The Dalai Lama on the Scientific Method, Technological Innovation and Spiritual Development

In his youth, Lhamo Dhondrub enjoyed repairing clocks and watches at his home in Taktser in northeastern Tibet. That early affinity for technology and the sciences continues today, although he is now known by another name: His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. While it may be hard to imagine the spiritual leader of the world’s Tibetan Buddhists and the political leader of the Tibetan people doing something as mundane as fixing a watch, there are many similarities between the Dalai Lama’s views on the scientific method and on spiritual evolution. In this excerpt from Gentle Bridges, a chronicle of the first Mind and Life Conference, a meeting of Western scientists and Tibetan spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama reflects on the development of technology and humanity.

With the growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other. Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things.

Western civilization’s science and technology bring society tremendous benefit. Yet, with highly developed technology we also have more anxiety and more fear. Mental development and material development must be well-balanced, so that together they may make a more human world. If we lose human values and human beings become part of a machine, there is no freedom from pain and pleasure. Without freedom from pain and pleasure, it is very difficult to demarcate between right and wrong.

So it is important for Western science and material development and Eastern mental development to work together. Some people have the impression that these two things are very different, even incompatible. However, in recent years this has changed. Some Western scientists have reached highly sensitive and deep issues in their research work, such as what is the mind, what is "I," what is a human being? They are developing a more philosophical inclination.

The approach of Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, is very close to the scientific approach. According to the Mahayana point of view, there were three major turnings of the wheel, as the three main cycles of the Buddha’s teachings are called. The teachings given during these cycles are literally contradictory. Since all these teachings were genuine words of the Buddha himself and they contradict each other, how do we determine which are true and which are not? Even if we were to make the distinction on the basis of some scriptural citation, then that again must depend on something else to validate its authenticity. Therefore, the final validation must be done on the authority of reasoning and of logic.

Analysis and examination through reasoning, the basic Buddhist attitude, is very important. Once you find a fact through investigation, then you accept it. Because of this, the basic Buddhist attitude is quite similar to the scientists’ attitude. Be open and investigative, find something, confirm it, then accept it. Whichever way you go, there is a strong emphasis upon your own analysis and investigation and not simply a dogmatic adherence out of faith.

The person who makes a program for playing chess naturally needs to know how to play chess. So if a mediocre chess player makes a program for the computer, and the computer could come around and beat the mediocre player, doesn’t this suggest that the computer is thinking? We can’t say it has consciousness or cognition, because the concept of cognition has to be based on a continuum of cognition from the previous moment. It is not something derived from matter. So, for example, if there is no reference to any subtle consciousness, then there’s no question of a gross consciousness arising from within the absence of subtle consciousness. I was thinking whether certain physical substances, as a result of some kind of interaction, can have a relative level of cognitive feeling—not actual cognition, but some facsimile of it.

In terms of the actual substance of which computers are made, are they simply metal, plastic, circuits and so forth? It is very difficult to say that it’s not a living being, that it doesn’t have cognition, even from the Buddhist point of view. Consciousness doesn’t actually arise from matter, but a continuum of consciousness might conceivably come into it. Whether the physical basis of the computer acquires the potential or the ability to serve as a basis for a continuum of consciousness will be resolved only by time. We just have to wait and see until it actually happens. Matter can only be a cooperative cause, never the main or substantial cause for consciousness.

This is very much related to cosmology. In the Buddhist view of evolution, there is an infinite universe. Any world system will go through phases. Sometimes it is destroyed, sometimes it arises, sometimes there will be gross matter, sometimes no gross matter, but really there is no beginning or end to it. And there is always a subtle consciousness.

Excerpted from Gentle Bridges, by Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications and with the Mind and Life Institute.

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