Cambridge, Mass. — On the campus of the country’s premier scientific university, the world’s best-known Buddhist leader on Thursday (April
30) called on educators to teach ethics and compassion without a basis in religious belief.

Hundreds gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the Dalai Lama, speaking from the seated, cross-legged position of a sage, officially opened MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values.

“The majority of the 6 billion people on earth, I think, we can categorize as non-believers,” the Dalai Lama said. “So we must find a way to promote ethics and values with these nonbelievers … We need promotion of secular ethics through education.”

The exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet described “secular” not as an absence of belief, but as a mode of treating religious belief and non-belief with equal respect

The Dalai Lama used the stage to lay a framework for the center’s goal of shaping an ethical generation of leaders. Compassion cannot be bought, he said, but “there must be possibility to increase that through certain methods.”

With the launch of the Dalai Lama center, MIT is breaking new ground in the world of academic science: no other major science research institution in the U.S. has a center named for a contemporary religious leader.

Yet MIT makes no apologies for establishing a place where students learn how to embody and advance such “universal values” as compassion and peace. Such character training has become increasingly important as MIT has become “an institute that grooms technocrats and world leaders,” says Tenzin Priyadarshi, the Jesuit-educated Buddhist monk who directs the center.

“In this recent financial crisis, most of these people who were running Wall Street came from several Ivy League schools,” Priyadarshi said. “When you look at the issues underlying the crisis — greed and deceit — why were those not addressed when they were being educated?”

MIT’s collaboration with the Dalai Lama might raise eyebrows in professional science circles, Priyadarshi conceded, but he expects other schools to be inspired to launch similar initiatives in coming decades.

Because of MIT’s high profile, observers say, the center’s ambitions are sure to be noticed and discussed.

“When MIT does this, it gets more attention than if others do it,”
says Francisco Ayala, a biologist and former Dominican priest at the University of California, Irvine. “It’s extraordinary that it’s happening at MIT.”

At MIT, students are already learning contemplative techniques through the center, which launched its programming a year ago. Through self-awareness exercises, they learn how emotions shape their own decision-making and develop tools for anticipating long-term ramifications, according to Priyadarshi.

Those techniques are not only consistent with Buddhist teachings, he said, but they’re also compatible with other religious faiths — as well as atheistic and agnostic philosophies.

The center’s location at MIT reflects the Dalai Lama’s longtime interest in science. As a child in Lhasa, Tibet, he taught himself to fix broken machines, from cars to clocks and movie projectors. The Dalai Lama has used his global fame to help launch other science-related initiatives, such as the Mind & Life Institute in Boulder, Colo., which organizes annual conferences on Buddhism and neuroscience.

In one sense, the new center makes official and concrete something many scientists have felt for decades: that Buddhism isn’t an enemy of their profession. Since the 19th century, Buddhists have claimed their tradition — with its rejection of a creator deity and description of a mechanistic universe — is more compatible with science than Christianity is, according to Donald Lopez, professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan and author of “Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed.”

“Buddhism has no history of conflict with science,” says B. Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies in Santa Barbara, Calif. “In that regard, it may seem non-threatening to certain scientists who’ve grown very wary of Christians, who they think always have an agenda to try to plug intelligent design or their own particular theological creed.”

The center also reflects a growing movement in higher education to explore how science and religion might be complementary, rather than perennial foes. Institutions including UC Irvine, Columbia University and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley have in recent years formalized dialogues to seek synergies between religion and science. At Stanford University, the Dalai Lama helped inspire and fund a new Center for Compassion & Altruism Research & Education, which maintains close ties to Tibetan Buddhism and neuroscience.

Still, MIT’s new center forges into fresh territory, Wallace said, by rejecting what he describes as the “myth” of values-free science.

Atheist scientists and people of non-Buddhist faiths are both apt to worry about the center having a particular religious influence at MIT, Wallace said. But he cautions both groups not to pre-judge a Buddhist-led effort to seek a universal ethics and value system.

“The center is named for the most prominent Buddhist in the world, and the director is an ordained Buddhist monk, who’s walking around MIT’s campus in a Buddhist monastic robe,” Wallace said. “It can look like, `Hey, those Buddhists are being very cunning here. They’re trying to slip their agenda into MIT…’ It’s a valid qualm. Answer to the qualm: watch what they actually do (to see) if they’re pushing a Buddhist agenda.”

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