Every Day Of Our Lives We’re Looking For Truth: An evening with Achok Rinpoche

Achok Rinpoche (AR): Let me start by paying homage to Buddha Shakyamuni, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to Green Tara. In paying respect to both Buddha Shakyamuni and Green Tara, I try to find a balance between male and female Buddha’s. Om tare tu tare svaha! 2,550 years ago, Buddha Shakyamuni was inspired to teach the Prajnaparamitasutra in Bihar, India. He emphasized the teaching of what we sometimes call emptiness and at other times interdependent origination. This teaching was given at Rajgir, coinciding with a teaching on the four noble truths. Then Mahayana Buddhism developed, which sprang from the teaching on the Prajnaparamitasutra. Later on, Nagarjuna, with the help of Manjushri, wrote a commentary, interpreting the meaning of the Prajnaparamitrasutra. It was very profound and helped many Indian masters, and masters in Tibet, Mongolia and China.

Absolute Truth

Many great scientists in the West have tried to discover what I call ‘absolute truth’. I am not sure how far this period stretches back, but I know the names of some of these great scientists: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg. It seems to me that they expected to discover absolute truth, whereas Nagarjuna and many great Buddhist masters state that there is no absolute truth. Through analytical meditation and single-pointed concentration, they focussed and analyzed from within their own perspective as individual persons first. Before analyzing anything else, they started with themselves.

I think it is very pragmatic to start from one’s own perspective. Through analytical meditation, Nagarjuna and many other Indian and Tibetan masters first became convinced that there is no absolute truth within oneself, to then gradually [include] all objects of the senses. To the best of my knowledge, Western scientists, from the time of Isaac Newton onwards, slowly became hesitant claiming absolute truth, especially after they started to focus on quantum physics. After the first connection between Buddhism and science had been made, it was discovered that much common ground is shared between them. Originally, it was His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s idea to found a science education project for the learned monks of great monasteries such as Ganden, Sera and Drepung. Very learned masters and Tibetan monks have started to receive a science education. Many senior Tibetan lama’s and abbot weren’t sure whether this was a good idea, but His Holiness was hundred percent sure. It’s going to be only beneficial, he said, not only for Buddhist monks, but for Western scientists as well.

In 1998, I was appointed as the Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Traditionally, when you are appointed to a certain post, you receive personal instructions from the Dalai Lama right from the beginning. So, the day I had an audience with the Dalai Lama, His Holiness unexpectedly told me that he was going to give me a new job. Beside my administrative duties at the Library, he said that an important new job would be to develop science education for monks. I was surprised, because His Holiness knew that I had no scientific background. He simply told me that this was my new job, and even though I couldn’t understand what was going on, I said yes.

First workshop

In 2000 we organized the first science workshop for monks. Funded by the private office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Library invited science teachers from the U.S., selected monks from the monasteries and set up the first workshop in Bylakuppe in South India. Surprisingly, it worked out well. The Tibetan monks and their teachers from the U.S. really admired each other. They taught on time and space, atoms, light, many things. It was fascinating to see that the Tibetan monks had no problem accepting most of the viewpoints expressed by Western teachers during their classes. They could follow the classes very well, despite the language barrier. All classes were translated into Tibetan, with the monks’ responses translated back into English. Since then, we have set up workshops every year around Christmas time when the teachers have a one month holiday. I appreciate all the time that the American teachers shared with us during the Christmas season.

On the suggestion of our science teachers, we also invited mathematics teachers from the U.S. So now students from Geluk monasteries, as well as from Sakya, Kagyu and Bön monasteries, receive classes on mathematics and science. Since 2002 we have also held classes on biological theories. These, the monks found fascinating. So far, there is no contradiction between the theory of reincarnation and theories from biology. The biology classes we received were based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Recently a workshop was held in Dharamsala, where we have received David Finkelstein, who is a well-known physicist, and Ursula Goodenough, a scientist who teaches in the U.S. who gave a class on biology.

I was fascinated, because during the science workshop the monks were so eager to learn science. Every monk-student was looking forward to see their teachers. Classes started at 8.00 AM, but the monks would arrive at perhaps 7.45 AM, because they wanted to sit in front, looking for an opportunity for a dialogue with the teacher. To sit in front makes it easier to communicate with the teacher, of course. We organised dialogues between students and teachers every evening, from 7.00 to 8.30 PM. They would consider the different viewpoints of certain theories.

