Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Universe in a Single Atom - The Convergence of Science and Spirituality

The Universe in a Single Atom is the Dalai Lama's attempt to find a synthesis between modern science and Buddhism, in a way ntradict. I should say that this position is surprising to me – practicing Buddhists of my acquaintance are not at all shocked by this position.

His Holiness describes first his childhood in Tibet – the study required of him and his delight in escaping to the palace garage where he would talk to the mechanics – the men who cared for the only cars in the whole country – or to the collection of mechanical and technological objects established by his predecessors. He talks about his interest in a telescope he found in the collection – which he used to observe the moon. On seeing the three dimensional topography of the moons surface, he was able to conclude (and convince his tutors) that the moon was a spherical body much like the earth was – just a Galileo did centuries before!

His Holiness then turns to the meat of the book – Science and Buddhism. He discusses the science of relativity, quantum mechanics, modern big-bang cosmology, evolution, consciousness and genetics, and how these ideas compare with traditional Buddhist ideas of the universe. He talks at length how these ideas can inform a modern approach to Buddhism, and also how many of them have parallels with ideas put forward by ancient Buddhist scholars. He also talks about how these ideas can mesh with the ancient teachings of the classical Indian and Tibetan schools of Buddhist philosophy. In the earlier chapters, where His Holiness discusses physics (and to some extent biology), he is generally very positive about the scientific knowledge that is available. He argues that new scientific knowledge should replace many of the earlier religious writings. The Dalai Lama makes a very strong case that religion should embrace the theory of evolution, in the light of the overwhelming evidence for it, while he attempts to integrate it with Buddhist laws of Karma. In the later chapters, he turns towards the study of consciousness and psychology – an area that Buddhism (as I understand it) is very focused upon. His Holiness, while never skeptical of the modern knowledge, is more forthright about the value of ancient Buddhist ideas in this field. He argues that modern “observational” science can benefit from the more subjective, internal learning that comes from Buddhist meditation techniques. The Dalai Lama is a very good writer, and shows a knowledge of science that surprises me, given his many other duties and responsibilities. There are of course, places where his grasp of science is less that one hundred percent, but that is not unusual for a book written about science by a non-scientist. Despite my status as “non-religious” I enjoyed this book – the Dalai Lama’s take on ethical and moral issues within science is quite illuminating, as are his descriptions of ancient Indian cosmologies and natural philosophies. I found the chapters on consciousness relatively hard going, as I am neither a Buddhist nor overly interested in psychology.

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