“The Dalai Lama: Scientist” is a Buddhist-sanctioned and produced documentary about the leader of Tibetan Buddhism’s lifelong fascination with science, and how he’s brought scientists and Buddhist scholars together to highlight shared ways of thinking, philosophizing and looking at the world.
These “dialogues” involve leaders in everything from physics and neuroscience to quantum computation and psychology summoned to an audience with the Dalai Lama, public discussions (videotaped) going back decades.
Scientist after scientist speaks about the stereotype he (almost all are men) had in their mind about what this meeting and chat would be like — a mystical religious figure from the Far East, “transcendental…inscrutable,” a man who claims (the film leaves no room for doubt on this) to be the reincarnated Dalai Lama, chatting about atoms, The Big Bang Theory and the mind.
The credentialed experts all profess to be impressed, and if there’s one overriding positive message of “The Dalai Lama: Scientist” it’s the celebration of lifelong learning. Since childhood, the Lama says he’s been curious about the world, tinkering by taking apart his toys, challenging his tutors about cosmology and the like once he was selected to be the leader of Tibetan Buddhism. He makes observations and asks questions of the scientists of a caliber that don’t embarrass him. And he seeks common ground — places where Buddhist teachings (at least under his regime) jibe with The Scientific Method.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner muses that he might have been an electrician or some sort of engineer had fate not intervened. With that laugh and that curiosity, he’d have been a helluva talk show host.
But this Buddhist-sanctioned hagiography, using animated and news footage flashbacks, complete with history of every Chinese assault on Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s reputation, puts you on your guard early on.
As a teen, he visited a Chinese hydro project in the early 1950s. He asked questions there, he recalls.
“I think I was the only person there who fully understood how it works.”
Say what? Where’ve we heard that, on a daily basis, over the past four years?
Try to verify some of the claims made here, the Power Point connections between science’s view of how the universe began and how it works and how, “Hey, that’s what the Buddha/BUDDHISM teaches” connects to that, and every online search leads you to some officially sanctioned Buddhist website, some of the pieces written by Uma Thurman’s dad (highest ranking American Buddhist).
I kept thinking of Michael Constantine’s character in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Magically, EVERY thing in science is verifiable by Buddhist teachings.
So take a lot of what this dry, somewhat pedantic film asserts with a grain of salt. Or two. He seems like a decent man, and there’s genuine research grappling with how the mind functions under Buddhist meditation and the psychology of compassion, which has long been his Message to the World.
But “Scientist” comes off as something of an over-reach. Dawn Gifford Engle’s film never, for more than a few seconds, lets us forget how self-serving it is. Its many “See? Buddhism has the same answers, Buddhism has ALL the answers” moments feel contrived. However benign the intent — getting science added to monastery curricula, turning out Buddhist science teachers for India and Asia — there’s still self-serving lily-gilding going on here.
And while “Deep thinkers meet and discuss deep thinking” feels like a more accurate title, getting that to fit on a DVD box was always going to be a graphic design challenge.
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Cast: The Dalai Lama, David Bohm, Paul Ekman, Steven Chu, Arthur Zajonc, Francisco Varela
Credits: Directed by Dawn Gifford Engle. A Gravitas release.
Running time: 1:34