Emory Report
October 29, 2007
Volume 60, Number 9

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October 29, 2007
Science book binds East and West

By Carol Clark

The cover of “A Handbook of Science for Tibetan Monastics” shows colorful Tibetan prayer flags next to a telescope, a neuron and beakers of chemicals.

“This is wonderful, wonderful,” said His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, who was given a copy of the newly printed textbook shortly after arriving in Atlanta on Oct. 19.

Compiled by the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, the textbook is the prototype for a comprehensive curriculum designed to bring scientific literacy to Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in India. It is the latest milestone in the Dalai Lama’s vision of a convergence of science and spirituality for the common goal of human betterment.

Written in both English and Tibetan, with extensive glossaries and illustrations, the 350-page volume is tailored to monastics who are intellectually sophisticated and adept at debating, despite their lack of math and modern science training.

“This is no ordinary textbook,” said Preetha Ram, assistant dean of science and co-director of the ETSI, along with Lobsang Negi.

In addition to the book, the 16-member ETSI team presented the Dalai Lama with an outline of a five-year plan for the comprehensive science curriculum they’ve been working on for about a year, as part of the Emory-Tibet Partnership.

“We seek to connect the domains of knowledge of East and West,” Ram said. “We invite discussion and we’d like to embark on a joint exploration.”

While modern science is mainly concerned with external matters, Buddhist science “really deals with our inner world — our minds and emotions,” the Dalai Lama said. People need both perspectives to fully develop material assets and also achieve inner peace and happiness, he added.

Modern science can contradict ancient scripture without negative consequences to the monastic community, he said, citing Buddhist texts which describe the world as flat and Mount Mehru as the center of the universe. “I’ve already rejected that, I don’t believe it. I feel it’s positive that we get closer to reality. Buddha himself made it very clear that, finally, the points you accept should come through your own experiment and investigation, rather than relying on a quotation of Buddha’s own words,” the Dalai Lama said.

“A Handbook for Science” starts off with a bang — the Big Bang theory of the evolution of the universe. The first section goes on to give an overview of modern cosmology and physics, including stories about key scientists such as Galileo and Newton. The biology section covers the theories of Darwin and geologic time and the final section, on neuroscience, introduces the architecture of the brain as the locus of the mind.
“From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, things that are alive have to have a consciousness so, for example, a plant is not considered alive,” said Alexander Escobar, a senior lecturer in biology and a member of the ETSI team. “In the biology section of the textbook, we ask the monks to explain how they define life. And then we explain how in the West, we have identified the cell as the basic unit of life. The lessons are shaped into the form of conversations so we get a dialogue going.”

The 16-member ETSI team includes representatives from the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Emory faculty and research assistants and David Finkelstein, emeritus professor of physics at Georgia Tech.

A team of ETSI instructors will travel to the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, next May to launch the curriculum in a month-long intensive course with a group of about 50 monks and nuns. Instructors from two nonprofit groups — Science for Monks and Science for Dharma — have aligned with the ETSI, to continue the instruction of the curriculum through the rest of the year. Each May, an additional 50 monks and nuns will be introduced to the program. Over time, monastics and lay people from the Tibetan community will be trained to assist with teaching, enabling modern science education to eventually become integrated into all of the Tibetan monasteries in India.

“At the heart of this is the Buddhist concept of interdependence,” Escobar said. “There’s a lot in modern science that also points in that direction. The really exciting part is to think ahead 100 years from now, what could come out of bringing these two traditions together. It could lead to important new ways of understanding the world.”