Religion and science often sound odd, even contradictory in the same sentence. The teachings of the Bible, particularly the Book of Genesis, don’t exactly mesh very well with modern understandings of the Earth. For the Dalai Lama, advances in science serve as a way to deepen the teachings of Buddhism.
The documentary Dalai Lama: Scientist follows the Dalai Lama’s series of dialogues and science conferences that he’s held for decades to strengthen the bonds between the academic and Buddhist communities. The film features extensive archival footage of conversations between His Holiness and esteemed academics such as Arthur Zajonc and Richard Davidson. The Dalai Lama is shown to possess a keen curiosity for learning about subjects such as microbiology and quantum mechanics.
Director Dawn Engle largely lets the archival footage speak for itself, wisely deploying her best asset as often as possible. There are a few times where animated sequences are used to explain an idea, but most of the ideas presented come from the Dalai Lama’s own conversations. Engle includes many of these lengthy back and forth exchanges that are fascinating to listen to.
While the subject of the film is quite interesting, Dalai Lama: Scientist does suffer from fairly horrendous production values. The sparsely deployed narration is absolutely dreadful with a wooden delivery and cheap sound editing. Engle also deploys transition placards in between subjects that demonstrate the similarities in Western Science and Buddhism that earn plenty of eye rolls.
Engle’s film lacks a cohesive narrative behind the obvious. That doesn’t really matter for the most part, but sequences involving the Dalai Lama’s close friend Francisco Varela feel oddly out of place in a documentary that largely operates without a story. 90% of the film is a play-by-play of His Holiness’ science chats, making everything else feel like a throw-in.
The film does appear to be intended for classroom viewing, but Dalai Lama: Scientist could do with some pizazz. While certainly not its obvious intention, a bit more time could have been spent on the differences between science and Buddhism, if for no other reason that the sake of the narrative. Ninety minutes is a long time to solely reinforce the idea that the Dalai Lama likes science.
The archival footage is fascinating enough to forgive the film’s muddled narrative and subpar production values. It’s quite delightful to see a religious leader embrace science in the way that the Dalai Lama has. Plenty of others would do well to follow his lead.