The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama – review

Wimbledon Buddhist temple
The Buddhapadipa temple in Wimbledon, UK, which offers meditation classes for beginners

The Dalai Lama wants every cognitive scientist to learn how to meditate. He believes this will give them insights into the mind and consciousness that plastering electrodes on scalps or scanning brains with powerful magnetic fields never could.

Whereas a scientist looks at the mind from the outside, he says, an experienced meditator examines it from within. Neither sees the whole picture and so we could learn a great deal by combining the two perspectives.

I have finally got around to reading The Universe in a Single Atom by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. It was first published in 2006 and since then there have been no fewer than 13 “dialogues” between scientists and contemplatives organised by the Mind & Life Institute, with which he is closely involved.

It is an inspiring book. I was particularly interested to read, in the Dalai Lama’s own words, about his early years in an essentially pre-industrial world:

I was born into a family of simple farmers who used cattle to plough their field and, when the barley was harvested, used cattle to trample the grain out of the husk. Perhaps the only objects that could be described as technological were the rifles that local warrior nomads had probably acquired from British India, Russia or China. At the age of six I was enthroned as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and embarked upon an education in all aspects of Buddhism.

His first encounters with contemporary technology came during a “perpetual treasure hunt” exploring the enormous Potala Palace, which straddles a mountain in southern Tibet and contains in its “thousand rooms” the possessions – and indeed the mortal remains – of former Dalai Lamas going back to the 17th century. Among the mechanical objects owned by his immediate predecessor he found “a collapsible telescope made from brass” and “a hand-wound mechanical timepiece with a rotating globe on a stand that gave the time in different time zones”. There were also a pocket watch, two film projectors and three cars, which for years were the only three cars in the whole of Tibet.

There was a time, I remember very clearly, when I would rather fiddle with these objects than study philosophy or memorise a text. Today I can see that these things were in themselves no more than toys, but they hinted at a whole universe of experience and knowledge to which I had no access and whose existence was endlessly fascinating. In a way, this book is about the path to discovering that world and the wonderful things it has to offer.

So began his lifelong engagement with science. In this book he reveals the deep understanding of modern physics and biology that he acquired through meetings with many prominent 20th century scientists, including Carl von Weizsacker, David Bohm, Karl Popper, Paul Davies and Eric Lander. He explores the common ground between scientific and Buddhist ideas about the cosmos, consciousness and the quest for a deeper understanding of reality. Both Buddhists and scientists seek to dispel delusions and reveal truth, he points out, though the former put the emphasis on self-investigation while the latter insist that only objective experiments will do.

On one point he is adamant: “Buddhism must accept the facts – whether found by science or found by contemplative insights. If, when we investigate something, we find there is reason and proof for it, we must acknowledge that as reality – even if it is in contradiction with a literal scriptural explanation that has held sway for many centuries or with a deeply held opinion or view.”

If only all spiritual traditions were so open to scientific discoveries.

He rightly criticises some psychologists’ tendency to focus on objective measures to the exclusion of subjective experience, even when they’re studying the subjective phenomena of cognition and consciousness. B. F. Skinner has a lot to answer for.

Surely contemplatives, who have devoted their lives to probing the nature of thought, feelings and consciousness, can provide many insights to which the “Skinner box”, EEG machine and MRI scanner have no access? And why should meditation be the exclusive preserve of monks? “Every cognitive scientist should train in meditation techniques to probe the nature of consciousness,” he writes.

Meditation aims to cultivate a third-person perspective on internal states: an objective vantage point (to which it probably owes many of its proven benefits for mental health) that would surely meet with the approval of a scientist?

The love-in between science and Buddhism starts to cool, however, when the Dalai Lama gets on to modern genetic science. “To ground our appreciation of the value of a human being in genetic makeup is bound to impoverish humanity because there is so much more to human beings than their genomes,” he writes.

I don’t think any geneticist would claim that humans, or indeed organisms of any kind, are that simple. Not even the originator of the “selfish gene” metaphor, Richard Dawkins. The interplay between genes and the environment – and between the mind and the body – is now known to be far too subtle for biologists to be deceived into thinking living things are like the wind-up mechanical devices that the child Dalai Lama found so fascinating in the Potala Palace.

He questions why modern psychology has devoted relatively little attention to the positive emotions of compassion and altruism, focusing instead on negative emotions such as aggression, anger and fear. He then goes on to say that evolutionary theory ignores or cannot explain altruism:

I feel that this inability or unwillingness fully to engage the question of altruism is perhaps the most important drawback of Darwinian evolutionary theory, at least in its popular version … Why does modern biology accept only competition to be the fundamental operating principle and only aggression to be the fundamental trait of living beings?

This is certainly unfair. To name just two influential fields, biologists have for many years studied the genetics of altruism as a consequence of kin selection in a wide range of organisms, and psychologists have developed group theory to investigate cooperative behaviour.

He also falls into a logical trap when he expresses scepticism about the safety of GM crops, concluding: “Clearly the argument that there is no conclusive evidence that a particular product is harmful then there is nothing wrong with it cannot be accepted.” How many years, or decades, should we wait for conclusive evidence that something is not dangerous before adopting it? Suppose it really is “safe” – however that is defined. Wouldn’t we have to wait forever?

While science clearly fascinates His Holiness, it also makes him nervous. He warns against the dangers of reductionism when it is raised from the status of a highly successful “method” to a “metaphysical standpoint” that excludes everything else, including ethical considerations. We can certainly agree on that point. I know most scientists would.

The Dalai Lama concludes with these words:

In essence, science and spirituality, though differing in their approaches, share the same end, which is the betterment of humanity. At its best, science is motivated by a quest for understanding to help lead us to greater flourishing and happiness … We are all in this together. May each of us, as a member of the human family, respond to the moral obligation to make this collaboration possible. This is my heartfelt plea.

This book is a love letter to science from an enthusiastic but slightly nervous suitor. Long may the relationship last.

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