© Photographic Archive, The Tibet Museum, Department of Information and International Relations, Tibetan Government -in-exile, Dharamsala, India.

The lineage of the Dalai Lama dates back to the fifteenth century, but Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is the first in that line to be thrust so fully beyond the circumscribed universe of Tibet into the stark realities of the modern world. In a remarkable way, he seems to have been preparing himself from childhood for his encounter with the scientific worldview that so dominates the modern sensibility.

The Dalai Lama exhibits a sophistication about methods and issues in science that is unexpected, even surprising, in a spiritual leader. I’ve long been curious about the source of this scientific sophistication—and he was kind enough to let me interview him about his lifelong interest in science. These interviews with him and with his close associates have let me sketch, for the first time, his scientific biography. A detour into this little-known side of his personal history reveals just why he places such importance on dialogues and collaborations with scientists.

That story begins with the Dalai Lama’s traditional schooling, which was extremely rigorous, covering a sophisticated system of theology, metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and several schools of philosophy. It also touched on the arts, including poetry, music, and drama. From age six onward, he spent many hours each day engrossed in his studies, which included a great deal of memorization, as well as meditation and concentration—all vehicles for mental discipline.

He also received intensive training in dialectics and debate, forms at the heart of a Tibetan monastic education. Indeed, the favored competitive sport of Tibetan monks is nothing like soccer or chess: it’s debate. For the monks, their abilities in debate were the primary way their intellectual achievements became known, and so judged. While the traditional monastic curriculum provided a keen understanding of the nuances of Buddhist philosophy, it offered not a hint of the scientific findings of the last thousand years. For instance, a classic Buddhist text brought to Tibet from India nearly twelve centuries earlier posited a cosmology in which the world was flat and the moon shone with its own light, like the sun.

To protect its political and cultural integrity, Tibet had sealed itself off from most foreign influences for centuries. By the time of the Dalai Lama’s childhood, a few members of the families of Tibetan nobility or wealthy traders had been sent to schools run by the British in Indian towns such as Darjeeling, and so were able to speak English. But by the protocol of the time, the Dalai Lama had little or%MCEPASTEBIN% no direct contact with these English-speakers. And in any case, there was not a single Tibetan in all of Lhasa with any special training in science.

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