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Tibetan Monks and Nuns Turn Their Minds Toward Science

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Long but interesting article from the NY Times: Tibetan Monks and Nuns Turn Their Minds Toward Science DHARAMSALA, India — Tibetan monks and nuns spend their
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 30, 2009
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      Long but interesting article from the NY Times:

      Tibetan Monks and Nuns Turn Their Minds Toward Science
      DHARAMSALA, India — Tibetan monks and
      nuns spend their lives studying the inner
      world of the mind rather than the physical
      world of matter. Yet for one month this spring
      a group of 91 monastics devoted themselves to
      the corporeal realm of science.

      Instead of delving into Buddhist texts on karma
      and emptiness, they learned about Galileo's law
      of accelerated motion, chromosomes, neurons and
      the Big Bang, among other far-ranging topics.

      Many in the group, whose ages ranged from the
      20s to 40s, had never learned science and math.
      In Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries,
      the curriculum has remained unchanged for centuries.
      To add to the challenge, some monastics have
      limited English and relied on Tibetan translators
      to absorb the four-week crash course in physics,
      biology, neuroscience and math and logic taught
      by teachers from Emory University in Atlanta.

      But the monastics put morning-to-evening lectures
      into action. At a Buddhist college campus here in
      Dharamsala, the exile home of the Dalai Lama in
      northern India, red-robed monks and nuns experimented
      with pendulums, gathered plants in the foothills
      of the Himalayas that showed natural selection
      and bent their shaved heads over microscopes to
      view an unseen world.

      Tibetan monks and nuns may spend 12 hours a
      day studying Buddhist philosophy and logic,
      reciting prayers and debating scriptures. But
      science has been given a special boost by the
      Dalai Lama, who has long advocated modern education
      in Tibetan monasteries and schools in exile,
      alongside Tibet's traditions. India is home to
      at least 120,000 Tibetans, the largest population
      outside Tibet.
      Science may seem at odds with Tibetan religious
      rituals. Reincarnations of high Tibetan monks are
      identified through dreams and auspicious signs.
      The Dalai Lama credits the state oracle with
      helping him decide to flee Tibet in 1959 as
      Chinese troops advanced on Lhasa.

      Yet the Tibetan spiritual leader views science
      and Buddhism as complementary "investigative
      approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking
      the truth," he wrote in "The Universe in a Single
      Atom," his book on "how science and spirituality
      can serve our world." He stresses that science is
      especially important for monastics who study the
      nature of the mind and the relationship between
      mind and brain.

      Initial resistance from some senior monks
      and fears of diluting traditional studies
      in monasteries have gradually eased. Now the
      Dalai Lama hopes that, with help from Emory
      and other programs, science will become part
      of a new curriculum, with science textbooks
      in Tibetan and specialist translators, leading
      to a generation of monastic leaders that are
      scientifically literate.

      There are other reasons for integrating
      science with Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans marked
      the 50th anniversary of their exile this year,
      and a return to their homeland remains elusive.
      The need to keep Tibetan cultural identity alive,
      yet modern and relevant, has grown increasingly
      urgent as the 73-year-old Dalai Lama ages.

      "If you remain isolated, you will disappear,"
      said Lhakdor, director of the Library of Tibetan
      Works and Archives, in Dharamsala, who goes by
      one name. The Dalai Lama himself has often
      remarked that isolation from the world only
      aided Tibet's fall to China.

      Lhakdor also sees similarities rather than
      contradictions between science and Buddhism.
      Like Buddhism, "the approach of science is
      generally based on unbiased findings through
      observation, analysis and finding the truth,"
      he noted.

      Others are more frank about the need to learn
      science. "The 21st century is here. Everybody is
      influenced by science. We want to know what it
      is," said Tenzin Lhadron, a forthright 34-year-old
      nun enrolled in this summer's science program.
      She does not have formal schooling in spite of
      19 years studying at a nunnery in Dharamsala. Math
      is difficult for her; fractions and percentages
      are completely new. "But I will try," she promised.

