Documentary is comparative teaching tool

“The Dalai Lama: Scientist” is fascinating, informative, and educational. For the last thirty-five years, from his residence in Dharamsala, India, The Dalai Lama has conducted a series of dialogues with world-class scientists. And, as this film shows us, there are striking parallels between Buddhist philosophy and science. One might help develop the other.

This meaty documentary starts with a quick history lesson that introduces viewers to The Dalai Lama and his exile to India where he lives today as a refugee. After that necessary bit of context, director Dawn Gifford Engle uses a large amount of archived footage to cover various areas of science.

Dr. Richard Davidson makes a presentation to The Dalai Lama at a dialogue.

We see cuts from what is dubbed “the dialogues” from over more than thirty years. These video flashbacks reveal what amounts to informal sit-downs with The Dalai Lama and noted scientists. Presentations are made by quantum physicists, neuroscientists, and others, who, often through an interpreter, discuss their findings.

While there is an understandable dedication to Buddhist philosophy, The Dalai Lama concentrates his questioning on scientific principles. And one of the by-products of these nerdy and intellectual discussions is the education of monks in science. The film reveals that monks are schooled in technology and hard science along with study in Buddhism. This is really eye-opening.

The movie is chaptered and is understandably educational in tone. But the dry, academic material is softened by interviews with The Dalai Lama that are revealing and playful. Now in his 80s, he openly reflects on his life, and in this film, he does so within the scientific arena.

Renowned psychiatrist Aaron Beck chats with The Dalai Lama
about emotions and mental pictures

Although his position and presence is, dare I say, mystical, he appears in this film as one of the most affable sort of fellows. This may not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with The Dalai Lama, but he’s shown here as funny and very warm. It’s this warmth and openness that gains the trust of many learned scientists.

We meet late Chilean neuroscientist Francisco Varela, who developed a strong relationship with The Dalai Lama and participated in the dialogues. In a touching moment, The Dalia Lama talks about always keeping a photograph of Varela with him.

Part of the curriculum, monks are taught hard science.

The opening scientific portion of the film concerning quantum physics was way over my head, but later on, there was a section about emotions and mental images formed from anger that resonated with me. And the often mentioned mindfulness is addressed scientifically through a study about the greater effectiveness of the flu vaccine in those subjects that engage in meditation.

This instructional documentary covers so many areas of science that there is something in it for everyone. The material is often presented in a seminar format with slides and animations that might remind one of a classroom lecture. The narration by actress Laurel Harris is consistent with this format. I wondered whether breaking up the chapters into smaller episodes would be more digestible. But, at home, “The Dalai Lama: Scientist” can be viewed at your own pace, starting and stopping it when necessary.

Filmmaker Dawn Gifford Engle and her video cameras capture
the affable side of The Dalai Lama.

I especially liked the “you are there” visual scope that director Engle adopts. I got the impression that it was just her, a video camera, and The Dalai Lama. It’s intimate camera-work that is devoid of the posturing and production that dominates the typical modern documentary that must be shot on an “approved” camera and contain high-end, staged re-creations.

“The Dalai Lama: Scientist” is ultimately a documentary meant to show the link between Buddhist philosophy and science. And it serves as an enlightening introduction to the idea that the two can co-exist.