Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

 

On his book Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed

Cover Interview of March 13, 2009

A close-up

In 1938, a Tibetan scholar named Gendun Chopel (1903-1951)—a poet, painter, and iconoclast—published an article (complete with his own hand-drawn map) in the Tibet Mirror, the only Tibetan-language newspaper of the day.  The article was entitled, “The World Is Round or Spherical.”  Also in 1938, Hitler annexed Austria; Otto Hahn produced the first nuclear fission of uranium; Howard Hughes, flying a twin-engine Lockheed, set a new record for the circumnavigation of the globe; color television was first demonstrated; the first photocopy image was produced; the ballpoint pen was patented; the first “Superman” episode appeared in Action Comics; Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered; Benny Goodman’s orchestra performed “Sing, Sing, Sing” at Carnegie Hall.  In this same year, Gendun Chopel was attempting to prove to his fellow Tibetans that the world is not flat.

He did not go into a lot of scientific detail.  He simply said that everybody used to think that the world was flat.  Then, some people in Europe began to say that, in fact, the world is round, and they were burned at the stake for their beliefs. Now everyone, including other Buddhist nations such as China, Japan, Burma, and Sri Lanka, knows that the world is round.  It is therefore embarrassing that the Tibetans are clinging so stubbornly to their flat world.  In making his claim that the world is round, Gendun Chopel, a former Buddhist monk and a devout Buddhist, did not deny that the omniscient Buddha declared that the world is flat.  He explains that the Buddha knew all along that the world is really round; he only said it is flat because no one in ancient India would have believed him if he had said something so contrary to common knowledge.