‘Scientist Lama’

When I was young, aged around twenty, my personal teacher used to call me ‘scientist lama’. I can imagine no reason why he should have called me that. Now I think he was clearly indicating that I would end up organizing the science education for the monks of the great monasteries. Out of curiosity, I try to attend almost every science class myself. If there’s enough time, of course, because during the workshops I’m very busy organizing. I have the impression that the Dalai Lama will go ahead with this program. Thus he will produce many scientist-geshe’s, so that in the future the dialogue between Buddhism and science will be more precise and accurate. I also believe that science has much to offer to Buddhism, and vice versa.

I remember that, before 1959, the Chinese leadership, including Mao Tse Tung, expected that through the progress of science all religions would disappear from the face of the earth. Chairman Mao once clearly stated to the young Dalai Lama, sincerely advising him, that “religion is poison.” The young Dalai Lama was shocked, but I believe he didn’t show Chairman Mao how disappointed he was. In 1987 I spent six months in Bejing, teaching at a school that was set up specifically for reincarnated Tibetan lama’s. The school was set up by the Panchen Lama, with the help of Chinese internal policy makers. There were about fifty Tibetan lama’s. Most of them were of my age, but they were not as fortunate as me. They could not leave the country to live in exile. Their traditional education was interrupted, while for the first ten years I was continuing my traditional education in exile, in the Eastern part of India.

My trip to Bejing was very rewarding for me, because I had an opportunity to fill the gap that individual lama’s have in their education. One of their main questions concerned the relation between Buddhism and science: “Are Buddhist masters engaging in dialogues with Western scientists, or not?”, they asked. They were thinking that maybe Buddhist monks were to shy, being somehow unable to meet with scientists and explore the differences between them. They were indoctrinated by communist ideology, that said that all religions, Buddhism included, had vanished because of the progress of science.

Mind & Life

Since my return, His Holiness has instructed me to join a number of the so-called Mind and Life conferences in Dharamsala. The participants are mostly well-known Western scientists. There I saw their interest and eagerness to learn Buddhist viewpoints. Moreover, I observed that the majority of Western scientists, some 70 percent I believe, are religious people. These are some of my experiences. Every day of our lives we are looking for truth. Not merely truth, I think, but absolute truth. I don’t know if this is fortunate or not, but it seems that there is less and less possibility of absolute truth existing. Whether it is in economy, education or politics, people find it harder and harder to find and grab absolute truth.

Many physicists are beginning to suspect that, maybe, truth has something to do with your own viewpoint. While working in their laboratories over and over again the question returns that the results might have something to do mental projection. Many years ago, scientists believed that there are three or four dimensions, but now, I think, they found that there are eleven dimensions. In time, they may add still more dimensions. Discoveries are made one after another, but many new discoveries contradict the earlier ones. To me this means that each time we discover something we tend to assume that it is absolute, while later discoveries deny that.

Questions and answers

Rob Hogendoorn (RH): When you say that there’s no such thing as absolute truth, do you mean to say that there’s no such thing as certainty? Does Buddhism claim certainty?

AR: This is a very good question. The connection between ‘certainty’ and absolute truth is not quite clear to me, but it seems that there are some differences.

RH: Has this come up in discussions during the science workshops?

AR: Yes. But if you would analyze the meaning of ‘certainty’, looking for absolute truth, again it might become unclear of vague.

RH: Well, within Western philosophy there aren’t many philosophers left who claim certainty, because it’s thought to be naive to do so. So, in a sense, in the West certainty simply isn’t available anymore. It might be that people from the West have turned elsewhere, to Buddhism for instance, hoping that certainty can be found there. Is it naive of Westerners, to expect to find certainty in Buddhism?

AR: I wouldn’t call it naive, but my hesitation towards certainty may have something to do with absolute truth. On a surface level certainty may be there. If you analyze and keep digging you may lose the certainty that is connected to the absolute.

RH: Would you say that there is a relative notion of certainty, which is workable, and an absolute notion of certainty which has no base?

AR: Yes, the relative notion of certainty on some level works as a sort of guarantee or a warranty. If you go further, of course, there’s no certainty, and this has something to do with the absolute.

