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The Dalai Lama may be one of the most spiritual men in the world, but it doesn't mean he rebukes science. Since 1959, the 14th iteration of the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has advocated for a Buddhist spirituality founded in peace and an acceptance of advances in technology. Those who call themselves holy men often seem intent on seducing the credulous into ending up somewhere like Jonestown with the Reverend Jim Jones and the People's Temple. Typically charlatans, if not self-deluded seekers of money and power, or worse, self-styled holy men spoon out a dose of superfluous ceremony, a holier-than-thou attitude, and a decrepit philosophy passing itself off as the kind of ancient wisdom that Sam Jaffe offered visitors to Shangri-La in the film Lost Horizon. Tibet's Dalai Lama, however, is not a self-proclaimed holy man. He is a spiritual and political leader of lifelong experience, who is progressive enough to see the importance of science in our current time.
'If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.' - Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama was born Lhamo Thondup on July 6, 1935, in Taktser, China. He was found by Tibetan monks when he was 2 years old. The monks tested the boy to see if he was the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. He passed the tests and had physical traits that the monks were looking for such as moles in certain places and long ears. At 2, he was renamed Tenzin Gyatso, took the throne at age 4 and became a monk at age 6. At age 15, he assumed the political power of Tibet as the Dalai Lama. When the People's Republic of China invaded that same year, fearing assassination, he and thousands of followers fled to Dharamsala in northern India, where they established an alternative government.
In 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts for the liberation of Tibet and his concern for global environmental problems. The Committee's citation stated, "The Committee wants to emphasize the fact that the Dalai Lama in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people." In recent years, a number of Western universities and institutions have conferred peace awards and honorary doctorate degrees upon the Dalai Lama in recognition of his distinguished writings in Buddhist philosophy, as well as his outstanding leadership in the service of freedom and peace.
The God King
The "god-king" of more than six million Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama surrounds himself with none of the material trappings of a man whose followers would no doubt willingly provide every comfort a leader of his stature might desire. In the age of supersonic transports and jet-set seminars on "higher consciousness," the Dalai Lama refuses to fly first-class. His personal quarters, specially built for him at the Buddhist Learning Centerin Washington, New Jersey, are no more cozy or extravagant than the average person's home. Far from being decrepit, his perspective on science, technology, religion, politics, and the state of the global environment is more relevant to the twenty-first century than most ethics professors.
"Consider me your old friend," he told a group of American executives that gathered to meet with the Dalai Lama in a room decorated with Buddhist tapestries and punctuated by Western suits and ties. The monk was dressed in red and yellow robes and rubber sandals. The warmth radiating from his eyes was disarming, yet engaging. The lines around them were those of a man who seemed accustomed to smiling easily."Although we are meeting for the first time," he aid, "it may be helpful to look deeper into our human nature and ignore our complicated differences. At that level, we can communicate more easily."
Technology Enhancing Well Being
The last few decades have witnessed tremendous advances in the scientific understanding of the human brain and the human body as a whole. Furthermore, with the advent of the new genetics, neuroscience's knowledge of the workings of biological organisms is now brought to the subtlest level of individual genes. This has resulted in unforeseen technological possibilities of even manipulating the very codes of life, thereby giving rise to the likelihood of creating entirely new realities for humanity as a whole. Today the question of science interfacing with humanity is no longer a matter of academic interest alone. This question must assume a sense of urgency for all those who are concerned about the fate of the human existence. The dialogue between neuroscience and society could have profound benefits in that it may help deepen our basic understanding of what it means to be human and our responsibilities for the natural world we share with other sentient beings. There is a growing interest among some neuroscientists in engaging in deeper conversations with Buddhist contemplative disciplines.
The Dalai Lama has suggested that humanity must balance the drive for material, scientific, and technological progress with a focus on satisfying the basic psychological and social needs of the human spirit, such as through meditation or yoga. 'We are heavily dependent upon science and technology,' the Dalai Lama said. 'But if we pay attention only to material progress, without also developing an inner focus, it will inevitably lead to frustration and dissatisfaction. Even material developments will become more useful if we focus on both our inner and outer needs. The two realms need to be better combined in the way we live in the future.'
'Material developments will be more useful if we focus on our inner and outer needs.' - Dalai Lama
Some might wonder "What is a Buddhist monk doing taking such a deep interest in science? What relation could there be between Buddhism, an ancient Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, and modern science? What possible benefit could there be for a scientific discipline such as neuroscience in engaging in dialogue with Buddhist contemplative tradition?"
An End to a Ancient Tradition?
Although Buddhist contemplative tradition and modern science have evolved from different historical, intellectual and cultural roots, at heart they share significant commonalities, especially in their basic philosophical outlook and methodology. On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes, whether conceptualized as a transcendent being, as an eternal, unchanging principle such as soul, or as a fundamental substratum of reality. Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect. From the methodological perspective, both traditions emphasize the role of empiricism. For example, in the Buddhist investigative tradition, between the three recognized sources of knowledge - experience, reason and testimony - it is the evidence of the experience that takes precedence, with reason coming second and testimony last. This means that, in the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be. Even in the case of knowledge derived through reason or inference, its validity must derive ultimately from some observed facts of experience. Because of this methodological standpoint, often remarked to Buddhists that the empirically verified insights of modern cosmology and astronomy must compel us now to modify, or in some cases reject, many aspects of traditional cosmology as found in ancient Buddhist texts.
Fears over a Chinese-controlled Tibet lead the the 14th Dalai Lama to state that it may be better for the tradition to end 'at the time of a popular Dalai Lama.' China has repeatedly said that it will choose the next Dalai Lama, and may use the next iteration of the spiritual leader as a political tool to secure control of Tibet. However, in 2011, the Dalai Lama handed political responsibility of Tibet to an elected official in order to keep Tibet outside of the political control of China. A young boy was named the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama in 1995, but China rejected the candidate and the boy's whereabouts are currently unknown.