Our Faith in Science

December 1st 2005

by Tenzin Gyatso
The New York Times, November 12, 2005, Washington
 
SCIENCE has always fascinated me. As a child in Tibet, I was keenly curious about how things worked. When I got a toy I would play with it a bit, then take it apart to see how it was put together. As I became older, I applied the same scrutiny to a movie projector and an antique automobile.
 
At one point I became particularly intrigued by an old telescope, with which I would study the heavens. One night while looking at the moon I realized that there were shadows on its surface. I corralled my two main tutors to show them, because this was contrary to the ancient version of cosmology I had been taught, which held that the moon was a heavenly body that emitted its own light.
 
But through my telescope the moon was clearly just a barren rock, pocked with craters. If the author of that fourth-century treatise were writing today, I'm sure he would write the chapter on cosmology differently.
 
If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.
 
For many years now, on my own and through the Mind and Life Institute, which I helped found, I have had the opportunity to meet with scientists to discuss their work. World-class scientists have generously coached me in subatomic physics, cosmology, psychology, biology.
 
It is our discussions of neuroscience, however, that have proved particularly important. From these exchanges a vigorous research initiative has emerged, a collaboration between monks and neuroscientists, to explore how meditation might alter brain function.
 
The goal here is not to prove Buddhism right or wrong - or even to bring people to Buddhism - but rather to take these methods out of the traditional context, study their potential benefits, and share the findings with anyone who might find them helpful.
 
After all, if practices from my own tradition can be brought together with scientific methods, then we may be able to take another small step toward alleviating human suffering.
 
Already this collaboration has borne fruit. Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has published results from brain imaging studies of lamas meditating. He found that during meditation the regions of the brain thought to be related to happiness increase in activity. He also found that the longer a person has been a meditator, the greater the activity increase will be.
 
Other studies are under way. At Princeton University, Dr. Jonathan Cohen, a neuroscientist, is studying the effects of meditation on attention. At the University of California Medical School at San Francisco, Dr. Margaret Kemeny has been studying how meditation helps develop empathy in school teachers.
 
Whatever the results of this work, I am encouraged that it is taking place. You see, many people still consider science and religion to be in opposition. While I agree that certain religious concepts conflict with scientific facts and principles, I also feel that people from both worlds can have an intelligent discussion, one that has the power ultimately to generate a deeper understanding of challenges we face together in our interconnected world.
 
One of my first teachers of science was the German physicist Carl von Weizs
 

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