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The Monastery and the Microscope

The Monastery and the Microscope: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mind, Mindfulness, and the Nature of Reality

Wendy Hasenkamp with Janna R. White, Eds.
Yale University Press
397 pp.
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Although, on the surface, Buddhist contemplative tradition and Western science would appear to represent divergent perspectives, a closer look at these disciplines shows that they are both deeply rooted in the intellectual pursuit of knowledge and a desire to understand the complexities of human existence through empirically verified observations. Individuals from these two sectors who would seek to engage in respectful discourse might therefore find that they have much to learn from one another.

Such an exchange is expertly illuminated in The Monastery and the Microscope. In this captivating and insightful book, Wendy Hasenkamp and Janna White transport the reader to southern India for a private audience with the Dalai Lama as he engages in genuine, and at times humorous, dialogue with leading scientists on topics such as physics, neuroscience, and psychology.

Hasenkamp and White have provided a simple and untouched record of these dialogues, as they occurred during the 2013 “Mind & Life,” an annual event run by the Mind & Life Institute since 1987. The two authors have skillfully curated the hours of conversation that occurred across this 6-day meeting and provide contextual background where appropriate, making The Monastery and the Microscope both a historical record of the event and a delightful educational experience.

The Dalai Lama’s natural scientific curiosity is highlighted throughout the book, as is his clear desire to use Buddhism to promote effective solutions to the humanitarian issues facing the world. In his discussions, he calls for the development of what he terms secular ethics, ethics that appeal to both religious and nonreligious people.


The Dalai Lama prepares to address a group of Emory University faculty and Tibetan Buddhist monks in 2012.

Describing the vital role of scientists within this framework, the Dalai Lama states, “People like me, religious people, what we can do is only collaborate and offer support. But the main contribution, I feel, should come from the scientists.” He tasks both scientists and religious scholars with the responsibility of developing “a more holistic approach to the education of our younger generation” so as to ease human suffering.

Throughout the discussions, evidence of a convergence between Tibetan Buddhism and Western science emerges. As we have moved into the 21st century, an increasing number of Western scientists have set aside an exclusively reductionist approach to the world and have turned their attention toward investigating the nature of internal phenomena. There is, for example, a growing body of evidence showing that meditation and introspective reflection can have profound effects on the brain, inducing neuroplastic changes previously thought implausible.

This book provides a welcome and necessary look at how individuals from seemingly distant disciplines can engage with one another in transformative dialogue. The cumulative experience and knowledge gained from Buddhist investigation and from scientific methodology have the capacity to shape our existence.

About the author

The reviewer is at Cohen Veterans Bioscience, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA.