Neuroethics with Tibetan Buddhist Monastics

By Laura Specker Sullivan

Image courtesy of Laura Specker Sullivan
As I write this, I am sitting in my room at Jangchub Choeling, a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in Mundgod, India. I am here as part of Science for Monks, a program which sends scientists from the United States to India to teach Tibetan Buddhist monastics about science and which also sponsors leadership programs for monastics to develop science education at their home monasteries and nunneries.

I first came to India with this program in 2016 with Eric Chudler, a neuroscientist at the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington. Eric taught several sessions on neuroscience and I contributed partner sessions on neuroethics. One of the goals of this partnership was to create opportunities for the monastics to make connections between science and their Buddhist monastic training. Ethical concepts such as suffering and compassion are central to Buddhism. Consciousness is especially important, and this is part of what makes Buddhism and neuroethics such a complementary pair. Accordingly, the second goal of my partnership with Science for Monks was for me to gain a better understanding of how the monastics’ perspective might contribute to (and challenge) neuroethics.

Image courtesy of Laura Specker Sullivan
In the first year, I led several neuroethics sessions for the monastics in which I introduced classic Western theories of ethics, general questions in neuroethics, and then two focused examples of neuroethics research – one on identity and one on responsibility. I also distributed surveys among the monastics asking their opinions on the issues that we covered in the classes. In the second year, I taught one-off classes on neuroethics at different monasteries in the Mundgod area (a protected Tibetan settlement), and I conducted one-on-one interviews with senior monastics about issues in neuroethics.

Now, in my third year of the program, I am teaching a series of classes on ethics and science at one nunnery in the Mundgod settlement, Jangchub Choeling. My goal is for these classes to be a true exchange, such that teaching the nuns about ethical issues in science will elicit their reflection on which Buddhist concepts and ideas may be most useful for scientists to think about in relation to their work.

Teaching these classes is always a challenge. I’ll never forget my first session with the monastics in my first year with Science for Monks. I had thought it would be helpful to introduce neuroethics by approaching ethics more broadly, so I asked the monastics in small groups to come up with a definition of ethics they could share with the class. As so often happens in cross-cultural work, I quickly found out that the English word “ethics” has no direct translation in Tibetan. Rather than discuss the content of “ethics,” we dove into a complicated linguistic analysis that took up almost the entire class. By the end of it, we had determined that the best translation for “ethics” was likely kun-choe, which encapsulates actions of body, speech, and mind of regular people who are trying to develop good intentions, not sang-choe, which also translates as “ethics” but is more specifically for individuals on a spiritual path to become bodhisattvas.

Image courtesy of Laura Specker Sullivan
I’ve faced similar challenges this year. We spent one class discussing disorders of consciousness, beginning with a short explanation of how consciousness is defined clinically in American medicine. We didn’t progress much further than that – Tibetan Buddhist has its own understanding of consciousness, refined through centuries of first-person investigation and distilled in philosophical texts, and it is difficult to have a conversation about the ethics of disorders of consciousness without agreeing on what consciousness is in the first place.

In the end, we did get to discuss ethics and disorders of consciousness. Rather than the conversation being waylaid by our earlier linguistic detour, it was enriched by it. It turns out that when a conversation about ethics begins by questioning the concepts that are used to ground the debate, then (as long as both sides work patiently to explain their perspective as plainly as they can to each other) each side comes away with a richer understanding of different viewpoints, as well as with a newfound appreciation of their own. So it was that I found myself wondering why we in American medicine tend to equate awareness with consciousness and consciousness with moral value.

Image courtesy of Laura Specker Sullivan
This is the benefit of pursuing neuroethics inquiry across cultures in a personal and collaborative manner. In all three of my projects with the monastics – teaching neuroethics alongside neuroscience, conducting in-depth interviews, and designing a series of classes meant to stimulate critical, intellectual exchange about science – I have found that they are curious about, while also being deeply skeptical of, the aims of scientific endeavors. This skepticism does not necessarily undermine the aims of neuroethics, which often seems to be tightly tied to neuroscientific progress, but reinforces it, by prodding it to shore up its conceptual grounding and normative framework.

Incorporating stakeholder perspectives into scientific decision-making is nothing new; it is a key aspect of the ELSI (ethical, legal, and social implications) approach to ethics and science. Stakeholders are often understood as those who will be directly affected by scientific and medical outcomes – patients, clinicians, consumers, and so on. Tibetan Buddhist monastics living as refugees in India are not obvious stakeholders in contemporary neuroscience, so it may seem unusual to seek out their perspectives. Yet ethics research would be thin indeed if we only sought out the perspectives of those with a direct interest in the resolution of a specific scientific question. Neuroethics does not exist (just) to pave the way for neuroscientific problem-solving but also to ask whether neuroscience is the best way to solve certain problems. For now, I’ll be taking home the nuns’ questions about consciousness, happiness, and what it means to aim at maximum benefit for all sentient beings, and leaving them with what I hope is a new understanding of how their Buddhist training might play a role in scientific decision-making, broadly construed.

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Laura Specker Sullivan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the College of Charleston and Director of Ethics at the Medical University of South Carolina. Her work focuses on ethical issues at the intersection of culture, science, and medicine. She is the past chair of the Neuroethics Affinity Group for the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, a current member of the American Philosophical Association's Philosophy and Medicine Committee, and a member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers' TechEthics Committee. 


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Specker Sullivan, Laura. (2020). Neuroethics with Tibetan Buddhist Monastics. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2020/03/neuroethics-with-tibetan-buddhist.html

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