Where do compassion and empathy come from?

What makes life sentient?

Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns have grappled with these questions for centuries but, for the first time in their history, they are using science to help find the answers.

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This summer, as they have the past several years, professors from across the United States and elsewhere are traveling to three major Tibetan monastic universities in Southern India to train monastics in the philosophy of science, physics, biology, and neuroscience.

For monks and nuns, the program — organized and operated by Emory University — is the most far-reaching update to their curriculum in 600 years. And for scientists who usually reduce complex systems — like the human body — into smaller parts, the program is a window into a way of thinking that emphasizes the interconnectedness and cyclical aspects of nature.

“Looking at Western problems from a Tibetan Buddhist viewpoint helps us to think about complex interactions between different organisms and cell types,” said Tom Wilkie, associate professor at the University of Texas Southwestern and a biology instructor in the program.

The classes are part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI), a program inspired by a personal relationship between the Dalai Lama and Robert A. Paul, a psychological anthropologist and former dean of Emory University.

Arri Eisen, professor of pedagogy at Emory and the program’s biology faculty leader, believes that although scientists collect data in an objective way, they frame their results in a specific cultural narrative — one that might not be shared by other cultures.

Buddhist philosophy, he notes, provides a counterpoint to Western ideas of conception and embryonic growth. Rather than viewing fertilization as a competition between sperm, Buddhists consider it a communal effort whereby millions of sperm sacrifice themselves to the female immune system so that a few may survive. Embryonic development, contrary to what is commonly taught in the United States, also requires sacrificial cell death, which “sculpts” organs into the correct size and shape.

Buddhism “isn’t just a philosophical, feel good, different way of looking at things,” said Eisen. “It shifts the way that you address the question you’re asking … and therefore it shifts your hypothesis and it shifts your experiments.”

For Tibetan monks and nuns, there has been a rapid adjustment to science. Many of them have overcome an inherent prejudice against a field they have associated with communism and a Chinese government with a long history of repressing ethnic Tibetans. Students in the program say they have come to view science as a useful tool to investigate human emotion and the nature of consciousness.

“More and more [monks] are now changing. They are getting more interested,” said Rangdol Yeshi, a monk in the middle of a four-semester residency at Emory University who joined the program two years ago. Those “who didn’t get opportunities [to be] involved in class are starting to regret it.”

According to Lobsang Tenzin Negi, a former monk who is now a professor at Emory and director of the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, monks and nuns are planning their own research institutes. Two areas of interest are physical hygiene, which deals with how to keep the environment clean, and mental hygiene, which seeks to reduce stress through empathy and self-awareness.

Tibetan Buddhist Monk Science 2
Monks at Drepung monastery studying bacteria. Courtesy Dr. Tom Wilkie

Eisen credits the success of the program to how teachers and monks have navigated tensions between science and religion.

“I think rather than avoiding these tensions…we kind of ease [into] them to get to the meat of the matter,” he said. We don’t “necessarily resolve them … but these are the places where the most learning happens.”

Intertwined with morning lectures and laboratory work in the afternoon is the constant rhythm of debate, an important pedagogical tool among monastics. During their traditional studies, monks and nuns debate religious scriptures and Tibetan philosophy from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. six days a week. These confrontations, often one-on-one but also occurring between teams, are an acrobatic mix of bellowing, tugging at clothes, and clapping to emphasize certain points.

“Logic is what they are sharpest in,” Eisen said. “They can beat you at a debate on pretty much anything in a matter of seconds.”

During lectures, teachers routinely pause, allowing for monks and nuns to debate how best to fit new scientific ideas into Buddhist philosophy.

One idea that has eluded resolution is the Buddhist belief in a cycle of rebirth, sometimes referred to as reincarnation. In this case, monks and the instructors recognize that scientific methodologies cannot “address these seemingly metaphysical questions,” said Negi. “So you kind of bracket that out and focus more on what scientific evidence is able to demonstrate and in that area there is so much in common.”

When the Dalai Lama first invited Emory to collaborate with monastics, he envisioned a science program that would last a hundred years and enable new discoveries.

“He saw opportunities for new ideas to emerge from so-called ancient wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism and brand new neuroscience,” said Eisen. “He envisioned new healing to relieve suffering in the world.”

The process of designing a science curriculum for monks and nuns, however, has not always been easy.

Monastics, despite their intellect, often had no exposure to math — most had never seen an equal sign. And because they learned through memorization, monks and nuns were not used to taking notes and writing laboratory reports.

To address these issues, Eisen and other instructors consulted with Americans who had become Buddhist monks, Tibetan scholars, translators, and monks who had some experience with science. They also inspired a parallel project whereby Tibetan linguists, scholars, and scientists translated thousands of biological terms — like cell membrane, photosynthesis, and cloning — into the Tibetan lexicon.

The pacing of the classes is deliberate as teachers pause every few sentences so that translators can relay information to students. Teachers have adapted by using these breaks to review what they have just said and to carefully consider their next statements. The result: a more reflective learning experience that’s difficult to find in an American classroom.

In the United States, you find “a bunch of hotshot [medical and graduate] students trying to advance their career,” said Wilkie. The monks, by contrast, are “really trying to understand how the scientific approach can be used in the context of Tibetan Buddhism to understand their world.”

After a successful pilot program, the science curriculum was formally implemented in 2014. This past summer, the most advanced class of monks finished their fifth year of the six-year curriculum. Upon graduating, many of them will become science teachers, ensuring that the program, with occasional guidance from outside scientists, will be self-sustaining.

Instructors are also using video-based classes to expand the scope of the program from the three original monasteries to any interested academic monastic institution housing monks or nuns. To date, science classes have become part of the core curriculum in nine monasteries and five nunneries.

For Yeshi, one of the monk students who is also a visiting scholar at Emory University, the science curriculum has not only expanded his world but also opened a question familiar to Western students: What to do after graduation? Some likely possibilities include returning to his monastery to teach students and to help run the newly constructed science center.

Yeshi would like to “carry on those science studies and use my own practice,” he said, “to find the meaning of my life.”

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  • This article goes well with another one about treating chronic pyoloric bacterial infections among the monks. They had high rates of ulcers & cancers, due to lack of modern knowledge.
    A team of scientists introduced a culturally specific treatment program to help them. Now the monks & nuns are spreading it to the common people they live among…

  • Buddhist philosophical teachings represent a vastly different epistemology than the epistemology that science uses – therefore as I see it, teaching science to Buddhist monks is an utter waste of time and a stupid move. Science is about the accumulation of knowledge, whereas Buddhist teachings are about developing self-understanding and wisdom. The later is only achieved through meditation and contemplation.

  • I would like to see a reference for your statement please.
    What Buddhist monks do is to give advice to individuals in the community on how to prevent the spread of diseases (such as HIV), and also how spirituality can be used to deal with as well as prevent these conditions.

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