Bridging Two Worlds: The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative

Emory University takes great pride in being able to help fulfill one of His Holiness Dalai Lama’s most cherished dreams of implementing comprehensive science education in the core Tibetan monastic curriculum.

Now in its sixth year, the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative has rapidly expanded the horizons of knowledge for both monastics and Western scholars. Emory’s commitment to creating an ongoing and sustainable program realizes His Holiness’s vision of a comprehensive science education within the monastic curriculum. By bringing together the tools of modern science with time-tested Buddhist contemplative knowledge, more can be done to help relieve suffering around the world.

When Robert Paul (Charles Howard Candler Professor of Anthropology and Interdisciplinary Studies) completed his term as dean of Emory College in spring 2010, the University honored him for his visionary leadership by renaming the initiative the “Robert A. Paul Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.”

News on 2013 Visit (Oct. 8-10) by Dalai Lama

2013 Visit Homepage



A Buddhist Perspective on Studying Science

Geshe Lhakdor, the director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, talks about how science and spirituality, especially Buddhism, can complement each other to increase well-being and happiness.

Since the beginning of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI), he has played an integral role in establishing the connection between the Tibetan monastic community and Emory University, developing the science courses for the monastics, and preparing the add science materials into the core curriculum of the major Tibetan Buddhist monasteries throughout India.

His talk was held in conjunction with Emory’s Tibet Week, an annual celebration of the culture of traditional and contemporary Tibet (March 25-29). Tibet Week events include lectures, panel discussions, meditation, films and music.

Emory-Tibet Partnership Homepage

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.

* * *

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.

Related Videos

Techung adds spark to Tibetan language and music

Techung, a Tibetan folk and freedom singer/songwriter living in exile in the San Francisco Bay Area, talks about his six-week artist-in-residency program at Emory involving the classroom and stage. He will be one of the featured artists at the Emory World Music Ensembles’ Echoes of Asia concert on Sunday, April 17 (7 pm, Performing Arts Studio). His final on-campus performance will be a family-themed concert on Sunday, April 24 (4pm, Carlos Museum), where he will perform songs from his new CD, “Shemshae” (“heart songs”). Techung plays the dramyen (lute) and lingbu (flute), both traditional instruments, and will be performing Tibetan music for children. This concert is free and open to the public.

His residency is funded by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, a major supporter of the Emory-Tibet Partnership.


Emory Report article (April 15, 2011)

Techung homepage

Emory-Tibet Partnership


Emory’s Tibet Week showcases Tibetan Buddhist culture

Emory University’s 11th annual Tibet Week, set for March 28-April 2, will feature music, art, lectures, panel discussions and other exhibits and events for both adults and children.

Opening Ceremony
Emory Quadrangle
Noon, Monday, March 28

Features Tibetan Sangsol smoke offerings and led by Geshe Lobsang Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Parnership, with monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc., Atlanta.

The ceremony will be followed by live exhibitions of the Tibetan Sand Mandala created by monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery, and Butter Sculpture by Sonan Dhargye in Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum.

Exhibitions continue throughout the week in the Carlos Museum with lectures, films and guided meditations.

Panel Discussion: “Will Tibet Survive?”
7:30-9:00 p.m., Friday, April 1
Carlos Museum Reception Hall

Lobsang Nyandak, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s representative to the United States; Jamyang Norbu, leading Tibetan activist; and other prominent Tibetan scholars will discuss the Middle Way Approach to the resolution of the Tibet issue.

Performance: “Tibetan Songs of Love and Freedom”
8:00-10:00 p.m., Saturday, April 2
Performing Arts Studio, 1804 N. Decatur Rd.

Tibetan singer-songwriter Techung will perform with guest musicians. Admission is free, but seating is limited.

Tibet Week events are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted. The Carlos Museum is located in the Emory quadrangle at 571 Kilgo Circle, Emory. Visitor parking is available in Fishburne Parking Deck, 1672 N. Decatur Rd. For additional information email, or call 404.712.9296.

More details

Meditation course helps inmates in Alabama prison

The Donaldson Correction Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, is the only maximum security prison in North America that allows prisoners an opportunity to take a 10-day (10 hours a day) Vipassana meditation course. According to psychologists at the prison, the biggest benefits to inmates is that it allows them to get in touch with their humanity, as well acknowledge their responsibility to themselves and others.

Last week several guests from the prison visited Emory to talk about the program with students and faculty in conjunction with a screening of The Dhamma Brothers.

The YouTube video above features Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, director of treatment for Alabama DOC; Kathryn Allen, PhD, Psychologist, Donaldson Correctional Facility; and Ben Turner, Vipassana Prison Trust.

The visit and screening were sponsored by Emory’s Department of Religion, Graduate Division of Religion, Ethics Center, Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Initiative, Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies, Film Studies Department, and Emory Tibet Partnership.

If you attended the talks or screening, we look forward to hearing your comments below.

Emory Report (Feb. 25, 2011) article on the visit and screening

NPR covers story of monks studying at Emory

From the AP article (“Tibetan Monks Studying Science At Emory In Atlanta”) on the NPR website…

“My mother wasn’t happy about my coming here,” said Ngawang Norbu, 36, who is from Bylakuppe, the largest Tibetan settlement in India. “But when I told her it was part of His Holiness’ vision, she was very happy. I’m taking a small step toward fulfilling his wishes.”

<see full article>

Learn more about the Emory-Tibet science initiative