The Dalai Lama Speaks on Science (part 1)

By Matthieu Ricard on February 08, 2011

From November 20 to 23, at New Delhi in India, the XXIII meeting of the Mind and Life Institute gathering a remarkable array of contemplatives of the ancients Indian traditions (Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism) together with Indian and Western scientists, in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai-Lama, who had long aspired for such a meeting to take place on the ‟mother land” of India.
Here is a slightly edited transcript of His Holiness inaugural speech of the main conference on 21 November 2010.

Brothers and sisters,

As the previous speakers already mentioned, I want to tell you that, originally, from my own curiosity, I wanted to start a dialog with scientists. Since my childhood I have been interested in modern science. In 54-55, when I was in Beijing with Chairman Mao, he told me:
‟Your way of thinking is very scientific”.

About 40 years ago, when I was beginning to think seriously to have a discussion with scientists, one of my American friends, a Buddhist lady, told me:
‟Be careful, science is the killer of religion, so you should be very careful.”

So I thought ‟Hmmm… In Eastern tradition, Indian tradition, and in the Indian Buddhist tradition, particularly that of Nalanda University, all the great philosophers, Buddhist masters, such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Dignaga, Bhavaviveka and Chandrakirti placed the emphasis upon investigation.  They were like ‟professors” at Nalanda. According the Buddha's own recommendations, they investigated the words of the Buddha to see what was acceptable and what was not. The ultimate criteria was thus that that of reasoning.

This means that the great Indian masters did not accept at face value the word of the Buddha: they used reasoning and investigation to examine the content of the text. The basis of this process is a quote of the Buddha: ‟A follower of mine should not accept my teaching out of faith or devotion but rather out of investigation on the subject matter, seeing its meaning and then reproducing it into practice. So it is very scientific, skeptical and open minded.

Once you have found the real nature of something, the next step is to think about the benefit of such finding. Therefore I thought that the scientists' process of investigation was similar to the Eastern investigative approach. So, I thought, ‟there is not much danger with science (laughter)”. These professors from Nalanda were like scientists.  Initially, the dialog happened between myself, my interpreter Thubten Jinpa, and a few friends.

I remember one occasion, in Newport Beach, in California, there was a lady, a world known philosopher of science who, when we began the meeting felt that that there would be no basis for Buddhists and scientists to talk. She thought the meeting would be useless or boring, and she showed that in her expressions. But as we started having a discussion, she said to me:
‟Your Buddhist tradition is something quite strange; there is no god, no creator, and no idea of permanence”.

Of course Buddhists adopt the view of anatman, [the lack of existence of a self-entity]. Then she really showed interest and during our tea breaks, she would ask me lots of questions.
So at the beginning, I was mostly motivated by curiosity.

At the beginning of the Mind and Life meetings, when I suggested to our monastic institutions in India that it would be worthwhile to learn about modern science, they were not very receptive, particularly the older generation of scholars. So I had to give them more explanations. After a number of years quite a few students have become interested and take part on the ‟Science for Monks Program” with, in particular, the cooperation of Emory University. Now we have lots of scientific manuals translated into Tibetan, which are distributed in our monastic institutions.

In the monastic universities we study ancient non-Buddhist thought, mainly Hindu. But I have always told these senior monks: ‟When we were in Tibet, and you studied those texts, you didn't interact directly with non Buddhist philosophers, you only learned there ancients texts and wrote some refutations of those texts. But now we are in India, so there are living representative of those traditions, who have studied fully and practice them. You should go and receive teachings from these individuals. Instead of studying some philosophies that is now more or less dead, it is very important to learn living traditions, Christianity, Islam, modern philosophy, as well as the works of ancient Western philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.
(to be continued)