The Dalai Lama and Modern Science

Alice Cook

Univ 200 – 048

The Dalai Lama and Modern Science


The 14th Dalai Lama has been a major influence in Buddhism as it has grown during these contemporary times. His holiness has endured eviction of his homeland as well as growing modern times. These alone have put his holiness in a unique position that allows for a chance to show just how flexible Buddhism really is in particular the field of science and compassion for all.

Buddhism’s flexibility shows by being intimately involved in and is just greatly intrigued by modern science for the past 150 years. After a visit to Dr. Mansfield and his colleagues who are leading physicist in this modern era, the Dalai Lama had but one request. This request was his holiness imploring those scientist to “further the dialogue between science and spirituality, not just the connection between Buddhism and science but, science and the diverse traditions of spirituality”(Mansfield pg5). However, this is not the only instance that his holiness had had to face a required show of how universal his holiness’ beliefs are.

One of the first international hardships that the Dalai Lama endured was being exiled from Tibet by the People’s Republic of China. Three weeks after March 17, 1959 the Dalai Lama reached the Indian border while escaping the oncoming Chinese army that was taking over all of Tibet. He and those who could escape took refuge within the borders of India and they continue to be refugees till this day. Even after being exiled, his holiness expressed peaceful ways that would better Tibetans. These ways include setting up various new administrative departments such as Departments of Information, Education, Home, Security, Religious Affairs and Economic Affairs. His holiness also held a press conference on June 20, 1959 where he formally repudiated the Seventeen-Point Agreement that China had imposed upon Tibet. This agreement states that Tibet is not allowed to associate or be friendly with imperialist nations, Tibet’s schools, written language, agriculture, livestock raising, industry and commerce will be developed “step by step” as well as allow the Chinese army safe occupation within Tibetan borders and new Tibetan recruits for said army. On March 10, 1960 his holiness made this statement on the first commemoration anniversary of the Tibetan People’s Uprising. “On this first occasion, I stressed the need for my people to take a long-term view of the situation in Tibet. For those of us in exile, I said that our priority must be resettlement and the continuity of our cultural traditions. As to the future, I stated my belief that, with truth, justice and courage as our weapons, we Tibetans would eventually prevail in regaining freedom for Tibet.” Instead of stirring up the Tibetan people the Dalai Lama urges them to hold onto their beliefs and keep in sight the long-term goal of getting Tibet back instead of making rash decisions now that may permanently put that goal out of reach. Despite being forced out of his country The Dalai Lama embodies his buddhist teaching instead of forsaking them for the sake of convenience. His holiness has three main commitments. The first commitment is the promotion of human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self discipline. His holiness refers to these values as secular ethics since even those who are not religious recognize these values important in making their life happier. The second commitment is to promote religious harmony and understanding of the world’s major religions. Even though each religion has a different philosophy there must be a mutual respect and recognition of the value of each other’s respective traditions. The third commitment is to preserve Tibetan Buddhist culture, a culture of peace and non-violence. Due to these three commitments and the fact that the Dalai Lama has remained committed to them, Tibetan Buddhism has been able to survive through near extinction times while still having a leading goal of compassion and tolerance to all. Rarely have other religions or peoples been able to retain such a peaceful doctrine after such tragedy. However, this is not the only field in which Tibetan Buddhism has been accosted on.

Historically science and religion have had a troubled relationship. From the immense distribution and educating the masses to the excommunicating to even killing of those who furthered science religion and science has done nearly everything. The 14th Dalai Lama has taken an interesting approach to bridging these two forces that seem to be at odds. His holiness approaches the topic with the mind set that destructive emotions are giving rise to devastating problems worldwide. However, his holiness believes that there is a potential breakthrough of how to deal with them within a collaboration of religion and science. Can there be a scientific Buddhism? Why does Buddhism seem to be the exception to this rule of clashing between religion and science? The answer to these question is found by simply looking at Buddhist core teachings and science’s main principles. Peter Harrison quotes Donald Lopez’s Buddhism and Science in that “in order to understand the conjunction of the terms Buddhism and Science it is necessary to understand something of the history of their conjunction.” So, let us dive into a brief history of the conjunction of Buddhism and Science.

