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The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spiritualityby Dalai Lama
Reading Group Guide
Though his early education did not include a science curriculum, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama began his own study of the physical workings of the world at young age. Disassembling and reconstructing any mechanical object he could find, he tinkered his way to a basic understanding of physics and awakened an intellectual curiosity that would make him one of the most scientifically learned spiritual leaders in the world. Since those early days, the Dalai Lama has had access to some of the most remarkable minds in science, and has sought out opportunities to discuss scientific and metaphysical concepts with leading physicists and philosophers. The result is a profound knowledge of science and spirituality, and a conviction that neither one alone is sufficient to approach a real understanding of truth; reliance on religious teachings alone can lead to fundamentalism, and scientific advances uninformed by an ethical consciousness can bring about dangerous consequences for humanity. In The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Lama draws on the lessons of both spirituality and scientific inquiry to discuss some of the most challenging and important questions in the study of reality. In this thoughtful picture of the evolution of modern science, collaboration is key on the road to intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.
1. Though the study of science and of Buddhism are parallel in many ways, the Dalai Lama repeatedly reminds us of one fundamental difference: the governing principle of Buddhism, which is to alleviate suffering. In what other ways do science and Buddhism differ in their aims? Are there areas of study in which it may be impossible for them to agree?
2. On pages 158-159, we are given clear instructions on the practice of meditation. According to this description, are there ways in which this practice complies with the study of science? How does it compare to Einstein’s “thought experiments”?
3. The Big Bang theory, though supported by empirical evidence, presents significant challenges when viewed from various perspectives. From the scientific perspective, the law of cause and effect breaks down when considering how the nothingness before the Big Bang could “cause” such a monumental event. On the other hand, the assumption of a governing hand or previous matter giving rise to the Big Bang means that it could not have been the absolute “beginning.” Discuss the shortcomings of each perspective. Do you find the necessary mystery surrounding the Big Bang cause enough to discredit it? Why or why not? Is this mystery more problematic for religion or science?
4. Based on the Dalai Lama’s description of Buddhist philosophy, do you see his thorough study of science as necessary to his religious teaching, or is this occupation primarily a result of his personal interest? How is this study important to his practice of Buddhism? (Consider his comments on the academic curriculum of a Buddhist monk, as well as his understanding of the previous Dalai Lamas.)
5. The Dalai Lama makes a compelling case for the benefits of collaboration between religious and scientific scholars. Is this case uniquely applicable to Buddhism, or do you see collaboration as useful between science and all of the major religions? How would this endeavor differ in the cases of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism?
6. What concept in the book did you find most challenging?
7. Discuss the different ways in which Buddhism and biology define “life” and the theory of evolution. How significant are these difference in light of current ethical or political issues such as stem cell research?
8. Discuss the distinction between an objective and subjective reality–particularly the question of whether objects and beings have a distinct individual existence. Why is this an important question for Buddhism? Is it as critical to a scientific understanding of the world?
9. Is there a difference in the way the Dalai Lama conceives of empirical evidence from a Buddhist standpoint and the way science defines it?
10. What do you think of the Dalai Lama’s assertion that scientific advances are outpacing ethical thought? Do you think it’s necessary for the two to develop hand in hand, or is it acceptable for one to leap past the other from time to time?
11. The Buddhist scriptural teaching that the universe is ultimately a creation of the mind supports the suggestion of some thinkers that all matter and environment is the result of the observer. Is this a necessary correlation? How else could this teaching be interpreted?
12. Discuss the concept of karma, both as a broad concept and as it relates to specific thoughts or acts. How does the Buddhist definition compare to the popular understanding of karma? How do you see karma as relevant to your daily life?
13. The Dalai Lama discusses some of the difficulties of defining thought and subjective experience in a scientific way, despite significant advances in medical technology. What do you think would be the most informative way of studying thought and experience? Do you think these concepts can ever be defined in an accurate way?
14. The Buddhist concept of reality is divided into three realms: matter, mind, and abstract composites (similar to Popper’s three “worlds”). How does this differ from the twofold description of reality as mind and matter? How important do you think this distinction is?
15. In what ways do you think society can help answer the Dalai Lama’s call for accountability and ethics in science?
16. In a review of the book, George Johnson states in the New York Times Book Review (September 18, 2005) that the Dalai Lama believes in a version of intelligent design. Do you think this is an accurate assessment? How so or how not?
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