Tibetan Monks and Nuns Turn Their Minds Toward Science
- 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
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
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,"
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
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
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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