The Dalai Lama Converges Buddhist Thought and Modern Science

By Sorkhabi, Rasoul | The World and I, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Dalai Lama Converges Buddhist Thought and Modern Science


Sorkhabi, Rasoul, The World and I


THE UNIVERSE IN A SINGLE ATOM: THE CONVERGENCE OF SCIENCE AND SPIRITUALITY

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Morgan Road Books (Doubleday Broadway Publishing), New York, 2005, 215 pp., $24.95 (Hardcover)

Considering Francis Bacon' saying that "some books are to be tested, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested," the Dalai Lama's new book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, is of the latter category. This book is about the "big questions" that have challenged (and are still challenging) philosophers and scientists for centuries. As I write this review, I am re-reading the book because, for one thing, it is hugely interesting, and also it requires attention and reflection. Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet and the 1989 Nobel Peace laureate, is one of the most respected spiritual leaders in our world. Many of his books are bestsellers, and I would not be surprised if this new book also is added to his bestsellers. The Universe in a Single Atom investigates the interfaces of modern science and Buddhist (especially Tibetan Buddhist) philosophy.

This publication is significant from three perspectives.

First, the book demonstrates the Dalai Lama's personal effort and courageous journey to understand modern science (as well as learn English). His education during the first two decades of his life was all related to Buddhist and Tibetan subjects; modern science was not included. Yet, he possessed a curious mind and interest in world geography; he dismantled and repaired clocks; and he used a telescope to watch the night sky and the city life in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where he lived before it was brutally invaded by the Chinese Red Army and the Dalai Lama eventually fled to India in 1959.

Second, in this book the Dalai Lama calls for reason, common sense, and an open mind. These qualities are badly needed in our world where fundamentalists and fanatics are hijacking religions and showing hostility toward modern science. The Dalai Lama writes, "By telling the story of my own journey, I wish to emphasize to the millions of my fellow Buddhists worldwide the need to take science seriously and to accept its fundamental discoveries within their worldviews." Carl Sagan once asked the Dalai Lama what he would do if an experiment disproved reincarnation. The Dalai Lama replied, "I would cease to believe in it!" Interestingly, the Dalai Lama also invites scientists to have an open mind and not to blindly reject insights derived from ancient traditions just because we do not understand their inner workings.

Third, this book, through its ten chapters, sums up the Dalai Lama's reflections on the twelve Conferences of Sciences of Mind and Life, which he has held with scientists since 1987. These conferences have brought together psychologists, neuroscientists, physicists, Buddhist philosophers and meditation practitioners to discuss some of the cutting-edge fields in science and philosophy. These conferences are a major step toward integrating science and religion for a harmonious growth of human intellect and life.

The Dalai Lama opens the book with stories of his encounter with science. Even before the Sciences of Mind and Life conferences, the Dalai Lama used opportunities to discuss scientific and philosophical issues with Carl von Weizsacker (German physicist), Thomas Merton (Christian monk), David Bohm (British physicist), Karl Popper (British philosopher) and Huston Smith (American scholar of religions).

The Dalai Lama argues that the Buddhist concept of "emptiness or void" ("shunyata" in Sanskrit)--a concept born out of the meditative mind of the Buddha--shares a similar perspective with Einstein's physics of relativity because "shunyata" does not recognize absolute, independent things in the world; everything is interdependent and relative as Einstein proved even for such fundamental concepts as space and time. …

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