A Convergence of Science and Spirituality: Dalai Lama Named Presidential Distinguished Professor
While Tibetan culture and Buddhism are based upon thousands of years of ancient tradition and ritual, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has long embraced the need to live in the modern world.
He jets around the globe meeting with presidents and popes, physicists and philosophers. He has a website—www.dalailama.com—that provides webcasts of his teachings. And in his most recent book, he touches on the topics of quantum physics, evolution, neurology, and genetics.
So when the Dalai Lama accepted an appointment as a Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory in January, the culmination of a decade-long partnership with the University, he did so on one condition.
“He wanted us to help develop a science curriculum for Tibetan monastics,” says Emory College Dean Bobby Paul. “He believes that a great opportunity is presented by the encounter of Western science and its knowledge of the external world with the knowledge that Tibet has developed exploring the inner world of consciousness and experience.”
This is the first university appointment accepted by the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and is spiritual leader of the Tibetan exile community.
He will deliver his inaugural lecture during a visit to Emory October 20 to 22. He also will take part in an interfaith program on religion and a conference on scientific and spiritual aspects of depression, and give a public talk, “Educating the Heart and Mind: A path to universal responsibility,” in Centennial Olympic Park.
“I look forward to offering my services to Emory students and the community,” said the Dalai Lama in his acceptance letter. “I firmly believe that education is an indispensable tool for the flourishing of human well-being and the creation of a just and peaceful society, and I am delighted to make a small contribution in this regard through this appointment.”
When the thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933, his body was found facing the northeast. A few years later, a spiritual team was sent in that direction to search for his reincarnated successor. According to visions seen by the Regent of Tibet in the sacred lake of Lhamoe Lhatso, they were to search for a house with turquoise tiles, among other signs.
The child, they believed, would be the fourteenth bodhisattva (enlightened being) of compassion in a lineage of reborn spiritual leadership that traces back to 1391. A farmer’s home matching the description was discovered in the small village of Taktser in northeastern Tibet. When the group entered, they found a two-year-old boy, Lhamo Dhondrub, who called out to them and recognized various items, such as prayer beads, belonging to the previous Dalai Lama. After a series of tests the child was taken to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and enthroned as His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso.
From an early age, the Dalai Lama took an interest in science and has often said that if he were not a monk, he would be an engineer.
Shut away with elderly tutors in the spacious Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, he spent hours tinkering with mechanical gadgets left by his predecessors, including a brass telescope (which he used to view craters on the moon), clocks and watches, car engines, and an old movie projector. He became fascinated by the notion of scientific discovery, the intricacies of both machines and living beings, and the mysteries of the cosmos.
After China invaded Tibet and the Dalai Lama and his followers were exiled in 1959, he settled in India and began to travel extensively, befriending many scientists, including the late philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper, physicist Carl von Weizsäcker, and the late quantum physicist David Bohm.
In the Dalai Lama’s most recent book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, he writes that no one who wants to understand the world “can ignore the basic insights of theories as key as evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics.”
The idea of the Emory-Tibet Partnership began in 1995 with a meeting at Atlanta’s Ritz-Carlton between the Dalai Lama, who was on a nationwide tour, and several Emory administrators, including Dean Paul and Vice President and Deputy to the President Gary Hauk 91PhD.
When the group proposed a cultural exchange, the Dalai Lama seemed open to the idea. “He basically said, ‘Let’s start small, and see where it goes,’ ” says Hauk. At the time, no one anticipated just how far that would be.
Geshe Lobsang Tenzin 99PhD, a Buddhist monk from the Himalayan valley of Kinnaur, traveled from India to Atlanta in 1991 at the direction of the Dalai Lama to establish the Drepung Loseling Institute. The institute, named for one of Tibet’s largest monastic universities, is dedicated to the study and preservation of the Tibetan Buddhist culture, which now leads a fragile existence in the refugee communities in India and Nepal.
Tenzin, who as a geshe has the highest degree available to Tibetan monastics, stayed to complete his doctorate in Emory’s Institute of Liberal Arts under Dean Paul’s supervision. Tenzin now teaches at Emory and has served as a liaison with the Tibetan leadership over the years. “For His Holiness to tie himself to one University,” he says, “shows tremendous trust in Emory and an appreciation of what Emory is offering.”
The Dalai Lama returned to Emory in 1998 as the speaker at that year’s commencement, and to sign a formal Emory-Tibet Partnership agreement with President William Chace. Granted an honorary doctorate in divinity during the ceremony, the Dalai Lama at first used an interpreter but then spoke directly to the audience of thousands.
“A good person means someone with a good heart, a sense of caring for the welfare of others, a sense of commitment, a sense of responsibility,” he said. “Education and the warm heart, the compassionate heart—if you combine these two, then your education and knowledge will be constructive.”
Long a repository of ancient knowledge, Tibet is a stunning territory between China and India with the Himalayan mountains running down its side. Existing as a separate nation for centuries, Tibet was invaded by China in 1949 and is today under Chinese rule. All but a dozen of Tibet’s 6,500 monasteries were destroyed, and hundreds of monastics were killed or imprisoned.
As Tibet’s spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama moved to India to live in exile in 1959 with nearly eighty thousand followers.
“People tend to think of Tibet as a remote place, but for historical reasons it became the place where much of the intellectual accomplishments of the entire Asian continent came together and were preserved,” Paul says. “People came from all over to be educated in its monasteries. Now that the government of Tibet and the Dalai Lama are in exile, they are playing the same role by reaching out and bringing Tibetan culture and knowledge to the world.”
The Emory-Tibet Partnership has expanded to include study abroad programs in Dharamsala—the base of the Tibetan government in exile—and visits to the University by distinguished Tibetan scholars. In India, students take classes in the language, culture, history, and traditions of Tibet and have a private audience with the Dalai Lama.
“It was totally different than I expected in all the right ways,” says junior Paige Wilson 08C, who took part in the program last spring and has served as president of Students for a Free Tibet at Emory. “It gave me a completely different orientation to my own life.”
A few scholarships are offered to Tibetan students as well. The first such student, Tsondue Samphel 06C, received a degree in physics.
Emory recently attracted two distinguished scholars in the field of Tibetan studies—Assistant Professor of Religion John Dunne, who will teach as well as codirect Emory’s Collaborative for Contemplative Studies; and Sara McClintock, senior lecturer and research associate in religion and Asian studies who will teach Tibetan language classes (a new offering at Emory) as well as Buddhist literature.
The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, in cooperation with the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, has been charged with developing a science curriculum for Tibetan monasteries. Science faculty are meeting weekly to create the curricula, which at the Dalai Lama’s request will focus on three areas: cognitive sciences, life sciences, and cosmology.
“His Holiness is a firm believer in bringing together science and spirituality,” says Tenzin. “He believes that both have tremendous potential to benefit humanity.”—M.J.L.