The Dalai Lama is Half a Scientist, He Says

by | May 16, 2024 | Buddhism for All

The first time I saw the 14th Dalai Lama share a stage with scientists was in 2009, at Stanford University, and it was not what I expected.  He sat occupying center stage surrounded by prominent scientists.  I saw the way he engaged with the scientists, and I was in awe.  About thirty minutes in, one began to suspect that this laughing bald man in robes, who spent most of his time whispering with his interpreter, was the smartest person on stage.

The most amazing moment came when the Dalai Lama was responding to a presentation about the neuroscience of compassion and suffering.  Professor William Mobley, founding director of the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford, made a presentation showing that similar parts of the brain light up when a subject experiences pain versus when he empathizes with somebody else in pain.  The Dalai Lama raised a major issue that nobody else had considered.  Interrupting his interpreter, he explained in his broken English that there are two types of compassion: one for people close to oneself, which he calls “limited compassion”, and one for total strangers, which he calls “genuine compassion”.  Both are qualitatively different experiences, and therefore, must have different neural correlates.  He added, if the brain patterns for both are the same, “then I feel the brain is very foolish.”  Everybody laughed.  The Dalai Lama had just uncovered a major limitation of the study: it turns out all the subjects were watching videos of their loved ones in pain, therefore this study only captured the brain activation for “limited compassion”, not for “genuine compassion”.  Professor Mobley was so impressed he commented, “This is one of those experiences where you really understand how that incisive thinking completely defines a twenty-year research program.”

That was when I realized, the Dalai Lama was not just the “humble Buddhist monk” he claims to be, he also had serious scientific chops.

Earlier in this series, we quoted the Dalai Lama making a declaration that might have seemed blasphemous if spoken by the highest leader of some other religions: “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.” 

He has demonstrated his willingness to walk his talk.  According to sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts, the earth is flat and Mount Meru is the center of the earth.  After the Dalai Lama learned that science had already conclusively proven that the earth is round, he declared that the teaching about Mount Meru is to be abandoned.  I’ve heard him joke to an audience that the Mount Meru teaching is “embarrassing” before letting out a big laugh.  But you have to ask, when one of the highest of all living Buddhist masters openly and officially abandons traditional Buddhist teachings recorded in sacred texts in favor of science, does that shake people’s faith in Buddhism?  The Dalai Lama says no, and as usual, he puts it in an amusing way: “The purpose of the Buddha coming to this world was not to measure the circumference of the world and the distance between the earth and the moon, but rather to teach the Dharma, to liberate sentient beings, to relieve sentient beings of their sufferings.”[1]  Yes, I approve.

Actually, the Dalai Lama went even further than that: he got in cahoots with the scientists.  He had a lifelong fascination with how mechanical things work.  Since he was young, he would take watches and other mechanical things apart and put them back together again.  He once said that if he wasn’t a monk, he would have been an engineer.  To satisfy his curiosity in how everything works, he invited some top scientists to visit him so that he could learn from them, and they did, because it is kind of cool to hang out with the Dalai Lama.  This eventually inspired the founding of an organization called Mind and Life that organizes annual conferences attended by the Dalai Lama and leading scientists.  The themes of those conferences range from neuroscience to psychology to education to quantum physics and philosophy. 

Out of these conferences came some very important research projects.  For example, two of the top scientists in their own respective fields, Paul Ekman and Richard Davidson, were given access to study some top Tibetan meditation masters and they had published some important pioneering scientific findings.  For example, they found that master-level meditators can do things with their brains previously thought impossible, such as voluntarily not startle in reaction to a sudden loud sound (called the “startle reflex”, previously thought to be impossible to suppress because it is a “reflex”).  Those masters were also found to be able to volitionally, in a manner of seconds, bring the mind to a state of extreme joy.  They also have healthier genes: the part a cell called telomeres that protects chromosomes from damage is more robust in advanced meditators.

These studies are all fascinating, and they are only possible because those meditation masters allow themselves to be subjects of those studies.  It is actually not easy to get any Buddhist master to participate in any study, mostly because they spend a lot of time in retreat and when they are not in retreat, they usually have overwhelming teaching schedules.  Compared to everything else they need to do, plus the fact that most masters do not see the value of scientific validation of their meditation, it is very challenging to convince any master to spend time in a lab.  The only reason the scientific community has access to so many top Tibetan Buddhist masters is that the Dalai Lama invited them, and if you are a Tibetan monk, you kind of don’t say no to the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai Lama’s example also encourages the participation by Buddhist masters of other schools of Buddhism in scientific research.  In that sense, the Dalai Lama had been instrumental in advancing of the fields of science relating to advanced training of the mind.  That means that Buddhism has contributed more to brain science than any religion has contributed to any field of science.

Hence, in modern times, Buddhism is not just fully compatible with science, we are in active cahoots. 

How deeply are we in cahoots?  At one public conference, the Dalai Lama openly declared that he is “half scientist, half Buddhist monk”.[2]  Everybody cheered, Buddhist monastics, lay Buddhists and scientists alike. Just a few articles ago, we mentioned that Tibetan Buddhism is, by far, the most mystical of all schools of Buddhism.  When the paramount leader of the most mystical school of Buddhism calls himself a half scientist in a public setting, and all the Buddhists cheer, that shows how deeply comfortable Buddhism is with science.  If you are someone accustomed to thinking that science and religion are necessarily in conflict, I hope this is a pleasant surprise for you.

You might be wondering, is this a recent thing?  Maybe this friendliness with science is a modern phenomenon thanks to the 14th Dalai Lama.  Actually, no.  This attitude can be traced all the way back to the Buddha himself! That story, coming up next.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • Isn’t it amazing that Buddha and the wise ancient sages, were able to use the power of their mind and samādhi to penetrate into the true nature of reality and of mind without advanced instruments? I remember a Buddhist teacher sharing that once at a conference, the Dalai Lama and scientists converged on a finding. The scientists then remarked in wonder how Buddhism could come to that conclusion without the power of technology! And the Dalai Lama remarked in wonder how the scientists could come to that conclusion without the power of mind and samādhi! 
    • It’s so amazing that both sides acknowledge the insights from each other. It’s more amazing that we have an infinite treasure – our mind!
    • What stood out to you from this article? Why?


[1] First There Is a Mountain (Then There Is No Mountain).  Tricycle (Fall 2008).

[2] The Dalai Lama: Scientist.  PeaceJam Foundation, 2019.

Also see: Buddhism is seriously cool with science.

Artwork by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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