Beam me up, Dalai

No technophobe, the Tibetan leader -- the Nicest Man in the World -- talks about robots and artificial intelligence, Spock and alien enlightenment.

Topics: Star Trek, Artificial Intelligence,

MCLEOD GANJ, India — i first heard the rumor in the fall of 1996, while I was writing a magazine article about the making of “Star Trek: First Contact.” Five or six years ago, a Paramount producer told me, a local newspaper had run a photo showing the Dalai Lama of Tibet on the set of the Starship Enterprise, standing beside the android Data.

The Dalai Lama a trekker? Astounding, I thought to myself — but possibly true. I already knew that the 63-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monk (who fled his homeland in 1959, after the Chinese occupation) takes an active interest in cosmology and particle physics. I knew he had spoken with neurosurgeons, mathematicians and astronomers, exploring the tantalizing territory where Eastern mysticism meets Western science. Most telling of all, I knew that, as a boy, the Dalai Lama had owned a telescope — which he trained on the inhabitants of Lhasa as they went about their business, far below his perch atop the Potala Palace.

I searched for the picture, but in vain. Though many people at “Star Trek” confirmed its existence, no one could remember where, or even when, it had appeared. Several maddening months went by before a sympathetic “Voyager” staffer FedExed me the original slide.

It was not quite as advertised, but it was pretty close. The snapshot had been taken in 1990 or ’91, when the Tibetan leader and his retinue had toured the western U.S. In the picture, some 20 monks from the Namgyal Monastery in Mcleod Ganj, India (to which the exiled Dalai Lama belongs), are crowded onto the starship’s transporter pad. In their midst stands the actor Brent Spiner, in full Data garb. The Dalai Lama himself is not in the scene, but many of his most important attendants are. His Holiness, I deduced, might also be a fan, even if his schedule had precluded a visit to the set.

It was a leg to stand on. I immediately faxed the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Mcleod Ganj, requesting an interview. In late January — while I was visiting Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka — a reply arrived: My audience was scheduled for Jan. 15.

Ten hours by overnight train from Delhi to Pathankot; three more by taxi to Dharamsala. From there it’s a half-hour ride to Mcleod Ganj, more than 6,000 feet above the Indian plains. The snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhar Range rear above the town like a frozen wave. Along the muddied, cobbled streets, cows and vegetable-sellers are locked in perpetual tug-of-war; scores of shops sell incense and curios, religious texts and woolen scarves. A short walk from the main street lies Namgyal Monastery and the home of the Dalai Lama.

After much paperwork and an intimate body search, I’m ushered into the residence itself. It’s chilly. A pot-bellied stove in the waiting room radiates no heat. The walls are cluttered with medals, citations and honorary degrees. I snoop around for a peek at the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989.

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Ten minutes later I’m led out onto a long patio, through French doors and into the audience room. Here it is warmer, and there are cozy couches arrayed beneath a large altar. Sitting down, I place my notebook and tape recorder on a low table. Then I rise again abruptly, for His Holiness is escorted into the room.

The Dalai Lama appears fit and very alert. His eyes are welcoming, curious and brightly amused. It’s been perhaps a week since he has last shaved his head, and the stubble on his scalp shows less gray than I would have thought. In fact, he appears ageless. Though he tends to stoop — out of humility, I suspect — he is a tall, big-boned man, born in the rough-and-tumble landscape of northern Tibet.

This, however, is only his outward appearance. Far more profound is the deeper effect of the Dalai Lama’s presence. The cynical tongue is stilled: Here is The Nicest Man in the World. His humility, wisdom and kindness illuminate the room like a rack of halogen bulbs. Offering him the traditional greeting of a kata — a white silk scarf — I nearly giggle with pleasure. It is difficult to overstate how safe I feel. If this sounds New Age-y, sue me, but to stand beside the Dalai Lama is sheer delight.

My host clearly recalls using his telescope as a boy; he remembers turning it from the byways of Lhasa toward the planets, the sun (with a proper filter, he assures me) and the moon. Many Tibetan scholars, the Dalai Lama laughs, did not believe that men had really landed on the Moon. From the appearance of the satellite’s surface in photographs, they were convinced that the astronauts had lit instead atop Mount Meru, the physical and spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhist cosmology.

Still, Buddhist scriptures speak of limitless worlds and endless galaxies. “Sentient forms of life, similar to human beings, do exist on other planets,” the Dalai Lama says. “Not necessarily in our solar system, but beyond. This, I believe.” When I ask him if he has ever encountered such a life form, he shakes his head. “So far,” he says, “I didn’t meet any person who recalls a previous life from another galaxy, or another planet.” Still, he says, they must exist, with sensory and emotional capabilities close to our own. And since all forms of life have sprung from the same causal chain that created the physical universe, all will be subject to the laws of karma and reincarnation. All will be capable of suffering, he says, and responsive to kindness.

But our first encounters with these “new neighbors,” he warns, will have to be motivated by good intentions on both sides. Otherwise, a repeat of world history — on a galactic scale — will ensue. When I ask if heading toward the stars to seek out such beings is humanity’s destiny, he raises his eyebrows.

“Maybe after taking care of all the problems here on this world,” he allows. “If no more difficulties, it will be nice to have a holiday. Then we can go outside, visit, make new friends. Why not!”

I steel myself, and ask the Dalai Lama about “Star Trek.” Has His Holiness ever watched the show?

Indeed he has, he admits, but years ago, and not often. He recalls with great amusement the “man with the big ears”: Spock.

But when I suggest that the show portrays a view of Shambala — a utopian realm that Buddhist texts predict will emerge about three centuries in the future — the Dalai Lama slyly mimes a phaser. “Even then, many weapons … So not much difference than now, I think!”

Our conversation strays to other aspects of popular science. We discuss computers, cloning, robotics. The common thread in his responses, I find, is a willingness to let the future take its course. Technological progress is neither inherently good nor bad. Everything depends upon motivation and results. Even his comments about the Internet, and what I describe as “information addiction,” surprise me.

“One aspect of Buddhahood,” The Dalai Lama states, “is omniscience. So, once again, the gathering of information is neither good nor bad. Everything depends upon intention!” He takes a similarly broad view of robotics, saying that there is no theoretical limit to artificial intelligence. If “conscious” computers are someday developed, he will give them the same consideration as sentient beings. As for the capabilities of lesser machines — and what they might be capable of — he likewise draws no limits.

“If a machine is ever created that can instantly make a good heart, a warm heart, without any need for meditation or practice, this would be very, very good,” he declares. “I would immediately call my Chinese brothers and sisters and say to them: ‘Please! You buy this!’”

By the time my questions end, we’ve spent an hour — twice our allotted time — together. It’s difficult to leave, but his attendants are restless and the next visitor is waiting in the wings. Even as I walk off, I can’t help myself. I turn around for a last glimpse.

The Dalai Lama lifts his hand and waves a final farewell, smiling broadly: a simple Buddhist monk who has shared a few moments with an oddball friend.

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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