Dalai Lama: Lessons of Buddhism as applied to medicine

Despite anxiety over events in Tibet, the Dalai Lama talks to Mayo Clinic doctors on the healing force of compassion.

He admits his mind is scattered by the events of the last month and he's worried. But despite the Dalai Lama's troubled feelings about turmoil between his native Tibet and China, he is sleeping well.

Abiding by Buddhism's teachings has helped him maintain peace and compassion in the face of life's trials, the Dalai Lama told 400 doctors and nurses Wednesday at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

"If there is no solution, why worry?" he replied when asked how he maintains his good cheer and optimism in the midst of life's trials. "If there is a solution, why worry?"

Outside, two small crowds of protesters were the only sign that the eyes of the world are on the Dalai Lama and Tibet's conflict with China. One group defended China and its policies in Tibet. The other was Tibetans protesting China's crackdown on civil unrest.

The Dalai Lama was in Rochester for his annual check-up at the Mayo Clinic. But in the afternoon, he spoke with the clinic's doctors and nurses about compassion, and his concern that health care workers can be emotionally exhausted by dealing with the pain of others day after day.

The crowd stood in respectful silence as he entered a conference room at the world-renowned clinic and made his way to the stage. He and a group of monks stood out in their brilliant red and yellow robes, like birds of paradise amidst a Minnesota crowd wearing dark suits and sensible pants. In a nearby hotel, 300 Tibetans gathered to watch by video link.

The crowd at the clinic listened intently as he began a philosophical discussion about compassion and trust, and how to apply the lessons of Buddhism to modern western medicine.

To many in the room, he represented two worlds. The Dalai Lama is believed by Tibetans to be a manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion, who chose to be reincarnated to serve human beings. In that role, he is a spokesman for the compassionate and peaceful resolution of human conflict.

But he is also a great student of science and has supported western researchers studying the power of the mind in relation to illness and healing.

"This is part of the future of medicine," said Dr. Doris Taylor, a stem cell researcher specializing in cardiac medicine at the University of Minnesota. "We are beginning to have a scientific understanding of this. I couldn't not be here."

"We see so many patients that we can only get to a certain point in healing," said Dr. Tim Johnson, director of Mayo's Austin clinic. "That mind-body spiritual connection is often something that is missing in our patients and ourselves. But it's important in their health and well-being."

Tough compassion

"What do you see as the role of compassion in medicine?" asked Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who writes about the brain and emotion, and who led the discussion.

The Dalai Lama scratched his nose for a minute while pondering the question.

"One time in Japan, a doctor asked me about trust between patients and doctors," he said. "Trust is very important. Then he asked me how to develop trust. I don't know. But the key thing is the doctor's sense of concern. His sense of commitment, his sense of responsibility with affection. Genuine affection for the patient. That is the basis of trust." Trust, he noted, needs to be mixed with compassion.

But he also urged what Goleman said might best be described by the phrase "tough love." Compassion, the Dalai Lama said, doesn't mean pity or pure empathy. Sometimes, nurses just have to be stern with difficult patients, he added.

Goleman asked how Buddhist practices could reduce emotional stress for health care workers.

"Joy," replied the Dalai Lama -- joy in the pursuit of work is very important, particularly in health care. "You are directly involved in relieving the suffering of the person in front of you," he said. "Recognizing the value of that will sustain your joy in your work."

But equally important, he said, is that each of us aspire to our own happiness, that on a fundamental level we care for ourselves.

"He's such a gentle person, so thoughtful," said Jane Campion, a retired Mayo employee. "In this age of technology and busy-ness, suddenly there is a modicum of peace and wisdom. His words are like prayer."

Mindful immunity

The Dalai Lama talked of anxiety over the forces buffeting his country and about his own mission of moderation and peace, of compassion and forgiveness.

"When someone takes harmful action against you, you forget they are a person, you concentrate on their actions. You can diminish your own anger by reminding yourself that they are a person, and that they are not always their actions," he said.

"The way I see this, it's like an immune system. An immune system for the mind," he said. So, despite his anxiety, "there is still some calmness. No disturbances in my sleep."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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