Dawn Gifford Engle’s The Dalai Lama – Scientist examines the 14th Dalai Lama’s lifelong interest in science and technology, culminating in his initiation of a number of dialogues between himself, fellow monks, and (primarily) Western scientists, including physicists, neuroscientists, and psychologists. The goal was not only to feed the Dalai Lama’s fascination with science, but to establish a conversation and potential collaboration between Eastern religious philosophy and Western science. As the film chronicles these dialogues, an evocative image emerges of the sympathetic relationship.
Despite the slightly odd title, The Dalai Lama – Scientist is an interesting examination of the developing collaborative relationship between Western science and Eastern religious philosophy, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, in the person of the Lama himself. The most interesting sections focus on the extensive dialogues between the Dalai Lama and Nobel Prize-winning physicists, MIT neurologists, psychoanalysts, and beyond. It then traces the similarities between Buddhist thinking and the foundations of quantum physics, neurology, and psychological examination. In establishing a clear comparison between two apparently disconnected modes of human investigation, there’s a revelation that perhaps science and religion are not and should not be at odds, that the constant questioning and investigation of the world around us and within us are more human endeavors than strictly religious or scientific ones, and that much can be learned by collaboration rather than skepticism of each other.
The film does occasionally veer into the hokey and brushes against some New Age mysticism that is at odds with the attempt to take both Tibetan teachings and quantum mechanics, among other things, seriously. This is not a critical documentary, but more of an instructive one, and relies primarily, if not exclusively, on the viewer’s comprehension of a number of heady concepts. But both as a mental exercise and as a unique insight into these dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists, it functions well, most interesting when the film takes a step back and simply shows us, in somewhat truncated form, the progression of the dialogues and the revelations from both sides of the aisle.
Happily, The Dalai Lama – Scientist makes those dialogues available and accessible, with minimal interference. Yes, we are meant to respect and understand both sides of the conversation, their complexities and mutabilities, and not really to question the dialogues as political exercises (though a brief statement, nearing the end of the film, clarifies that the Dalai Lama did actually meet with Chinese scientists not long ago), but the whole interaction is intriguing without being politicized. The film does not necessarily take a position, though the title indicates that it’s certainly coming from the side of the Lama – the film is produced by PeaceJam, a foundation made up of fourteen Nobel Peace Laureates, including himself, and is part of a series intended to showcase the work of the Laureates.
The Dalai Lama – Scientist is ultimately intended to preach to the choir, instructing without much critique, but it accomplishes its project intelligently, developing the relationships between science and religion via the person of the Dalai Lama and his desire to integrate his belief system and the teachings of the Buddha with scientific understanding. Ultimately, this is about mutual respect, learning what we can from different modes of thinking, and developing relationships that that bring us together as human beings. It’s an act of love and of collaboration, reinforcing the ability of human beings, and especially intellectual thinkers, to bring disparate modes of thinking together in common understanding and with a common goal to further human investigation and enlightenment. For its occasional hokeyness, it’s hard to fault the film for that.
The Dalai Lama – Scientist is available to stream on Kanopy, Vudu, and Amazon, among others.