There are several points in history at which Buddhism and Science cross each other. Gendün Chöphel identifies four specific points in history where they cross. The first point identified is the modern scientific understanding of matter as dynamic in reference to Albert Einstein’s e=mc^2 equation. This scientific theory relates to antiya in Buddhism. Antiya is one of the three marks of existence in Buddhism that states all of conditioned existence, without exception, is transient, or in a constant state of flux. The second point at which Science and Buddhism converge is over the concept of relativity. In Buddhism there is a philosophy known as Nagarjuna and the limits of thought. This philosophy touches on relativity in that when trying to define the limits of thought they are either inadequate or inconsistent since drawing a limit of thought in of itself is a contradiction. However, this contradiction is twofold in that merely asking about the nature of the limit of thought transcends that limit as well as the fact that closure is demonstrated by the act of theorizing about limits. These two contradictions are what make the theory of the limit of thought have a distinct limit while simultaneously not have any limit. This philosophy on relativity converges with Einstein’s theory of relativity which leads into the third point at which Buddhism and Science converge. The third convergence is how our world perception is determined by our senses and the information they produce. Einsteins’ theory of relativity essentially states that there is no fixed frame of reference in the universe and that everything is moving relative to everything else. The philosophy of Dignaga and Dharmakirti essentially states the same principles as Einstein’s theory where there is a rejection to the idea that our senses and perceptions objectively mirror reality. The fourth point of convergence lies in physiology. The Vajrayana text in Buddhism has quite similar teachings and ideas as modern day scientific neurobiological understandings of strictly the human body. At each of these points Buddhism and Science have found immense similarities in area of interest and in their interpretation of what may actually be going on in each of those areas. However, this should come as no surprise that Buddhism is so compatible to Science since even the foundations of both is that existence is orderly and can be discovered by humans also known as the theory of cause and effect as well as the teaching of idapa piccata. Both of these understandings state that the conditionality of all phenomena is that “all phenomena are mutually conditioned as cause and effect as one another” as stated by Pinit Ratanakul. However, these are not the only reasons why Buddhism and Science appear to be so compatible.

Another reason why Buddhism is so adept at being inline with Science is that Buddhism was not founded by revelation. Unlike Christianity, Judaism, and Islam who have divine commandments that came directly from God, Buddhism has a free and open enquiry to find the truth objectively. This aspect of Buddhism is very valuable because it opens the doors for criticism and objective analysis of it’s own sacred texts and beliefs. The Dalai Lama has even stated that “it is better to remain skeptical. This skeptical attitude brings up questions. Questions bring clearer answers, or investigation. Therefore, Mahayana Buddhist thinking relies more on investigation rather than on faith.” Pinit Ratanakul even states that “Albert Einstein wrote that if there is any religion that is acceptable to the modern scientific mind it is Buddhism.” Due to the fact that these two high ranking men who are or were leaders in their respective fields distinctly shows that the convergence between Buddhism and Science is possible, probable, and can greatly impact the progression of both fields along with advancing our understanding and knowledge of the world we all live in. However, not everyone feels this way about the compatibility and progressiveness of Buddhism and Science  together.