Audience (AUD): Could we take reincarnation as an example in this discussion? Earlier you said that so far there is no contradiction between the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation and the findings of biology. Could you elaborate on that? Many Westerners think that we cannot be certain of reincarnation, and say that it is a belief.

AR: Even Buddhists say that we can’t be absolutely certain that there is rebirth. We use the word ‘rebirth’ on a surface level which we call ‘conventional’. I do not clearly understand the meaning of the English word ‘conventional’, but it is easier for me to use the term ‘surface level’. On the surface level there is rebirth, but if you go deeper and deeper below the surface you will lose certainty and the idea of rebirth. Many of those who translate Buddhism into English use the words ‘conventional level’ and ‘ultimate level’. Using this terminology, we could say that ultimately even Shakyamuni Buddha and enlightenment did not exist, let alone rebirth.

The idea is, I believe, that as long as you are clinging to anything it will somehow be a form of attachment, self-grasping or desire. Desire and grasping have much to do with your belief that what you think or perceive is true. For instance, when I lecture I believe that what I am saying is true and unchangeable. What will be my response when someone says that I’m absolutely wrong? Will my face become red? If my face becomes red, it means that instantly I build up an emotional state. The moment my emotional state changes, I’m already running into trouble. All unhappy or undesirable experiences have to do with attachment or desire. The atmosphere changes the very moment your mental state changes, that much is certain. This is the certainty of common sense.

From time to time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has shared his experience of a dialogue with a highly respected scientist. The scientist told him that when he made a discovery it was very important for him to try not to become too attached to it. If he became too attached, he found it very difficult to improve or progress much further. A real scientist should be not too attached to the discoveries he makes. His Holiness found this to be a very powerful statement. The discoveries they make are on the relative and conventional level, but the experiences that make them hesitate have something to do with the difficulty of finding the absolute. Their hesitations have something to do with their beginning to experience the level of the ultimate.

But on the conventional level it is common knowledge that there is certainty. There is certainty when you are not analyzing precisely. It was certain that I would come to Holland to give a lecture today. That was certain on the conventional level. We made an appointment, and I would have felt bad if I could not have attended this lecture. I made a promise, and that promise is connected with certainty on the conventional level. I ask myself why physicists break down everything into ever smaller parts. I think it is because they try to find absolute truth. Electrons have been reduced to protons, but whether or not physicists van break down protons I don’t know.

Experiments with the tiniest particles question of whether there is certainty, or not. In their laboratories, scientists look for certainty by continuously observing, investigating and analyzing. The question could be raised whether they follow the exact same procedure each time they experiment in their laboratory. They observe their machines and equipment, but they never ask themselves if their mental state is variable or not. The quantum physicists, however, are in fact questioning this mental aspect, and this is where science and Buddhism meet. They meet at a very narrow place. Scientists are still not convinced that there is no absolute. They are merely questioning. Buddhists say that they know there is no absolute, but on the conventional level there still is certainty.

We should not underestimate conventional certainty. Western societies are making laws and regulations because on the conventional level there is certainty. It is important for any society or community. While Westerners, for instance, were very busy increasing the speed of cars, they had to develop red and green lights as well. The lights are regulating speed on a conventional level, and on that level we have to respect the factuality of certainty. We cannot ignore common sense. If I look down on common sense, I will never find friends. And I do need friends. We rely and depend on each other. This is the main teaching on relative and ultimate truth that Shakyamuni Buddha gave on Vulture Peak. For many people, these truths clash all the time.

RH: As I reflected on the earlier discussion on reincarnation, I thought that when we look at reincarnation at the surface level, to a Tibetan reincarnation seems valid. How could one refute that? What proof or disproof could be imagined that would, as it were, force him or her accept that reincarnation is not valid?

