Monday, May 18, 2020

The Dalai Lama: Scientist


For decades, Western scientists and clergy have focused on areas of fundamental disagreement between science and religion. Yet, the question of evolution vs. creationism has virtually no bearing on people’s every day lives. In contrast, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has focused on areas of compatibility between Tibetan Buddhist teachings and modern science. He has also sponsored research designed to foster greater emotional well-being for all humanity. Dawn Gifford Engle documents His Holiness’s engagement with the scientific community in The Dalai Lama: Scientist, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Even as a child, before he was recognized as the reincarnate Lama, the young Tibetan Buddhist displayed a natural curiosity about the way things work. As the titular head of the Tibetan society in exile, the Dalai Lama has fostered scientific education and opened dialogue with some of the world’s leading scientists. Many prestigious physicists, biologists, and neuro-scientists consider him a personal friend, but the Dalai Lama’s relationship with the late Francisco Varela receives special focus.

Throughout the film, Engle and the Dalai Lama’s colleagues identify key areas of quantum physics, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience where Tibetan Buddhist teachings largely concur with the latest cutting-edge theories. In fact, the Venn diagram overlap is often quite striking. Engle never dumbs down any of this heady material, which is admirable. However, she heavily relies on archival video footage of the Dalai Lama’s scientific symposiums. There is just no getting around the fact this is a talking film.

Still, His Holiness’s warmth and charm still come through, even when he is discussing quantum mechanics. It is also clear just how learned he truly is. In contrast, it is impossible to imagine Xi Jinping holding his own in such scholarly company (“Xi Jinping Thought”—seriously, spare us the self-aggrandizing pretension). Engle rigorously focuses on the Dalai Lama’s scientific initiatives, but she still mentions in passing an effort by Beijing-controlled scientists to have him disinvited from at least one scientific conference. She also gives a scrupulously accurate nutshell explanation of how the CCP’s occupation of Tibet led to His Holiness’s exile in India.

As films go, Dalai Lama: Scientist is not very cinematic. Frankly, the last fifteen minutes or so start to drag, because Engle largely turns the doc into an infomercial for some of the Dalai Lama’s emotional intelligence programs. Regardless, it is still impressive to see a film that addresses such lofty scientific and spiritual subjects. This is actually a faith-based film that will make viewers smarter about science. Highly recommended for curious minds (whether they be Buddhist, agnostic, or something else entirely), The Dalai Lama: Scientist releases tomorrow (5/19) on VOD platforms, including iTunes.