Emory Report
April 2, 2007
Volume 59, Number 25

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April 2, 2007
Tibet initiative develops science curriculum

by carol clark

As a child, His Holiness the Dalai Lama spent his winters in the sprawling Potala Palace of Tibet with his tutors of Buddhist philosophy and scripture. “In his free time he began exploring and inspecting this 1,000-room palace and looking for naughty things to do,” said Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Halle Distinguished Fellow and principal English language interpreter for the Dalai Lama, during his recent visit to Emory for Tibet Week.

In his explorations, the young Dalai Lama came across some fascinating mechanical objects that had been given to his predecessors by foreigners, including a hand-wound timepiece with a rotating globe on a stand and a collapsible brass telescope. No one in the palace knew anything about the objects.

“One evening, on a beautiful moonlit night, His Holiness peered at the moon with the telescope and saw shadows on its surface,” said Jinpa. “He was very excited” and called in his tutors to show them, saying, “the shadows mean that the light must be coming from another source and not the moon.”

Such early experiences sparked the Dalai Lama’s lifelong interest in modern science, Jinpa said, eventually leading to his vision of a convergence of science and spirituality for the common goal of human betterment. The Emory Tibet Science Initiative, a program to integrate a comprehensive science curriculum into the traditional studies of Tibetan monks and nuns, is a key part of that vision.

Science and religion, at their best, are both engaged in the pursuit of truth to alleviate human suffering, said Jinpa. “If we reflect deeply, we must see the convergence. There has to be a harmony between the two powerful forces that govern and distinguish how we live as human beings.”

The Emory Tibet Science Initiative “is truly historic,” said Preetha Ram, assistant dean for science in the Office for Undergraduate Education and co-director of the ETSI. “When was the last time a religious leader of the stature of the Dalai Lama came to scientists and asked them to collaborate on something?”

Last July, following the official invitation for Emory to collaborate on the initiative by Geshe Lhakdor, director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, a team of Emory faculty met with the Dalai Lama and began work on the project in earnest.

His Holiness cited two goals: in-depth training for a small group of monks and nuns that would enable them to participate in scientific endeavors, and a broader science education to ensure scientific literacy for the entire Tibetan monastic community in India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.

“This is the last great frontier for a teacher,” said Paul Lennard, director of Emory’s neuroscience and behavioral biology program and a faculty member of the ETSI. “Most of [the monastics] can’t divide or multiply. We’re going to teach them quantum physics.”

The ETSI team has determined three areas of focus for the curriculum: cosmology/physics — beginning with a description of the universe and the development of ancient astronomy; life sciences — including the theories of Darwin and a discussion of geologic time; and neuro/cognitive science — introducing the architecture of the brain as the locus of the mind.

For monastics steeped in the concepts of karma and rebirth, some of these modern scientific theories “will be stumbling blocks,” said Jinpa, adding that the Dalai Lama firmly believes these obstacles can be overcome. “His personal story is perhaps a model that shows that religious practices can be truly grounded with a deep sense of integrity and devotion,” and find common ground with the scientific community.

While the monastics lack advanced math skills, they are intellectually sophisticated and adept at debating. One challenge will be “to engage them without talking down to them,” said Lennard.

Language is another major barrier, since most of the monastics do not speak English and the Tibetan language does not have words for chemical elements and other scientific concepts. Translators will be used during lectures, and will help write textbooks and other materials being developed by the ETSI.

In addition to representatives from the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and Emory faculty and research assistants, the 16-member science curriculum development team includes David Finkelstein, emeritus professor of physics at Georgia Tech. The ETSI advisory board includes representatives of Williams College, the San Diego Institute and two non-profit organizations that have been providing small-scale science programs for monks in northern India, Science for Monks and Science Meets Dharma.

“We’re all working incredibly hard,” said Lennard. “This is an undertaking of love beyond any of our job descriptions.”

In July 2008, the ETSI faculty plans to travel to a monastery near Dharamsala, to deliver a month of intensive lectures to the first 50 students entering the curriculum. Textbooks and other training materials will be left behind so that the students can continue their studies after the ETSI faculty leave, aided by instructors from Science for Monks and Science Meets Dharma.

Each year, 50 more monastics will be added to the ETSI program, over a seven-year period. “We’re developing a seven-year curriculum, but His Holiness told us that it’s a 100-year project,” said Ram. “That patience and timelessness is typical of the Tibetan monastic way of thinking.”

Long-range plans call for creating study abroad laboratory experiences for advanced students. In order to ensure the program’s sustainability, plans also call for recruiting members of the Tibetan lay community with Western-style educations to help teach the science curriculum.

“We are bringing together two cultures,” said Geshe Lobsang Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership and co-director of the ETSI. “Tibetan monastics have been using contemplation for millennia, to understand the mind and its nature, while Western science and its astonishing technology has a tremendous understanding of the brain and how it works. It’s really an amazing thing, to bridge these two areas of knowledge in order to improve the human condition.”