Since the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) launched in 2006, those involved have been working to foster a relationship between the modern sciences and the ancient science of the mind in Buddhist tradition. After the 10th annual Tibet Week, those involved reflect on how the initiative has evolved.
The initiative, established eight years after Emory’s partnership with Tibet began, aims to develop and incorporate a science education curriculum into current Tibetan monastic education.
According to Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet partnership, co-director of the ETSI and senior lecturer in the religion department, the Tibetan monks already have a rigorous curriculum of their own that includes subjects such as philosophy and logic. The science curriculum, he said, must complement their existing education but also encourage a comparative study of modern science and the Buddhist science of the mind and the emotions.
Director of Libraries for Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala Geshe Lhakdor’s visit to Emory in February 2006 triggered the idea for the initiative when he requested the University’s support in developing a sustainable and comprehensive science curriculum for the Tibetan monks, Negi said.
In a trip led by Preetha Ram, co-director of the ETSI and assistant dean of science education, a group of Emory faculty and staff travelled to Dharamsala, India, to consult the Dalai Lama, where he suggested that the curriculum focus on physics, biology, neuroscience and some mathematics.
The program was finalized in January 2007, coinciding with the Dalai Lama’s visit to Emory when he officially accepted the title of Presidential Distinguished Professor.
Textbooks for the curriculum were developed immediately, which “pleasantly surprised” and “genuinely encouraged” the Dalai Lama, Negi said.
There are two volumes of each textbook, both of which are bilingual. One volume consists of biology, the other neuroscience and physics.
“Our goals is to develop 15 primers, five in each of the three areas,” Negi said.
In 2008, 16 faculty members ventured to Dharamsala to teach the first five-week course to 33 monks and five nuns. The following year, 16 faculty members and a few research assistants returned to teach the second course, this time to 90 monks and nuns from 19 different institutions in India. This May, faculty members will be teaching the third course. The initiative will develop two more years of the curriculum to complete a five-year course in modern science.
The Dalai Lama is “aware that the monastic tradition is ancient and so far has not incorporated modern science in its education,” Negi said.
The five-year program is an initiative, he said, to help the Dalai Lama realize his vision of integrating modern science into monastic education. His hope, according to Negi, is not just to “teach them something they don’t know,” but also to facilitate an ongoing collaboration between the contemplative wisdom of monks and nuns with the sciences.
Modern science has conflicted with many religions on a global level, most prominently Christianity. Despite this, Negi said that “the Buddhism as a tradition cannot simply be reduced to a religion because the Buddhism, like modern science, places a great emphasis on examination and observation.”
Negi said the Buddhist tradition requires empirical evidence to draw conclusions about the world and the reality, and in that regard, he said, Buddhism is very compatible with modern science and the scientific method.
Negi added that the tradition is open to new ideas and tolerant of conflicting ones.
Various Buddhist understandings also have much to offer to scientists and researchers, Negi said.
“The Buddhist tradition has placed tremendous importance on understanding the nature of our mind and our emotions,” Negi explained of the ancient science of the mind.
In addition to understanding the workings of the mind and emotions, Negi added, the Buddhist tradition focuses on regulating emotions and promoting healthier states of the mind.
The sophisticated meditative practices that come from the tradition can benefit scientists interested in the human well-being, he said.
Last year, the ETSI created the “Tibetan Mind/Body Sciences” summer study abroad program to institute an environment of mutual learning. The program takes Emory undergraduate students to Dharamsala with the faculty who are teaching science courses in India.
“The purpose of this program is to provide that kind of opportunity for the monks and for our students to really live together and to exchange ideas and learn from each other through formal or informal discussions,” Negi said.
While the monks and nuns are studying modern science, students are learning about the mind and body sciences, contemplative practices and Tibetan medicine from Tibetan experts.
This summer program is indicative of the discussion and exchanging of ideas that the Dalai Lama has long hoped for, according to the ETSI’s website.
“I have long believed in and advocated a dialogue and cross-fertilization between science and spirituality, as both are essential for enriching human life and alleviating suffering on both individual and global levels,” the Dalai Lama said on the web site.
He also stated on his website that he believes the ETSI is a unique opportunity to fulfill this need and expand the horizons of human knowledge.
— Contact Alice Chen