An Encounter with the Buddhist


On the 21st of September 2007, the NRW Graduate Schools had the privilege of being able to meet one of the most famous religious leaders, Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama. A committee of 30 students was selected in order to discuss with him live at the Senate Hall of the Münster's Castle during his stay at the Westfälische Wilhelms-University. Among the committee, a group of seven students of the IGSN were hand-picked to represent the more than 250 colleagues who were following the event in a nearby auditorium by video conference. They would discuss a variety of topics under the title "Universal Responsibility in Science and Society" for a period of one and a half hours. Time enough to understand why he is one of the most admired men in the world.

At the beginning of the discussion everything was quiet. People were standing in formal clothes and waiting for something to happen. The baroque style of the room, the presence of cameras and an apparently random configuration of the seats made the atmosphere slightly tense. Walls made of wood, crystal lamps, politicians in suit jackets and the click of cameras. Not the best place to have a tea. And then he entered. Smiling, wearing a beautiful red-orange coloured Buddhist dress, joining hands and greeting everyone as if they were on the same level as him. His closely cropped hair was showing gray at his temples and the big glasses in front of his friendly eyes were, as always, part of his affable appearance.


In a matter of minutes, he had turned the slightly strained atmosphere into a respectful and comfortable one, setting up an environment of relaxing communication and contemplation. That's something that everyone could feel. Just like the fact that despite his high rank and popularity, the Dalai Lama is an ordinary human being. Feeling at ease in his presence is really simple, and after few moments one can feel more like talking to a colleague than to an idol, without any cultural or religious obstacles. He presents himself as ambivalent. On the one hand, he likes to laugh and joke but on the other hand, he can be very serious and wise. Part of him is still a playful child, the other part is an old man who has had a very rich life full of experiences – good ones as well as bad ones. In summary and overall, he behaved in a very natural, down to earth, polite and humble manner.

In a relaxed atmosphere, the discussion went on smoothly and orderly. A rather large variety of ethical and social problems were addressed during the discussion, which started in economical terms. Debating globalization, he put a big emphasis on the role of science on the evolution of the developing countries. "These countries don't need money, but solid education and transfer of know-how to succeed", he stated. When asked about stem cell research, he didn't hesitate to say that "nowadays, research with living forms is necessary" – to the surprise of his audience. This tolerance didn't stop there but increased when talking about delicate topics such as the use of embryos in research, which could be positive when the outcome implies a great advance. Even abortion could be tolerated in certain special cases, for instance when the danger for the mother is very high.

Dalai Lama speaking

Because almost the half of the listeners are studying in the area of life sciences – the Graduate Schools in Bielefeld, Bochum and Cologne have their main topic in bioinformatics, neuroscience and genetics – a rather large number of questions were then focused on animal research. When referring to the use of different animal models in neuroscience, he gave a very interesting point of view, "All living beings are equally important – from presidents to the smallest insects". However, he expressed his quite pragmatic views when saying that animal research should be allowed when the outcome represents an advance in the general quality of life and when there is no other way to achieve it.

In general, it was surprising to learn that Buddhism (and of course the Dalai Lama as its representative) allows all kinds of research as long as its benefit outweighs probable disadvantages. In the Dalai Lama's opinion, scientists have to justify their research to themselves and society, using their own common sense. To us, the bottom line is, you have to make the decision on your own. Nobody can do it for you. So prepare yourself to act responsibly and rationally.

Furthermore, during the discussion we could foresee a religion more flexible towards science, and a science more flexible towards religion. It was absolutely impressive to observe that Buddhism accepts empirical proof as evidence, even if it is contrary to Buddhistic scriptures. The Dalai Lama mentioned that Buddhistic thought is critical and analyzing, an attitude which is a prerequisite to a serious discussion on a scientific level.

Dalai Lama & IGSN

Furthermore it is very inspiring to have a view on scientific hypotheses from a sceptical and intelligent person with a non-scientific background. He asks the important questions and tries to understand what kind of answers science can give to those questions. Although we disagree on certain points about where the borders of science are, his views broaden our own understanding of what science is capable of doing, and what the consequences for the society are.

No less surprised were our colleagues when His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama from Tibet, broke protocol and entered the auditorium after the discussion in order to get in contact with them, holding their hands and continuing the discussion. Showing again his humanity and sympathy, and releasing once more the small child inside himself despite his ripe wisdom.

Report by: Vicente Reyes, Deepak Dash, Lars Dittrich, Mario Gatica, Constanze Hahn, Olga Herdzina, Nicole Schöbel

All photos copyright Joachim Busch 2007