AR: Biology does not say yes or no to reincarnation. The spirit enters the embryo from outside. Millions of sperms try to enter the mother’s womb, and most of them die on the way. Only two or three reach the ovum. Even though it is not a big distance, it is still big enough for millions to die underway. Biologists are still asking themselves if the embryo is somehow connected to a spirit that comes from outside. From a biological perspective one should say ‘outside’, but from a Buddhist perspective we would say ‘previous life’. If it is proved that the spirit enters the embryo which takes the form of a human life from outside, reincarnation is easy to prove from a biological perspective. But we have still a long way to go. Buddhism says that we don’t have to pursue experiments though, because it is clear that many people remember their past lives. Obviously, in order to be able to recognize memory plays a very important role. Only memory proves that sixty year old Achok Rinpoche came from Tibet. If I, or nobody, could not remember this, there’s no proof.

RH: Do you mean that there is no other continuity?

AR: Yes. That would mean that there is no continuity or that who knows continues. Every day of our lives memory plays a very important role. All of us, scientists included, rely on memory without really acknowledging this. The proof of Saddam Hussein’s DNA, for instance, relies on records. Such records are very dependent on memory.

RH: You told us how His Holiness the Dalai Lama proposed the idea of science education for monks to you. You also told us that not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea. Could you give us some of the arguments of those who opposed this initiative? What kind of arguments did they give?

AR: They gave no argumenst at all. They already knew that the idea came from the Dalai Lama, so they believed it couldn’t be wrong. They couldn’t argue that it was a mistake, for instance, or that it would cause problems.

RH: Not publicly, but privately perhaps? AR: Not publicly. They would say something along the lines of: “We are not sure what to do. We don’t know how to organize all this.” Many response were simply unclear, so it is hard to grasp what arguments they had in mind.

RH: What do you think their arguments are? What would your guess be? What makes them anxious, or what are they afraid will happen when science is brought into the curriculum?

AR: I believe there are number of reasons. Clearly, it something completely new. Science has never been taught in the monasteries. It is an extra educational field. There is no need to explain why this is hard. Secondly, when some of the monks who are among the best students, and who are most concentrated on the subjects that are taught in their monastery, are taught science, they may be distracted. They would have to go somewhere else. And everyone would know, including those who would tell them that they have to remain in the tradition, and not lose their principles, such as the mahayana motivation: compassion or bodhicitta. Myself, I do not believe these arguments are supposed to be used. Now, if students pay 75 percent of their attention to Buddhist studies, it is considered a high percentage. The remaining 25 percent is then devoted to other activities. How much are you going to take out of the 75 percent: 25  percent? Suppose you take away as much as 25 percent, then the quality might drop.

RH: Didn’t His Holiness also say that it is inevitable that the monks study science? Doesn’t he argue that sooner or later the monks will have to study science, to accomodate the scientific worldview that is dominant?

AR: I think this is one his arguments.

RH: But it isn’t accepted by the opponents.

AR: Well, they don’t say so. They try to find subtle excuses instead. The important point is to have the dialogue in place now, while the great masters, His Holiness included, are still alive. So that they can directly discuss the views of Western science. If this happens, His Holiness firmly believes that it will enrich rather than harm the Buddhist tradition, because Buddhist monks learn so much from scientific viewpoints. It even strengthens the viewpoints they had before. They find it very encouraging, so it helps rather than harms them. Through learning Western science they become more inspired in their own tradition. So, when before they were paying seventyfive percent of their attention, they now would be paying eighty percent of their attention.

RH: I can only guess, of course, but one example I see is Geshe Thupten Jinpa, His Holiness’ interpreter. He went to study Western philosophy at Cambridge, Great Britain. I am sure many Tibetan scholars must have thought that it would be a waste of time to study Western philosophy, but his skills as a translator have only improved since then.

AR: They have been upgraded.

RH: Since then, His Holiness’ teachings have been upgraded as well, thanks to the improved skills of his translator. It seems to me that this way the teachings of Buddhism can be communicated so much better, at least to Western audiences.

AUD: What you referred to before had much to do with physics, whereas now we touch on other sciences such as the social sciences and philosophy. Within Buddhism there’s a huge amount of knowledge which relates to the cognitive sciences. The Mind and Life conferences and the dialogues of the Dalai Lama with David Bohm and Francesco Varela, for instance, had physics as a starting point. I’m wondering if the monks’ study focusses mainly on studying those sciences that substantiate on a material level the existent knowledge that Buddhism already posesses.

