Monks and Scientists to Conduct Research on Mind-Body Links

By Kelly L. McCoy, The Emory Wheel, Oct 19, 2007

Emory, Georgia (USA) -- The Dalai Lama has always taught enlightenment — but what few people know is he says that path includes lessons in modern science. And Emory will assist Tibetans to realize His Holiness’s vision.

“It has been His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s lifelong vision to find a way to converge spirituality and science,” said Geshe Lobsan Tenzin Negi, chair of the Emory-Tibet partnership.

Next summer, faculty including religion professor John Dunne and biology professor Alexander Escobar will journey to the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala, India, to educate Buddhist monks and nuns about modern science.

The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI), a program co-directed by Negi and Assistant Dean of Science for Undergraduate Education Preetha Ram, have been discussing the curriculum and teaching strategies for more than a year.

Describing early curriculum development meetings, Ram said the team had many questions to consider: “What will we teach them? How can we possibly hope to teach them science? How will we know we’ve taught them?”

After all, teaching Darwin’s theories of evolution to people who believe in reincarnation will require a bit of prudence, she said.

Among the major challenges they face are cultural and linguistic differences.

“Science is a paradigm, a way of thinking. We send e-mail, IMs, and e-vites … this is a part of our culture,” Ram said. “When you’re talking to a monk, even if you have a translator, if you tell them you’re going to [send an] e-vite, what’s that going to mean to them?”

Keeping these differences in mind and with guidance from His Holiness, ETSI members have narrowed the curriculum to focus on three main subjects: cosmology, life science and neuroscience.

The curriculum will be taught in monthlong workshops, beginning with broad topics and ending with more detailed ones.

“We describe this as a spiraling curriculum,” Ram said. “We start [in cosmology] with big ideas like the Big Bang theory: How did the world begin? Then we spiral inwards: What’s in matter? We look at elements — we go inwards from a macroscopic to a more microscopic level.”

Using this spiraling curriculum, life science lessons will begin with the concept of time as it relates to evolution building on what was learned about the Big Bang in cosmology lessons. Later lessons will include cell and molecular biology.

The overarching theme in neuroscience lessons will be the brain as the locus of the mind, which is a concept the monks and nuns spend a lot of time contemplating, according to Negi and Ram. Detailed discussions about the mind-body connection are expected to ensue during later lessons.

And it is OK that Tibetan beliefs may not completely align with modern science, according to Ram.

“It will strengthen Buddhist practice and Buddhist learning,” she said. “The monks delight in this notion of debate and discussion.”

Emory faculty members don’t expect the interaction to be one-sided. They said they also have a lot to gain from this experience.

“Our goal is not just to teach the monks but to learn from them also,” Negi said. “For such a cross-fertilization or meaningful convergence to take place, we need to have both the modern scientists and the contemplatives both aware of each other’s concepts, practices, methodologies.”

And for Emory students, many opportunities are already available to them under the Emory-Tibet partnership.

The semester-long study abroad program in Dharamsala was established in 2001, and students at Emory can take the “Mind, Body, and Healing” course or “Phenomenology of Depression” seminar, which both explore Tibetan Buddhist notions of the mind-body connection.

But students will soon have the opportunity to participate specifically in the science initiative as well.

“By 2009, we’ll have a summer study abroad program that will be interdisciplinary but with a science focus,” Ram said. “It’s a rare opportunity for a science student to be in a classroom where their Emory professor is talking about Newton’s laws of gravity and seeing the effects of that on the Tibetan monastics. It will be an opportunity that you can’t get anywhere else.”