The Dalai Lama and the scientists: the Templeton prize

By Christopher Howse | The Telegraph

ON THE WEB, 14 April 2012

The Dalai Lama is to be given £1.1 million at St Paul’s Cathedral next month. It is the Templeton Prize for someone “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”. He has certainly done that and, like the first winner, in 1973, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, has also won the Nobel prize for peace.

But I was wondering what the Dalai Lama (pictured below) had done for science, since the late Sir John Templeton, who endowed the prize, believed that scientific progress was essential, “not only to provide material benefits to humanity but also to reveal and illuminate God’s divine plan for the universe”.

Indeed it had seemed possible that the Templeton Prize was losing its way a little, since last year it had gone to Lord Rees of Ludlow, better known as Sir Martin Rees, the astronomer. He is a brilliant and engaging man, and, unlike some of his dimmer contemporaries, bears no puerile animus against religions. But his acceptance speech for the prize hardly even nudged towards the spiritual. “All must be guided by the knowledge that 21st‑century science can offer,” he declared, “but inspired by an idealism, vision and commitment that science alone can’t provide.”

There is no doubting the Dalai Lama’s spirituality. That, it seems to me, is almost all that Tibetan Buddhism consists in, since it does not believe in God or in what we take for reality. “On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes,” the Dalai Lama has said, “whether conceptualised as a transcendent being, as an eternal, unchanging principle such as soul, or as a fundamental substratum of reality.” That was in a lecture in 2005 to the Society for Neuroscience, in Washington.

It is a view of things quite at variance with Christianity, except I’m not sure about “a fundamental substratum of reality”. Theists believe in a God who is separate from the cosmos, while empirical science seems to be on something of a wild goose chase subatomically for evidence of a unifying theory. Yet most British people, though deeply ignorant of Buddhism, admire the Dalai Lama. He seems a good man, compassionate and opposed to the injustices that have swept over his native country. His discussion of compassion appeals to concepts familiar to those brought up in the Christian, Jewish or Muslim traditions.

Anger and hatred, he says, should first be removed. “Merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience are good will not be enough to develop them,” he insists. “We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practise them. And who creates such opportunities? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies.”

Buddhism presupposes great effort in meditating and disciplining the emotions. Some neuroscientists and psychologists have taken an interest in such practices.

In 1983, the Dalai Lama had a hand in setting up the Mind and Life Institute, co-founded by the late Francisco Varela. Dr Varela looked at contrasts between the presumptions of cognitive science and the practices of Buddhism. “In the cognitive domain it is regarded as normative for individuals to be incapable of attending to a single object for more than several seconds,” he wrote. “In the affective domain, the emotion of anger is regarded as a normative emotion that naturally arises in situations where our goals are thwarted.” Buddhism, however, teaches that, with training, those faculties may be transformed. This could repay scientific study.

Varela also wanted to connect Buddhist traditions about the nature of reality with unresolved questions in quantum physics about non-locality and the role of the observer. But the aim should not, I think, be for science to try to explain away Buddhist insights, for the world is stranger than we ever suspected.

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