The Dalai Lama: Scientist review – insightful and moving portrait of Buddhism’s influence on science

Many people have heard of the Dalai Lama, but a select few really know him. Dawn Gifford Engle’s documentary dives into one of the spiritual leader’s biggest interests, science. In his own words, the Dalai Lama explains how he has always been fascinated by technology, physics and the science of wellbeing. Through five distinct chapters, Dalai Lama – Scientist explores how his teachings on Buddhist science and philosophy have been shaped by cutting edge scientific breakthroughs, and how his beliefs have in turn guided the direction of ‘Western’ science as well as the lives of individual scientists.

The vast majority of the film is just a lot of older men talking about at times advanced science, and it risks losing you – especially during the space physics section. So what makes it so appealing? The answer is patience. Gifford Engle cuts absolutely no corners, indulging in the intricacies of the Dalai Lama’s dialogues with leading scientists while accompanying their words with graphics. It is as full and complete an overview of the Dalai Lama’s relationship to science as you could ever want. Throughout the film, Gifford Engle blurs Buddhist philosophy and classical science together to show how one enlightens the other.

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One of the film’s biggest successes is humanising the Dalai Lama, rather than presenting him as an ethereal and disconnected figure. His enigmatic existence is overturned and reveals a man who possesses great intelligence, wit and passion. A compelling speaker, most of the story is narrated by the Dalai Lama himself (sometimes with the aid of a translator). He is a figure who engages with science rather than opposes it, breaking down preconceptions in a way that feels incredibly timely. 

The science occasionally risks losing you, but it tends to break away just before chronic boredness kicks in. Some sections are undeniably more interesting than others – a look at psychology and emotion is captivating. All the while it feels like you are watching two schools of thought in dialogue rather than debate. How the scientific method has been influenced by Buddhist thought is startling and remarkable to observe. 

What gives the film a human edge is the relationships that individual scientists have with the Dalai Lama. His friendship with Francisco Varela is especially moving, and with remarkably few words the meaningful bond that the pair share is beautifully portrayed. Other leading scientists speak fondly of how the Dalai Lama has changed their lives. This humanity is what underpins The Dalai Lama: Scientist’s success. This is not simply another expose on a figure of near-myth, but a surprisingly affecting and insightful story of symbiosis and collaboration. 

The Dalai Lama: Scientist is out on demand May 19th.

James Hanton

James is a contributor to Outtake, Starburst Magazine and The Wee Review. He is also the former Editor-in-Chief of The Student, the oldest student newspaper in the UK. A recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh, James is looking for paid writing gigs so he doesn't fall into the endless abyss of graduate unemployment. He can be contacted at: jhantonwriter@gmail.com