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The Dalai Lama on Science and Spirituality

“What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter.”

The Dalai Lama on Science and Spirituality

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote in his final book nearly four centuries after Galileo made the same point in his famous letter defending his life.

A recent Pioneer Works conversation about science and spirituality with physicist Alan Lightman, based on his immensely insightful and poetic book on the subject, reminded me of a different, older conversation contemplating the relationship between these two hallmarks of the human experience.

In the early 1990s, shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama sat down for a five-day dialogue with a group of ten Western scientists and one philosopher of mind, seeking a scientific perspective on what Buddhism calls the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion — the primary classes of emotion that cause us to harm ourselves and those around us. The wide-ranging conversation, the synthesis of which was later published as Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama (public library), aimed to bridge ancient spiritual practices and modern findings in biology, cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience in an effort to reveal the human mind’s capacity to transcend its own fundamental flaws.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet (Photograph: Tenzin Choejor)

With an eye to the complementarity between Buddhism, which has been exploring the human mind for millennia, and Western science, whose neuroscience and psychology are barely a century and a half old, the Dalai Lama writes in the preface to the book:

Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth. In Buddhist training, it is essential to investigate reality, and science offers its own ways to go about this investigation. While the purposes of science may differ from those of Buddhism, both ways of searching for truth expand our knowledge and understanding.

Art by Oliver Jeffers for Love Letter America

Four millennia after the Buddha laid down his tenets of critical thinking, known as The Charter of Free Inquiry, the Dalai Lama points to the scientific method as our mightiest tool in the pursuit of truth, but also insists on applying it to science itself:

I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it. However, a clear distinction should be made between what is not found by science and what is found to be nonexistent by science. What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions.

Calyces of Held — synapses made by axons carrying auditory information and contacting neurons in a brainstem structure called the trapezoid body. One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s stunning drawings of the brain.

The purpose of spirituality in a secular world, he argues, is that of a moral compass that tempers the destructive emotions that so often accompany our modern materialism. In consonance with Adam Gopnik’s insight into the essential nonreligious value of the Bible, the Dalai Lama echoes Martin Luther King’s assertion that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [for] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” and writes:

The more we pursue material improvement, ignoring the contentment that comes of inner growth, the faster ethical values will disappear from our communities. Then we will all experience unhappiness in the long run, for when there is no place for justice and honesty in people’s hearts, the weak are the first to suffer. And the resentments resulting from such inequity ultimately affect everyone adversely.

With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play in reminding us of our humanity. What we must do is balance scientific and material progress with the sense of responsibility that comes of inner development. That is why I believe this dialogue between religion and science is important, for from it may come developments that can be of great benefit to mankind.

The concrete manifestations of and path to that civilizational benefit is what the remainder of Destructive Emotions explores — questions of whether these destructive emotions are an elemental part of human nature, what lends them their formidable power, and how much plasticity there is in the brain to allow for outgrowing them. Complement this excerpt with Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr on subjective vs. objective reality and the uses of religion in a secular world, pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell on mathematics, divinity, and the human search for truth, and Albert Einstein’s 1931 conversation about science and spirituality with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore.


Tennessee Williams on Love and How the Very Thing Worth Saving Is the Thing That Will Save Us

“We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

Tennessee Williams on Love and How the Very Thing Worth Saving Is the Thing That Will Save Us

“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Tolstoy wrote at the end of his life in his forgotten correspondence with Gandhi about human nature and why we hurt each other, as the global tensions that would soon erupt into World War I were building. How love can save us and what exactly it saves us from — each other, ourselves, the maelstrom of our intersubjective suffering — are questions each person and each generation must answer for themselves.

Tennessee Williams (March 26, 1911–February 25, 1983), born several months after Tolstoy’s death, addressed this abiding question with uncommonly poetic precision several months before his own death in a 1982 conversation with James Grissom, who would spend three decades synthesizing his interviews with, research on, and insight into the beloved playwright in Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog (public library).

Tennessee Williams (Photograph: John Springer)

A quarter century after Martin Luther King, Jr. made his impassioned case for reviving the ancient Greek concept of agape, Williams reflects:

The world is violent and mercurial — it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love — love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.

Complement with Jeanette Winterson on how art saves us and Elizabeth Alexander on the ethic of love, then revisit Williams’s conversation with William S. Burroughs about writing and death and his stirring reading of two poems by Hart Crane.


