Arri Eisen on Teaching Science to Monks

Arri Eisen, a professor of pedagogy in biology and a faculty member in the ILA and the Center for Ethics at Emory University, wrote this wonderful piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“What Buddhist Monks Taught Me About Teaching Science,” Nov. 13, 2011) about what he’s learned from teaching science to monks after four years.

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To teach my biology class today, I took three planes for a total of 9,000 miles nearly halfway around the world. My students have left their sandals at the door. As I walk in, they sit, maroon-robed and expectant, cross-legged on the floor. My body clock registers 11:30 p.m. the day before. I write on the board: “Are bacteria sentient beings?”

This is my fourth year coming to Dharamsala, India, home of the Tibetan government in exile, in the foothills of the Himalayas, as part of an unusual collaboration—the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative—between the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and Emory University. About seven years ago, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans, invited Emory to develop and teach a contemporary science curriculum for the more than 20,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in exile.

The Dalai Lama realized that for Tibetan culture to survive, the education system for both laymen and monastics must engage modern science, to give them new tools for understanding the world. Over the past decade or so, he has become particularly fascinated by contemporary neuroscience and how it potentially complements Tibetan Buddhism’s two millennia’s worth of knowledge about the mind. He envisions a partnership with modern science that could provide deeper understanding of how the mind works and thus, perhaps, new insights and therapies.

The first stage of our project is teaching a five-year curriculum in math, physics, biology, and neuroscience to around 100 monks and nuns. They meet for five to six weeks during the summer in Dharamsala. A team of Emory scientists in one discipline comes and teaches the monastics six hours a day for about a week, followed by a team in the next discipline. This past year, six of the monks spent a year at Emory taking science classes; they have returned there this fall for another year.

In the next phase of the program, these monks and others to follow will become science teachers back at their monasteries, using what they have learned as well as texts Emory scientists have written and had translated into Tibetan.

Before we started the project, the monks and nuns knew little science or math, and I knew little of Buddhism and Tibetans.

In my first year, the students’ faces looked nearly identical, but now I see individuals: Kalsang, a natural experimenter even before he knew a bit of Western science (he also leads the monks in prayer every morning); Kunjo, whom I met for coffee every Friday morning back at Emory to discuss science and life (to get from Emory to his village in Nepal takes him three plane rides and three days of walking); Ngawang, nicknamed Jupiter by the monks for his spaced-out questions (but this year his questions have transformed into a wellspring of insights).

Over the years, I’ve come a long way from thinking that teaching science to Tibetan monks and nuns is just a cool thing to do. The monastics, on the whole, are astoundingly open-minded and approach problems with a thoughtful rationality that is, ironically, often missing from my Western colleagues’ approach to science and the world. An ancient Zen koan goes something like: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. That is, destroy preconceptions, question everything—especially if you think you’ve figured it all out. Most of the monastics in my classroom embody that attitude.

They are busy integrating East and West at the cellular level, re-examining everything they thought they knew. For them, the question of whether bacteria are sentient has serious karmic implications. If these single-celled organisms are, indeed, sentient beings, then any other sentient being could be reincarnated as a bacterium. They face this question with calm, engaged clarity, ready to rethink and integrate whatever they may discover.

This is our entry into learning about genes and cells. The monks and nuns grow their own bacteria by taking swabs from doorknobs or their own ears and brushing them onto agar growth plates poured with the help of the cook and some cornstarch we found in his kitchen. The bacteria grow luxuriantly in Dharamsala’s warm climate, and the students design experiments to test the bacteria’s sentience. For example, they add what they postulate are attractants or repellents to the living bacteria to see if the organisms respond under the microscope in a measurable way.

As usual, we have a translator. Tsondue is Tibetan and once studied to be a monk; he earned an undergraduate degree in physics from Emory, is fluent in both Tibetan and English, and easily navigates both cultures. Once he grasps the concept that we Americans are teaching, he can answer the monks’ questions in Tibetan without having to translate everything back for us.

The process of translation has enriched my teaching tremendously. With the monks and nuns, we are translating not only across languages, but also across cultures, philosophies, and traditions. This has forced me not to take any prior knowledge for granted. I have to develop each concept, fact, and theory sequentially, from the most basic to the most complex, from the big picture to the microscopic and back again, constantly adjusting on the fly.

But teaching these monastics feels more like an opportunity than a hindrance. Each pause, as Tsondue translates, seems to enrich the development of the concepts and information we are attempting to teach. What seems important with these students is the process—how science happens, how experimental logic works, how the pieces fit together. This is what science actually is, what excites scientists, and how we should be teaching all our students. So much of traditional science teaching seems to dish out only information, formulas, answers—product rather than process.

These Buddhists are teaching me to slow down, to be more attentive, more deliberate, to learn from them as I teach them, and I think my teaching has improved as a result.

We have rigged up a microscope that projects the monks’ bacteria up on the wall for the whole class to see. The cells bounce and swim, revealing that astonishing microscopic world that humans have known about for only a few centuries. The monks perform their experiments and watch the cells respond.

I watch them, thinking: We have a lot to learn from these folks. When we visited the Dalai Lama earlier in the week to present him with our translated science texts, he stressed very forcefully that the way forward is not religion, not meditation, but education. Perhaps this is what globalization should be—a shared, translated learning experience, rather than one culture swallowing another. I think of what one of the monks, Lobsang, told me when I asked him why he was participating in our project: “I study modern science,” he said, “to help me better understand my Buddhism.”

At the end of the week, we put the issue to a vote: ‘Are bacteria sentient beings?’ Half the class raised their hands yes, half no.

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