[Buddha-l] nytimes article on the Emory U Tibetans and Science project

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Fri Oct 11 18:38:21 MDT 2013

>From nyt. There's a photo with article online.


October 11, 2013
A Bridge Between Western Science and Eastern Faith
ATLANTA - Quantum theory tells us that the world is a product of an infinite 
number of random events. Buddhism teaches us that nothing happens without a 
cause, trapping the universe in an unending karmic cycle.

Reconciling the two might seem as challenging as trying to explain the Higgs 
boson to a kindergarten class. But if someone has to do it, it might as well 
be the team of scholars, translators and six Tibetan monks clad in maroon 
robes who can be spied wandering among the magnolias at Emory University 

They were joined this week by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the 
Tibetan people, who decided seven years ago that it was time to merge the 
hard science of the laboratory with the soft science of the meditative mind.

The leaders at Emory, who already had created formal relationships with 
Tibetan students there, agreed, and a unique partnership was formed.

For the monks, some of the challenges have been mundane, like learning to 
like pizza and trying to understand Lord Dooley, the university's skeleton 

For the team of professors involved in the project, the Emory-Tibet Science 
Initiative, there are the larger issues, like how to develop methods to 
quantify the power of meditation in a way the scientific world might 
actually accept.

But for the Dalai Lama, an energetic 78-year-old who rises at 3:30 every 
morning for four hours of meditation, his pet project is kind of a 

Buddhist teaching offers education about the mind, he said in an interview 
after lunch Thursday at the home of James W. Wagner, the university 

"It is quite rich material about what I call the inner world," he said. 
"Modern science is very highly developed in matters concerning the material 
world. These two things separately are not complete. Together, the external 
and the internal worlds are complete."

The first batch of six monks, who arrived on campus on 2010, have gone back 
to India, where much of the Tibetan exile community lives, and started 
teaching. Dozens of monks and nuns have taken lectures from Emory professors 
who traveled to Dharamsala, India, to instruct them, and 15 English-Tibetan 
science textbooks have been developed for monastic students.

The university pays about $700,000 a year for the program, which includes 
tuition for the monks, who then go back and teach science in the 

It has not been a smooth road. It took until last year for Buddhist leaders 
to accept science education as a mandatory part of monastic education. It 
was the first major change in 600 years.

But as anyone who has tried to carry out an idea from the boss knows, the 
real work is in the details.

Many of the toughest battles have come down to seemingly simple but vexing 
issues of lexicon. How does one create new words for concepts like 
photosynthesis and clones, which have no equivalent in the Tibetan language 
or culture? How does one begin to name thousands of molecules and chemical 
compounds? And what of words like process, which have several levels of 
meaning for Tibetans?

So far, 2,500 new scientific terms have been added to the Tibetan language.

"Much of our work is to make new phrases novel enough so students won't take 
them with literal meaning," said Tsondue Samphel, who leads the team of 

Still, some concepts are quite easy to translate.

"We understand impermanence of things as simply existing through our 
traditions," said Jampa Khechok, 34, one of the new monks on campus. "We are 
now challenged to understand the nature of impermanence through the study of 
how fast particles decay."

Learning has gone both ways. Professors here find themselves contemplating 
the science of the heart and mind in new ways. A student presenting a report 
on the cardiovascular system described the physiological reaction his own 
cardiovascular system might have if he were told the Tibetan people were 

Debate is a constant, said Alexander Escobar of Emory, who has gone to India 
to teach biology. Monks have wanted to know, for example, how he could be so 
sure that seawater once covered the Himalayas. (The answer? Fossils.)

Western scholars have had to look at their work with a new lens, too, 
contemplating matters like the nature and origins of consciousness.

One result has been the development of something called cognitively based 
compassion training, a secular mediation program proven to improve empathy.

The partnership has had other, more practical applications.

Linda Hutton, a social worker, has a longstanding clinical practice treating 
sexually abused children and families in Greenville, S.C. She drove to 
Atlanta this week to attend a private luncheon with the Dalai Lama, who was 
making his sixth visit to Emory.

She teaches her young victims and their families to practice mindfulness and 
how to use meditation and breathing to cope with trauma.

"I draw from a lot of medical research," she said, "but what I have found 
here transcends that."

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