Emory Report
February 11, 2008
Volume 60, Number 19

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February 11, 2008
East meets West in science initiative

By nancy seideman

The wind whipped the PowerPoint screen, cymbals sounded from the rooftop, and the electricity momentarily blinked off — not the usual challenges encountered in an Emory classroom. But then again biology lecturer Alex Escobar had never taught 2,000 Tibetan Buddhist monastics.

Escobar, anthropology professor Carol Worthman and physics professor P.V. Rao taught science units in biology, neurosciences and physics, respectively, as part of the inauguration of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative at the Drepung Loesling Monastery in Mundgod, India, in January.

The importance that His Holiness the Dalai Lama places on implementing a science curriculum for monastics was apparent in the venue he selected to formally introduce the ETSI to the Tibetan Buddhist community.

The Dalai Lama inaugurated the program at a gathering of about 40,0000 monastics, Tibetan Buddhist leaders, Tibetan natives, Indian officials and special guests at the opening of the monastery’s prayer hall on Jan. 7.

Vice President Gary Hauk brought greetings from the University, and talked about what the ETSI will mean to all participants. “We believe we have something to offer through the tradition of Western science, which has been so effective in opening the mysteries of the physical world. And we know that we have much to learn from your own venerable tradition about the interior world of consciousness.”

Although the Emory delegation was able to attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings and a private audience, the faculty spent much of their time in late-night sessions refining their presentations, reviewing scripts with interpreters, and dealing with the inevitable glitches.

Ultimately all three presentations went off without a hitch, generating lively discussion and interest, as evidenced by the stream of monks who lined up to ask questions (often prefacing their queries by expounding on their own viewpoints, proving that students are students no matter what the culture).

“As educators, we hadn’t taught such a population — highly intelligent, enthusiastic, but lacking knowledge of basic scientific concepts that we take for granted in teaching,” said Preetha Ram, ETSI co-director. “Their questions gave us a window into how they think, which will help us focus curriculum for this program, and also give us new ways to approach teaching in Emory classrooms.”