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Tibetan Monks and Nuns Turn Their Minds Toward Science

June 30, 2009

nyt June 29, 2009

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.

Students in the Emory Tibet Science Initiative taking turns at a microscope.
This spring, 91 nuns and monks took a class in accelerated motion,
chromosomes, neurons and the Big Bang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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