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Emory-Tibet Science Project Rolls Out Bridges to Inner and Outer Worlds

If you want to make a significant contribution for a better world, “take care of both the brain and the heart.” That was the overriding message of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Emory University’s Presidential Distinguished Professor, during his recent visit to campus.

by Emory University
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If you want to make a significant contribution for a better world, “take care of both the brain and the heart.” That was the overriding message of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Emory University’s Presidential Distinguished Professor, during his recent visit to campus.

The Robert A. Paul Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) is one way the Dalai Lama would like to incorporate that message into education. He presided over a luncheon celebrating the full implementation phase of the ETSI, an initiative started in 2007 to exchange knowledge between modern scientists and Tibetan monastics trained in ancient, contemplative methods of developing empathy, compassion and other beneficial mental states.

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“The ETSI bridges two worlds that are too often separate: Science and the inner world of human values, beliefs and emotions,” said Robin Forman, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences. “His Holiness realizes that both hold great value.”

Emory faculty and Tibetan scholars collaborated to develop introductory Tibetan-English science textbooks in neuroscience, biology and physics, and to lead classes for Tibetan monastics. Nearly 100 monks and nuns have participated in the development phase of the ETSI. Last May, six Tibetan monks completed a three-year science instruction program at Emory, and they will now lead the teaching efforts back in India, the seat of the Tibetan diaspora, with the continued support of Emory science faculty. With funding from the Dalai Lama Trust and Emory College, 36 more monastic teachers will be trained at Emory over the next 10 years.

“What a joyful experience it has been,” Forman said of the ETSI. He noted that the Tibetan monastics see a comprehensive science curriculum not as a threat to their Buddhist tradition, but as “a way of protecting, preserving, enhancing and even energizing their unique culture and civilization.”

The Dalai Lama called the large-scale implementation of the curriculum, set for 2014, as “the most critical phase.” The roll-out will include: The development of 19 high-level bilingual science textbooks; annual six-week intensives taught by international science faculty in three major monastic institutions in south India, with a total student body of more than 10,000; and year-round distance learning classes for monasteries and nunneries.

The ETSI grew out of the Emory Tibet Partnership, founded by Robert Paul, an Emory professor of anthropology and interdisciplinary studies, and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, a senior lecturer in Emory’s Department of Religion and director of the ETSI. Watch the video to learn more about the ETSI formation:

So far, the ETSI has hosted five International Conferences on Science Translation into Tibetan and coined more than 2,500 new science terms for the language.

“Translation is one of the most important sources of knowledge for every evolving civilization,” said Tsondue Samphel, a member of the ETSI translation team. Samphel trained as a novice monk in Dharamsala, India, before returning to secular life and earning a physics degree from Emory in 2006.

Samphel described how translators played a role in bringing Buddhism from other countries to Tibet, and in helping the religion evolve into a form of Buddhism unique to the Himalayan kingdom.

“Now, more than 1,000 years later, another historic event is taking place,” Samphel said of the effort to promote the cross-fertilization of ancient Tibetan wisdom and modern scientific understanding. “This could advance the welfare of all humanity to a higher level."

The cross-fertilization is already contributing to science discoveries at Emory. For instance, Cognitively Based Compassion Training, a secular meditation protocol based on Tibetan traditions, has demonstrated significant beneficial effects on immune and hormonal response to psychosocial stress among Emory undergraduate students. These promising research results led to an ongoing NIH-funded study on the health benefits of compassion training.

The ETSI “changed my life,” said Arri Eisen, a professor of biology, who is among the Emory faculty who has spent summers in India teaching the monastics. He said the experience of engaging in intense discussions with the monastics made him a better teacher.

Most of his Tibetan students do not have a goal of becoming a scientist. “They are learning science to help them understand Buddhism better, to make them better Buddhists, and to become more enriched citizens,” Eisen said.

“I’m representing just a small piece of the power of this thing,” he said. “This project has transformed me, it’s transformed many monks and nuns, and I think that’s just the beginning.”