Caveat Emptor, Buyer Beware

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

In 2014, the open access, peer-reviewed journal Religions published my paper on the Dalai Lama’s so-called Mind & Life meetings with (mostly) Western scientists. I had presented it during ‘Buddhism and Science: An International Workshop’ (University of Toronto Scarborough, Toronto, Canada, April 12-14, 2013). For clarity’s sake, references have been omitted from the following quote (you’ll find them in the original article, ‘Caveat Emptor: The Dalai Lama’s Proviso and the Burden of Scientific Proof’, linked below):

‘Although the present Dalai Lama enjoys a considerable measure of respect and reverence, history shows that his standing even within his own Gelug monastic order does not preclude dissent. Contrary to what is often assumed, the Dalai Lama is not its formal head. That position is held by the Ganden Tripa, the abbot of Ganden monastery, a rank awarded to the most accomplished masters of the Gelug lineage. From the 17th century onwards the Gelug monastic universities of Sera, Drepung, and Ganden have conferred an unparalleled degree of authority on the office of the Dalai Lama, but their obedience to any particular incumbent is not unconditional. At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, the thirteenth Dalai Lama plans for reform were thwarted by orthodox Gelugs.

The past decades, epitomizing its recurrent fascination with Tibet, the Dalai Lama has achieved iconic status in the West.. He is a much sought-after spokesman for Buddhism, and a prolific author of international stature. His collected work consists of hundreds of (co-)authored publications in English, dozens of which have been on bestseller lists. On his frequent tours, the Dalai Lama makes headlines the world over, drawing crowds and media wherever he goes. He is a Nobel laureate and recipient of the highest civilian honour bestowed by the United States Congress. The Dalai Lama appeared on Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004, 2005 and 2008, and was named Doctor Honoris Causa many times over. In 2012 the Templeton Foundation awarded him its annual prize. He converses with prime ministers, presidents, popes and kings, and shares the stage with eminent scientists and religious leaders of all denominations. Without exaggerating one might say that the Dalai Lama has become one of the leading intellectuals of our time.

In spite of the abundance of autobiographical detail in the Dalai Lama’s oeuvre and countless recapitulations of his life story in print and in film, a comprehensive intellectual biography is yet to be written. A clear picture of the constituent elements of the Dalai Lama’s cast of mind emerges only to those who succeed in piecing together highly diverse information from scattered sources. Few scholars have explored his vast and readily available oeuvre as if he were a Buddhist philosopher in his own right. Precious little is known about the evolvement of his thought through time. To date, the impact of science and modernity upon the Dalai Lama’s thinking has defied precise explanation, as does his continued endorsement of traditionalist ideas and practices. Apart from the barbed rhetoric of successive Chinese government officials, few observers openly criticize the Dalai Lama’s public image and stated opinions, or his stance vis-à-vis science. Arguably, in addition to being one of the world’s leading intellectuals, the Dalai Lama is one of the world’s most elusive thinkers.

The Dalai Lama’s personal interest in technology and science, evidenced in the best-selling The Universe in a Single Atom has long seeped into public consciousness. His declared readiness to have Buddhism adapt its teachings to hard scientific facts is lauded on all sides, as is his frequent exhortation that scientific research be guided by secular moral principles. In the absence of accessible, coherent accounts of the Dalai Lama’s intellectual and philosophical development through time, distinctive qualities of his worldview and discourse tend to be either completely overlooked or arbitrarily reduced—both within academia, and without. His views are often simplified, obscuring the complexity of his positions and the tensions they entail.

Without further knowledge, it is therefore hard to judge whether the self-understanding the Dalai Lama projects within Mind & Life—his Buddhist persona, so to speak— is orthodox or heterodox; canonical or apocryphal; conservative or liberal; partisan or equitable. A prima facie it is hardly possible to establish just how much support the Dalai Lama’s personal views have within the Tibetan tradition as a whole. For these reasons, the Dalai Lama’s presentation of doctrinal issues during Mind & Life meetings, no matter how penetrating, is best taken to be tentative, a qualification he himself, incidentally, is only too willing to add.

Occasionally, the Dalai Lama draws the attention of the wider public to features of his world of experience that might give pause to scientists. His frequent consultation of oracles and the use of divination in day-to-day decision making on matters of religion and state, for instance, or seemingly archaic comments on consensual homo- and heterosexual acts. Also, critical studies have allowed some insight into the Dalai Lama’s direct involvement in a prolonged internecine feud over a wrathful Tibetan spirit. And in 2011 the Dalai Lama published a detailed account of the procedure that ought to determine the future of his own lineage of reincarnation.

During a conference on Buddhism and law at the University at Buffalo Law School, the Dalai Lama openly qualified his commitment to the separation between church and state. He made a distinction between two types of politics: ‘party politics’ on the one hand, and the involvement with a national struggle on the other. Buddhist monks should completely disassociate themselves from the former, he said. His own involvement as a representative of the Tibetan people, however, should be seen as Buddhist practice. This view does not sit well with politicians and legal experts in the West, whose discourse on constitutional law does not provide for a religiously inspired fusion of the secular and the sacred.

Two anecdotes from the past illustrate the Dalai Lama’s ambiguity towards a common phenomenon that by modernists’ account is fully explained by the Earth sciences. On the night of August 15, 1950 Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama experienced an earthquake in Lhasa. Seismologists later determined that the earthquake had a magnitude of 8.6 on the Richter scale—one of the worst seismic events ever recorded. It led to widespread devastation and had severe effects on topography and the regime of rivers throughout the Himalaya. Eyewitnesses reported that the earthquake was accompanied by the distant sound of detonations and an undetermined celestial glow. In Tibet earthquakes were thought to be an evil omen. The young Dalai Lama, typically, was eager for a scientific explanation. He thought Harrer’s impromptu exposé on seismic activity, reducing each observed phenomenon to plate tectonics and physical forces, to be less than convincing, however. Recounting the occurrence in 1990, the Dalai Lama still found it easier to accept that what happened was metaphysical, and remains beyond scientists’ ken.

On a similar note, at a divination ceremony on February 8, 2000—mere weeks before Mind & Life VIII—the Dalai Lama predicted that his hometown Dharamsala would face a devastating earthquake before early February, 2001. After the prediction had been confirmed by high lamas and the highest ranking Nechung Oracle, every Tibetan monastery was requested to perform prayers to avert a catastrophe. The Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Government-in-exile issued prayers for lay people to reduce the risk. Dharamsala is in fact situated in the highest risk zone in the earthquake zoning map of India. On January 26, 2001 an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.6 and 7.7 hit the Indian state of Gujarat, killing around 20,000 people. Dharamsala was spared.

Source: Hogendoorn, Rob (2014). ‘Caveat Emptor: The Dalai Lama’s Proviso and the Burden of (Scientific) Proof.’ Religions, 5(3), pp. 522-559.

Postscript: The original post (‘Said Rob Hogendoorn in 2014…’) has been slightly updated. It was republished with a different title.

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.