Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama is currently visiting New Zealand. Despite little promotion his public talks attract large attendances. Last Sunday he spoke to a meeting of 10,000 people in Auckland (see Compassion before Destruction for Dalai Lama, NZ Herald). People are attracted by his personality, the situation of his country and his teachings. This is interesting because Buddhism is a clear illustration of how morals, values and the capacity for good do not require belief in a god. (It is a non-theist religion). The public admiration of the Dalai Lama illustrates to me that, in practice, people don’t really require a divine source for their morals and values. They don’t accept the charge that atheism cannot provide a basis for morality.
Buddhist teachings include a morality which most people accept. They also provide practical methods for overcome negative influences and doing good in the world. These are important also because these methods do not require any acceptance of the more debatable teachings such as those on rebirth or a non-material consciousness. Anyone can accept this morality and practice Buddhist meditation, whatever their religious or other beliefs.
The openness of the Dalai Lama also impresses. He has had a long interest in science and has actively worked to overcome suspicions at the science/religion interface. Western science, particularly in the psychological and neuroscience areas, has responded with a similar openness and respect. In recent years scientific methods have been applied to investigate meditation. Education programmes incorporating some Buddhist approaches have been developed. Regular meetings of Buddhist specialists with scientists from a number of disciplines occur. Daniel Coleman’s book dealing with destructive emotions is an example of the outcome of these meetings (click on image for details).
The Dalai Lama has often said that where science produces knowledge which conflicts with Buddhist teaching then Buddhism will have to change. To me this sort of statement is refreshing because it is not often heard from religious leaders. I know that the more moderate religious groups do accept scientific knowledge, but there are still large numbers who reject it.
In New Zealand Buddhism has the third largest number of adherents after Christianity and Hinduism according to the census data on religions.