His Holiness the Dalai Lama meets with scientists in Tokyo

November 6th 2012

Tokyo, Japan, 6 November 2012 - The third day of His Holiness’ autumn trip to Japan was devoted entirely to one of the events he’d been most looking forward to, the first series of really sustained and serious discussions with scientists he’d ever conducted over many days in Japan. He entered a packed ballroom in the Hotel Okura in central Tokyo, elegant with its red carpet and gold screens along the walls, and, after being introduced by a Zen monk of the Soto school, the Venerable Shinzan Egawa, Chief Abbot of Tsurumi Sojoji, His Holiness delivered an opening address outlining his longtime interest in science.

His Holiness the Dalai lama speaking at a meeting with scientists in Tokyo, Japan, on November 6, 2012.
Photo/Office of Tibet Japan

Ever since he was a child, he pointed out, he’d been interested in mechanical things, and ever since he first came to Japan, in 1967, he’d been impressed by the bullet train, and wanted to take it apart to see how it worked. In Tibet, as a boy, he’d enjoyed looking at the heavens through a high-powered telescope and even showing one of his tutors, empirically, proof that the moon did not generate its own light, but only reflected the sun. He admired the genuine internationalism he saw in scientists, His Holiness said, their true open-mindedness. They needed skepticism for their research, yet they remained open and unbiased, always looking at a subject objectively.

Though friends had expressed skepticism of their own when he first showed interest in discussions with scientists, 40 years ago, he had thought then about how Buddhist teachers, especially the Nalanda teachers, “very much emphasize skepticism. And investigation. Without skepticism, no question arises. If there’s no question, there’s no investigation. And if there’s no investigation, you can’t find the reality of things.”

He had always taken very seriously the statement of the Buddha: “Scholars or monks should not accept my teaching out of faith, out of devotion, but, rather, through thorough investigation.” The Nalanda teachers investigated even the Buddha’s own words.

“As far as knowledge of matter is concerned,” he went on, “modern science is very developed. That’s why, within the Tibetan exile community, science is now part of the monastic curriculum. But when it comes to ancient psychology, especially Indian Buddhist psychology, that can be of immense help to modern science.

“The last three or four thousand years,” His Holiness pointed out, “people, when they faced a problem, were always praying to God, or to some mysterious force. But in the last 200 years, they’ve been looking to science and technology. And technology immediately gives us what we want. But now we are facing really deep problems, and they can’t be solved through technology alone. The time has come: we must make more effort to make advances in human compassion—and to pursue a secular ethics based on scientific findings.”

The first of the scientific speakers, Professor Kazuo Murakami, an old colleague of His Holiness, from Tsukuba University, was now invited to the podium to speak on the subject of “Switching on Genes to Make Us Shine.”

The Hotel Okura ballroom, venue for the dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Japanese scientists in Tokyo, Japan, on November 6, 2012. Photo/Office of Tibet Japan
With a quiet, but highly amusing ease, Dr. Murakami described his fifty years of scientific work, more than 30 of them in genetic research. In recent times, researchers have discovered an “on/off switch,” he said, which he compared with His Holiness’ teaching about how much we can change the world by changing the mind, getting rid of bad stress and building up “good stress.” When once he subjected a test group to talks by scientists, Dr. Murakami noted, their blood sugar levels rose up to 123, on average. When, a little later, they listened to some stand-up comedians, their blood sugar levels went down to 77.

“We’re not saying that laughter should replace drugs,” he made clear. “But that you should try both. After all, laughter has no side-effects. In medicine there are no drugs, if they are effective, without side-effects.

“Who wrote DNA?” Professor Murakami concluded. “Not humans, not man. Nature wrote and coded these genes. And even in the smallest cell, so much genetic information is encoded. It’s wondrous. It’s not visible to the eye, but it’s awe-inspiring. What is important in the world is what we cannot see. How can e-coli produce human hormones? But all the scientists in the world, with all the resources in the world cannot produce one living cell? Humans are made up of 60 trillion cells.”

Professor Murakami’s called the source of all this “something great.” And in response to all the popular talk about a “selfish gene,” he proposed more consideration of what he called an “altruistic gene.”

“The fact of being alive is like winning the lottery,” he said. A miracle we too often take for granted.

