Last week near-death experiencer Dr. Eben Alexander, author of the book Proof of Heaven, was the focus of an exposé by Esquire magazine that claimed, among other things, that he had take some licence with the truth in his book to help sell his story. At one point in the article, titled “The Prophet”, author Luke Dittrich describes a scene in which the Dalai Lama cautions against uncritically believing extraordinary tales such as the one told by Alexander.
The Dalai Lama is not a native English speaker, and when it’s his turn to speak, he does so much less smoothly than Alexander, sometimes stopping and snapping his fingers when a word escapes him, or turning to his interpreter for help when he’s really stuck. He is not using notes, and the impression he gives is that of a man speaking off the cuff. He opens with a brief discourse about the parallels between the Buddhist and Shinto conceptions of the afterlife, and then, after glancing over at Alexander, changes the subject. He explains that Buddhists categorize phenomena in three ways. The first category are “evident phenomena,” which can be observed and measured empirically and directly. The second category are “hidden phenomena,” such as gravity, phenomena that can’t be seen or touched but can be inferred to exist on the basis of the first category of phenomena. The third category, he says, are “extremely hidden phenomena,” which cannot be measured at all, directly or indirectly. The only access we can ever have to that third category of phenomena is through our own first-person experience, or through the first-person testimony of others.
“Now, for example,” the Dalai Lama says, “his sort of experience.”
He points at Alexander.
“For him, it’s something reality. Real. But those people who never sort of experienced that, still, his mind is a little bit sort of…” He taps his fingers against the side of his head. “Different!” he says, and laughs a belly laugh, his robes shaking. The audience laughs with him. Alexander smiles a tight smile.
“For that also, we must investigate,” the Dalai Lama says. “Through investigation we must get sure that person is truly reliable.” He wags a finger in Alexander’s direction. When a man makes extraordinary claims, a “thorough investigation” is required, to ensure “that person reliable, never telling lie,” and has “no reason to lie.”
Then he changes the subject, starts talking about a massive project to translate ancient Tibetan texts.
The event at which these comments were made was filmed, and you can watch it via the video at the top of this story (the relevant section starts around the 45 minute mark). What is interesting about it is that Dittrich does not directly quote the Dalai Lama after he “wags a finger in Alexander’s direction”. This might be because the words he would have had to quote were (as best I can make out): “and in this particular case, there seems no reason to lie”. Which would seem to change the entire vibe of that passage in Dittrich’s article…
Strangely, also, where Dittrich finishes by saying “he [the Dalai Lama] changes the subject, starts talking about a massive project to translate ancient Tibetan texts” – he doesn’t. The Dalai Lama actually talks for about 10 minutes at that point on the dialogue in recent years between himself/Buddhism and science on the topics of mind and emotions (in which he says the gap between them is due to one being about individual knowledge, the other about universal knowledge). I’m not sure why Dittrich described it differently.
It does seem though that Dittrich certainly made the DL’s comments seem a whole lot more accusatory than they actually were…
(Note: this post isn’t meant as a defence of Alexander, and there are many more points to the article worth discussing. Just making clear that ‘skepticism’ about authors and intent should cut both ways. For his part, Eben Alexander’s Facebook page has noted that “a complete response is forthcoming” to the Esquire article.)