International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature

edited by Richard J. Davidson , Anne Harrington

Introductory Essay by Leslie Kawamura

Visions of Compassion is an outcome of the fifth Mind and Life Conference, the name of which is derived from the Institute that was formed by R. Adam Engle and Dr. Francisco J. Varela who independently initiated a series of cross-cultural meetings with the Dalai Lama and Western Scientists.

Part One, Historical and Philosophical Background, consists of five essays and a dialogue section that addresses Fundamental questions arising from the essays. The first essay, by Zara Houshmand, Anne Harrington, Clifford Saron, and Richard J. Davison, Training the Mind: First Steps in a Cross-Cultural Collaboration in Neuroscience Research, points out the failure to appreciate how their presuppositions were intrusive to the Tibetan monks who where the subjects of neuroscience experiments. Anne Harrington’s essay, A Science of Compassion or a Compassionate Science? What Do We Expect from a Cross-Cultural Dialogue with Buddhism?, ends with the question of why science could be thought to be an inadequate partner for a discussion on fostering compassion in the world. Is Compassion an Emotion? A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Mental Typographies, by George Dreyfus, addresses the question of whether or not compassion is an emotion from the Buddhist Abhidharma perspective. The forth essay, by Elliot Sober, Kindness and Cruelty in Evolution, investigates the question of human nature in the context of what can be considered to be natural in the context of biological evolution. The final essay, Understanding our Fundamental Nature,  by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, argues that human nature is fundamentally compassionate – by which he implies that compassion is the universal principle that binds all humanity together.      

Part two, Social, Behavioral, and Biological Explorations of Altruism, Compassion, and Related Constructs, consists of four essays and a dialogue section that addresses the Pragmatic Extensions and Applications arising from the essays. The first essay, by Richard Davidson, Toward a Biology of Positive Affect and Compassion, is a very technical presentation on the nature of compassion within the context of neuroscience.  Without coming to any conclusions, he suggests that studies in neuroscience may provide a clue regarding an understanding of non-Western traditions dealing with compassion. Nancy Eisenberg’s essay, Empathy-Related Emotional Responses, Altruism, and Their Socialization, looks into what motivates people to be concerned about the needs of others by examining the activities of middle-class children and mothers from Western societies. She concludes that the development of compassion and altruism varies in different cultures and subcultures. Ervin Staub’s, Emergency Helping, Genocide Violence, and the Evolution of Responsibility and Altruism in Children, explains the interconnections of theory and research. It aims to respond to how the process of human beings seeking fulfillment of their basic needs leads to helping others. The fourth essay, by Robert H. Frank, Altruism in Competitive Environments points out that various purely selfish human behaviors lead more often to behaviors that are less altruistic rather than those that are contrary to self-interest.

The dialogues by the participants in this second part, as well as in the first part, bring greater clarity to the individual essays. The Appendix towards the end of the book   explains the background and development of the Institute. An Index has been provided.