the conference, Robert Thurman took the chair for the topic: ‘Science, Art and Meditation’

The term Meditation is used in dozens of contexts by many different types of people and for many  different reasons – from healthcare professionals in body spars to those masters in the search for the most profound truth.  So it is recognised as something good.  Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche spoke of the different levels and meanings, and of the obstacle that youngsters put in the way by equating meditation with religiosity, and she said we lose our balance through making these assumptions.   It is our inherent potential to be awake, but how many of us would practice meditation without the ‘promise of chocolate’ (enlightenment) as the incentive that keeps us in there.

The secular approach to meditation, which is to stabilise the mind without the promise of chocolate,  is one of simplicity – with no expectation of anything;  stillness – which slows down the body and movement;  silence – which reduces the amount of speech we use (helps settle the mind) and  non thought – nothing will have changed, just free the mind, taking a break from judgement.

She said we constantly overshoot the mark as we are too busy, too proud, too arrogant. Within Tibetan Buddhism there are many complicated methods that bring us to this very simple place. Suffering caused by the craving mind is our downfall.   This point she played with for a while. Speaking about the chocolate – shamatha –  she made the point that it has a name, and lineage and sitting in shamatha has a lot more to offer than simply sitting in silence.  There are many forms of shamatha meditation and the most essential thing is that it has the power to introduce us to our own inner potential.  Mostly we are deprived of the actual wisdom and we lose the confidence of inner knowing, so shamatha gives us the window to recognise the vastness of awareness of our own intrinsic power – which is our own potential and until we have seen that, we crave external satisfactions.

Vipassana is analytic, a broad subject that further strengthens what you learn through shamatha, when you are first introduced to the notion that suffering and happiness is created by mind.  When we see that, then confidence will come with our own experience, so this personal investigation is essential.    The fieldwork to be engaged with is the ‘Four Immeasurables’[1] that show the resultant state of meditation, so whether or not we can hold loving kindness, joy, equanimity, is a measure of our meditation practice.

Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche generated a lot of response from the audience, one questioner asked about meditation as a secular means, asking if renunciation is required in order to become a proper meditator. She replied that from a Buddhist point of view, religion itself must be given up in order to obtain enlightenment but, she said, “Coming from a Buddhist this could be seen as propaganda, so what can you do?”

Geshe  Lobsang Tenzin Negi, PhD.   Co-Director of the Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies[2] followed, speaking on the causal links between stress, disease  and  depression and the research being done at Emory that investigates the  links between stress reduction and the relaxation response.  He said that the fundamental paradigm between science and meditation is very different, but both are searching for happiness,  he asked how we as human beings can enrich our lives and promote flourishing when we are so ignorant of what happiness fundamentally is?  He reminded us that maintaining a moment by moment awareness is an intervention that can minimise stress.  His Holiness responded by saying, “Compassion and love are not mere luxuries, but are fundamental to our continued survival”.

Joseph Le Doux[3] shared his research on the ’emotional hijack’ that creates negative situations in our otherwise everyday affairs.   He explained that meditation will develop neural pathways from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, and that lojong as a practice will enhance empathy and compassionate responses.  He suggested a top down approach using rational mind to influence emotional mind and transform the actual physiology.

If the effort of meditation is continued, the experience will become uncontrived, as the physiology of the brain, the actual behaviour, changes.  Meditators are thus able to gage their own psychological response as both immune function and cortisol release change after meditation practice.      Pain, he pointed out, is unavoidable – but suffering is optional.

To study the twelve steps of interdependent origination backwards is the key to understanding the process of becoming enlightened, according to Dr Khenpo Ngawang Jordan who gave a wonderfully clear delivery of the 12 causal and resultant links.  He spoke on the importance of understanding the skandas as not truly existing  and said that until then, we’ll remain in samsara.

Session 7 :   Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Education.

Paul Eckman was to have presented a paper on his work on behavioural science, but ill health prevented him from making the journey. Instead  we watched a live video cast of Eckman speaking to us from the US on ‘Emotions revealed’.   His life’s research has been to study facial and bodily expressions and detect what is really being said, over and above the actual words. The emphasis of his talk was on the appropriate processing of emotions,  and the need to bring conscious awareness back into the arena.  We must practice raising awareness of an emotion as it arises, every day.    Evolution sets many of our automatic responses – such as fear, however the majority of those are learned as we grow up and these, he said, require conscious awareness training through education.

Geshe Dorji Damdul gave a wonderful heartfelt talk on the urgency of ensuring that whatever comes of this unique conference will reach the school curriculum.  He made the point that his use of the word human includes all of us, without exception, because we have a oneness, a sisterhood, and common sense tells us to be aware of human values.

In the area of Social and Emotional Learning, we have to cultivate 3 qualities :   Self awareness, Self discipline, Caring for the environment and for others. These three qualities are of course mirrored in the Buddhas teachings, but why do we need these in particular? It is he says because we become socially adjustable when we obtain them.  He explained this very simply :  Wisdom has the connotation of being learned, because the mind that knows reality must be very sharp.  If you have compassion you will attract everything to you and have confidence and joy within yourself, it will also make you harmonious with others, and self discipline brings consistency.

As with Ringu Tulku Rinpoche and Khandro Rinpoche before him, Geshe Dorji Damdul really addressed the kernel of the conference, presenting eloquent and profoundly simple perspectives on the essential issues to be addressed.      Dorji Damdul has for many years been translator to the Dalai Lama, and when, at His Holiness’ public teachings at Gangtok football stadium, westerners found themselves in privileged seats at the front but with no translator, the Geshe spontaneously offered himself, and was seen to be surrounded by a large huddle of non Tibetan speakers, giving continuous translation of the 3 hour teachings.

