When the Dalai Lama was a young child he was schooled in the best traditions available to him. He studied metaphysics, language, philosophy and spent a great deal of time debating other scholars to sharpen his mental skills. But living in Tibet limited his access to the scholarly thought that was developing elsewhere.
One of the books that he studied was a 12th century document from India that explained the cosmology of the world. Cosmology, or the origins of the stars and planets, is a traditional subject of metaphysics. This 800 year old document which he relied upon asserted that the earth was flat and the moon shone with its own light. The Dalai Lama had no reason to believe any different, and this was how he viewed the world.
When he moved into the palace of the 13th Dalai Lama (he is the 14th) he found interesting and unusual gifts that had been given to his predecessor by foreign dignitaries. Among them was a globe with a clock on top of it, an illustrated book about World War 1, and a telescope. Those three things had an eventful impact on the Dalai Lama and his view of the world.
He studied the book on World War 1 and saw the maps of countries where the fighting occurred in Spain, France, Italy and Russia. He was intrigued by the globe with the clock on top of it and noticed that the surface of the globe was engraved with patterns. As the globe turned the clock time would change, and while it fascinated him it didn’t mean anything significant.
One day after reading the book and looking at the maps where battles had taken place he realized that the engravings on the globe weren’t just patterns, they were the outlines of the countries he had been reading about. Suddenly the order of the designs made sense and he realized it was a map! He realized something which contradicted everything had had learned up to that point — the earth is round, not flat! By combining the ideas of the rotating clock, the map of the globe, and the book about war he made the connection independent of his studies that the earth was round. The geography of the world for the Dalai Lama changed in an instant.
He also used his own powers of observation to refute the idea that the moon shone with its own light. While looking through the telescope he could see the craters and mountains on the moon and saw that they cast visible shadows. If the moon shone with its own light, he reasoned, there would be no shadows. Therefore, the moon must be reflecting light from the sun. His observations and reason led him to a new understanding that contradicted what he had been taught, but which he found was supported by science outside of Tibet.
Ever since then the Dalai Lama has said that when science can prove that a Buddhist belief is wrong, then Buddhism must change to accommodate the new facts. This willingness to change ideas and to incorporate science into the metaphysical realm is unique among world religions. Most religions view science as a threat to their dogmas, whereas Buddhists under the guidance of the Dalai Lama are not threatened at all. He remains active in working with scientists to learn what science can teach Buddhism, and what Buddhism can teach science.
I take a lot of inspiration from this story, even though I am not a Buddhist. I am trying to do exactly what the Dalai Lama did. I am looking at patterns in new ways and seeing new relationships. I am opening my understanding by blending science and metaphysics. Like a Buddhist, I do not see science as a threat to my personal religion. Nor do I see religion as a threat to my science. Where science can prove my metaphysics wrong, I am willing to change. And where metaphysics proves science wrong, I am willing to change that too. Neither one is a static field of study. Science and religion must constantly change to be relevant and accurate.
The Geography of Life is based on observation, reason, and the connection of seemingly disconnected lines of thought to reach a better understanding of the world of the unknown. I think the Dalai Lama would approve if he knew what I was doing.