Last week, I had the opportunity to meet the Venerable Geshe Lhakdor, director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, in Dharamsala, India. The Geshe also heads the Science Education Project, an initiative of the Dalai Lama that teaches science to Tibetan monks and nuns in exile, seeking to strengthen the relationship between science and religion. He has been the translator and religious assistant to the Dalai Lama since 1989.
Geshe Lhakdor was in Birmingham at the invitation of local business and civic leader Cathy Sloss Jones. He spoke at Samford University on March 29, talking about the connections between science, religion, and the meditative life. My conversation with him took place the following afternoon, at the Jones home.
Clad in his maroon and saffron monk’s robes and seated in a comfortable chair, Geshe Lhakdor radiated calmness and affability. When I told him I knew he must be tired and so would take as little of his time as possible, he smiled and said, “It’s okay. Whatever you need. I am glad to be here with you, and I thank you for taking the time to speak to me.”
The following are excerpts from our conversation:
Mark Kelly: Tell me why you’re here in Birmingham.
Geshe Lhakdor: I visit Atlanta every year because we have a partnership with Emory University, and one of my friends in Dallas, an Indian, had invited me to come to Dallas on this visit. He has a friend, in turn, who is a very good friend of Cathy, and so Cathy invited me to come to Birmingham.
I have visited many countries, many places. But I have never once visited a place without being invited. I don’t have an agenda where I make others do things for me, but when others, especially close friends, invite me, I say, “Okay, yes, I will come. Thank you.”
Of course, this is a great opportunity to come and meet other people, to interact and share ideas and thoughts. Exposure, mutual learning, knowing about each other’s religion, each other’s culture, is really, I think, the call of these times.
Kelly: That’s really the first step to peace, is it not?
Geshe Lhakdor: Exactly, exactly.
Kelly: One of your stops in Birmingham was at Samford University, where you spoke about the relationship between religion and science…
Geshe Lhakdor: Primarily, I spoke about the very strong project that we have in collaboration with Emory, of teaching modern science to monks and nuns in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries. I told them that both science and religion — or at least science and Buddhism — clearly say that much of our suffering in the world is due to lack of knowledge. Science pays more attention to physically related problems, and Buddhism to mind-related problems, but both are saying that many of these problems can be removed, if we have more knowledge.
You don’t have to sit in darkness if you know how to make light. You don’t have to suffer if you have compassion and wisdom.
Kelly: And yet we often see, in this country and throughout the world, hostility between religion and science.
Geshe Lhakdor: This is a very basic problem that is in every individual human being. We have this tendency of saying, “My way is the best.” Each one tries to differentiate himself, whether it’s through ideology, or culture, or religion, or country. In the case of some people, this gets aggravated or extended to politics, where they may see their survival being threatened by differences. Personally, I believe this point of view is based on shortsightedness.
Knowledge must be based on reason and experience. It should not be based on blind faith and unfounded metaphysical assumptions. Therefore, it is very important to open up and hear others’ viewpoints, to talk to other religions, and talk to science. Through this kind of exposure and communication, if you find that something is missing or wrong in your culture or your religion, then that part of the culture or religion must be ignored. [Laughs] There is no point in hanging onto something which is wrong.
Kelly: That is how science informs religion. How, then, does religion inform science?
Geshe Lhakdor: When you say “religion” in general, I know about the problem science has with religion — in the West especially. Now, in the case of Buddhism, first of all, I am not certain whether it can be categorized as a religion or not. In terms of the message, yes, it is a religion. But in terms of many other metaphysical questions, there are aspects that may not be religion.
Buddhism is based on the law of nature. The law of nature is not made by Buddha. It is not made by anybody. It is the way things are. Through common sense, through logic, through empirical experience, it is very, very essentially important to live in harmony with that law of nature. If you go against the law of nature — if you go against reality — then you are going to have problems. You will not be able to live in harmony with others.
From this point of view, it is important to have dialogue with different religions, different cultures and so forth. Whether we like it or not, the only way to survive together is to understand each other.
Kelly: And yet, we fight over religion.
Geshe Lhakdor: A difference of religion should not be at all a dividing force. It is very silly to fight over religion. Number one, religion is supposed to promote human well-being and harmony, and if that becomes a source of division, it is a shame.
Number two, having different religious traditions is enriching. They teach different methods for different people with different interests, different dispositions. One religion cannot satisfy the needs of everybody. His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls it the “supermarket of religions.” In a supermarket, there are a lot of different commodities to buy, depending on what you need. But if you go into a supermarket and there is only one item for sale… [Laughs]
Different religions are like different beautiful flowers in a garden. It is always better to have many different types of flowers, with different colors and so on, not just one flower. Or we might say that spirituality is food for the mind, and different religions are like different dishes — some like one kind of dish best, and some like another.
Kelly: And that applies not just to differences between religions, but also to differences within religions?
Geshe Lhakdor: Yes, exactly. In the case of Buddhism, there is not just one line of thinking and teaching. It’s like going to school. You cannot teach Ph.D.-level subjects to a kindergarten student. It’s according to the age and the need. The same thing can be taught in different stages.
Kelly: What is the greatest obstacle to the kind of acceptance and understanding you’re talking about? Why do we have such trouble with that?
Geshe Lhakdor: Because of ignorance. Narrow-mindedness. Just open up and listen a little bit to others. We have one mouth, but two ears and two eyes. We must listen more, see more, and talk a little bit less.
In every phase of human life, it is important to be humble and receptive. To do that, there must be love and compassion toward everybody. All religions teach that. So it is not enough to say that one particular religion is good. It has to be suitable to the needs and dispositions of the people who follow it. With that kind of understanding, it is possible for every person to live in harmony, respecting differences and diversity.
Kelly: Obviously, you have a long relationship with the Dalai Lama, are very close to him. From your perspective, what is the most important aspect of his life and teaching?
Geshe Lhakdor: There are a number of qualities we can talk about. One is that, despite being a Nobel laureate, despite being respected by millions of people all over the world, he never pretends that he is special. He always says, “I am a simple Buddhist monk.”
I think that is important, because sometimes, ordinary people, when they get a little bit more wealth, a bigger title or post, they get completely puffed up. And then they forget their basic humanity. The constant with His Holiness is that he does not make any differentiation whether the person who comes to see him is a rich person or a famous person, a president or a prime minister or a beggar. He shows the same humility and respect — and, in fact, special care and concern to those who are in need.
That signifies the practice part. The speaking part, anybody can do that. But the practice is difficult.
Kelly: And what is it, in turn, that you have hoped to convey to those you’ve spoken to on this visit to Birmingham?
Geshe Lhakdor: We all want happiness and peace. Long-lasting happiness and peace has to come from within, not from outside. Therefore, it is important to understand your emotions, to cultivate the positive emotions and try one’s best to bring harmony, peace, and calmness.