Tibetan-Born Neuroscientist Combines Meditation and Medicine

Dr. Lobsang Rapgay helped organize a symposium exploring Buddhism and neuroscience, in many ways fulfilling the journey that the UCLA expert in Tibetan Buddhism, meditation, and medicine began half a century ago.

Lobsang Rapgay

By Judy Lin for UCLA Today

In 1958, 4-year-old Lobsang Rapgay and his family fled their home in Lhasa, Tibet. Joining a caravan of some three dozen fellow refugees, they headed into the Himalayas on a treacherous, seven-day trek to India while, behind them, Mao Tse Tung’s armies completed China’s bloody conquest of Tibet.

 Once safely in India, the family settled in Dharamsala, which in 1960 would also become home to another refugee — His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetan spiritual leader and former head of state, with whom Rapgay would later work.

 Today, Rapgay is a research psychologist in UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. And he helped organize a May 2 symposium in which UCLA neuroscientists and the Dalai Lama were to discuss how Tibetan Buddhism and western neuroscience can work together to help people gain greater mental flexibility, creativity and compassion. The UCLA International Institute and the UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies were to host the Dalai Lama's campus visit, which was canceled due to His Holiness' health problems.The symposium went on as scheduled, with Geshe Thupten Jinpa, a principal English translator for His Holiness and Ph.D. in Religious Studies (Cambridge University) and Robert Thurman, Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, filling in for the Dalai Lama.

 In many ways, the symposium brought Rapgay full circle to the journey that began a half-century ago. His new life in Dharamsala began with his father enrolling him in a Catholic boarding school where he learned English and received a modern education. Upon graduation, he went to the University of Delhi, where he earned a Master’s Degree in history — but not before he returned to Dharamsala to join a monastery and become a Tibetan monk for 18 years.

 “I was always very interested in learning Buddhist teachings, but from an academic point of view,” Rapgay recalled. “Tibetan monasteries are very academic, very much like the Jesuits. You study the texts, sit for exams and advance up the ladder in terms of grades and things like that.”

 Much different from the western concept of Buddhist training, with an emphasis on meditation, he explained, “The idea is you study the various texts sequentially, and when you reach a certain level where you conceptually know their content, only then are you qualified to really meditate on the texts fulltime.”

 Finishing his academic training in four years (while also completing his M.S. in history by correspondence course), Rapgay left the monastery and found work translating Tibetan texts into English for many of the hundreds of foreigners streaming into Dharamsala for Buddhist training. In 1978, this skill serendipitously led him to the very side of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom Rapgay served as deputy secretary and an English interpreter at the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Medicine and Astrology Institute.

It was at that Buddhist educational institute that Rapgay began learning ancient Buddhist meditative practices — a systematic means of cultivating mindfulness in one’s body, feelings and thoughts.

Rapgay also studied Tibetan medicine, wrote “Tibetan Medicine: A Holistic Approach to Better Health” and three other books on the subject, before beginning a new quest: studying in the United States. In 1990, he enrolled at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara for psychoanalytic training, earning a Ph.D. And in 1996, he joined UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute — now the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior — where he founded and directed the Behavioral Medicine Clinic.

Throughout, Rapgay remained a monk. While he dressed western-style, forgoing the traditional saffron-hued robes, he continued to shave his head, remain celibate and follow the disciplined regimen he had known at his monastery. Filled with work, study and prayer, his day began with 5 a.m. prayers and ended with bed at 11:30  p.m.

Yet, worlds removed from the monastery, L.A. exerted its own influence. “It became more difficult,” he recalled. “Once I realized I was pursuing a professional career, living by myself in Los Angeles in a modern situation, I felt it would not be possible for me to do justice to being a monk. I kept my vows until 2000.”

Still, Buddhism remains very much a part of Rapgay’s life, including twice-daily meditation and visits to local temples on Buddhist holy days.

Buddhism is reflected in his profession as well. Three years ago he shifted from working with patients as a clinical psychologist to doing full-time research. Specifically, he applies his deep knowledge of mindfulness practices to better understand the brain’s role in attention — exploring how humans process and respond to stimuli, and the many varieties of attention involved in human functioning. His research, Rapgay hopes, may someday lead to new treatments for post-traumatic stress syndrome and other anxiety disorders, among other implications.

Rapgay discussed his research at the May 2 symposium at Royce Hall, along with colleagues Professor Robert Bilder, who discussed the cognitive aspects of creativity, and Professor Susan Bookheimer, who talked about the role of mirror neurons in cultivating compassion. Geshe Thupten Jinpa, a principal English translator for His Holiness and Ph.D. in Religious Studies (Cambridge University) and Robert Thurman, Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, filled in for the Dalai Lama. Professor Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies, moderated the discussion.


Published: Friday, February 25, 2011