Sunday, 31 July 2011

When Carl Sagan met the Dalai Lama

A favorite story of mine is that between a meeting of two great minds with seemingly contrasting worldviews. American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author, Carl Sagan sat down for an interview with his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Carl Sagan was an amazing proponent of science and an ardent critic of religion, he was a steadfast atheist who wrote books critical of religious worldviews and their encroachment on the sciences. In books such as The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan struck a strong skeptical stance against the paranormal and the unexplained.

While his holiness the Dalai Lama is said to be the latest reincarnation of a series of Dalai Lama’s who have chosen to be reborn in order to enlighten others. The differences in world views could not have been any greater. Sagan had previously spoken and debated with religious leaders before, but he was uniquely surprised by his experience with the Dalai Lama. Speaking of the event, he said:

"…in theological discussions with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central dogma of their faith were disproved by scientific discipline. When I put this question to the Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no traditionalist or fundamentalist religious leaders do: In such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to alter. Even, I asked, if it’s a really central tenet, like reincarnation? Even then, he replied. However, he said mischievously - it will be hard to disprove reincarnation ! "

Sagan was surprised with this response. The meeting between the Dalai Lama and Carl Sagan illustrates something very potent about Buddhism that so many individuals find refreshing. Buddhism at its core is not about accepting dogma. Buddhism is not about blindly accepting ancient beliefs or tenets, but about experience and careful analysis of one’s life. Cornell University has put up some of the footage of the meeting between the Dalai Lama and Carl Sagan. The video contains an engrossing discussion and analysis on the meeting.

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

Carl Sagan

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