Most of the world is familiar with the Dalai Lama as a Tibetan spiritual leader who has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent approaches during times of adversity. What many do not know is that, along with his devotion to Tibetan Buddhism, he has a deep passion for science and inquiry. Documentarian Dawn Engle does not set out to explore this aspect of the Dalai Lama’s life, but instead opts to simply put it on display for their audience to discover.
The summary from the official press page sums it up nicely: In The Dalai Lama — Scientist, the Dalai Lama tells the unknown story, in his own words, of his lifelong journey into the world of science and technology, and how the world has changed as a result. With extensive, rare, and never before seen footage, this film tells the very human story of the Dalai Lama that no one knows.
Engle allows the film to spend sizeable chunks of time simply sitting with the footage of the Dalai Lama speaking about science or footage from many science presentations, His Holiness hosted at his main temple during the Mind & Life Conferences. The footage is largely unedited, which allows the audience to sit in on large portions of conversations, revealing the unique dynamics between the invited scientists, translators for both sides, monks, and the Dalai Lama himself. In many situations where science and religious teachings are explored together, discussions can easily become heated and turn more into shouting matches than conversations. However, everyone present at these conferences appears very at ease and they all participate in teaching, listening, applying, and challenging ideas. This warm environment of discussion pulls the audience even further into what’s going on, providing opportunities to get even a basic understanding of complex scientific ideas and how they parallel or go up against those of Buddhist teachings. It is a wonder to observe how quickly the Dalai Lama grasps concepts newly being presented to him and spins them into a back and forth about scientific understandings and Buddhist lessons: asking questions, challenging information, and applying concepts to Buddhist teachings. Similarly, it is fascinating to hear the visiting scientists discuss how some of the ideas the Dalai Lama presented or challenges he posed contributed to furthering their research and modifying their approaches. These summits grew to become launchpads for advancements in both the scientific and Buddhist communities. Since Engle allows time for segments of several conferences over the years to be showcased, the impacts of these discussions on scientific studies, the evolution of the scientists’ approaches, and the integration of science and Buddhism are easily showcased for the audience to appreciate.
While the visiting scientists present their high-level ideas very clearly and succinctly, the documentary takes many steps to ensure the audience is able to capture and digest all of the ideas being spouted at them. As explained, the majority of the film follows the Mind & Life Conferences, during which, many different scientific fields are discussed: cognitive science, quantum physics, neurological science, and genetics, to name a few. The first step the documentary takes is to split these topics into segments and have each segment numbered and introduced with a title card. This makes it very clear to the audience what topic is being discussed during a segment, however, having the title cards and numbering is a bit distracting since other portions of the film are not sorted or introduced in this way. There is a narrative flow to the early segments that tell of the Dalai Lama’s life and early science interests. There are parts about the scientists, the monks, and more recent conferences that are allowed to flow without being established by cards or broken into sections. The second step is that each presentation from the scientists (Richard Davidson, Paul Eckman, Francisco Varela, and more) are accompanied by brief animations to better illustrate the concepts. Not only do these animations help the audience visualize concepts, but they also serve to keep the audience interested by breaking up someone simply talking for an extended period of time. The third step is that the documentary provides a slide at the end of each numbered segment with highlights of the science discussed and the accompanying Buddhist ideas that were discussed along with it. While these cards can be helpful, they are also distracting because what is highlighted from each segment sometimes seems inconsistent with the points of focus within the segment. The motion graphics that serve as the background for these cards is also distracting as the audience tries to read the text as designs moving and changing color behind the black lettering keep pulling the eye in different directions. The section title cards, the section summary cards, and the sometimes-used introduction cards for scientists (these were used very inconsistently and they were almost always unnecessary as the name and specialty of the scientist was presented on screen as they spoke) also varied widely in visual style and format, which made the film seem disjointed and more like a PowerPoint presentation.
The portions of the film that let us sit in on the Mind & Life conferences are so fascinating in both content and dynamics, that the filmmakers could have just filled the entire run time with that footage. However, there are stories that run through these meetings of minds. What the film presents about the Dalai Lama goes beyond his love of science and the impact his efforts have had on both the scientific and Buddhist communities. It begins with the Dalai Lama telling an interviewer about his life-long love of science and curiosity which includes a story about him concluding that the moon reflects light from the sun instead of producing its own light and a story about his interests during a visit to a hydroelectric dam. Around these interviews, the film provides the audience with an almost fairytale-like narration and presentation of the stories of who the Dalai Lama was when he was first identified as a spiritual leader and tells pieces of his history both related to the stories the Dalai Lama tells in his interview portions and seemingly unrelated. The unrelated pieces do get tied in toward the end of the film and are necessary for the significance of these later moments to be appreciated, however, the sprinkling in of this history before spending a majority of the time focusing on the conferences, make the film feel very imbalanced and unsure about what the actual focus of the narrative was.
While the presentation feels clunky and uneven, the content of The Dalai Lama – Scientist is well worth the watch. Even if the audience doesn’t fully grasp what is being discussed, the science is presented in a way that is easy to follow, allowing the audience to understand enough to follow the flow and sense of the discussions. Coming to this film with a scientific mind, learning about the parallels with the Buddhist science of mind, hearing about how some Buddhist concepts redirected and influenced scientific approach and study, and seeing how strongly science and Buddhist teachings were able to come together is fascinating. With a runtime of a little over an hour and a half, this documentary is very approachable and is worth the watch to see how much good can come out of different minds from seemingly opposing fields working together over several decades. “Buddha said my followers should not accept my teaching out of devotion, but rather your own experiment. Even Buddha himself, in order to get final enlightenment, needs hard work. So, investigate based on reason but through logical investigation.” – Dalai Lama
Available on DVD and VOD beginning May 19th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.