The Dalai Lama, The Pope, and Creation

The Dalai Lama has been awarded this year’s Templeton Prize, an annual honor given by the Templeton Foundation to a figure who, according to the foundation’s website, “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” In practice, the Prize has gone frequently to thinkers who have investigated the interaction between science and religion. The Dalai Lama, as spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, has also concerned himself with this topic, and has released just this year his newest book, The Universe in a Single Atom, which investigates, in light of each other, Buddhist thought and modern science. While Catholics can certainly laud the Dalai Lama for his affirmation that the materialistic view of things falls short, they should also look at his Buddhist philosophy with some serious reservations. If the Dalai Lama is right in affirming a dimension to reality beyond that known by science, just what that dimension is remains a serious question.

Beyond the complex world of nature, Buddhism asserts a fundamental “nothingness.”  Buddhist thought sees as illusory all distinction between beings.  As the Dalai Lama writes in The Universe in a Single Atom, “According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence.”  Recognizing this illusion is important, claims the Dalai Lama, because such division is the cause of suffering. Invoking the central Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, the Dalai Lama writes: “…Nagarjuna argues that grasping at the independent existence of things leads to affliction, which in turn gives rise to a chain of destructive actions, reactions and suffering.”  In addition to these moral concerns, the Dalai Lama bases his appreciation for modern science, physics in particular, in this Buddhist concept of negation.  “To a Mahayana Buddhist exposed to Nagarjuna’s thought, there is an unmistakable resonance between the notion of emptiness and the new physics.  If on the quantum level, matter is revealed to be less solid and definable than it appears, then it seems to me that science is coming closer to the Buddhist contemplative insights of emptiness and interdependence.”

In contrast to this emphasis on illusion and negation, the fundamental Catholic doctrine is that of Creation. The notion of Creation overcomes the Buddhist objections to the idea of separation by insisting on a real dependence of creature on Creator, but also by allowing for the goodness of created beings as works of the Creator to shine forth and be declared “good.” Buddhism sees separation as an illusion to be overcome; Catholicism sees separation as the basis for the unity of love. Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, contrasted the notions thusly in his early book, Introduction to Christianity: “When God is understood …as sheer negation with respect to everything that appears real to us, then there is no positive relationship between “God” and the world. Then the world has to be overcome as a source of suffering, but it can no longer be shaped…” For Christians, however, the pope writes that, “The world is not just maya, appearance, which we must ultimately leave behind. It is not merely the endless wheel of sufferings, from which we must try to escape. It is something positive. It is good, despite all the evil in it and despite all the sorrow, and it is good to live in it.”

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This notion of real creation is the basis for the Christian approach to science. In contrast to the Dalai Lama’s assertion that science is in keeping with Buddhist thought, the late Father Stanley Jaki, also a Templeton recipient, dedicated himself to research showing that, science is a product of distinctly Christian thought. While the Dalai Lama is right to assert that absolute separation precludes the sort of causal interaction seen in science, his insistence on the illusion of independence raises philosophical problems of its own: just how is that changing illusions can exist, and causality can be real, if everything is really just the same? Catholic philosophy, as exemplified by Saint Thomas Aquinas, accepts a certain analogous unity of being, but also insists on the real differences of essence. Things are not so radically separated that they cannot interact; but they are really separate things, with their own being – a being that exists derived from the ultimate Being of God. In recognizing this fundamental reasoned order of nature, the world becomes open to the investigation of science.

Central to the arguments of Buddhism, however, is the question of suffering. As the Dalai Lama notes, suffering can be understood in terms of separation. Yet it does not follow, says the Church, that the solution is therefore to deny or oppose separation. Indeed, the puzzle of Creation can only be solved by love. Love is willing the good, and affirming the goodness of the other. If there is no other, how is love possible? G. K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, graphically emphasized this distinction between Creation and the Eastern conception of negation: “The oriental deity is like a giant who should have lost his leg or hand and be always seeking to find it; but the Christian power is like some giant who in a strange generosity should cut off his right hand, so that it might of its own accord shake hands with him.  …No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls. But according to orthodox Christianity this separation between God and man is sacred, because this is eternal. That a man may love God it is necessary that there should be not only a God to be loved, but a man to love him.”

For Christians, Creation is the risk that is necessary for love. Christians believe that the separation that can cause suffering is also the separation that is necessary for the love to which God calls all men. Pope Benedict said in his most recent Easter Vigil homily,  “…God created the world as a space for knowledge and truth, as a space for encounter and freedom, as a space for good and for love.” Along with the Dalai Lama, Christians can assert that the methods of science do not exhaust our knowledge of reality, but against the philosophy of Buddhism, Christians believe that the Creation is willed and intended by God and is good, a place to be redeemed with love, not an illusion to be overcome.


  • Michael Baruzzini

    Michael Baruzzini is a science writer and editor in Tennessee. His blog on science and Catholicism may be found at

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