Buddhists in Borscht Belt! All Praise His Holisticness

On the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 20, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was hovering on a dais inside a Catskills conference center, wrapped in the swaddling robes of fame, love and audience expectations. In front of him, a throng of scientists and seeker types sat awed and silent—and in some cases praying—while the event’s two hosts flanked his sides, ready to interpret. To his left sat Robert Thurman, renowned Tibetan scholar, friend of His Holiness and father of leading-lady bombshell Uma Thurman. To his right was Dr. Mehmet Oz, famed heart surgeon, friend of Oprah and father of college authoress Daphne Oz. At risk to their collective nostrils, they were all shoeless.

His Holiness was the culminating act of a three-day conference-cum-retreat titled “Longevity and Optimal Health.” The Tibet House and the Columbia Integrative Medicine Program had organized the event, assembling Tibetan doctors with Occidental scientists to contemplate the everlasting mystery of attaining long life. His Holiness—it seemed wrong to address him as Mr. Gyatso—had just been treated to a greatest-hits review of the event’s discussions, including a presentation by scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, a recent recipient of the Lasker Prize, and now it was his turn to weigh in, to offer insights and enlightenment on the question in every mindful person’s mind: What could the West learn from Tibet?

After Dr. Oz posed the question, the Dalai Lama and his translator began to whisper, muttering and murmuring for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 40 seconds while the audience waited in sustained yoga-breath anticipation. Cameras snapped, a person coughed, prayer flags fluttered in the breeze outside. At last, His Holiness addressed the crowd.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know!”

The crowd paused, then burst into delighted laughter. How simple! How profound!

The conference had been a dizzying romp upstate—just miles from the hippie hamlet of Woodstock and the world’s largest kaleidoscope—a cozy but awkward group grope of East and West, mind and body, spiritualism and materialism.

At breakfast and dinner, crimson-robed monks sat beside pointy-headed researchers, who sipped warm herbal tea beside bead-wearing yogis and wealthy Manhattan Buddhists. During panels, discussion was as apt to be about meditation and chakras as cytokines and tumor necrosis factor—or sometimes all four at once, which had the mind-warping effect (to the layperson, at least) of watching a Discovery channel bio-flick looped to a high-speed Tibetan over-dub. Or vice versa.

On the final evening, a group of scientists dug in and debated the biological limits of longevity, while a cadre of white, Western seeker folk swayed and chanted in a nearby yoga studio. “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Rama, Rama,” they sang into the night, bringing to mind the old scene in Hannah and Her ­Sisters.

But unlike Woody, conference organizers don’t do irony. Instead, they believed that such age-old opposites could attract—that the practices of Tibetan Buddhism (meditation, mind-control) could be merged with the research of Western scientists to create a new science of longevity. That was why they had enticed some 200 people to a rolling 320-acre retreat called Menla Mountain, miles from the nearest cell-phone tower. And who better than the Dalai Lama—teacher, Nobel Peace Prize winner and international Symbol of Understanding—to bring everyone together?

“Very useful, very useful,” the wise monk said on the dais, blessing the conference. With a little prodding, he even agreed to share his theory of his own 71 years of longevity, a theory he boiled down to “calm mind,” and which flowed into a deep-thoughts discussion of the meaning of “intention,” the dual nature of violence, the “truth of suffering,” the danger of anger and, of course, the importance of “compassion.”

“The calm mind is very essential,” said the Dalai Lama in his rumbling basso profundo, “and for calm mind, compassion is the key factor. Infinite compassion, or unbiased compassion.”

When the audience emerged from the hall, quite a few declared themselves enlightened.

“Anything he says to me is pure pleasure, anything he says to us is grace,” said Sandra Ross, a Buddhist and psychologist from New Canaan, Conn., who was among the 150 or so guests who had paid $395 to attend the conference. (The 40 or so invited scientists and scholars attended for free). “Some of the things said about him is that when he touches you, it’s like every cell in your body feels ­acceptance.”


In recent years the merging of Eastern and Western medicine has evolved into something of a passion, even obsession, in certain quarters of New York’s urban medical establishment. Once the province of California mystics and dreamy organic-philes, it has gradually ohm’d its way toward the outer center, popping up at sleek feng-shui’d clinics and sprawling hospitals like Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medical Center. Its practitioners call it “comparative” or “integrative medicine” to signify its embrace of both antibiotics and acupuncture, chemotherapy and qigong.