As soon as Dr. Murakami was finished, His Holiness, eagerly engaging with his longtime friend, asked him if plants have minds. “I don’t think plants have minds as human beings do, “ Professor Murakami answered. “Animals have minds, but their minds are not the same as human minds.” His Holiness responded that he had spent time researching the issue with his friend, the late neuroscientist Francisco Varela, and decided that something that can move, by itself, from here to there, can be counted a sentient being.

His Holiness noted, too, how laughter can denote great joy, or an almost uncomfortable response to being tickled; tears can speak for great sorrow or great happiness. He would like some investigation, he said, into “the science of the tear.”


At that point, Dr. Fumio Shimura, a Professor of Engineering at the Shizuoka Institute of Science and Technology, came forwards to discuss quantum physics in relation to the Heart Sutra, as a different way of considering how form is emptiness, emptiness form. Even when your brain is full, he pointed out, it’s essentially empty. The atom bears this out.

Members of the audience enjoying the dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Japanese scientists in Tokyo, Japan, on November 6, 2012. Photo/Office of Tibet Japan
Modern physics has also, he said, highlighted the interdependence of all things; nothing is isolated. In response to all that, making a play on the Japanese words, Professor Shimura had coined the phrase, “Buddhi Physics.”

His Holiness began vigorously discussing with the professor the meaning of form, diving into a sophisticated explanation of the different categories in classical Buddhsit thought: one which can be seen; one which can be seen through its effects (such as the wind); one which cannot be seen, but is still form.

After breaking for a quick lunch, the crowd of 1200 of more people reconvened, as did the speakers, and Dr. Haruo Saji, President of Shizuoka Junior College, came forward, and began by asking if we could see the clouds in the paper we carried. It’s a poetic metaphor, he said, but it also speaks for science. Paper is made of the pulp we get from trees, and for trees to grow you need water, which is rain, which means clouds.

This was another way of seeing interdependence. Then he spoke of how we all see a different kind of red, perhaps, when we look at a traffic light, but we all know to stop. Which suggests that it is not the eye that registers the light, but the brain. In a wide-ranging talk that touched on philosophy and poetry and science and linguistics and religion, he spoke of St. Francis’s Prayer and Augustine, and the Japanese word for “compassion.”

“When you think through something with your mind,” he said, “where is your mind?” From Zen, he concluded, he had learned of the importance of now.

“Some years ago, I was told that the concept of `interdependence’ didn’t exist in science,” His Holiness replied. “But now in the world of science the word’s found some place to sit comfortably!” At the same time, he said, seizing on the stress on now, “The present is very, very important. But I feel the future is more important. Because the future is still empty, like space. Anything is possible. The present is very related to past difficulties; for example, the present difficulties in the 21st century can be symptoms of some past mistake or negligence. But the future is yet to come. It’s something in our hands.”

As many of the panelists noted, led by the spirited and eloquent moderator, Mitsuko Shimomura, former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Journal, the present is impossible to catch. By the time you define it, it’s the past. “And `our era’ or `my day’ may have a beginning,” His Holiness said, “but an era or a day may have no beginning.” Clearly relishing the give-and-take, he warmly practiced dialectics with Dr. Saji, asking him for clarification on various points, and then Dr. Junichi Yokoyama, a cosmologist from the University of Tokyo, got up to discuss the Big Bang and the “dark energies that came even before the Big Bang, he said.

Like all the scientists, he related his own findings to Buddhism by showing how dualism seemed outdated. His Holiness responded enthusiastically to his talk, and noted that “we spend millions and millions of dollars investigating outer space. But sometimes we live in ignorance of our inner space.” There was much talk on all the fluctuations in time and space and, finally, Dr. Fumiko Yonezawa, from Keio University, presented a talk on “The Science of Ambiguity.”

Ever since girlhood, she said, she had been thinking about the end of the universe and the beginning of time, and her studies had led her to distinguish between eight forms of ambiguity. To some degree, the more we developed in science, she said, the more we saw how much we didn’t know.

As she concluded by suggesting that this very ambiguity in things made for a window of opportunity, His Holiness ended the rich and full day of rare intellectual stimulation, by saying, “Uncertainty means possibility. So you concluded, `”You should be more optimistic, make more effort’ That’s really wonderful. Out of uncertainty you summoned conviction.”

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