05 February 2009

Book of the Month: February 2009

The Universe in a Single Atom

The Convergence of Science and Spirituality

by H.H. the Dalai Lama


Morgan Road Books, New York


Modern scientists often seem to take pride in showing contempt for religion and spirituality. Some call themselves atheists, make fun of spiritual leaders and profess the superiority of modern science over thousand-year-old spiritual traditions.

Intelligent and cultured colleagues may talk about religions as if all these were basically ways of addressing popular craving, elaborated strategies for manipulating the masses, imaginative scenarios of made-up gods and deities, and the like. Religions are often referred to, or thought to be, cumbersome apparatuses dealing with one or more gods to be adored, with no proof whatsoever of their existence. Therefore, something worth laughing about by those who believe in Science (in fact, just a different kind of deity).

A striking example of limited familiarity with the subject of some scientists' contempt is the fact that buddhism is often paired with theistic religions. Some may even think that Buddha is the god adored by buddhists, which is quite interesting considering that the Buddha - a man who lived in India some 2500 years ago - can be regarded as one of the earliest true scientists in the modern sense.

Buddhism is not a theistic religion but rather a spiritual tradition or a psychological philosophy. What makes it 'look' as a religion is probably its very old age and its many popular manifestations and coloured embellishments that - depending on areas and lineages - have happened to include god-like statues and church-like buildings. The Buddha, however, strongly recommended to adore nothing (particularly not himself), have no attachment to icons and only rely on one's own experience.

I have always been attracted by buddhism for the same reasons I am attracted by science: it is based on observation. While science is a way of exploring the outside world, buddhism is a way of exploring the world inside, i.e. the way our minds work. The method is quite precisely the same and it has a similar affection for unbiased observation and a similar dislike for dogma. Buddhism transcends and avoids theology and it covers both the natural and the spiritual, seeing all things, natural and spiritual, as parts of the same scenario.

Of the many modern scientists who realized an affinity between science and buddhism, Einstein is probably the most famous. One of his oft-quoted sentences goes: ‘If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism’. Calling buddhism a 'religion' is probably a simplification here, and I think that this term is misleading as it creates a separation that does not need to exist. I would be equally comfortable calling buddhism a science, a science of the mind that has developed and described its own ways (the dharma) through introspection - i.e. observation directed inward.

The most fundamental way of being a buddhist (some would argue: the only way) is to simply stay still, look at how the mind works, and 'take note'. Through repeated observation of one's own mental mechanisms (much more complex and difficult to deal with than one could ever imagine), one sees what is really going on there. To me, this looks similar to repeatedly observing the natural world and understanding what is going on outside, with no attachment to the ‘official’ scientific knowledge and a fresh beginner’s mind.

February’s Book of the Month is ‘The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality’ by the Dalai Lama. This book addresses some of the points above in a much better way than I could possibly do. As it is written by a man from Tibet who embodies an ancient tradition, some sections may be a bit difficult to read or understand, particularly by those who are not familiar with buddhist teachings and terminology. Still, this is an amazing book aimed to build bridges between modern science and buddhism and it shows how these might be integrated. I would recommend it to anyone who - perhaps for good reasons - has lost respect or interest in religion and spirituality.

Giovanni Bearzi

Note: this item is open to discussion in the Facebook page of Tethys (Discussion board: Science and buddhism)
Titolo italiano: ‘L’abbraccio del mondo: Quando scienza e spiritualit√† si incontrano’ Sperling & Kupfer Editori.

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