Integrative medicine “is taking the best ideas from parts of the world that we normally don’t speak with in medicine,” said Dr. Oz, 46, a comely cardio-thoracic surgeon whose titles include director of Columbia University Medical Center’s Cardiovascular Institute and one of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive (2002). He also founded Columbia’s Integrative Medicine Program. “We speak to them in banking,” he said, “we speak to them in entertainment. You can get money out of an A.T.M. machine in Tibet, but you can’t get medical care there that’s Western. And vice versa.”

For many New York doctors, that’s been just fine. But in the age of Vioxx, managed care and nonstop cancer alerts—as well as a few genuinely promising studies—angsty New Yorkers have begun responding to the lure of integration, turning to everything from meditation to pain management (on the tamer side) to visualization to shrink tumors (on the fringier side) to all manner of supplements to block cancer. With its promise of new age self-helpism and allopathic reassurance, integrative medicine is perhaps the ultimate elixir of the control-freak class.

“Integrative medicine is definitely the future of medicine,” said Dr. Woodson Merrell, executive director of the Continuum Center for Health & Healing, which, he said, has seen more than 100,000 patients since its June 2000 opening.

In certain integrative circles, talk of “revolution,” “renaissance” and the “future of medicine” is apparently as de rigueur as green tea and St. John’s wort.

“We want to create a long-term medical think tank here, a healing think tank, in which the so-called alternative and complementary people have an active agency and voice, and their voice is as respected as the Western technocrats,” Professor Thurman, 65, told The Observer in his excitable baritone as a flurry of monks and staffers fluttered around him, building an altar, hanging tangkas, preparing a throne for the Dalai Lama’s arrival.

“It starts out with this conference, and then maybe there’s a more long-term thing; we have fellows, we have even pilot projects, and so it develops.”

On the second morning of the conference—a sunset and sunrise before the Dalai Lama’s visit—Professor Thurman’s “think tank” was chugging at full throttle, buzzing along with a series of talks with titles like “Mind/Body Practices that Regulate Immune Functioning” and “The Cascade of Transformations and the Fountain of Youth.” In the audience, an inordinate number of women in shawls sat or sometimes crouched, while one after one, a parade scientists, Tibetan doctors, and new-age mind-bodyists traipsed to the podium. Some flipped through PowerPoints, others lectured blind, and at least one thing became clear: There were at least a few science masters in the room. “The take-home point is that the brain can control the amount of an immune response to an infection,” said Dr. Kevin Tracey, director of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, as he zipped through slides of his research on the “the inflammatory reflex”—a theory of infection that suggests the immune system is regulated by the vagus nerve (in essence making it the elusive mind-body link).

“Is stress related to cell aging? The quick answer is yes,” declared Dr. Elissa Epel, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, while slides of chromosomes capped by little fez-like caps—called telomeres—flashed across a screen.

One could almost feel one’s own cells aging as the lectures progressed, moving from the realm of traditional Eastern or Western medicine to a jumbled in between, where the slides moved fast, the words came long and the very frame of meaning seemed to ­disjoint.

“The focus on transformation becomes a transformational process in its own right,” intoned an “accelerated experiential-dynamic psychotherapist” named Diana Fosha. “ … If you have an energy body like this, you have to have ways of sensing changes in that energy body,” mantra’d Daniel Brown, director of the Center for Integrative Psychotherapy in Massachusetts. “ … Cancer may not be accidental, it may have to do with a missed energy signal in that area,” he said in a later lecture, generating the kind of questions you don’t want raised at a medical conference.

Was it all just made up? Was it real? What is reality? Can some humans actually live to be 200 years old? And do any of these questions actually matter in the omnivorous marketplace of medical ideas?

As the conference wound to a close on Thursday, in the febrile moments after the Dalai Lama spoke, a sparkly-eyed internist turned spiritualist in a crushed-velvet top and pinstriped pants stopped to opine on the message of his speech and its meaning for medicine.

“I think [one of the most important things he said] was that if you have compassion toward your enemies, that will make you more healthy,” she said as she bent to put on her shoes. “If we incorporated this right here we’d be healthier physically and emotionally.”

Buddhists in Borscht Belt! All Praise His Holisticness