“Scientist” is not a word typically used to describe religious leaders, but Dawn Gifford Engle’s documentary The Dalai Lama: Scientist makes a convincing case that it’s an apt label for the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism. The film chronicles the many years of work that the current Dalai Lama has put into collaborating with renowned scientists in multiple fields, seeking to better understand the world not only through religious teachings, but also through the research and applications of the scientific community.
The movie begins with a brief overview of the Dalai Lama’s early life, from his birth in a small Tibetan village to his designation as the reincarnation of Buddhism’s holiest figure to his exile in India following the Tibetan uprising in 1959. Engle emphasizes the Dalai Lama’s interest in science from a young age, when he would take apart his toys to see how they worked, and establishes his curiosity about scientific principles during his training as a monk. The movie draws on a new interview with the Dalai Lama as well as extensive archival footage of his meetings with prominent scientists going back to 1987, supporting its case with a wealth of firsthand material (along with a few simple animated sequences).
The bulk of the movie goes through the Dalai Lama’s investigations into a variety of scientific disciplines, including quantum physics, cosmology, psychology, neuroscience and genetics, via conversations with professors, researchers and other experts. It’s clear that the Tibetan leader is curious and engaged, eager to learn from the academics and researchers and find ways to connect their teachings to the tenets of Buddhist philosophy. The scientists, in turn, express admiration for the way that the Dalai Lama is open to new ideas, and how his perspective on philosophy enhances their own understanding of humanity and the natural world.
As narrated by actress Laurel Harris, the movie has a sometimes dry educational tone that would be especially fitting for classroom presentation, which seems like the ideal venue for this movie (it’s right at home on public-library streaming service Kanopy). The conversations, almost all of them taking place during the annual Mind and Life conferences in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives, can feel a bit repetitive at times, but Engle lays out how each of them contributes to an understanding between modern science and Buddhist teachings. And the scope of the movie demonstrates the Dalai Lama’s sincere dedication to science; this isn’t a single event, but a series of meetings and collaborations that go on for decades.
In an age when it seems that the leaders of organized religion are often outright hostile to science, it’s refreshing to see how wholeheartedly the Dalai Lama embraces scientific advancement and learning. As the Dalai Lama says more than once in the movie, the Buddha told his followers not to profess blind faith, but to thoroughly investigate his teachings before committing to them. That spirit infuses everything about Engle’s movie (part of a series of documentaries she’s made about Nobel Peace Prize winners), which matches its humble presentation with the humble man at its center.