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ETH Life - wissen was laeuft ETH Life - wissen was laeuft

ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
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Published: 11.08.2005, 06:00
Modified: 11.08.2005, 14:16
The Dalai Lama at the ETH symposium "Fear and anxiety"
Ocean of wisdom meets science

A big day at ETH: In the presence of the 14th Dalai Lama and Federal Councillor Pascal Couchepin a symposium on "Fear and Anxiety" took place last week. The aim of the event was to combine scientific with Buddhistic approaches and tease out what they have in common. Over 3,000 people followed the proceedings in the main building of ETH and thousands more the transmission on the internet.

By Peter Rüegg and Jakob Lindenmeyer

Immediately following the arrival of the Dalai Lama, ETH President Olaf Kübler and Federal Councillor Pascal Couchepin had a 40-minute conversation with His Holiness behind closed doors. According to a press communiqué from the Federal Department of Home Affairs (1) the meeting between the councillor and the Dalai Lama took place in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Councillor Couchepin welcomed the Dalai Lama in the name of the whole Federal Council as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist community in Switzerland.

The meeting had no official political character. Nevertheless, the councillor and the Dalai Lama talked about the current situation in the autonomous region of Tibet. Furthermore they discussed questions of religious and cultural freedom as well as about current negotiations between representatives of the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.

Crowded symposium

Excitement was high leading up to the symposium "Fear and Anxiety". In his opening address, Olaf Kübler described the symposium as one of the very special events in ETH's 150th Jubilee year celebrations. Issues of fear and anxiety were dominant in today's world. Should these two negative sentiments govern our lives, then our societal system had failed. We were searching for role models that would help us overcome fear and anxiety. The Dalai Lama was just such a role model.

Federal Councillor Couchepin, too talked of a wide-ranging and highly complex theme. The thoughts of the Dalai Lama had touched him deeply, he said. Meetings like this one led to a mutual enrichment of the spiritual traditions of the represented cultures.

For his part, in his address the Dalai Lama explained why, from a Buddhist point of view, fear and anxiety arose: from an erroneous understanding and a mistaken interpretation of reality. Knowledge, said his holiness, could lead to freedom and happiness. Another way to overcome negative emotions was presage, "but this," added the Tibetan dignitary with a laugh, "is not scientific."

Discussing the curtailment of freedom by fear and anxiety (from left): HH Dalai Lama, ETH President Olaf Kübler, Federal Councillor Pascal Couchepin and Nobel laureate Richard Ernst.

From farmer's son to Ocean of Wisdom

The 70 year-old Dalai Lama is the secular and religious leader of the Tibetans. In the Mongolian language Dala Lama means "Ocean of wisdom“. The Dalai Lama is head of the Gelupga order, one of the four lines of Tibetan Buddhism.

Flight into exile

Lhamo Dhondrub, as the Dalai Lama was called at birth, was born on 6th July 1935 to a modest farmer and his wife in the Tibetan village of Takster. At the age of two, in agreement with prophecies, he was recognised as the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and taken to Lhasa. At the age of four-and-a-half, in February 1940, he was set on the throne and given the name Tenzin Gyatso. In November 1950 when he was only 15 years old, he was declared Tibetan Head of State, more than a year after the Chinese invasion had begun. In 1954 the Dalai Lama tried, unsuccessfully to hold peace-talks with Mao Zedong. The Chinese army brutally crushed a revolt in 1959. 90,000 people were killed. The Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetans fled to Dharamsala in India, which is still home today to the Tibetan exile government. Ever since Dalai Lama has worked unremittingly for Tibetan autonomy.

Revered peacemaker

In the west the Dalai Lama is highly revered as a maker of peace. In 1989 he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo. His visits are media events in every country. Notwithstanding, the Dalai Lama sees himself as a simple monk. His stay is Switzerland ends on the 12th August.


Federal Councillor Pascal Couchepin (left) and the Dalai Lama in the main building of ETH Zurich, on the way to a personal conversation. large

Special area of the brain as the seat of anxiety

In his address "The fearful brain", Hanns Möhler, emeritus professor from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, concentrated on the scientific aspect and explained the neurobiological basics of fear. Fear and anxiety, said the neurobiologist, played an important role for the survival of the human race. Everyone feels anxiety and fear from time to time. By measuring brain waves and activity science had succeeded in locating this negative emotion in the brain. A specific area of the brain, the so-called amygdala, played a central role. It processes fear experiences, transmits them but also stores them. Owing to the interaction of genetic and environmental factors, normal, more or less natural fear could turn into a pathological anxiety disorder.

Moderator Richard Ernst (right) listens attentively to what Professor Hanns Möhler has to say about the neurobiological basics of anxiety and fear.

But how should one deal with fear? As an example, Möhler recounts the story of Perseus from Greek mythology when he was charged with fighting the snake-headed gorgon Medusa whose victim was turned to stone if he met her gaze. In order to avoid direct eye contact, Perseus used his shield as a mirror. By avoiding direct confrontation with fear, Perseus succeeded in cutting off Medusa's head. Möhler concluded his talk by saying that he hoped that everyone listening would have a shield at hand if they had to confront fear, in order to overcome it–even if not as violently as Perseus.

Environment needs more sympathy

The next speaker, the German theologian Eugen Drewermann, (2) tried to illustrate fear against a Christian backdrop. The French Buddhist and molecular biologist Matthieu Ricard linked the theme to Buddhism. Professor Arno Gruen took up the psychological point of view. The clinical diagnosis of anxiety conditions and possible treatments was expounded by Jürgen Margraf from the University of Basle. And Gret Haller, former OSCE Ombudsman for Human Rights for Bosnia nad Herzegovina, concluded this series of addresses by considering fear from a political and modern point of view. The lively moderation of the symposium was assured by Nobel laureate, Richard Ernst, who also initiated the symposium. In the afternoon Richard Ernst was replaced by the co-initiator of the symposium, Pier Luigi Luisi, retired ETH-Professor for Macromolecular Chemistry.

Shortly before 4 p.m. the Dalai Lama summed up the symposium. He hoped that this kind of discussion would contribute to a situation where individuals, families and, finally, society would become happier. Among other reasons, he named one of the main problems of our times the lack of sympathy and compassion. "If we develop more sympathy the whole of society will become more honest," said the Dalai Lama. Human beings themselves had the potential to solve existing problems. He directed a special appeal to ETH as an academic institution. It had a special position in the solving of problems; words, to which moderator Richard Ernst could only add his voice. He was hoping for a more joyous and better future, he said, one to which everyone, no matter in what measure, could contribute.

Lectures and exhibitions on Tibet

The Dalai Lama's stay in Switzerland lasts until 12th August and he is giving daily instruction in the Hallenstadium in Zurich. Within the framework of the Tibet Festival, organised by the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, until the departure of His Holiness a number of lecture series will be on offer at ETH, for example, "Faith & Imagination: Wie der Geist die Zukunft formt“ (3), or, "Handel mit China: Wo bleiben die Menschenrechte?“ (4) The exhibition "Tibetans in Switzerland" is on until 12th August (5) at ETH Zurich. From 4th August 2005 until 30th April 2006 exhibitions devoted to "The Dalai Lama"(6) can be seen at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich.

(1) Media statement from the Federal Department of Home Affairs:
(2) Synopsis of talks and short biographies of speakers at the "fear & anxiety" symposium:
(3) Lecture series "Faith & Imagination - Wie der Geist die Zukunft formt":
(4) Lecture series on trade with China: What about human rights?:
(5) Information on ETH exhibition "Tibetans in Switzerland“:
(6) Website of the Ethnographic Museum:

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