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The Dalai Lama Discusses Science
on 25 September 2017
For many years, I have belonged to a Sutta study group in which we have read many of the key texts of the Pali canon, the earliest of the surviving Buddhist scriptures. We recently read the famous text (Sutta no. 63) in the Mahjima Nikaya, the mid-length discourses, in which the Buddha tried to discourage certain kinds of speculation by offering a simile based upon a poisoned arrow. If someone is struck by such an arrow, the important thing is to have it removed rather than to worry about the type of the arrow's wood or feathers, the clothing worn by the person who shot it, etc. The Buddha suggests that those who worry about certain metaphysical questions, such as whether the world is finite or infinite, whether the world is eternal or transient, or whether the soul is separate from the body or part of it, are like those people who ask irrelevant questions about the poisoned arrow rather than try to remove it as expeditiously as possible. This simile to me seems to capture something important about the relationship between Buddhist spirituality and certain scientific questions, and it encouraged me to read the Dalai Lama's recent book, "The Universe in a Single Atom."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama's eloquent book in fact discusses (pp. 77-78) this enigmatic Sutta together with the divergent interpretations it has received in Buddhist thought. Difficult as the Sutta is, I think it captures a great deal of the Dalai Lama's message in his book, both in his teachings themselves and especially in the tone and manner with which the Dalai Lama conveys his teachings.
The Dalai explores the Sutta I have mentioned in an appropriate place -- in the context of a discussion between the relationship between Buddhist thought and the big bang theory of the origin of the universe. The Sutta and the discussion suggest to me that spiritual questions have an urgency and immediacy of their own, notwithstanding scientific findings. But for me, the most revealing parts of this book were not the sections in which the Dalai Lama discusses the relationship between Buddhist thought and specific scientific teachings. Rather, I thought the most moving discussions were in the opening chapters and in the conclusion. In the opening chapters the Dalai Lama offers some personal biographical information about growing up in Tibet, his monastic training and teachers, and his budding interest in mechanical and scientific subjects. He describes with obvious affection the many Western scientists he has met over the years and how he has responded to what they have taught him. He also tries to draw a distinction between scientific study, which is based upon repeatable, empirical observation and theory -- what he describes as the standpoint of the "third party" and introspection and the search for meaning, which is subject of spirituality and of creative and altruistic endeavor. Science and spirituality frequently interpenetrate, for the Dalai Lama, and have much to give each other. He expands upon this discussion throughout his book and in its conclusion.
In successive chapters of his book, the Dalai Lama discusses, quantum physics, the big bang theory, and evolution. He frequently draws parallels between the results of contemporary science and the results of Buddhist thought. In some cases, he points out that scientific discoveries invalidate certain crude assumptions about the nature of the physical universe found in early Buddhist texts. He candidly recognizes that where specific scientific findings conflict with a Buddhist teaching, the Buddhist teaching must give way. But in other cases, the Dalai Lama is somewhat critical of scientific theory. Thus, the Dalai Lama seems to suggest that the theory of evolution takes too little account of karma -- the nature of consciousness and intentionality -- that he believes necessary to a full understanding of the world. In my opinion, these criticisms of evolutionary theory are unnecessary to the weight of the Dalai Lama's message to look within, to study consciousness and to develop wisdom and compassion. In the process of discussing evolutionary theory, however, the Dalai Lama gives a lucid discussion of kamma, distinguishing it from simple mechanical causation of from the fatalism with which it is sometimes confused.
The strongest scientific discussions in the book are those of the last several chapters where the Dalai Lama discusses consciousness, as developed in Buddhist texts and in the practice of meditation. He suggests ways in which scientists working with the brain and meditators can interact in valuable ways that complement their respective practices without denying either of them. Because these discussions of consciousness and introspection involve subjects the Dalai Lama knows intimately and at first-hand, I found them more persuasive than some of the other writing in the book about the interaction between science and Buddhism.
What I took from this book, and from the Pali Sutta discussed at the outset of this review, is that, in some instances, such as those captured by the poisoned arrow simile, spiritual questions are separate from those of science but that in other instances these questions interpenetrate. (That is, a person trying to understand him or herself needs to understand where science belongs in that particular endeavor) The results of scientific investigation, including specifically evolutionary theory, must be respected. But whatever science teaches, one must try to understand oneself and one's feelings, to understand suffering and grief, and to work towards a development of wisdom, compassion, and understanding. This is the message I took from the Dalai Lama's wonderful book.