Autumn 2008: Dynamic Forces
A Meeting of Minds
Emory faculty and alumni create, translate, and teach a science curriculum for Buddhist monks and nuns
By Nancy Seideman
Tsondue Samphel 06C was a monastery-educated Tibetan from India who came to Emory to further his studies in science, intrigued by similarities between physics and Buddhist philosophy. “They both strive to understand the nature of reality,” says Samphel.
Steven “Pii” Dominick 04C took a break after high school in California with the idea of pursuing a music career, but he continued to ponder the “big” questions on his own—“What is truth with a capital ‘T,’ that’s what I always wanted to know,” laughs Dominick.
This inquiry also led Dominick to Emory where he earned a double degree in physics and in philosophy/religion and participated in the Emory-Tibet Study Abroad Program in Dharamsala, India, home to the Tibetan-in-exile government and its people.
Not surprisingly, Samphel and Dominick’s mutual interests led them to become friends, and now professional colleagues, working with the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI), a joint project of the University and the Tibetan monastic academic system.
The ETSI is inspired by the vision of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory, who officially announced the program earlier this year before an assembly of more than 15,000 monastics at Drepung Loseling Monastery in India.
Along with a core group of faculty and staff from across the University, Samphel and Dominick now share the same quest to bring together two seemingly divergent schools of knowledge: modern science with its understanding of the physical world and its phenomena, and the wisdom gained from the Tibetan Buddhists’ eons-long study of the mind.
The concept is not exactly new—various other groups have sponsored science education programs for monks for the past decade and longer—but the Emory-Tibet endeavor will create a comprehensive science education program that will be integrated into the regular curriculum for thousands of monks and nuns in major monasteries throughout India.
One reason for this step is so that monastics can more effectively relate to fellow Tibetans who are receiving a science education through the public school system in India, and thus help to preserve Tibetan identity and culture.
The Dalai Lama, University faculty, and Tibetan Buddhist scholars also are intrigued by the new knowledge that might be created through ongoing collaboration between Emory and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.The potential is intoxicating for anyone who thinks seriously about the nature of life: must everything be reduced to a scientific process, or can scientific insights be integrated into a Buddhist worldview to benefit a common humanity?
Emory faculty and researchers traveled to Dharamsala in June to teach a month-long program in life sciences, neurosciences, physics, philosophy of science, and math, all designed to build foundation skills in and conceptual understanding of science for thirty-eight monks and nuns. Although some of the monastics had taken science courses—they all were selected for their educational leadership potential—the students nonetheless presented an unusual challenge. How do you teach college-level science to a highly intelligent, sophisticated group who have no math education and little understanding of science fundamentals—or English?
For the past year Samphel had played a crucial role in bridging the gap, assisting Emory faculty in translating their lessons into English/Tibetan science textbooks and now serving as a lead translator in the classroom. Due to the style of monastic learning—analytical debate, debate, and more debate—class days were long, and discussion often continued late into the night.
Emory faculty were exhilarated. Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology Carol Worthman, who cotaught the neurosciences section, was awed by the intellectual vigor demonstrated by the monastics. “Never rest with what you think you know, always push on,” she said. “They challenged the limits of our own thinking. Our style of inquiry doesn’t hold a candle to the Buddhist style of debate.”
Perhaps this Buddhist tradition of relentless inquiry based on logical evidence is the reason—at least at this curricular stage—that there has not been a topic that the monastics haven’t been able to intellectually engage.
Senior biology lecturer Arri Eisen was rather taken aback when a young monk told him he was studying modern science because “I believe it can help me understand my Buddhism better.”
But Samphel wasn’t surprised. “In Buddhist philosophy,” he says, “it’s most important to understand the concept of impermanence, so the transitory nature of elementary particles in physics, for example, resonates well with Buddhists.” New knowledge that comes through science, says Samphel, will be incorporated by Buddhists to extend and deepen their philosophy.
Rigorous investigation is the foundation of both disciplines. The Dalai Lama has written that “if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”
The monastic students had plenty of opportunity to conduct their own investigations, experimenting with prisms and pendulums, examining blood, skin, plant cells—virtually anything that fit under a microscope—and tramping up into the foothills to study how the environment shapes different habitats; being monastics, “they not only wanted to know what life does, but what it is,” says senior biology lecturer Alex Escobar.
In order to teach scientific fundamentals, faculty tried to tap into broad concepts familiar to monastics. Dominick, for example, used symbolic logic and representation in teaching math rather than reciting a “grocery list of rules.” Monastics practiced skeptical inquiry in philosophy of science with associate professor Mark Risjord, learning the rules of logical inference and theory testing—particularly helpful when they tackled the mind-brain relationship with Worthman and psychiatry assistant professor Charles Raison.
Raison echoed other faculty in his view that what is learned in monastic teaching may help transform math and science education in the U.S.
“The monks and nuns are helping us to humanize science and to experience the sense of wonder inspired by imagining and discovery,” says Raison. “Perhaps the way to bring science alive for our students is to focus first on the large, grand concepts rather than going through the laundry list of names and labels, layer after layer.”
Student evaluations revealed that, despite language challenges, comprehension of the curriculum was high.
“This program demonstrates that insight and knowledge are not the monopoly of one person, one nation,” says Tibetan library director Geshe Lhakdor. “The main goal is to bring harmony and peace to the world by sharing knowledge with all communities.”
During the next five years, ETSI codirectors Preetha Ram, assistant dean for science, Office for Undergraduate Education, and Lobsang Tenzin Negi 99PhD, senior lecturer in religion and director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, will continue to lead the team in expanding the science curriculum and English-Tibetan teaching materials to educate a total of a hundred monastic scholars and to produce a leadership team of translators and teachers within the Tibetan community.
The ETSI faculty come with diverse academic expertise, belief systems, and life experiences, and differing expectations of what might be possible. But to a person, they seem to feel a part of something much bigger, a link—perhaps even a spark—along the path that emerges from this collaboration. To be able to pursue one’s intellectual passions—with the potential to preserve a culture, not to mention benefit humanity—is a rare opportunity, a truth not lost on Samphel.
“This is my life’s work, to bring science to the Tibetan monastic community,” he says. “I think about the Tibetan translators of the past who were tremendously influential in bringing Buddhism to Tibet. I am often inspired by them.”
Nancy Seideman is associate vice president for communications at Emory.