At urging of Dalai Lama, Tibetan monks, nuns take up study of math, science in exile

SARAH, India (freep) — The shouts of more than a dozen Tibetan monks echo through the small classroom. Fingers are pointed. Voices collide. When an important point is made, the men smack their hands together and stomp the floor, their robes billowing around them.

It’s the way Tibetan Buddhist scholars have traded ideas for centuries. Among them, the debate-as-shouting match is a discipline and a joy.

But this is something different.

Evolutionary theory is mentioned — loudly. One monk invokes Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Another shouts about the subatomic nature of neutrinos.

In an educational complex perched on the edge of a small river valley, a group of about 65 Tibetan monks and nuns are working with American scientists to tie their ancient culture to the modern world.

“I’d like to go back to my monastery … to pass on my knowledge to other monks so that they might bring the (scientific) process to others,” said Tenzin Choegyal, a 29-year-old monk born in exile in India.

If that seems a modest goal, it reflects an immense change in Tibetan culture, where change has traditionally come at a glacial pace.

Isolated for centuries atop the high Himalayan plateau, and refusing entry to nearly all outsiders, Tibet long saw little value in modernity.

Education was almost completely limited to monastic schools. Magic and mysticism were — and are — important parts of life to many people. New technologies were something to be feared.

No longer. Pushed by the Dalai Lama, a fierce proponent of modern schooling, a series of programs were created in exile to teach scientific education to monks, the traditional core of Tibetan culture.

At the forefront is an intensive summer program, stretched over five years, that brings professors from Emory University in Atlanta. For six days a week, six hours a day, the professors teach everything from basic math to advanced neuroscience.

“The Buddhist religion has a deep concept of the mind that goes back thousands of years,” said Larry Young, an Emory psychiatry professor and prominent neuroscientist. “Now they’re learning something different about the mind: the mind-body interface, how the brain controls the body.”

The Dalai Lama has spent much of his life seeking ways that Tibetans can hold on to their traditions even as they find their way in the modern world.

He has encouraged modern schooling for exile children and a democratic system to choose the Tibetan political leader (he renounced his political powers in 2011). There are job programs for the armies of unemployed young people.

And, for a few dozen monks and nuns, there is science.

The first group from the Emory program — 26 monks and two nuns — have just finished their five years of summer classes. Though they earned no degrees, they are expected to help introduce a science curriculum into the monastic academies and will take with them Tibetan-language science textbooks the program has developed.

The Dalai Lama realizes that “preservation of the culture will occur through change,” said Carol Worthman, a professor of anthropology in Emory’s Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology. “You have to change to stay in place.”

But change is a complicated thing.

The monks and nuns in the Emory program are “the best and the brightest,” Worthman said. Still, few learned anything but basic math before the Emory program.

For most of the monastics, though, the challenges are not in the academic rigor. For them, the challenges lie in weaving modern science with traditional beliefs.

The science program “was sort of like a culture shock for me,” said Choegyal, who is based at a monastery in southern India. Although Tibetan Buddhism puts a high value on skepticism, conclusions are reached through philosophical analysis — not through clinical research and reams of scientific data.

But after five years, Choegyal says he has managed to hold on to his core beliefs while delving deeply into science.

“Buddhism basically talks about truth, or reality, and science really supports that,” he said. Questions that science cannot address, like the belief in reincarnation, he brushes aside as “subtle issues.”

Your Responses