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11:00– 1:00pm Session Two

The Contemplative Perspective

Moderator: BILL MOBLEY, M.D., Ph.D., Neurology, Stanford University
WENDY FARLEY, Ph.D., Religious Studies, Emory University
THUPTEN JINPA, Ph.D., Stanford University/McGill University
JOHN DUNNE, Ph.D., Religious Studies, Emory University
Discussant: SCOTTY MCLENNAN Ph.D., Dean of Religious Life, Stanford University

The Christian Perspective

Wendy Farley, Ph.D.

Emory University

From the perspective of the Christian contemplative tradition (not that there is one such
tradition, but pretending that there is for the purposes of this conference) compassion is neither a
cognition nor an emotion, though it includes elements of both. It is a capacity to enter into
solidarity with suffering, apprehending the poignancy of suffering and the preciousness of persons
defaced by suffering. In this sense it reflects the mind’s openness to the truth, the basic orientation
to reality that is proper to human beings. The paradox of the human condition is that this capacity
for reality which is natural to human beings is maimed; that is, what is natural to us ontologically is at
the same foreign to us experientially. The capacity for compassion is obscured because of the
egocentrism and distorted desire which make us indifferent to the suffering of others and also
because the suffering of others is overwhelming to us, unbearable in its scope and intensity. Because
the primary obstacles to compassion do not occur in consciousness but as spiritual (and social)
habits that make possible or inhibit certain kinds of awareness, they cannot be removed by an act of
the will. Contemplative practices are intended to operate at the liminal space between consciousness
and preconscious structures of mind in order to effect a gradual transformation which recovers the
reality-orientation proper to human nature. An adequate Christian conception of compassion is not
possible, however, unless we add social causes of and responses to suffering. It may be generally
characteristic of Christianity to focus more attention on these social and interpersonal forms of
compassion than contemplative ones.


l. Are there ways in which the group envisions this cross-disciplinary conversation to
contribute directly or indirectly to the cultivation of compassion?

2. How can cognitive science help us understand or modify those parts of

consciousness that (from a contemplative point of view) are difficult to directly
access as particular thoughts or emotions?
3. Are there ways in which the dialogue with science can help us understand the
unskillful forms of compassion - the “distress and fatigue” (as Thupten Jinpa puts it)
that can accompany compassion?

4. Does this group envision the possibility of studying non-contemplative practices of


Compassion and Altruism in Buddhism: Cognitive and Affective States as Delineated in

Compassion Cultivation Practices

Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D.

Stanford University

Buddhist contemplative tradition is known for its repertoire of contemplative practices -

referred to also as meditations - aimed at cultivating, enhancing and perfecting specific qualities of
the mind. Along side this legacy, Buddhism also has a long history of critical philosophical reflection
on the complex phenomena that constitute the human mind, developing sophisticated taxonomies
of mental phenomena and defining many of these in terms of their specific characteristics and
functions. One key focus of Buddhist meditation is the cultivation of “great compassion” - the
genuine wish for others—ideally for all beings—to be relieved from their suffering - a process that
aims to nurture our inborn capacity for empathetic concern and expand the circle of our concern so
that it includes all beings within its sphere. In its natural setting, we experience compassion
spontaneously towards someone whom we deeply care, a child, spouse, or a parent. In the face of an
acute suffering, we are capable of feeling this same emotion, namely compassion, with a sense of
concern, for even a stranger or an animal. A key element in both of these instances is a sense of
connection we feel towards the object of our concern.

In analyzing the developmental process salient in the compassion cultivation meditations,

envisioning a path through which a genuine compassion can be felt towards all others, one can
identify distinct cognitive and affective states that are involved in the experiencing of compassion
for another. In my presentation, by way of background, I shall provide a brief analysis of a
compassion cultivation practice that is standard in the Tibetan tradition. I shall then explore the
question of how compassion and other associated key mental states, such as loving-kindness, empathy,
sense of concern, altruism, are understood, defined and employed in the Buddhist contemplative

1. Is compassion best understood as a single emotion, or is it more useful to conceive it as a
complex mental state?

2. What is the relation between loving-kindness and compassion? Can the two be conceived, as
the Buddhist tradition seems to suggest, as expressions of a more basic mental state, namely, a
sense of caring?