AR: Well, during the Mind and Life conferences we mainly discuss the cognitive sciences, physics and biology. The science workshops we conduct focus on pure physics and biology. We are not touching on the cognitive sciences, although we are now considering introducing those as well by inviting neural scientists. Some experiments have already been conducted, exploring the relation between consciousness and the brain, but the past five years we have focussed on physics, biology and mathematics.

RH: Was this a policy choice?

AR: Yes. We should not mix Buddhist views of consciousness with those of science. We need really pure scientific views from physics and biology.

AUD: So, Buddhism has most to learn from those areas?

AR: We have already done something, and we should pursue the cognitive sciences later on in the near future.

RH: I remember reading an address by Alexander Berzin, one of the foremost Western translators of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a translator for Serkong Rinpoche. At the request of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in 1989 Berzin went to the great monasteries in the south of India, to address the monks on the topic of teaching Buddhism in the West. He discussed issues like translating, the type of questions Westerners tend to ask, and at some point he said that it would be good for geshe’s, lama’s and translators to study psychology, Western religions and science, because many questions of Westerners derive from that perspective.

But then he added, and I must admit that I find this hard to understand, that there is no need to study Western philosophy, because Westerners do not study it themselves. To me this is incomprehensible, because I don’t see how one could understand psychology, religion and science, without understanding Western philosophy too. Science, for instance, is based on many beliefs and philosophical assumptions. At some point you will need that context, I imagine, to make sense of what scientists think or believe. Now, I understand completely that one can’t do it all at once. Still, do you expect Western philosophy to be introduced sooner rather than later? I find it hard to understand how one could postpone this?

AR: Do you mean to ask how Tibetan Geshes and Lamas can postpone studying Western philosophy?

RH: Right now, the science workshops remain on the level of simple experiments and basic teachings. Still, debates follow and dialogues are held. Tibetan monks look at the experiments and discuss what their teachers tell them, and very soon these discussions will be philosophical.

AR: We have already engaged in these type of discussions.

RH: Wouldn’t it been helpful then, if the monks had had some knowledge of Western philosophy as well? Allow me to ask another question. When the first workshop was held, His Holiness addressed the monastic community. He said that sooner or later, scientists would have to do pure philosophy, because they would reach a point where the scientific approach would simply be inadequate. He added that he thought that as philosophers scientists are no match to Tibetan philosophers. From what he says it is not clear if His Holiness means that scientists are bad philosophers because they are poorly educated, or because Western philosophy is not sophisticated enough. But in saying this, His Holiness brings Western philosophy into the discussion already. Do you see why for me it is hard understand why Western philosophy wasn’t brought into the curriculum at an earlier stage?
AR: Well, we study science daily for one month each year. From 8.00 AM till 6.00 PM, except for a one hour lunch break, we study science. We have discussion sessions in the evening from 7.00 till 9.00 PM. These discussions, even though we don’t use the word itself, are mediated through philosophy. I don’t think you can have a dialogue between Western scientists and Tibetan Buddhist monks without philosophy. So, without using the names of Western philosophers, we learn much about Western philosophy. And the scientists learn much about Buddhist philosophy.

AUD: Could you say something about the relation between wisdom and knowledge? People can be wise without much knowledge, and people who have a lot of knowledge can be unwise. Aren’t they both looking for the same truth?

AR: It seems to me that knowledge has more to do with having information. When we say that someone is being wise, it means that he or she makes good decisions. Usually, to take a good decision one has to have adequate information. There needs to be sufficient information. In taking decisions, one has to reckon the long term and the short term. We tend to say that someone who bases his decision on a short term benefit is not wise. If his decision has a long term benefit, we would say that he is wise. So, wise and unwise are a matter of interpretation as well. Sometimes I’m very stupid, and at other times I appreciate myself a lot. My suggestion would be that when we take a decision it is very important to check our emotional state. Often one’s emotional state influences one’s decision.

I’d like to dedicate the virtuous actions or karma that was created between us tonight through the sincere dialogues we had to the longevity of the Dalai Lama, and the prosperity and well being of this country. Also, I’d like to express the hope that through this virtuous karma we may meet again and again, to share our knowledge and experience with each other.

Verbatim transcript, Bussum (the Netherlands), 24 June 2004
AR: Ven. Achok Rinpoche (Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, Science for Monks)
RH: Rob Hogendoorn
AUD: Audience
Rob Hogendoorn