Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India - This morning, after he had entered the room from which he broadcasts online, His Holiness the Dalai Lama stood quietly pondering the images of members of his audience in three locations in Mongolia—Ulaanbaatar, Erdenet and Bayankhongor. Then he waved and sat down.
A young Mongolian woman who was coordinating the event introduced Lamiin Gegeen Rinpoché who, speaking in Tibetan, offered His Holiness greetings on behalf of all the Mongolian people. He mentioned how grateful they had been when His Holiness agreed to teach them last December, an event that could not go ahead because of the Covid pandemic. He further thanked him for agreeing to speak to young Mongolians about Buddhism and Science today.
Next, the Secretary General of the Mongolian Students’ Union offered His Holiness greetings on behalf of Mongolian Students.
“Today,” His Holiness began, “what we think of as the Great Land of Mongolia includes Outer and Inner Mongolia, Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva. It’s where a large number of ethnic Mongolians live with whom we have strong historical connections—greetings to you all.
“The Buddha prophesied that his teaching would travel from north to north, which we understand to mean first to Tibet and then on to Mongolia. Historically, Mongolians have been Buddhist practitioners and there have been unique connections between us.
“Gendun Drub, the First Dalai Lama, studied with Jé Tsongkhapa and prayed to be able to uphold his teaching. He founded Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and extended his influence throughout Tsang. Gendun Gyatso established Chökhorgyal Monastery, which is associated with Palden Lhamo, and was influential in Lhoka and Dagpo. The Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso went to Mongolia where he spread the teachings by encouraging study, reflection and meditation. He was given the title Dalai Lama. This is how you Mongolians developed a special connection with the Dalai Lamas.
“At one time there were 100,000 monks in the country, but in the 20th century you faced huge suffering and hardship. When I was able to make the first of several visits to Mongolia, I witnessed your amazing faith. I sat on the throne in Gandan Monastery while elderly abbots and monks wept as they fervently recited prayers and I couldn’t help shedding a tear too.
“However, faith alone isn’t everything. The Buddha himself advised, ‘O monks and scholars, as gold is tested by burning, cutting and rubbing, examine my words thoroughly and only then accept them—not just out of respect for me’. Faith is best based on understanding.
“Buddhism also spread to Sri Lanka, Burma and so forth where followers of the Pali Tradition rely primarily on what the Buddha said. In Tibet, however, King Trisong Detsen invited Shantarakshita from India. He introduced the Nalanda Tradition that emphasized examining the teaching through the lens of logic and reason. This is the approach that was conveyed to Mongolia.
“Tibetans in the past had no connection with scientists and there were those in China who dismissed Tibetan Buddhism as rooted in blind faith. Nonetheless, in exile we’ve met scholars and scientists and came to realize that the Nalanda Tradition’s stricture not to accept things at face value corresponds to a scientific approach. In discussions with scientists, we’ve learned much, but they have little to tell us in terms of psychology and the workings of mind and emotions.
“It’s important to understand the reasoned approach of the Nalanda Tradition and also to appreciate that by integrating what we learn within ourselves we will find peace of mind. Just as we observe basic hygiene to preserve our physical health, we can learn to apply emotional hygiene to reduce our sense of anger, fear and anxiety. Part of this also involves cultivating compassion, which is the essence of what the Buddha taught.
“Whenever you have the opportunity, it would be good if those of you in Outer Mongolia were able to help people in Inner Mongolia and Manchus, who have traditionally been Buddhist.
“We have published books that compile Buddhist science and philosophy as revealed in the literary collections of the Kangyur and Tengyur. They have been translated into other languages including Chinese. I’ve received reports that certain professors in Chinese Universities who’ve read these books have been impressed by the scientific approach of Tibetan Buddhism and the Nalanda Tradition on which it is based.”
His Holiness told his audience that that was what he had to say and invited them to ask questions. In answer to the first about how to reconcile Buddhism with modern science, he explained that Buddhism can be thought of as a science of mind because it shows how to tackle disturbing emotions in a scientific way. He noted that in general science deals with things that are obvious to our senses, but when they begin to take interest in the workings of the mind scientists are intrigued by what Buddhism has to say. Meanwhile, science contradicts traditional Buddhist cosmology.
He mentioned that quantum physics asserts that things don’t exist as they appear and that there is a gap between appearance and reality. This is obvious at a sub-atomic level. His Holiness recalled the reputed Indian nuclear physicist Raja Ramanna telling him that while the observations of quantum physics were new in the West, the ideas that underlie them were known in India more than 2000 years ago. He quoted verses from Nagarjuna’s work to make his point.
His Holiness reiterated that where science is mostly concerned with material objects, Buddhism focuses on the workings of the mind and tackling disturbing emotions. He stressed the importance of recognising the oneness of humanity, that since every human being wants to be happy and free from suffering, we all need to find peace of mind. He added that in this context Buddhism, like science, employs reason and investigation.
A question about care for the elderly prompted His Holiness to acknowledge the example that older people set and the advice they can provide. And yet since they are no longer able to work and look after themselves as they did when they were young, it’s important to serve and help them.
Asked to define a 21st century Buddhist, His Holiness suggested that such a person would accept scientific findings rather than adhering blindly to traditional Buddhist cosmology. Being a 21st century Buddhist, he went on, also involves learning about different states of mind in terms of logic and reason. He recalled his own experience of learning about mind and awareness as well as reason and logic when he was young.
Although these traditions have been upheld in Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, the knowledge involved can be taught in schools and other centres of learning. He declared that Buddhist tradition, particularly as it focusses on the perfection of wisdom, Madhyamaka philosophy, epistemology and logic is something to be proud of. This is what Mongolian and Tibetan monks and nuns study. These days there are about 1000 Mongolian monks studying in India, mostly at Drepung Gomang, Sera-jé, Gyumé and Gyutö Monasteries. They are discovering that modern science and Buddhism don’t contradict each other and that relying on logic and reason brings openness.
Commenting on superstition, His Holiness mentioned that as a child he was teased about whether there were ghosts in the dark corridors of the Potala Palace. He told a story about Milarepa alone in his cave. On one occasion he felt a chill as an ogress appeared as a dog that bit him. The ogress rebuked him saying that it was only because he was superstitious that he was aware of her.
Finally, His Holiness was asked if it is necessary to be a Buddhist to study Buddhism. He replied that if you believe in rebirth, liberation and omniscience, you’re a Buddhist. However, just as you don’t need to be a Buddhist to be a moral or ethical person, you don’t need to be a Buddhist to learn how to tackle your destructive emotions and achieve peace of mind.
The coordinator brought the session to a close by thanking His Holiness for talking to Mongolian students. She wished that he may live long. “Thank you,” he answered, “see you tomorrow.”