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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A Path Religion and Science Can Follow

January 23, 2008

By Dr. Thupten Jinpa

Today, with the ongoing controversy about the teaching of intelligent
design as a counter balance to Darwinian evolutionary theory, and the
growing rhetoric from the secularists, such as of “end of faith” and
“God delusion,” the conversation between science and spirituality in the
public arena appears to be moving towards greater confrontation.

Many are alarmed by this increasingly polarizing trend and yearn for a
more constructive engagement between these two important avenues of
human quest for truth. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s long engagement
with science represents one such powerful example that suggests how
science and spirituality can engage with each other in a mutually
enriching manner. Although the Dalai Lama’s interest began, as he puts
it, “as a curiosity of a restless young mind,” he later began to
appreciate the colossal importance of science for humanity as a whole.
Furthermore, given the emphasis in Buddhist philosophy on direct
observation and inference as a means of gaining knowledge, the
scientific methodology appealed deeply to the Dalai Lama.

As a result, the Dalai Lama was inspired to embark upon a long journey
of close conversations with some of the 20th century’s greatest
scientific minds, including the physicists David Bohm and Von Weisacker
as well as Sir Karl Popper and the Chilean neuroscientist Francisco
Varela. From 1987 onwards, through the auspices of the Mind and Life
dialogues, the Dalai Lama has held week-long bi-annual conversations
with scientists on such diverse topics as quantum physics, astronomy,
brain plasticity, human emotions, the origin of life, and consciousness.

What characterizes these exchanges between the Dalai Lama and the
scientists is, first and foremost a spirit of openness on both sides, a
sense of genuine humility that allows the possibility that legitimate
sources of knowledge may lie in modes of knowing other than one’s own
discipline. In addition, there is a deep ethical commitment where a
guiding motivation remains the betterment of humanity as a whole.
Finally, there is the acknowledgment of a need for and the willingness
to change in the light of a deep engagement with the other. The Dalai
Lama is well-known for his remark that if science conclusively disproves
aspects of traditional Buddhist concepts, then Buddhists will need to
modify their beliefs accordingly. The Dalai Lama is suggesting what is
perhaps the most important benefit of such an interdisciplinary
dialogue, namely that it can serve as a process whereby the other side
becomes a point of reference for one’s own critical self-reflection. For
this to happen, there needs to be a genuine respect for each other so
that one side does not feel the need to reduce the other side into the
framework of one’s own discipline.

For Buddhism, the spiritual tradition involved in these dialogues in the
person of the Dalai Lama, clearly the benefits are obvious. From the
amazing discoveries of the minutest aspects of matter to the origin of
the cosmos and life itself, the insights of modern science can clearly
enrich the classical Buddhist worldview. The critical question is what
can science gain from such a close engagement? As someone who has been
privileged to be present as a principal interpreter at many of these
meetings, I see this question to be most critical, especially from the
point of view of the wider question of the interface of science and
spirituality. For one thing, such dialogues could help remind the
scientists of the key objective that motivated the very enterprise of
science in the first place. All too often, in the midst of their minute
analysis of a specific field of science, scientists forget that, like
religion, science too is a human enterprise whose primary goal is to
serve humanity. This naturally raises the critical question of the place
of ethics in science. Engaging with spirituality, science can, for
example, bring a much deeper appreciation of the ethical challenges
raised by new discoveries such as human genome and the attendant powers
these new knowledge tend to bring to us humans.

Another important corrective function such dialogues could serve is to
challenge what could be called the naïve tendency that often result in
conflating scientific facts with reductionist, scientific materialistic
assumptions. Equating “absence of evidence” with “evidence of absence,”
proponents of scientific materialism promote a totalizing conception of
scientific knowledge as embracing the entire spectrum of reality. The
danger of this is, as the Dalai Lama writes in his recent book Universe
in a Single Atom, “our conception of the world, including our own
existence, will be limited to the facts adduced by science, leading to a
deeply reductionist, materialist, even nihilistic worldview.” By
engaging deeply with spirituality, scientists can appreciate that
science represents a unique, but not by any means an exclusive, mode of
knowing.

Perhaps one of the most concrete benefits to come out of the Dalai
Lama’s engagement with scientists is to bring to the forefront of
scientific inquiry the question of how conscious, deliberate mental
training can effect observable change on the brain level. Today, this
inquiry has led to a whole new area of scientific study sometimes
referred to as “contemplative science.” The Dalai Lama’s hope is that,
through serious engagement with spirituality, there could emerge
eventually a form of science that constitutes, in his Buddhist language,
a “union of wisdom and compassion.” This would be a form of science
where “the full richness and the simple wholesomeness of human values”
are brought to bear upon “the course of science and the direction of
technology in human society.”

Thupten Jinpa has been a principal English translator to H.H. the Dalai
Lama since 1985. He has translated and edited more than 10 books by the
Dalai Lama including the New York Times bestseller "Ethics for the New
Millennium." He is president of the Institute of Tibetan Classics in
Montréal, Canada, and the editor-in-chief of the translation project The
Library of Tibetan Classics, being developed by the Institute.
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