A Heartfelt Plea From The Dalai Lama

Recently, I read a book released in 2006 by Tenzin Gyatso, or His Holiness The Dalai Lama called, The Universe In A Single Atom: The Convergence of Science And Spirituality.

The book contains a plea to the world from a man who has spent nearly the entirety of his considerably long life training for and representing…holiness.  The intellectual rewards of his life experience are on full display in this book.  His manages to close his book with a plea that stunned me in its balance of urgency and temperance.  His writing is succinct despite the grand stroke of his philosophical brush.  I had to stand up immediately after reading it.

I hope old Tenzin doesn’t mind but I’ve decided to post the closing of his book right here for you to read.  I do that because I stand firmly behind what he is saying.  It is a message that I feel needs to be passed along.  Oh and any and all typos are my doing.  Say what you will about the Lama…dude has IMPECCABLE diction.

I hope this post inspires you to buy the book and read it.  You will not regret it.  Click the image below to be taken to page where you can buy the book.

The Universe In A Single Atom: The Convergence of Science And Spirituality

by His Holiness The Dalai Lama

What is the place of science in the totality of human endeavor?  It has investigated everything from the smallest amoeba to the complex neurobiological system of human beings, from the creation of the universe and the emergence of life on earth to the very nature of matter and energy.  Science has been spectacular in exploring reality.  It has not only revolutionized our knowledge but opened new avenues of knowing.  It has begun to make inroads into the complex question of consciousness – the key characteristic that makes us sentient.  The question is whether science can provide a comprehensive understanding of the entire spectrum of reality and human existence.

From the Buddhist perspective, a full human understanding must not only offer a coherent account of reality, our means of apprehending it, and the place of consciousness but also include a clear awareness of how we should act.  In the current paradigm of science, only knowledge derived through a strictly empirical method underpinned by observation, inference, and experimental verification can be considered valid.  This method involves the use of quantification and measurement, repeatability, and confirmation by others.  Many aspects of reality as well as some key elements of human existence, such as the ability to distinguish between good and evil, spirituality, artistic creativity – some of the things we most value about human beings – inevitably fall outside the scope of the method.  Scientific knowledge, I believe, is essential.  Only by such recognition can we genuinely appreciate the need to integrate science within the totality of human knowledge.  Otherwise our conception of the world, including our own existence, will be limited to the facts adduced by science, leading to a deeply reductionist, materialistic, even nihilistic worldview.

My difficulty is not with reductionism as such.  Indeed, many of our great advances have been made by applying the reductionist approach that characterizes so much scientific experimentation and analysis.  The problem arises when reductionism, which is essentially a method, is turned into a metaphysical standpoint.  Understandably this reflects a common tendency to conflate the means with the end, especially when a specific method is highly effective.  In a powerful image, a Buddhist text reminds us that when someone points his finger at the moon, we should direct our gaze not at the tip of the finger but at the moon to which it is pointing.

Throughout this book, I hope I have made the case that one can take science seriously and accept the validity of its empirical findings without subscribing to scientific materialism.  I have argued for the need for and possibility of a worldview grounded in science, yet one that does not deny the richness of human nature and the validity of modes of knowing other than scientific.  I say this because I believe strongly that there is an intimate connection between one’s conceptual understanding of the world, one’s vision of human existence and it’s potential, and the ethical values that guide one’s behavior.  How we view ourselves and the world around us cannot help but affect our attitudes and our relations with our fellow beings and the world we live in.  This is in essence a question of ethics.

Scientists have a special responsibility, a more responsibility, in ensuring that science serves the interests of humanity in the best possible way.  What they do in their specific disciplines has the power to affect the lives of all of us.  For whatever historical reasons, scientists have come to enjoy a much higher level of public trust than other professionals.  It is true, however, that this trust is no longer an absolute faith.  There have been too many tragedies related either directly or indirectly to science and technology for the trust in science to remain unconditional.  In my own lifetime, we need only think of Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Bhopal in terms of nuclear or chemical disasters, and of the degradation of the environment – including the depletion of the ozone layer – among ecological crises.

My plea is that we bring our spirituality, the full richness and simple wholesomeness of our basic human values, to bear upon the course of science and the direction of technology in human society.  In essence, science and spirituality, though differing in their approaches, share the same end, which is the betterment of humanity.  At its best, science is motivated by a quest for understanding to help lead us to greater flourishing and happiness.  In Buddhist language, this kind of science can be described as wisdom grounded in and tempered by compassion.  Similarly, spirituality is a human journey into our internal resources, with the aim of understanding who we are in the deepest sense and of discovering how to live according to the highest possible idea.  This too is the union of wisdom and compassion.

Since the emergence of modern science, humanity has lived through an engagement between spirituality and science as two important sources of knowledge and well-being.  Sometimes the relationship has been a close one – a kind of friendship – while at other times it has been frosty, with many finding the two to be incompatible.  Today, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, science and spirituality have the potential to be closer than ever, and to embark upon a collaborative endeavor that has far-reaching potential to help humanity meet the challenges before us.  We are all in this together.  May each of us, as a member of the human family, respond to the moral obligation to make this collaboration possible.  This is my heartfelt plea.


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