October 12, 2010

Science initiative melds best of East, West

When you’re talking about cells, are you referring to their minds or their bodies?

The question from a Tibetan translator temporarily stumped Emory biologist Arri Eisen. In Tibetan, every organism has a mind and a body, and you have to be speaking about one or the other, explained Geshe Dadul Namgyal, a member of the team translating Western scientific concepts into the Tibetan language.

“I told him that Westerners don’t usually think of cells as having a mind,” Eisen recalls.

These are the sorts of conversations sparked by a groundbreaking program to bring the best of Western science to Tibetan Buddhist monastics, and the insights of Buddhist meditative practices to Western scientists.

Launched in 2006, the program recently became officially known as the Robert A. Paul Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI). It was the vision of Paul, the former dean of Emory College, and His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama that led to the formation of the Emory Tibet-Partnership and the ETSI.

“It’s the way globalization should happen — taking the best of different traditions and creating something new,” says Eisen, director of Emory’s Program in Science & Society, and one of many Emory science faculty who are involved with developing the ETSI.

“The enthusiasm and the commitment of the science faculty has been a huge gift,” says Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership and co-director of the ETSI along with Preetha Ram, associate dean for pre-health and science education.

“It’s amazing how smoothly the program has developed,” Negi says. “The pieces keep coming together as we need them.”

Emory faculty are developing special science curriculum for the monastics, and teaching it every summer at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan community in exile. The faculty are working in conjunction with three Tibetan translators based at Emory, and five more at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala.

Prototype materials were created in English covering three areas: physics, neurosciences and the other life sciences. Work is under way to refine the curricula, based on feedback from faculty and the monastics as the program progresses. The long-term goal is to develop and translate five primers for each of these three areas, and eventually integrate the five-year science education program into Tibetan monasteries and nunneries throughout India. (The completed texts for the first-year primers for neurosciences and for the other life sciences were recently sent to the printers.)

Instruction of the first cohort of 30 monastics began in 2008. Six monks from this cohort are on the Emory campus this fall, where they will sharpen their English skills while gaining more exposure to Western-style science.

“We want to train monastics and other science educators in India to teach the curriculum themselves, so that the program becomes rooted in the community and doesn’t disappear,” Eisen says.

Each year, ETSI keeps expanding its reach. Its student body now includes 90 monks and nuns from 19 different monastic institutions.

“When ETSI first began, there was quite a bit of skepticism in the monastic community about the idea,” Negi says. “Now we’re seeing a 180 degree shift in that attitude. There is huge interest and enthusiasm among the major monasteries for making Western science part of their education.”

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