The Dalai Lama’s “The Universe in an Atom: The convergence of science and spirituality.”


Imagine the Pope writing a book discussing Relativity, Quantum physics, Evolution and Consciousness. This is the equivalent of such a book from the Buddhist world.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the author of this book is no ordinary mortal.
He was discovered as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama who passed away in 1935. The current one was installed as the sacred head in 1940 when he was barely 5 years old. When China invaded Tibet in 1950, he became head of the Tibetan government. He was 25 when the degree of Geshe Lharampa (Doctorate of Buddhist Philosophy) was conferred upon Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom) which is the full honorific of the author.
In 1959 the Dalai Lama was exiled into Dharmasala in India. Thanks to the ruthless Chinese aggression on Tibet, he is now a citizen of the world and the internationally respected leader of a religious tradition that is fast gaining ground beyond its Asian roots. Mao must be moaning in his mausoleum.
It was after his exile that the Dalai Lama learned about matters of theoretical science. He recalls how he began to understand Darwinian evolution from conversations with Huston Smith who visited him in Dharmasala in 1960. He includes Smith among his science teachers, adding that he is not sure if that scholar of world religions “would himself approve of this.”
It is impressive to see the range of technical science this holy man in ochre robe has absorbed by his own efforts. After all, he did not graduate with a degree in quantum physics or molecular biology. Yet he speaks with ease on the collapse of wave functions, DNA and RNA, and quantum entanglement. He is able to do this because over the years he has been keeping in touch with scientific developments, often learning directly from scientists whom he invites to his center. Since mid-1980s, Dharmasala has been hosting conferences of scientists in which the Dalai Lama participates.
Those familiar with the topics discussed in the book will find the sage’s re-telling simple and clear. It is admirable that a man of contemplation and religious commitment found time and interest to learn so much about fields which have little to do with non-violence, moderation, compassion, and peace which are the primary foci of Buddhism as a religious system.
The autobiographical snippets in the book add spicing to the book. He recounts how he learned about the sequencing of the genome via Larry King. He notes that the announcement of the news of the success of a purely scientific project by two political leaders (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) took him by surprise. He could have added that this was the first, perhaps the only, major scientific discovery presented to the world through heads of state. He recalls how on one occasion, out of politeness, he did not challenge a scientist who made a dogmatic claim. Once, spotting von Weizäcker in the audience at a lecture he gave, the Dalai Lama expressed his indebtedness to his (popular) books from which he had learned quantum mechanics. Weizäcker reciprocated by saying that his own teacher Werner Heisenberg “would have been excited to hear of the clear, resonant parallels between Buddhist philosophy and his scientific insights.”
The goal of this book is not to justify the doctrines of Buddhism, but to understand and incorporate science in the religious framework. Recognized spokespersons from other religious traditions are seldom as generous in embracing scientific worldviews as the Dalai Lama. Perhaps one reason for this is that Buddhist scriptures say little on how the world or life began. Therefore, for Buddhists, accepting evolution or the Big Bang model is not tantamount to rejecting scriptural assertions on biogenesis or cosmogenesis. Nor does one have to twist and turn time-honored passages to prove that evolution or E = mc2 are couched in symbols in one’s sacred books.
Even while respecting scientific methodology and current theories, the Dalai Lama emphasizes some fundamental differences between science and Buddhism. As a voice of religious worldviews, he maintains that the Darwinian model does not solve the mystery of life and existence. And he challenges science to confront altruism and compassion as phenomena for which science has offered no adequate explanation. While both science and Buddhism grant that life emerged from the inanimate world (brute matter), science’s concern is with differences between matter and life, whereas Buddhism’s is between inert matter and sentient life. In other words, science regards life as matter with complex physiochemical functions, while Buddhism, and religions more generally, point to the uniqueness of sentience and consciousness, i.e. the experiential aspects of life, which transcend physics and chemistry. The book rejects the claim that science has explained consciousness, and suggests that it may never be able to this.
The reader can also learn from this book the key ideas of such classical Buddhist thinkers like Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti, and Vasubandhu, as well as Hindu/Buddhist theories of mind and consciousness. It also elaborates on the Buddhist theory of causality.
As a man of wisdom from a religion which arose from deep concern for the human condition, for the Dalai Lama science at its best “is motivated by a quest for understanding to help us lead to greater flourishing and happiness.” For the Buddhist this is “wisdom grounded in and tempered by compassion.” Spirituality is “the human journey into our internal resources.” Its goal is to understand who we are. It too is “the union of wisdom and compassion.” Herein lies the convergence of science and spirituality: the subtitle of the book.
The Dalai Lama’s plea for enriching science with humanity is not something new. Many thoughtful commentators have done this before. But the fact that a religious leader of his eminence is willing to modify, or even reject, some of the traditional tenets of his own religion regarding the nature of the phenomenal world must be welcome and refreshing to those who are for enlightened religion. The Dalai Lama sets an example to other religious leaders. It would be good if scientists of eminence speak likewise with sensitivity and humility about whatever is best in the religions of the world.

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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