The last speaker of the afternoon was Professor K P Pandey who is director of the Society for Higher Education and Practical Applications  (SHEPA) in Varanasi and he told us that we learn in four ways:  through interaction with a teacher, by our own talent, through our peers, and through the passages of time and challenges of life.  The mystery of learning and how it takes place is not yet known, but a ‘pedagogy of the heart’ was taught by the Buddha.  Professor Pandey had  prepared a highly detailed  teaching programme, the implementation of which he said would radically reorient the content of education and begin the process of restoration and healing that has been referred to throughout the conference.    The Professor had volumes of relevant information, but this was the last session and frustratingly there was simply no time for him to complete his delivery.  However there was a strong sense that what had been presented during the four days of dialogue would initiate the next step – that of application.

We missed the final presentations given by respondents to the afternoon talks, as Khandro Rinpoche had been invited by the Sikkim Buddhist Association (Founding President Ringu Tulku) to give a talk in another part of town. We nearly missed it, as word didn’t spread very fast, and the venue was hard to find, at the top of a community centre building beside the football stadium.  She was introduced by Ringu Tulku, and there was rather comical moment as they each tried to place themselves below the other, but an agreement was eventually reached and we were able to settle into sofas and listen to her wonderful talk.

She was addressing the Tibetan community, who she felt were lacking in interest for their heritage, remarking on the drive for material things, but the point of overwhelm has not yet been reached and this must happen before the process can be reversed. She said she felt that Tibetans tended to be complacent, as if being Tibetan was enough, but she said you cannot be Buddhist by name alone, there must be a depth of understanding of the philosophy. It is the most complex philosophy in the world, Christianity is easier, she knows because she attended both catholic and protestant schools.  It should not be simplified, the challenge is to be able to come up with an intimate relationship with Buddha Dharma, not to pay lip service.    She spoke about karma, saying we are responsible for our own environment, we will walk to the edge of our roof and stop at the point of falling, so we have discriminating wisdom –  why not use it?   But she said we should not try to be more philosophical than we are, just be aware of the fact that you are walking, be mindful of each action, watch yourself be initiated – you can’t be aware of yourself unless you know yourself well enough – then you can transform.  You cannot renounce your anger until you are aware of it.    Complicated deductions and theories are not for us, they are for specialists – just watch the mind and see the patterns of repetition, the ones that are your own. Why spend hours counting the trees when you can just take a shortcut and eat the fruit.  Youngsters, she said, have to realise that the topic is endless, but Buddhism makes sense when a person is aware that the material world does not give the answers.   Easterners are in the middle of a shift to wealth and are not yet satiated. The core essence of Buddha Dharma, she said, is to know that you are awake – how you shake hands with another person.

Sikkim is booming, on the steep hillside that is Gangtok, new buildings are erupting in every spare corner of land as more and more green space is developed. There are enormous hotels under construction in impossibly precarious locations and the Prince and Princess Royal, children of the Crown Prince of Sikkim and his American wife Hope Cook, are building two very large homes in the town centre just above Mahatma Ghandi Marg, with splendid views of Kanchenjunga Mountain range.  The wonderful Rachna Bookstore is a gallery and meeting place for the local artists and film makers and musicians,  keen to bring an intelligent creativity to the rapid changes that are taking place all about them.   Walking through Gangtok is guaranteed to keep you fit, there are two directions, up or down, and funnels of stairways direct you without mercy to or from the central shopping area, where this time we found that Nestles coffee machines have taken over even the sweet shops that only two years ago sold really good masala chai.   Parallel with this, valleys across the north and west are being lost to hydroelectric schemes which will provide water for India, a road to the east will soon connect China (Tibet) and a new airport is under construction only one hour from Gangtok.  Travelling about the countryside the narrow cliff edge roads are continually being repaired after landslides and heavy rain.  The work is being done by families, mainly of woman and children, breaking stones with hand held hammers, sharing shovels and bearing baskets of rocks on their backs. We didn’t see one JCB.   One of our cars had it’s windscreen smashed by a falling rock as the road fell precipitously away on the outside lane. There was no option but to continue the journey for 3 more hours through the choking dust that is everywhere – it seeps into the nostrils and lungs causing chronic ailments.

And yet there is so much beauty,   the ever present distant mountain snow reflecting the sunlight from dawn until dusk, the tea plantations, the dripping fern filled forests, fields of cardamon, and fast flowing turquoise rivers that tumble over stones, carrying an icy blast from the glaciers above.   Rumtek Monastery is protected  by armed guards who refuse entry to those without a passport, to the most sacred and desolate memorial to the 16th Karmapa and young monks ask for money in return for entry to the reliquary room.

But then of course there is the beautiful Meditation Retreat Centre, Himalayan hub of Bodhicharya International, sitting in the sowa rigpa garden across the valley from Gangtok under the eaves of Rumtek.   And Dilip the cook, with a welcome smile for all who dare to make the journey.

Everything is perfect.

About the Author:

Annie Dibble is currently co-ordinator for Bodhicharya Ireland, and a Tara Rokpa Therapist. In another life she recently retired from teaching 3rd level art and design and is now working to create supportive links between weavers in India, Nepal and Dublin.


May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness,

May they all be free from suffering and the causes of suffering,

May they never be separated from the great happiness that knows no suffering,

May all beings dwell in equanimity free from attachment and aversion.




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