As stated earlier, historically religion and Science have been at odds. This brings up the question of whether or not religion should even be involved in Science and Scientific research. An example of a time when religion directed and controlled Science would be in the times of Galileo.During the 1600’s The Catholic Church reigned supreme on what was taught and accepted in the world of Science along with many other fields that today are not socially acceptable for a religion to be so intimately involved with. Galileo Galilei was a man of Science who sought to advance the world’s knowledge and understanding. Through his research he found supporting evidence for the Copernican theory. The Copernican theory is a theory of heliocentricity which is a theory that the Sun is the center of our universe and that the Earth spins on an axis around said Sun. His findings and theories went against what The Catholic Church had decided was the “truth” about the world we live in. The Catholic Church had put forth and backed up the theory that Aristotle had developed. Aristotle’s theory on motion stated that objects only move when there is a force moving them and that only objects of the same element, in this case the four basic elements such as earth, air, fire, and water, were attracted to and could move one another. This theory, when applied to the heavens or rather space, states that the heavens move because they are made up of “quintessence” , a perfect substance that was made to execute perfect motion, and therefore are in constant motion around Earth due to the force of the Prime Mover, God. Another term for this theory is the Geocentric Model of the Universe where the Earth is at the center of the universe instead of the Sun. Since Galileo’s theory went against this model of the universe and the current accepted view of how motion works, he was put to death and Scientific growth was stunted. However, despite the rough relationship that religion and Science have had as a whole they must interact with one another and not remain two independent beasts. This is due to the simple fact that both Science and religion tackle the same field of inquiry since both try to define and make sense of the world around us. Science focuses on the physical aspect of the universe whereas religion tends to deal more with the metaphysical or rather the mind and morals. Buddhism specifically has made leaps and bounds when coming to an open dialog between it and Science due to how similar their teachings, understandings, and even their approach to this field of inquiry. Both Science and Buddhism come from a place of curiosity and questioning therefore it is easy to see why both end up converging on the same topics with similar ideas or answers. Due to the fact that Buddhism is a religion, it does extend this objective truth seeking into the realm of “inner life, the realm of moral phenomena, and to find the moral and spiritual laws that humans can make use of for their spiritual development” where Science does not go as stated by Pinit Ratanakul. Since Buddhism and Science do differ in the realms they focus on this allows for a key opening of checks and balances. Buddhism has the opportunity to remind Science that the physical realm of knowledge is not the only real of knowledge in existence. This check and balance goes the other way as well. Science has the opportunity to remind Buddhism that the physical realm of knowledge is just as important and is affected by the realm of moral phenomena.  However, this extension of inquiry only adds to our understanding of the universe we live in because each realm mutually affects one another as well as both operating with the same law of cause and effect. Now, it is quite established that Buddhism is adept at converging with Science and Scientific theory so now the question remains as to if this convergence is truly beneficial to either party that is involved.

In contrast to the  popular opinion that the intimate relationship of Buddhism and Science being a beneficial and progressive relationship Donald S. Lopez Jr. expresses a different opinion on the relationship between Buddhism and Science and how beneficial their combination really may be. Lopez goes about formulating his intriguingly opposing opinion by firstly asking what counts as genuine Buddhism. He proceeds to answer this question with the notion “that “scientific Buddhism” represents a distortion of the historical traditions from which it arose and has been rendered into a thin, rationalized set of precepts and practices from which significant, indeed essential, elements have been effaced.”  as stated by Peter Harrison. According to Donald S. Lopez Jr., Buddhism is no longer Buddhism but rather a distorted version that is now merely a shadow of what it once was. Lopez believes that essential Buddhist beliefs have been stripped away in order to make it appear more Scientific friendly. In a way, Buddhism was pieced together by scholar’s, not Buddhist, in a way that would appear to be positive and already have Science and Scientific values built into it’s core. This built in Science allows for “a reflection of the deepest desires of its Western admirers” states Peter Harrison on Lopez’ stance. Thus making this grand compatibility of Buddhism and Science merely a fictitious apparition that Westerners constructed. To Lopez, this marriage of Buddhism has been heavily one sided as to the benefits from such a union. Typically one would expect for both parties involved to receive a benefit however, Lopez feels that Science has received far more benefits while Buddhism has been left in the dust. Lopez’ opinion is quite intriguing since he does not deny that the compatibility of modern Buddhism and modern Science however, he does claim that the original essence of Buddhism in it’s truest form does not combine so well with Science. It is rather that scholer’s toke and striped down all faith from Buddhism so that it could then be built up and grow with Science. However, Lopez’ opinion on the interaction of Buddhism and Science does not touch on what the core beliefs of Buddhism are. The very base of all Buddhism are the Four Truths and the Eightfold path. The Four truths are suffering is a part of existence, suffering has a casual rising, there is an end to suffering, and the path to end suffering. The Eightfold path are steps to show the way for one to end suffering or rather the in depth explanation of the fourth and last truth. Though these are the core teachings of all Buddhism there is also the belief that there are many paths to one truth. These core and essential teachings in Buddhism open up the foundation that would be more keen on following a similar method to finding truth as Science approaches it’s respective field of inquiry. Lopez argues that the Buddhism that is so adept to Science was built in order to be that way but, these core teachings in Buddhism that have lasted since it’s first creation would prove that thought to be false. The focus on being open and wanting to objectively find the truth for ending the suffering that everyone has is indeed not wholly faith based. However, even in the essential teachings Buddhism does not claim to be a solely faith based religion but, rather a religion that is trying to achieve a final truth that benefits everyone no matter their background or religion but as a human beings. Buddhism does not come from a place of faith but a place of inquiry, just like Science. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, actually rejected Hinduism due to the fact that the core faith of Hinduism did not place everyone on the same level and thus not encompassing all human beings having to ability to end their own suffering. These founding facts force the rejection of Donald S. Lopez Jr.’s contradictory opinion on the beneficial nature of the combination of Buddhism and Science since both do clearly receive benefits from this marriage and little to no repercussions.

