The Dalai Lama always stirs up plenty of karmic excitement when he comes to town. But a sold-out conference--"Investigating the Mind: Exchanges Between Buddhism and the Biobehavioral Sciences on How the Mind Works"--held last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a bunch of Western scientists downright giddy. For 15 years they've been holding invitation-only meetings with the Dalai Lama at his residence in India to discuss the science of Buddhism; the fact that this year's rendezvous was cosponsored by the venerable McGovern Institute for Brain Research--with celebs like Richard Gere attending--is a giant boost for the field. Says one participant: "This is really a coming-out party in Kresge Auditorium."
Plenty of Americans have become enamored with Buddhism--or at least the meditative tradition it follows--in recent years. Enrollments have soared at meditation workshops, and the practice has become so mainstream that Walmart.com sells meditation books and CDs, and eBay is chock full of chimes and Buddhas. But does it work? Research presented at the conference included brain scans of meditators, which showed increased activity in areas associated with a happier state of mind. Adam Engle, cofounder of the Mind & Life Institute in Boulder, Colo., which organized the Dalai Lama's past meetings and cosponsored events at MIT, hopes that the conference will be a catalyst to attract young scientists to the field and to launch rigorous new research. "There's a lot of anecdotal evidence out there that meditation is good for you, but there isn't a lot of scientific data," says Engle. "Ten years from now, I suspect there will be." In the meantime, Engle is reveling in the field's newfound credibility. "I certainly didn't foresee where we'd be today."