Mind and Life, Religion and Science: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Buddhism-Christianity-Science Trialogue

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In this essay, I explore what happens to the Buddhist-Christian dialogue when another party is introduced into the conversation, in this case, the sciences. My question concerns how the interface between religion and science is related to the Buddhist-Christian encounter and vice versa. I take up this question in four steps, correlating with the four parts of this essay. First, I sketch a brief overview of the Buddhism- science encounter, and then turn my attention more specifically to the recent exchanges in the Mind and Life dialogues involving Western scientists and philosophers and Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Then, in our lengthiest discussion, I focus on three of the most recent books related to the Mind and Life series in order to flesh out some of the details of how Tibetan Buddhists in general and His Holiness more specifically are interacting with the sciences. Finally, I return to the larger implications that the Buddhism-science conversation has not only for the Buddhist-Christian dialogue but also potentially for the religion-science encounter.

The goal of this essay is to identify the promise and the challenges involved for Buddhists and Christians when the sciences are added into the equation. I am led by a threefold hypothesis. First, the religion side of the "religion and science" dialogue needs to be further specified. Whereas it used to be the case that "religion and science" meant "Christianity and science," no longer can or should this be assumed. Rather, there is an emerging recognition that distinctive shifts occur in the religion and science discussion when Buddhism is factored into the conversation. Second, the interreligious dialogue in general can itself benefit from engaging a third party, in this case, the natural sciences. More specifically, I am convinced that the Buddhist-Christian dialogue has much to gain when the various scientific disciplines are allowed to inform the discussion. To be sure, there will be distinctive challenges that will present themselves, not the least of which are the methodological complexities regarding the interface between religion and science added to the already complicated methodological issues that perennially beset the interreligious encounter. However it is precisely the emergent comparisons and contrasts in dialogical approaches that may contribute to pushing the discussion forward. Finally, if it is the case that religion does indeed have something to contribute to its dialogue with the sciences, so much more is it the case that science may benefit not only from the separate insights of two religious traditions, but also from the cross-fertilization that occurs in the interreligious dialogue.

Two caveats before proceeding with the essay. First, I speak first and foremost as a Christian theologian with academic training in the study of religion, rather than in Buddhist traditions in particular. While my Christian perspectives will inevitably color my understanding of Buddhism, I believe it is possible in this case, given the hypotheses outlined above, that such "biases" can be profitably harnessed to explore what happens when the Buddhist-Christian dialogue is enlarged to become a trialogue between Buddhism, Christianity, and the sciences. In fact, I am convinced that Christian theology for the twenty-first century needs to dialogue both with other faiths and with the sciences, and this essay is an attempt to bring these essential dialogues together. (1)

Second, I approach the following review essay with a certain degree of fear and trembling given that in a very real sense my primary dialogue partners are Tibetan Buddhist adepts as well as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I do not in any way intend to be presumptuous about claiming to be able to critically interact with his knowledge of Buddhism or the sciences. On the contrary, I am a mere novice and amateur in these fields of inquiry compared to his lifelong study and practice of the Buddhist tradition, and his decades-long engagement with the sciences. …