Buddhism meets Science

Lecture Monitor: Jul/Aug. 2012

The Dalai Lama in Vienna

The Dalai Lama,Vienna May 2012 | Photo: Welt Atlas

Scientists and clerics seldom work together, and often freeze in gridlocked opposition. Not so when Tendzin Gyatsho, the 14th Dalai Lama, came to Vienna in late May to meet distinguished professors from several scientific branches. In a remarkable seven-hour discussion at the Audimax of the University of Vienna, His Holiness took on the vast subject of “Matter and Mind – New Models of Reality”.

It was an impressive group, representing Quantum Physics (Anton Zeilinger), Neurobiology (Wolf Singer), Religious Sciences (Michael von Brück), Tibetology (Klaus-Dieter Mathes) and Philosophy of Mind (Patrizia Giampieri-Deutsch). The world of the Dalai Lama is an integrated one, where mind and body are joined, and warm-heartedness becomes the social glue in a balance between fact and wit.

Buddhism and western science have many similarities according to the Tibetan leader: “When I was small I had toy,” he said, his droll accent and grammar clearly cheering up the audience, “and I always wonder, …how it work?” He meant mechanically as well as conceptually.

And so his interest grew from the toy to the sky: “Look sky, many stars – suddenly interest: How it work?” Everybody was laughing at the cute scene, as the Dalai Lama himself giggled, radiating happiness and sitting cross-legged in his white leather chair. But his point was clear: There is a sophisticated logic behind Buddhism that embraces causality, posing cosmological questions instead of giving dogmatic answers. It urges its students to scrutinise these principles: “Buddha said: Do not follow my teaching out of faith, but experiment and question my words until convinced.”

This may have been the reason why the discussion worked out very well, as one scholar after the other sat down next to the gentle man in the yellow and orange robes, each presenting him with an idea out of the layers of western science.

For Prof. Zeilinger, it was a mobile version of the famous double-slit experiment of the nature of light. “Ahhh… food for the mind!” his Holiness quipped. The gag was that this experiment cuts both ways, on the one hand revealing detailed information about the consistency of light, but on the other resting on extremely complicated presuppositions. While it remains unclear if the Dalai Lama fully understood Zeilinger’s concepts, he noted that it was questionable if the output of this measuring machine could really be called genuinely “natural”. But intrigued, he said the points with astute arguments.

As the discussion progressed, the encounter of worldviews was fascinating, each with its own frame and emphasis, while still remaining open to the others. And although politics remained ostensibly untouched, Tendzin didn’t hide the influence that comes with being leader of one of the world’s biggest religious groups.

But he wasn’t always what you might call “on”. During some of the talks, he turned away to talk to his counselor or simply interrupted – he is used to being in charge, in a world where people do his bidding.

Still, all in all it was quite impressive, and the overlaps between Buddhism and western science seemed surprisingly strong. Buddhism came across as a very practical, reflective and down-to-earth religion, with a leader who, quirkiness aside, is very thoughtful, likeable, and open-minded.


Video and transcripts of the symposium are available at www.auditorium-netzwerk.de


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