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Carl Sagan And The Dalai Lama Discuss Buddhism And Science


Two of the most generous minds of the late 20th century met to discuss issues of the physical and spiritual worlds.

The interaction between science and religion has a long and complex history. It is usually described as a hostile exchange. On one side is the discrediting of tradition, a science that taunts mystical or religious precepts. On the other side are fairly railroaded persecutions, often starring the Catholic church arrayed against scientific minds like Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei. Fortunately, at various times, meetings have taken place between the leading exponents of both trenches.

Only in the last century did thinkers like Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore speak not about what differentiates their worldviews, but about what could bring them together. A similar conversation took place between David Bohm and Krishnamurti. And an interview that philosopher Martin Heidegger held with the monk Bhikkhu Maha Mani about philosophy and religion could guide humanity to a broader mutual understanding.

Following in this tradition, the astrophysicist Carl Sagan and the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibet met in the United States in 1991. Documentation of that meeting has not survived very well over time, but a partial transcript can be found here. Following is an excerpt from what might be described as conversation between two undisputed leaders of thought and imagination.

Any exchange between a scientist and a religious leader might allow us to perform an exercise of the imagination in which we temporarily bracket our most unquestioned certainties and accept the rights of others to participate in the construction of a common reality. Carl Sagan was as a fervent believer in the wonders of reality as the Dalai Lama is a religious leader in constant dialogue with forms of knowledge far from dogma. By reason or faith, it’s still possible to open ourselves to the other such that both our worlds are more complete.


Carl Sagan (CS): So let me ask now, if I may, some questions on religion. What happens if the doctrine of a religion — Buddhism let’s say — is contradicted by some finding, some discovery — in science, let’s say — what does a believer in Buddhism do in that case?

Dalai Lama (DL): For Buddhists that is not a problem. The Buddha himself made clear that the important thing is your own investigation. You should know the reality, no matter what the scripture says. In case you find a contradiction — opposite of the scriptures’ explanation — you should rely on that finding, rather than scripture.

CS: So, that is very much like science?

DL: Yes, that’s right. So I think that the basic Buddhist concept is that at the beginning it is worthwhile or better to remain skeptical. Then carry out experiments through external means as well as internal means. If through investigation things become clear and convincing, then it is time to accept or believe. If, through science, there is proof that after death there is no continuity of human mind, of life, then — theoretically speaking — Buddhists will have to accept that.

CS: So what would that do to the doctrine of reincarnation?

DL: Well, I do not think, you see, that with regard to the existence of a continuity of mind or


CS: After death?

DL: After death, yes. That concept, I think [has], more [cogent] reasons. Although the acceptance of that kind of theory may not solve all your questions, and may not give you complete satisfaction, still that theory is better than the theory of non-existence. If there is no continuation of life or continuation of being, then the [the question remains]: why did the original cause of all galaxies, including this planet, for instance big bang theory, which is alright if it happened like that, it doesn’t matter—happen? Then either you have to accept that things happen accidentally, without a particular cause, which is uncomfortable because a lot of questions remain. Another [explanation], would be a creator. From a Buddhist viewpoint that is also not a sound answer. Why does a creator create these things? More questions would remain.

CS: So, do you believe in God?

DL: God in the sense of some kind of ultimate reality: yes, we accept that. But God in the sense of an almighty creator Buddhists do not accept.

CS: So there’s no conceivable finding of science which would make you say that Buddhist doctrine is wrong or that you’re no longer a Buddhist?

DL: I think that a scientific finding through careful experiment Buddhists will have to accept at once. No problem. Some scientists — or, some scientifically minded Buddhists as I think I should call them — say that they do not consider Buddhism to be a religion, but rather a science of mind. Sometimes they call Buddhism an inner science. So according to my own experience, as a result of meeting with scientists — in recent years I developed much contacts with scientists, mainly in the field of cosmology, neurobiology, physics, quantum mechanics and, of course psychology – [I find that] in these fields there are many common parallels. I find that from the discussions [that we have held] at length in these fields, as a Buddhist I gained much benefit, learning from their findings. It is very helpful to a Buddhist.

At the same time, some scientists also show a genuine and keen interest in Buddhist explanations of the concerned subjects. One things is quite clear: As far as mental sciences are concerned, Buddhism is very highly advanced.

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