Dhondup’s Wisdom

Teaching and learning with Tibetan Buddhist monks and nons
Arri Eisen, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Biology, United States Air Force Academy; Senior Lecturer in Biology and Director of the Program in Science and Society,
Emory University


Vol. 11 No. 4
February/March 2009

Return to Contents

Lessons from Liberia
Reconsidering international development, scholarship, and engagement

“The theoretical frameworks and principles of practice that have guided development activities for the past fifty years have not yielded the intended outcomes.”

To go into a post-conflict state that is wrestling with all of this in real time with real-world consequences, was a compelling opportunity. . . . I didn’t have to change who I was to be relevant.”

Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition
The Concept of Vulnerability

Dhondup’s Wisdom
Teaching and learning from Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns

Emory University Strategic Plan Update
What is happening and why we should care


A recent article from Reuters about a Muslim creationist in Istanbul got me thinking about a conversation I recently had with Lobsang Dhondup, a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Dharamsala, India. The article describes the Muslim creationist Adnan Oktar. Oktar, a Turk who writes under the pseudonym Harun Yahya, got the attention of hundreds of European and North American scientists and teachers when he mass-mailed them his tome, Atlas of Creation.

The Atlas, available on line (www.harunyahya.com/books/darwinism/atlas_creation/atlas_creation_01.ph), is written in plain English and is full of illustrations, and it contains many of the usual attacks on Darwin heard from Christian fundamentalists in this country. The author does go a bit further than most, making the intriguing assertion that all science since Darwin—including the fossil record, genetics, and the like—has successfully disproved Darwin, before he goes on to the usual claims that Darwinism naturally leads to atheism, terrorism, and, generally speaking, the end of the world.

It’s not so much what Oktar says but how he says it—his tone and perspective strike me, especially the sharp contrast to that of a young monk with whom I spoke recently. Oktar and those with similar ideas are about refuting, disproving, and attacking evidence to segregate themselves and demonstrate why their ideas are best. Dhondup and his fellow Buddhists are about integration, exploration, and engaging evidence to enrich their own understanding and make their ideas better.

Dhondup is part of a project several colleagues and I have recently embarked on. The Dalai Lama asked Emory to lead an effort to develop a comprehensive science curriculum that over the next five to ten years will eventually be taught to all the thousands of Tibetan monks and nuns in exile in India. In the pilot program that we just completed, several professors and graduate students (including folks from anthropology, biology, psychiatry, physics, philosophy, and the graduate school) taught thirty-three monks and five nuns life sciences, neurosciences, physics, math, and science philosophy. An amazing experience.
Evolution was the first life sciences topic my co-teachers (Rustom Antia and Alex Escobar from biology) and I decided to focus on. For my section, the monks developed an experiment to test the hypothesis—a small piece of Darwin’s pie—that the environment affects organisms’ life characteristics. We went outdoors to three different elevations in the foothills of the Himalayas and studied the animal and plant life and their surrounding water, air, and soil. It was as we were walking down the mountain from the highest elevation that I started talking with Dhondup (several of the monks and nuns are fluent in English). I asked him why he was participating in this project and how he handled issues that came up that were at odds with his Buddhist beliefs.

“I am studying modern science because I believe it can help me understand my Buddhism better,” Dhondup said. Read that again. I was left momentarily speechless. I tried to imagine anyone I knew—anyone from the West, Christian, Jew, or Muslim—making such an assertion. Just think of the dramatic difference in worldview, tone, and perspective in approach to life and life’s challenges that Dhondup’s thought represents—how different it is from Oktar’s. I was stunned.
I was walking down a mountain in India with a guy wearing a robe and sandals, a guy from an ancient world easily perceived as irrelevant, who had a wisdom beyond any I had previously experienced.

Buddhism suggests significant rearranging of some modern Judeo-Christian ideas. In Buddhism, experience and reasoning come first, and then scripture. As we wandered down the path of broken rock fragments, Dhondup told me that when he encounters something that disagrees with his beliefs, he tests the new idea with logical evidence and approaches, and then if it holds up, he accepts it. This is what the Dalai Lama means when he says that if modern science presents good evidence that a Buddhist idea is wrong, he will accept the modern science (he gives the example of the Earth moving around the sun, which runs counter to Buddhist scripture).

Perhaps creationists think they are using logic and experience to disprove Darwin with exhibitions like those in creationist museums and statements from Oktar’s Atlas, such as, “Facts can no longer be concealed and swept aside, as was the case in Darwin’s time. Genetics, microbiology, paleontology, geology, and all other branches of science constantly reveal a truth that Darwin and the supporters of Darwinism never wanted and perhaps never expected—the fact of creation.” I don’t know.

Of course, all Westerners of faith aren’t like Oktar. Nor is it true that all creationists reject science (see, for example, a recent New York Times piece about Darwinists for Jesus: www.nytimes.com/2008/06/15/magazine/15wwln-essay-t.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=science%20religion&st=cse&oref=slogin). I’m not saying any religion is better than the other. But this idea of being open to all knowledge because it could potentially enrich your own beliefs, no matter who you are or what you believe—that’s something to think about.

This essay is adapted from one appearing in Religion Dispatches, an online magazine that explores the intersections of religion, values, and public life, nationally and globally.