Emory Report
February 11, 2008
Volume 60, Number 19

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February 11, 2008
Witness to creation of knowledge

Nancy Seideman is executive editor of Emory Report and associate vice president of communications.

Seated at the foot of the monastery steps, I tilted my head back to idly watch the multi-colored triangle-shaped flags flutter in the balmy twilight breeze.

As the sky turned violet, hundreds of tiny yellow lights flashed on, outlining the massive exterior of the prayer hall looming above the wide marble staircase. At the top of the steeple, blinking lights along the rim of a Buddhist Wheel of Truth made it appear to spin.

Thousands of monks and nuns clad in saffron and maroon robes crossed the courtyard from all directions, silently arranging themselves on mats behind our row of chairs.

The hoarse bellow of horns and rattling cymbals sounded from the rooftop in preparation for an empowerment that His Holiness the Dalai Lama would give the next day.

How did I ever end up here in southern India last month, about to watch professor Alex Escobar deliver a lecture on evolution to thousands of monastics? And why did I feel at home?

It wasn’t always so.

In 2005 I was invited to accompany an Emory delegation to Dharamsala, India, to cover the signing of a formal agreement as part of our growing affiliation with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhist institutions of higher learning.

I nearly didn’t make the trip. Thanks to my foot-dragging, my visa arrived just two days before our departure. Everyone was thrilled that I was going to meet the Dalai Lama, but I was ambivalent, not knowing much about him beyond “Free Tibet.”

I knew little about Buddhism (obviously), was intimidated by monks, and didn’t understand exactly what was to be achieved by bringing together the best of “Western scholastic tradition and the Tibetan Buddhist wisdom tradition.” What exactly did that mean?

This Buddhist tradition clashed with my reporter’s nature: I needed to know the “answer” — now — and preferably in 500 words or less.

I found my answer in our first of many audiences with the most revered Tibetan Buddhism scholars and leaders. Numb from the bitter cold and still recovering from the 14-hour drive into the Himalayan foothills, we were ushered into the reception room of Ling Rinpoche, a 21-year-old monk who is the reincarnation of the current Dalai Lama’s senior tutor.

I struggled to keep up with the customary greeting ceremony that soon would become second nature, bowing to offer a white greeting scarf as the monks did prostrations in respect to Ling Rinpoche. We sipped the ever-present chai tea and tossed pinches of offered barley into the air to guarantee an “auspicious” year.
As the frenzy of activities subsided, Emory College Dean Bobby Paul thanked Ling Rinpoche for receiving us, and initiated a discussion of what had brought us 3,000 miles.

Bobby talked of how Western science had made tremendous advances in our understanding of the physical world while Tibetan Buddhism had devoted millennia to exploring the nature and workings of the mind. Think of the potential for creating new knowledge through a two-way exchange of ideas and scholars and students. Think of what is possible.

Throughout this conversation, the wisdom, intellectual curiosity, humor, and passion for inquiry were characteristics that emanated from Ling Rinpoche, indeed from all of the scholars we met — most notably the Dalai Lama. I was humbled to be witness to these conversations.

Now, three years later, I sat with the audience of Tibetan Buddhist monastics and listened as Alex, Carol Worthman and P.V. Rao taught science lessons in neurosciences, biology and physics — all translated into Tibetan.

Again I felt the wisdom, intellectual curiosity, humor, and passion for inquiry emanate — this time from Emory professors — which was returned in good measure by the monks who eagerly lined up to ask questions.

The dialogue between the scholars and students — one representing Western philosophy, the other Eastern — could have gone on all night. So, I thought, this is what it’s like to witness the creation of new knowledge, this is how it begins.

When we met with Ling Rinpoche in 2005, we were given bright red protection cords with his blessing. A monk helped me to wrap the cord around my wrist and knot it many times. Since then, whenever I felt particularly discouraged, impatient, cynical or on the verge of revealing my ignorance, the cord served as a reminder of what was possible when you possessed an open heart and mind.

After nearly three years of constant service, the red string had faded to white and disintegrated from my wrist just before my trip. At the Dalai Lama’s teaching, much to my delight, we received a bright red protection cord with his blessing. My good friend Geshe Kalsang Damdul tied the string around my wrist and patted the knot into place, and the lesson continued, and continues.

I’m good for three more years.