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Dharma of Science: Teaching the Philosophy of Science for Buddhist Scholars

In the summer of 2019, several Morehouse College faculty traveled to India as part of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI). Morehouse has had a number of connections with India including the homeland of some of our own faculty, student study abroad trips, and some of our most illustrious alumni and leaders who were amongst the first delegations of African Americans to visit colonialized India including Howard Thurman in 1935, followed by Benjamin E. Mays and later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This most recent trip was part of a delegation of faculty from a number of colleges and universities throughout the United States who traveled to India to teach Biology, Neuroscience, and Physics to monastic students under the auspices of the ETSI. Several years ago, Emory University Biology Professor Dr. Arri Eisen, one of the founders of ETSI, extended an invitation to Morehouse faculty members for this unique educational opportunity. Twenty hours after boarding our flight in Atlanta, we arrived at the Mumbai airport and made our way to the nearby hotel where we would meet up with other colleagues for our first leg of the journey.

Upon arrival at the hotel, I noticed the tall barricades leading into the hotel complex and the metal detector at the entrance of the hotel, to scan each guest and piece of luggage. These precautions were a reaction to the 2008 Mumbai attacks that resulted in numerous injuries and fatalities. As we checked into the hotel, the large hotel monitor in the lounge was showing the Cricket World Cup. The match was taking place in Manchester, England, the former colonial power. The two teams, India and Pakistan have a longstanding cricket rivalry, despite once belonging to the same nation and playing under the same flag. The roots of this cricket rivalry formally began in 1947, when British India gained its independence and was partitioned into two nation states separated primarily by Hindu and Muslim majorities.

In 1959, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet during an uprising against the Chinese and migrated to India. Then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to allow the Tibetan refugees to settle in India and provided them with land. Approximately 80,000 Tibetans refugees resettled in India and established settlements near rural villages. These Tibetan settlements are communities with flourishing businesses, schools, monasteries and universities replicated after some of the great monastery education institutions in Tibet.

The purpose of ETSI is to provide scientific education to the Tibetan monastic students and to extend the dialogue between science and spirituality by training individuals well versed in both scientific and Buddhist traditions. ETSI was conceived by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama who wanted to design and implement a comprehensive modern science curriculum, specifically for monastics in the Tibetan tradition. ETSI began in 2006 and is led by Emory Professor, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi. In the summer of 2014, ETSI launched its science curriculum comprised of the philosophy of science, physics, neuroscience, and biology, at three major Tibetan monastic universities in exile: Gaden, Sera, and Drepung. The program has since grown from its inception with approximately 762 students to currently over 1500 students.

Philosophical inquiry including debate are cornerstones of the Tibetan monastic tradition. Debates are physical, theatrical, witty, intense and can last hours. Debaters seek to understand the nature of reality through careful analysis. This traditional practice is carried into the classroom as the monastic students are exposed to Western science including theories and ideas, empirically sound by Western standards, but in some instances, seemingly illogical to the monastic student. The students’ questions require the instructor to challenge their own dogmatic notions about science. As stated by His Holiness, “Western science and Buddhism are both committed to empirical observation…and cultivating a spirit of openness and exploration. While science has developed a deep and sophisticated understanding of the material world, the Buddhist tradition has evolved a profound understanding of the inner world of the mind and emotions and ways to transform them.”[1]

2019 marked the transition into ETSI’s sustainability phase. The program has had many accomplishments including training a number of monastic students including exchange programs with Emory University, full development of a science curriculum, publication of 19 bilingual primers, a Tibetan-English science dictionary, educational videos and the development of monastic science teachers who teach other monastic students.

I have taught for most of my academic career, starting as an undergraduate teaching assistant and working with ETSI for two summers has been one of the highlights of my career. The learning has been bidirectional. The monastic students are mostly from the Himalayan regions with many of the newer generation coming from Tibetan settlements in India. Some monastics joined the monastery as young children and others as adults, but all have a reverence for knowledge and contemplate new information in a way that allows the instructor to as Arri Eisen often states, embody “the guide on the side in lieu of being the sage on the stage.”

 

[1] Letter to ETSI from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama dated October 4, 2010.

Photo Credit: Introduction to Biology, First Year Students, Gaden Jangtse Monastic University.

 

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Sinead Younge is the Danforth Endowed Professor of Psychology at Morehouse College. She has taught introduction to Biology to first year science students at Sera Jey and Gaden Jangtse Monastic Universities in India as part of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative.