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Emory’s Little Tibet

November 9, 2007

New York Times November 4, 2007

DRESSED in a pale blue, floor-length chuba, NAME OMITTED FOR SECURITY REASONS silently
mouthed a paragraph-long greeting, in Tibetan, that she was about to
deliver to the Dalai Lama. The members of Emory’s chapter of Students
for a Free Tibet, of which NAME OMITTED FOR SECURITY REASONS is president, were among the lucky
few selected to meet His Holiness in person.

Bowing slightly, the Dalai Lama exchanged a few words in Tibetan with 
NAME OMITTED FOR SECURITY REASONS before addressing the quivering knot of students. “I didn’t
mess up,” she said later, “but in the middle of my speech he saw I was
nervous and touched my face, and smiled at me.

“It grounded me. It’s, like, a very human thing to do.”

Emory’s three-day whirlwind of conferences and ceremonies in late
October had come to be referred to on campus simply as The Visit. Even
before the Dalai Lama’s headline-making meeting with President Bush,
students had lined up over several days for free tickets. In the
defining moment, several thousand watched as the Dalai Lama, the
spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, was installed as a distinguished
professor — and then issued a campus ID card.

The association is more than a public relations coup for Emory. True, it
brings the university its third Nobel Peace Prize winner (President
Jimmy Carter and Bishop Desmond Tutu have been faculty members); and it
links the institution to a living symbol of a human rights struggle
irresistible to a generation for whom Che Guevara is a pop icon. Then
there’s the cool factor of an exotic religion whose popularity in the
West seems only to grow.

But the appointment, the Dalai Lama’s first, is also the culmination of
a relationship spanning nearly two decades, one that harks back to
Emory’s history as a Methodist institution aiming to mold students
intellectually and morally. Emory has both a prominent divinity school
and, as evidenced by its Peace Prize trifecta, a longstanding commitment
to peaceful conflict resolution.

“One of the great things about the Methodist tradition is they don’t
insist that everybody has to be Methodist,” says Robert Paul, the
college dean. “His Holiness is a religious figure who is not dogmatic,
not sectarian, doesn’t advocate ‘My way or the highway.’”

John D. Dunne, one of the prominent Tibet scholars who has joined the
faculty in recent years, says the university’s credo, “Educating the
heart and mind,” has become a vanguard attitude among universities. “Our
cognitive skills, our ability to understand things, also has to do with
our emotional state,” he says. “This is kind of the leading edge, too,
of neuroscience.”

The university is by no means a Berkeley or a Reed College; its
reputation is more “new Ivy” than crunchy. In the South, it is best
known as a medical powerhouse with a leafy Beaux-Arts campus and an
endowment made handsome by Coca-Cola money. (In addition to a medical
school and strong public health department, it runs a six-hospital
health care system.)

What is now officially known as the Emory-Tibet Partnership started
small, in 1991, as a friendship between Dr. Paul, an anthropologist who
had done fieldwork in Nepal, and Lobsang Negi, who had been sent by the
Dalai Lama to create the North American seat of the Drepung Loseling
Monastery on a parcel of donated land in Atlanta.

Geshe Lobsang, as he is called (geshe is an honorific denoting the
highest level of monastic education), enrolled as a graduate student at
Emory. “We used to say, ‘Who’s the guy in the robes?’ ” recalls Nancy
Seideman, Emory’s executive director of media relations.

Lobsang Negi ultimately left the monkhood and is now a senior lecturer
who also directs the Drepung Loseling Institute, the monastery’s secular
arm, which designs programs in Tibetan culture for Emory.

THE Dalai Lama’s faculty position, which is unsalaried, is more
imprimatur than anything else. He will not teach any courses but will
continue to be host every spring to a study abroad program in
Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Emory
officials say the program is unique in that students live and study at
the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, founded by the Dalai Lama, and
have a private audience with him in addition to hearing his public

The program, which is open to non-Emory undergraduates, has attracted
students with interests beyond Buddhism as religion or personal
enlightenment, says Tara Doyle, the director. Students have designed
independent study projects on the refugee experience, Tibetan medicine,
human rights issues, Western nuns and even a single Tibetan poem.

“There’s something about things Tibetan that attract people who are of
somewhat diverse orientations,” Dr. Doyle says. “They’re seeking for

A decade ago, Emory offered two Buddhism-related classes with some 60
students; last year, there were more than 230 enrolled in 12 courses in
Tibetan language and history and Buddhist philosophy, as well as a
graduate seminar, on emptiness. High-ranking lamas often serve as guest
lecturers. (Tibetan studies is not a separate department; courses are
offered under the aegis of religion or Asian studies.)

The partnership reaches across disciplines and into various facets of
university life. The library is amassing a digital collection of Tibetan
texts. University employees can take meditation classes twice a week.
And at the behest of the Dalai Lama, science professors are developing a
curriculum on cosmology, physics and biology, in Tibetan. Monks are well
educated in traditional Buddhist subjects like philosophy and logic but
not in science or math.

Scholars have sometimes bristled when the Dalai Lama has been presented
in an academic context. In 2005, more than 500 brain researchers
protested his scheduled lecture on meditation at the annual meeting of
the Society for Neuroscience, arguing that the subject had not been
studied with rigor and objectivity.

Emory has tried to counter that criticism. Dr. Charles Raison, an
assistant professor of psychiatry in the Mind-Body Program at the
medical school, recently concluded a study of meditation and depression
in 100 students. Half were given health instruction but did not
meditate. Half, led by Geshe Lobsang, learned compassion meditation
(practitioners develop a sense of interconnectedness by envisioning all
humans as friends or family). Response to stress was measured by testing
levels of inflammation indicators in the blood. Dr. Raison says his
research builds on other studies showing that people who perceive
themselves as part of a social network are healthier.

While the doctor will not discuss his results, pending publication,
Eliot Johnson, one of the participants, offered an anecdotal conclusion:
“I definitely felt happier. Just comparing finals that semester with the
semester before, it was a lot less stressful.”

Mr. Johnson, a junior in tattered Converse sneakers, was hovering
tentatively at the edge of a cluster of students who had met on the quad
to practice their Tibetan. The more advanced chatted away with four
saffron-and-maroon-robed monks from the monastery. A double major in
religion and Asian studies, Mr. Johnson plans to go to Dharamsala this
spring to experience Buddhism in its home setting.

“I’m still trying to work out my own spiritual side of it,” he said.
“But philosophically, it makes a lot of sense.”

Emory’s approach is to encourage a perspective somewhere between
academic remove and uncritical embrace. In a recent class on Buddhist
philosophy, team-taught by Geshe Lobsang and Dr. Dunne, the subject was
interconnectedness. Geshe Lobsang told an old story about a monk who
throws a rock at a dog, only to discover that his beloved teacher has
received the bruise instead. Responding to a ripple of skepticism among
the students, Dr. Dunne suggested that instead of pondering whether the
story was literally true, they ought instead to consider the
implications of a world in which it could be.

Shaila Dewan is a reporter in the Atlanta bureau of The New York Times.

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