Mind & Matter — New Models of Reality

Symposium on Buddhism and Science

Chaired by H.H. the Dalai Lama

University of Vienna, May 26, 2012



Buddhism and science share the common goal to truly understand the world we live in and both have developed a complex variety of models of its 'reality'. While Eastern models of reality tend to be structured around mind—one idealist current of Buddhist thought even reducing matter to mind on the presupposition that mind alone exists (cittamātra)—Western scientific models are inclined to privilege matter, to the extent that extreme proponents of scientific materialism, such as Paul Churchland, reject the existence of mind including all its mental factors on the grounds that descriptions of such (epi)phenomena have no place in a naturalistic account of the world. However, critics of scientific materialism have been quick to point out that the denial of first personal accounts of conscious experience—of minds, which are capable of intentional engagement, critical analysis and ethical behavior—seems to be as implausible and self-undermining as the outright denial of physical reality. The grounds on which Buddhism and Science can meet, then, are models of reality that do not attempt to reduce mind and matter to each other.


The acceptance of such a view inevitably leads to the question whether, and if yes, how, mind and matter are capable of mutual interaction. Do mental states emerge from the bio-chemical processes of the brain, or/and does mind, in the form of an observer in a quantum experiment for example, exert an influence on matter? This also calls into question our common sense view of a universe built up from locally determined real entities. In this regard, Niels Bohr came to the conclusion that "isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems."1 In the field of neuroscience experiments suggest that compassion, mindfulness, and meditation have an effect on the structure of the brain, which again influences behavior.


A dualist view of mind and matter, or any theory involving locally determined mental and material building blocks of reality, faces a number of philosophical problems. The most eminent Buddhist philosopher of Madhyamaka Nāgārjuna (fl. 200 CE) argues that if things (such as mind and matter) really exist independently in their own right, they cannot influence each other, which would contradict the Buddhist axiom of dependent origination. Nāgārjuna’s observation suggests the viability of a model of reality that equally accepts both mental and material factors of existence under the condition that they are correctly understood to be empty of an independent existence and thus capable of mutual interaction. In other words, dependent origination is inseparably linked to emptiness, i.e., the universal absence of locally determined entities.


Since his childhood H.H. the Dalai Lama has had great interest in science and scientific research, and it is his conviction that human belief should be based on a correct assessment of reality, and not on assumptions. Chaired by H.H. the Dalai Lama, the symposium “Mind & Matter – New Models of Reality” brings together leading scholars from physics, neuroscience and Buddhist philosophy, to present and discuss new ground-breaking experimental observations in quantum optics and neuroplasticity against the backdrop of Buddhist philosophy. The speakers seek an open exchange of scientific and Buddhist ideas with the goal to start a dialogue on new models of reality with a multi-disciplinary approach. H.H. the Dalai Lama has established the academic institution Tibet Center — International Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies — which promotes and shares the knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist culture in the Western world and provides a platform for dialogue among scholars. The symposium is hosted jointly by Tibet Center — I.I.H.T.S. and Vienna University, and provides a starting point for future cooperation.



Prof. Dr. Klaus-Dieter Mathes                                                                                                             Geshe Tenzin Dhargye

University of Vienna                                                                                                                             Tibet Center – I.I.H.T.S.


[1]Niels Bohr: Atomic Physics and the Description of Nature. London: Cambridge University Press, 1961.


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