‘Getting to the Heart and Soul of Matter in Tibet’ (1987)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

In 1987, the Los Angeles Times published a preliminary report on the first so-called Mind & Life Dialogue between the fourteenth Dalai Lama and (mostly) Western scientists (‘Getting to the Heart and Soul of Matter in Tibet,’ The Los Angeles Times, 24 November 1987 p. II-1). This report focuses on a specific query by the Dalai Lama into a supposed causal connection between transmigration, coitus, conception, orgasm, and ‘spiritual ecstasy’:

“Dr. Robert Livingston probably figured he had encountered just about every sort of student and every sort of question that might be germane to his discipline.

After all, he’s a lifelong educator who has taught at Yale, Harvard and UCLA and who is now at UC San Diego, where he founded the neurosciences department at the School of Medicine and currently is researching how to develop a computer-generated map of the human brainin microscopic detail.

He has been on the staff of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council and has served as scientific director for the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness.

He ponders such questions as what is human nature, and is it common to all humans? And, at what point does an embryo begin to develop human consciousness?

So there was some interesting give-and-take recently when Livingston offered some in-home tutoring to the Dalai Lama. Livingston and the Dalai Lama had met three times earlier on the lecture circuit. And the Dalai Lama, who serves as both the secular and ecclesiastical ruler of Tibet (although now in exile in India), asked Livingston to join American and French professors at the Dalai Lama’s palace for five days to familiarize the Buddhist leader with the latest in Western scientific thought.

Among the Dalai Lama’s questions: Is the euphoria of sexual orgasm created by the physical sensation of coitus or the more spiritual ecstasy of a transmigrating soul at the time of conception?

Each professor was given a morning to present his topic, and the afternoon was spent in open discussion.

Livingston suggests he may have prospered more by the experience than the Dalai Lama, given his own interest in Buddhism and being given the chance to soak up a week’s exposure to the Buddhist leader. But he characterized the Dalai Lama as one of his finest students—and the first to pose the question about the physical and emotional feelings at time of sexual orgasm.

‘He had believed the ecstasy was caused by the transmigrating soul entering the [female] organism and causing conception at that very moment of fertilization, which was right at the moment of ejaculation. When we explained to him that the sperm and the egg might not connect for 24 hours, plus or minus, he was shocked.

‘I don’t know what they’re going to do about that,’ Livingston mused.”

Curiously, Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela omitted this exchange in their report on the meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in 1987. Their book Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of the Mind was first published in 1992. It presents edited versions of the participants’ lengthy discussions of fertilization and orgasm, but leaves out this particular question and answer. The full book is available here.

“DALAI LAMA: Is it so that before the sperm enters the egg there is no possibility of birth? And once that entrance has been made and the sperm has gone into the egg, is it absolutely certain that an embryo will develop, or is there still some element of uncertainty?

LIVINGSTON: Giving birth without sperm is called parthenogenesis. Evidently this does not happen in humans. A woman apparently cannot produce progeny without benefit of sperm. Nonetheless, parthenogenesis can be readily induced in frogs by pricking the eggs with a needle or by imposing other mechanical perturbations. Even with proper exposure to sperm, there is no certainty about fertilization. Even after a sperm has successfully fertilized the ovum, there is no certainty of successful embryonic and fetal development. Each of a long succession of events throughout the reproductive process remains problematic and uncertain, even in presumably normal circumstances.

DALAI LAMA: If that is the case, is a third cooperative cause necessary for the actual development of the fetus?

LIVINGSTON: From the Western scientific point of view, there are many cooperative causes necessary for the actual development of the fetus.

DALAI LAMA: Is the sperm composed of many cells or is it like the amoeba, which is composed of only one?’

LIVINGSTON: Each ejaculation contains millions of sperm, but each individual sperm, consisting of head and tail, is one independent cell. The sperm—its head, body, and tail—are all one cell.

DALAI LAMA: So, for example, the color of the eyes, the shape of the nose, and so on, such things are determined by the genetic code of the chromosomes?

LIVINGSTON: Yes. Each person, as you know, is the creative consequence of the union between half male-contributed and half female-contributed chromosomes. Some inherited traits will be expressed through genes passed along by the female and others through genes passed on by the male.

DALAI LAMA: But if the embryo receives proper nutrition, care, and so forth, then what level of detail is determined by the natural genetic code?

LIVINGSTON: I’m confident that there are some tissues in which the requirement is exactly provided, but there are some others that are not at all entirely determined. As we have indicated, each fertilized ovum, and consequently each newly created individual, is one out of 70.37 trillion choices! That is a big number! Why, 70 trillion is twenty times bigger than the United States debt! [laughter] I reckon that this number is larger than the total number of humans that have survived to reproductive age and succeeded in reproducing offspring since the beginning of the hominid line. You can certainly look around this room and say confidently that there are no duplications here. You can look over the whole world and say confidently that there are no duplications there. This, I believe, is a very important observation. [His Holiness chuckles.]

DALAI LAMA: Does a deformed embryo occur as a result of a deformation or a fault in the sperm? Or at a later stage, as a result of later circumstances?

LIVINGSTON: It can be a fault of the sperm, or a fault of the egg, or a fault of the processes of the individual baby. It can also be the fault of the mother’s uterus, or placenta, or endocrines. Many things, you see. Really I feel every birth is a kind of miracle, because there are so many chances for error.” (pp. 170-171).

“DALAI LAMA: When an embryo develops into a proper body, does it start from the place of the heart or somewhere else in the center? The Buddhist texts speak of a nucleus where the consciousness first enters it, and this is the same nucleus where consciousness eventually dissolves at the time of death.

LIVINGSTON: I do not know where it might be appropriate to assign a locus for entry of consciousness into the conceptus, or where one might want to locate its dissolution at the time of death. Perhaps the ectodermal flattened surface. I should think it might be oriented according to which part will be the head of the embryo and that has not yet been established. My conception, from a Western neuroscientific point of view, is that consciousness is an emergent property that depends on the existence of a sufficient aggregation of appropriately connected nerve cells.” (p. 179).

A.u. - Getting to the Heart and Soul of Matter in Tibet (The Los Angeles Times 24-11-1987 p. II-1)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.