Audre Lorde on Kinship Across Difference and the Importance of Unity Within Movements for Equality and Social Change

“How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future?”

Audre Lorde on Kinship Across Difference and the Importance of Unity Within Movements for Equality and Social Change

“Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order,” the great Czech dissident turned president Václav Havel observed in reflecting on the interconnectedness of our fates in a globalized yet divided world. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted a quarter century earlier. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Every once in a while, we stumble into situations that jolt us into a sudden and palpable awareness of that inescapable interconnectedness, even across the greatest gulfs of difference. That is what Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) experienced in the spring of 1984, when she was diagnosed with liver cancer, but declined medical treatment and instead chose to undertake her teaching trip to Europe as previously planned. In West Germany, she found herself challenged to revise her existing framework of identity and belonging, emerging with a novel understanding of kinship and difference. Lorde recorded her awakening experience in a series of diary entries found in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library) — the stunning volume that gave us Lorde, shortly after her cancer diagnosis, on turning fear into fire.

Audre Lorde (Photograph: Robert Alexander)

Upon arrival in Berlin, Lorde was struck by a reality she hadn’t even conceived of: black German women. As she reconfigures her existing frame of reference for kinship and difference to factor in the fact of their existence, she writes in her diary:

Who are they, the German women of the Diaspora? Where do our paths intersect as women of Color — beyond the details of our particular oppressions, although certainly not outside the reference of those details? And where do our paths diverge? Most important, what can we learn from our connected differences that will be useful to us both, Afro-German and Afro-American?

Afro-German. The women say they’ve never heard that term used before.

When Lorde asks one of her students about her experience of selfhood growing up, the young woman tells her that the nicest thing she had ever been called was “war baby.” Lorde notes the absurdity — black women have lived in Germany since long before WWII, and several of her students can trace their Afro-German heritage to half a century before the war. Recounting her conversation with the young woman in her class, Lorde writes:

“I’ve never thought of Afro-German as a positive concept before,” she said, speaking out of the pain of having to live a difference that has no name; speaking out of the growing power self-scrutiny has forged from that difference.

I am excited by these women, by their blossoming sense of identity as they’re beginning to say in one way or another, “Let us be ourselves now as we define us. We are not a figment of your imagination or an exotic answer to your desires. We are not some button on the pocket of your longing.” I can see these women as a growing force for international change, in concert with other Afro-Europeans, Afro-Asians, Afro-Americans.

Reflecting on this powerful revelation of the path to kinship across difference, Lorde adds:

We are the hyphenated people of the Diaspora whose self-defined identities are no longer shameful secrets in the countries of our origin, but rather declarations of strength and solidarity. We are an increasingly united front from which the world has not yet heard.

Audre Lorde from Literary Witches, an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers.

At the heart of Lorde’s arresting encounter with the Afro-German women and her subsequent recalibration of her own conception of what it means to be black is the recognition that every plight for equality is governed by the first law of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy — any fragmentation within the movement is a diffusion of energy that only weakens it, relinquishing the lost energy to the oppressor’s gain. Upon returning from the first international Feminist Bookfair in London, shaken by the overtone of racism that “coated and distorted much of what was good, creative, and visionary about such a fair,” Lorde writes:

The white women organizers’ defensiveness to any question of where the Black women were is rooted in that tiresome white guilt that serves neither us nor them. It reminded me of those old tacky battles of the seventies in the States: a Black woman would suggest that if white women wished to be truly feminist, they would have to examine and alter some of their actions vis-à-vis women of Color. And this discussion would immediately be perceived as an attack upon their very essence. So wasteful and destructive… We should be able to learn from our errors… But we don’t get there from here by ignoring the mud in between those two positions.

In a sentiment consonant with Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s admonition that a society “is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak or a powerful one too powerful,” Lorde adds:

Feminism must be on the cutting edge of real social change if it is to survive as a movement in any particular country. Whatever the core problems are for the people of that country must also be the core problems addressed by women, for we do not exist in a vacuum. We are anchored in our own place and time, looking out and beyond to the future we are creating, and we are part of communities that interact. To pretend otherwise is ridiculous. While we fortify ourselves with visions of the future, we must arm ourselves with accurate perceptions of the barriers between us and that future.