3. Is empathy a necessary condition for experiencing compassion? If so, what type of empathy
would this be? How is this connected to a sense of “identification” with the object of our
concern that the Buddhist tradition speaks of being essential for compassion?

4. Is altruism a stronger, more active, form of compassion, or is it more appropriate to conceive

it as a separate mental state?

5. How can we best understand, within the current scientific framework, the universal,
undifferentiated compassion – with no specified object at all – as conceived and cultivated in the
Buddhist tradition?

6. Can conscious cognitive process aid in enhancing compassion towards others, as suggested by
Buddhism? Could this hold the key for countering sense of distress and fatigue that often
accompanies compassion? What can we learn from Buddhism’s insistence on a skilful union of
compassion and wisdom?

7. Is the classic “egoism versus altruism” debate a false dichotomy from the Buddhist
perspective on altruism?

8. Just as there is a happiness set-point that differs between individuals, is there a compassion
set-point as well?

9. In addition to giving, of material aid, assistance and protection, what other behavior can we
recognize as indicative of compassion and altruism?

10. What can the current science of empathy and compassion learn from the contemplative
traditions to help develop a more comprehensive conceptual framework for understanding such
complex human motivations as compassion and altruism?

Contemplative Transformation and Buddhist Models of Mind

John Dunne, Ph.D.

Emory University
In many Buddhist traditions, contemplative practice unfolds within a highly detailed
theoretical framework about the nature of mind, cognition and affect. The transformations effected
through contemplative practice can thus receive a theoretical treatment from within Buddhism that
seeks to explain the modalities of those transformations. Of particular importance is the model of
“mind and mental functions” (sems dang sems byung) articulated by the Tibetan traditions as an
extrapolation of Buddhist Abhidharma. Another key component of the theoretical account of
contemplative transformations is the model of cognition found in the epistemological literature that
descends from the philosopher Dharmakīrti (India, fl. 7th c.e.). Drawing on these various resources,
this session will articulate some key features of the Buddhist attempts at explaining the way in which
affective states such as compassion relate to cognitive states, and the way in which personal
transformation through contemplative practice draws on both the cognitive and the affective
(although this distinction is problematic within Buddhism).

Some aspects of Buddhist contemplative practice are often overlooked, and one such feature is the
cognitive frame in which such practices occur. Drawing on the Buddhist theories mentioned above, I
will examine how the cognitive frame places limits on the range of interpretations on experiences
that occur within contemplative practice, and how those constraints on interpretation serve to direct
practitioners along specific pathways of transformation. Here, the Dharmakīrti’s theory of concept
formation and contemplative experience or “yogic perception” is especially relevant, and I will
present that theory as a means to articulate the basic framework within which practices occur.

At the same time, it is critical to note that a number of cultural and hermeneutical issues must
temper any attempt to appropriate Buddhist theories into scientific discourse, and I will raise these
issues as possible points of further discussion.


1. Is the distinction between cognition and affect relevant to Buddhist models?

2. In the context of cultivating traits such as compassion, are the more attentional features of
Buddhist “meditation” less important than cognitive framing and discursive techniques?

3. What is the relationship between intention and action, and how does this relationship figure
within Buddhist contemplative practice?

4. Buddhist models of contemplative practice recognize the need to eliminate dysfunctional

traits or dispositions, but do they do so primarily by enhancing innate human traits or by
cultivating new ones?
5. What are the gaps and presuppositions found in the Buddhist models of mind?

6. How can scientific researchers draw on Buddhist theoretical models in a way that does not
assume Buddhism to be “science?”