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A Thoughtful Rationality

When Buddhist monks encounter science in an experimental initiative, the result is a quest to understand the world through passionate debate.

At the beginning of one of his classes, Arri Eisen oncewrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, he put this question up on the board: “Are bacteria sentient beings?” At the end of a week, the class voted. “Half the class raised their hands yes, half no.”

A class filled with Buddhist monks, learning and voting about bacteria? I had to know more.

Early in June, Eisen and his colleague at Emory University’s Biology Department, Rustom Antia, spent a week in Mundgod, just south of Hubli, Karnataka. They taught biology to over a hundred monks there. This is something they have done every year since 2005, under the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. That year, the Dalai Lama asked Emory University in Atlanta to put together a modern curriculum in physics, biology, neuroscience and mathematics for Tibetan nuns and monks in India. As Eisen wrote: “The Dalai Lama realized that for Tibetan culture to survive, the education system for both laymen and monastics must engage modern science, to give them new tools for understanding the world.” He was especially intrigued by neuroscience, seeing profound and complementary connections there to how Tibetan Buddhists consider the human mind.

Every summer, the programme brings Emory professors to India to teach, a week for each subject. This summer school happened in Dharamsala for several years. In 2014, they moved it to the monastery in the Tibetan settlement in Mundgod. Called Doeguling, it is one of 38 recognised settlements across India that now house about 1,00,000 Tibetans. This dates from 1959, the year the Dalai Lama fled China and about 80,000 Tibetans followed him into exile in India.

On the face of it, this encounter between an ancient religion and science is a perplexing puzzle. If you grew up marvelling at science’s wonders, you might also think religion demands blind faith, doesn’t tolerate questions, promotes irrational prejudices and more. Not the characteristics of a scientific temper. There’s a reason one of the world’s most famous scientists, Richard Dawkins, is also one of the world’s most dedicated, vocal atheists. His book The God Delusion expertly and efficiently tears apart religious pretensions of every sort. “One of the truly bad effects of religion”, he writes there, “is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.”

Science, in contrast, seeks, above all, to understand.

But then there’s Tibetan Buddhism, whose leader, the Dalai Lama, explicitly seeks to understand the world too. This quest actually has a long history, and clearly means something not just to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan spiritual leadership, but to plenty of others who follow the religion or are even just interested observers.

Aspi Mistry, who has for years run Mumbai’s Dharma Rain Centre, a Tibetan Buddhist study and support group, put it this way: “The idea of asking questions came to us right from the Buddha.” In Tibetan Buddhism, he said, this is “a strategy for learning”, and that’s why monks are encouraged to “confront their superiors and engage in passionate debate”. The well-known Tibetan poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue told me that the Buddhism he knows and lives every day is actually “friends with science”. Religion and science, he believes, can “reflect on each other and give human beings a deeper sense of life itself.”

This milieu is the reason the Dalai Lama believed the Emory experiment would work, that he would be able to bring the Tibetan monastic orders to science. The Tibetan scholar Thupten Jinpa Langri, the Dalai Lama’s regular translator and interpreter, explained it simply in a recent interview: “His Holiness is concerned about bringing classical Tibetan culture and intellectual tradition into engagement with modernity.”

But isn’t that a formidable challenge? “Religion often finds science intimidating”, Antia said. “But not in this case. Because if you want to understand how the world works, it isn’t intimidating. I think the Dalai Lama knows that.” Shruti Paul, a teacher who learned about Tibetan Buddhism via lectures by the Dalai Lama, underlined all this in an email message to me: “The Dalai Lama has always encouraged scientific thinking and links it to religion.”

The Tibetans’ monastic training gives them tools that serve them well in the Emory programme. Antia told me his Biology students are both motivated to learn and able to concentrate well on their studies, much more so than the average college student. To Eisen, what stood out was their “thoughtful rationality”. “The heart of Tibetan Buddhism”, he wrote when I asked him to explain, “is the search for dharma, ultimate truth through the facts.”

Now there are science aficionados who would splutter at a description of religious people as “rational”. But Eisen suggests that this unexpected rationality itself allows the monks to “destroy preconceptions, question everything – especially if you think you’ve figured it all out”. In other traditions, that has sometimes been a dangerous thing to do. Remember Galileo, and the price he paid for questioning the idea that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Mistry doesn’t want to see Buddhism blinkered in the same way. “If Tibetan Buddhism is not to become stagnant”, he said to me, “if we want to keep it alive, we have to do these things”, meaning programmes like the Emory initiative.

It is essentially high-school science that the Emory professors teach in Dharamsala and Mundgod. But several summers of even that much has given monks a persistent curiosity about science, a greater ease in discussing it, and a more open outlook towards it than before.

And it cuts both ways. With religion and spirituality so deeply part of so many peoples’ lives in so many parts of the world, scientists are beginning to understand that science itself has to find ways to engage with religion, even if that means changing its own assumptions. For example, Thupten Jinpa Langri suggests that “there is now a growing recognition in science that the selfish model of human nature may be a bit of an exaggeration.”

Antia finds the Emory-Tibet experience has taken him to an even broader canvas: “We’ve all got to find a basic understanding of how to live and work together”, he said. “Some basic ideas, more than Christian or Hindu or Buddhist ethics.” This is beyond laws, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that countries agree to observe; it is a way of thinking about the world in which science, religion and ethics inform and shape each other. That would be at least as valuable for the scientists as it is for the monks.

So when monks consider whether bacteria are sentient, it’s no theoretical classroom question. Because if bacteria are sentient, it’s unethical to kill them, period. Tiny they may be, but we have here a substantial, serious ethical dilemma that Emory’s professors, too, now think about.

I have no idea how I’d vote.

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