Paul Ekman is a lucky guy. Few people get to discuss their most profound ideas with the Dalai Lama. Ekman, renowned scholar of facial expressions and emotion, did so for thirty-nine hours. In this book, the two men explore deep questions about human emotions, such as: What are emotions? Are they useful? Is anger destructive, or just the behaviors it motivates? The reader is privileged to be a fly on the wall during this spirited exchange. We encounter contrasting worldviews, but more often common ground between Buddhism and science, between Darwin and the Dharma.
Take compassion as an example. The Dalai Lama says it is an emotion; Ekman says it is not. Eventually they arrive at a shared view. Compassion must be cultivated to become automatic. As Ekman describes it, compassion has evolutionary roots in consolation (which is seen in chimpanzees), requires emotional recognition (seeing suffering in others), and may be motivated by emotional resonance (feeling what another feels). The Dalai Lama adds that with reflection and practice, whenever one sees suffering, the inclination is to relieve it. At that point, he says, “[i]t is no longer at the level of thought.”
Much of the joy in reading this book comes from the unexpected convergence in thought systems. The Dalai Lama delights to hear that Darwin proposed that the highest stage of moral development occurs when humans extend their sympathies “to all sentient beings.” And Ekman, the scientist, intimates an appreciation of dependent origination. People must realize that we are fundamentally connected, Ekman says, “otherwise we run the risk that we will destroy ourselves.” Exactly.