      The Emory Tibet Science Initiative, of which this
      session was part, is now in its second year. It
      was preceded by the "Science for Monks" program,
      which started in 2001 with support from Bobby Sager,
      a Boston philanthropist. At the behest of the
      Dalai Lama, the earlier program brought science
      teachers from various American universities to
      teach Tibetan monks in India.

      That program has matured into the Emory-backed
      plan to introduce modern science into Tibetan
      monasteries in India within the next few years
      with help from the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

      The Emory initiative has led to a science
      textbook in Tibetan and English, produced by
      Emory professors and translators from the library.
      Translation conferences yielded a science glossary
      that introduces words like electromagnetism,
      climate change and cloning into the Tibetan lexicon.

      The original Science for Monks program has
      morphed into an annual two-week Science Leadership
      summer program for advanced students who are all
      geshes, the monastic equivalent of a Ph.D. This
      year it culminated in a first-ever "science fair"
      here from June 22 to June 24. There, monks gave
      presentations on sound waves, the origins of the
      universe and how the brain works.

      Emory envisions the summer course as a five-year
      program with lessons becoming more advanced in
      successive years for the returning students.

      A third program, called Science Meets Dharma,
      has since 2002 sent European college graduates to
      teach basic science courses in Tibetan monasteries
      in India. When some monks enroll in the intensive
      science programs they have already had a few years
      of science instruction.

      Just how science will be taught in the monasteries
      is still in the works. Western faculty will teach
      to monastics for extended periods, but local Tibetan
      lay teachers will eventually be recruited to teach
      in monasteries year round. Science education already
      exists in the Tibetan exile school system that
      instructs 28,000 children and young adults in
      India, Nepal and Bhutan.

      For the time being, university professors are
      needed for the summer science course. Monks and
      nuns may lack basic science education, but they
      are highly trained in other disciplines, like philosophy.

      "They are sophisticated adult learners," said
      Mark Risjord, professor of philosophy at Emory
      who taught math and logic this summer. During
      his weeklong unit, inquisitive monks pressed him
      for a method to "make deductively valid rules"
      and asked if different arguments can lead to
      the same conclusion.

      Although Buddhist scriptures have their own
      explanations of nature, the mind and the
      physical world, students were unfazed about
      seeming contradictions between Buddhism and western science.

      "There are contradictions within Buddhist
      philosophy itself," pointed out Lobsang Gompo,
      a 27-year-old monk from Drepung monastery in
      south India. Tibetan Buddhists are already
      accustomed to analyzing multiple viewpoints, he said.
      The Dalai Lama's confidence in "critical investigation"
      means that "if scientific analysis were conclusively
      to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be
      false, then we must accept the findings of science
      and abandon those claims," he wrote in
      "The Universe in a Single Atom."

      Lhadron, the nun, added, "Buddhists believe
      whatever reality is there, not just what
      such and such a text says."

      While the Tibetan monastics come away from
      the program enriched, so do the Westerners.
      There is growing interest from the West about
      the relationship between the mind and body —
      for instance, the physical effects of meditation.

      A new Emory program for undergraduates brought
      14 students, mostly premed students, to Dharamsala
      this summer to study Buddhist thought and
      Tibetan medicine.

      The science initiative also paves the way for
      Tibetan monastics to engage in future dialogue
      with Western scientists, another project
      fostered by the Dalai Lama in the form of annual
      conferences of the Mind and Life Institute
      that bring together Western researchers and
      monks in the United States and Dharamsala.
      "If monastics are not aware of scientific concepts,
      they can't communicate and collaborate," said
      Lobsang Negi, director of the Emory Tibet
      Science Initiative.
      The program broadens the horizons of the
      Western science teachers, too, whether by
      teaching across cultures or thinking about
      science through the lens of ethics and human
      values as emphasized in Buddhism.

      For Arri Eisen, a biology professor at Emory,
      teaching the monks and nuns helped him consider
      "how to nurture positive thinking. Western
      education doesn't nurture empathy."

      Science may be far advanced in the West, but
      a moral vacuum exists, said Bryce Johnson, an
      environmental engineer who coordinates the
      Science for Monks program. "There's something
      lost in the West," Dr. Johnson said. The meeting
      of science and Buddhism is "a healthy exchange
      that is as much for the scientists."
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