As the nationally recognized leader of Buddhism, his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, one would expect him to support and nurture this bond between Buddhism and Science that is undeniable and clearly beneficial to all. His holiness does indeed support and aid the growth and communication of the combination of Buddhism and Science however, he does this out of his own personal want and curiosity and not requirement or expectation. Ever since he was a boy the Dalai Lama has been intrigued by Science and the Scientific community. This curiosity grew as he got older and since 1987 his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has been actively trying to promote the relationship and development of Buddhism and Science working together. The main areas of initial interest in combining were psychology, neurobiology, quantum physics and cosmology. These efforts by the 14th Dalai Lama have made breakthroughs with Science and Buddhism as well as with helping others achieve peace of mind or rather release from suffering. Not only has his holiness opened the conversation between Buddhism and Science but he has founded organizations such as The Mind and Life Institute. “The Mind & Life Institute is a non-profit organization committed to building a scientific understanding of the mind as a way to help reduce suffering and promote human flourishing. To accomplish this, we foster interdisciplinary dialogue between Western science, philosophy, humanities, and contemplative traditions, supporting the integration of first-person inquiry through meditation and other contemplative practices into traditional scientific methodology.” as stated by their official website. However, not only is the 14th Dalai Lama trying to promote the conversation between Buddhism and Science but, his holiness is also trying to promote education in general as well as education of this combination of Buddhism and Science. In 2004 his holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, visited Vancouver, Canada and while there he founded The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. “His Holiness endorsed the founding of the The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education (DLC) in Vancouver. He specifically requested that the Center gather scientific research and develop evidence-informed programs to show the world that educating the heart is beneficial to both the individual and the communities we live in.” as stated by their official site. This is not the only area of education the the Dalai Lama has encouraged. The Dalai Lama  has also “led the introduction of modern science in the traditional curriculum of Tibetan monastic institutions re-established in exile.” as documented by the Dalai Lama’s official site. Therefore, not only has the 14th Dalai Lama greatly nourished and added to the conversation between Buddhism and Science but, his holiness has also promoted the education of such a beneficial combination and advancement in these modern times.

Overall, his holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama has been an immense influence and promoter of the marriage of Buddhism and Science. This nurturing of such a beneficial combination extends to even simply educating those of modern Science as well as a basic education for those who did not have access to any education.Religion and Science have had such a rocky relationship that this nurturing and endorsement could change how the world interacts with one another.  His holiness has been through similar pain, loss, and even exile that mimics the relationship religion and Science have had. However, these turmoils in his holiness’ life have put him in a unique position where his message of compassion and wanting to end everyone’s suffering is more powerful than anyone would have expected. This combination of religion and Science is the key at ushering in a new understanding of the world around us and how we can all live together without suffering. His holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the one who is the catalyst for such a great advancement of the people of the universe. As stated by the Dalai Lama himself “just as we take for granted the need to acquire proficiency in the basic academic subjects, I am hopeful that a time will come when we can take it for granted that children will learn, as part of their school curriculum, the indispensability of inner values such as love, compassion, justice and forgiveness.” That is a world I want to live in and strive towards, just like the Dalai Lama is doing.

Works Cited

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Jinpa, Thupten. “BUDDHISM AND SCIENCE: HOW FAR CAN THE DIALOGUE PROCEED.” EBSCO Host. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Mansfield, Vic, and Dalai Lama. “Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics : Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge.” ProQuest. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

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Ratanakul, Pinit. “Buddhism and Science: Allies or Enemies.” EBSCO Host. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Tate, Karl. “Einsteinu0027s Theory of Relativity Explained (Infographic) |” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

“Tibet Justice Center – Legal Materials on Tibet – China – Seventeen-Point Plan for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet (1951) [p.182].” Tibet Justice Center – Legal Materials on Tibet – China – Seventeen-Point Plan for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet (1951) [p.182]. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Wallace, Alan B. “Buddhism and Science : Breaking New Ground.” ProQuest. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.


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