Lorde continues to process these complex and intertwined questions during the remainder of her European travels. With an eye to the dark side of identity politics, she writes after returning to New York:

I am thinking about issues of color as color, Black as a chromatic fact, gradations and all… I see certain pitfalls in defining Black as a political position. It takes the cultural identity of a widespread but definite group and makes it a generic identity for many culturally diverse peoples, all on the basis of a shared oppression. This runs the risk of providing a convenient blanket of apparent similarity under which our actual and unaccepted differences can be distorted or misused. This blanket would diminish our chances of forming genuine working coalitions built upon the recognition and creative use of acknowledged difference, rather than upon the shaky foundations of a false sense of similarity.

A solid foundation, Lorde comes to recognize in the unfolding months, requires not a false sense of similarity but a true sense of kinship across difference. A year after her return from Europe, she writes in her diary:

How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future?

All of our children are prey. How do we raise them not to prey upon themselves and each other? And this is why we cannot be silent, because our silences will come to testify against us out of the mouths of our children.

A Burst of Light is an electric read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Albert Einstein on the interdependence of our fates and Hannah Arendt on the immigrant plight for identity, then revisit Lorde on the courage to break silence and the indivisibility of identity.


Anatomy of Hatred: The Paradoxical Psychology of How That Which Repels Us Binds Us

“The closer the likeness … the more virulent the hatred.”

Anatomy of Hatred: The Paradoxical Psychology of How That Which Repels Us Binds Us

“Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide,” Kurt Vonnegut admonished in his magnificent Fredonia commencement address. But when the run is generations long — when hate lodges itself in the soul of its carrier and becomes part of the spiritual DNA that propagates the species — it becomes more toxic than anything human beings can synthesize.

Decades before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted that “along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate,” a forgotten woman offered an incisive perspective on hate’s paradoxical quality to both repel and bind with its magnetic chain stretched across time.

Millicent Todd Bingham (February 5, 1880–December 1, 1968) was the daughter of astronomer David Todd and writer Mabel Loomis Todd, who penned the first popular science book on eclipses and who, through a maelstrom of complicated family dynamics and antagonisms, ended up as the steward of Emily Dickinson’s body of work. For two decades, Mabel had been the lover of the poet’s brother, Austin. Her invasion of the lives of the Dickinsons caused a rupture from which the family never recovered. When she edited the first volumes of Emily Dickinson’s letters and poems to enter the world, Mabel didn’t hesitate to exercise her position of literary power in advancing her personal agenda — to excise from the record her lover’s wife, Susan Dickinson.

Before marrying Austin Dickinson, Susan had been young Emily Dickinson’s first great love and would remain her greatest for the rest of the poet’s life. Some of Dickinson’s best known and most electrifying poems were dedicated to Susan, her “only woman in the world”; some of her most passionate letters written to her. Throughout Dickinson’s life, Susan would be her most important reader — and often editor — making Todd’s manipulative mission of excision all the more cruel, and all the more difficult, for Susan animated the vast majority of Dickinson’s writing.

Emily Dickinson’s legacy would become the front onto which the war between Austin Dickinson’s wife and his lover would be fought. The hatred that Susan and Mabel brought to the feud would survive them both, finding new life in their daughters: Martha Dickinson and Millicent Todd.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Let’s Be Enemies by Janice May Udry

As Millicent neared sixty, she reflected on the paradoxical psychological mechanism undergirding such enduring transgenerational hate in an arresting piece cited in Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (public library) — the most nuanced, insightful, and beautifully written of what has become a self-standing canon of Dickinson biographies.

In a passage that applies with equally perceptive precision to the durational hatreds between human factions as varied as sports teams and political parties, social groups and nations, Millicent writes:

Hatred implies similarity, that is, lasting hatred does. The kind of hatred that implies incentive enough to enable it to last a lifetime — strength enough to propel it beyond the grave and loop it in the hearts of a succeeding generation. The kind of congenital hatred means a feud — and a feud does not flourish among aliens … The most virulent kind seems to get its start in stealing of affections, and affections usually do not exist between aliens … Real hate is focussed … and focussing on a negative purpose may be carried out with as much or more determination. It’s not iniquity which the hater hates; he’s hating during an interval while waiting till the opportunity comes for vengeance. This waiting through a life-time does not destroy the carrier; on the contrary it seems to add the vitality to prolong life. The emotion, the hatred, keeps the hater alive and vigorous. The affection which starts a feud may be between aliens, but the hates it engenders does not continue unless between kindred souls and the closer the likeness perhaps, the more virulent the hatred.

Complement with a Zen master’s strategy for handling hate, then revisit the mightiest antidote we have to this most virulent of hatreds — the Ancient Greek notion of agape.


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