Changing Perspectives: Science for Monks

“Scans of Monks’ Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning” declared a headline in the Wall Street Journal in 2004. The story was about a five-day meeting in Dharamsala, a Tibetan settlement in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. Together with their host, the 14th Dalai Lama, a panel of eminent Western scientists and Tibetan monastics discussed the relationship between “neuroplasticity” — the brain’s ability to change its structure and function — and meditation.

With some astonishment the Tibetan scholars watched MRI-scans projected on to a large screen showing the play of high-frequency gamma waves across the cerebral cortex of a monk meditating on compassion. Such scans reveal that neural activity in areas of the brain active during meditation on compassion is more intense in experienced meditators than non-adepts. This raises the question whether training in compassion changes the way the brain actually works.

An Unusual Gathering

The gathering in Dharamsala was certainly unusual, but by no means unique. Some twenty years ago, out of a personal interest in science and technology, the Dalai Lama began seeking contact with Western scientists. Since then he has deepened and shared his interest with a varied group of experts in areas promising a constructive and fruitful exchange with Buddhism. Indeed, the Mind and Life dialogues, as they became known, on subjects like mind and consciousness, quantum physics and cosmology, were to prove so productive that in 2000 the Dalai Lama initiated the Science for Monks workshops, offering a select group of Tibetan monks an encounter with modern scientific thought. Once a year the monks interrupt their traditional monastic training for a month to study evolution theory, elementary mathematics, physics, chemistry and cosmology with Western teachers.

Monks and Science

In explaining to the monks of the great Gelug monasteries in India why he considers Science for Monks to be important, the Dalai Lama pointed out that up to the present time Tibetans had been unable to demonstrate the value of Buddhist philosophy and epistemology to the wider world, the main reason for this being, in his view, Tibetan scholars’ ignorance of science. He said he was nevertheless convinced that as soon as Buddhism’s value and potential became more widely recognised Tibetan scholars would play a crucial role in shedding light on its insights.

According to the Dalai Lama, the study of modern science is a contemporary form of the objective search for truth, and as such has much in common with Buddhism. Science education has the potential to deepen and reinforce faith in the Buddha’s teachings. If, when introducing Buddhist teaching to the new generation of Tibetans, teachers are able to present the views of both Buddhism and modern science by drawing comparisons, the teachings will have more validity and be easily comprehensible. This is the best method to generate belief and conviction: “Our community shall not remain as it is. There will be changes. Not only in the exiled community, but in future, when the Tibetans in and outside Tibet gather, then also there will be changes. The knowledge of science will be instrumental in the preservation, promotion and introduction of Buddhism to the new generation of Tibetans. Hence, it is very necessary to begin the study of science.”

Controversy

Although the present Dalai Lama as spiritual and secular leader of the Tibetan people enjoys a considerable measure of respect and reverence, history shows that his standing even within in his own Gelug school does not preclude dissent. The monastic universities of Sera, Drepung and Ganden traditionally conferred an unparalleled degree of authority on the office of the Dalai Lama. But, their obedience to any particular incumbent is not unconditional. At the beginning of the last century, the 13th Dalai Lama, for example, saw his plans for reform thwarted by orthodox Gelugs: Distrust of “subversive” Western influence drove conservative ecclesiastics to twice force the closure of a newly founded English-language school teaching the sciences.

Science for Monks has also caused controversy. Orthodox Gelugs, often the older generation trained in pre-modern Tibet, voice concern that science studies will keep the monks from their true calling—study and contemplation of the doctrine. More progressive monks, often those brought up in exile, claim that revamping the curriculum is unavoidable if the tradition wants to win the loyalty of future generations. The monasteries cannot remain indifferent while the rest of the exile community learns about science through modern secular education. Unfortunately, because informed debate between the two camps about science is lacking, the dispute threatens to be prematurely decided not on the basis of the issues themselves but power politics, leaving division in its wake.

Science for Monks is aimed expressly at all Tibetan monks, including those of the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyü and Bön sects. But here too there are conflicts of interests. No matter how fraught the relationship between various Dalai Lamas and Gelug hierarchs has been over the centuries, the supremacy of the Gelug school has remained unquestioned. The religious and political union of the Gelug school with the institution of the Dalai Lama which has exercised central authority in Tibetan society since the 17th century, has elevated Gelugs to primus inter pares. This has often been to the detriment of the other traditions, whose representatives, despite their reverence for the Dalai Lama, have little appetite for an initiative that in their eyes will only reinforce Gelug hegemony.

Western Converts

Caught somewhere between these various spheres of influence are the Tibetan Buddhist converts in the West. By uncritically adopting traditional forms of practice many of these students may be inadvertently working to preserve a pre-modern Tibetan worldview, a worldview that in the meantime many Tibetans themselves are rejecting. Other practitioners acknowledge a sense of alienation resulting from confrontation with traditional Tibetan mores. Georges Dreyfus, for example, one of only a handful of Westerners to have completed the rigorous geshe curriculum, recalls how to his consternation a distinguished lama doggedly tried to convince him that the earth is flat.

The conversion of Westerners to Tibetan Buddhism must by definition remain unconsummated —total acculturation is not an option—nevertheless many converts display an unconditional loyalty to their charismatic teachers, surrendering to a barely comprehended worldview without any sense of cognitive dissonance or philosophical confusion. However sincere, such faith must remain shaky, a bond easily severed, and in its very vulnerability a force for conservatism. No-one wants to be robbed of a cherished illusion. Where the encounter with science compels Tibetan monks to adjust their worldview, ironically enough traditionalists can look to ‘orthodox’ converts for succour.

Uncertain Future?

With Science for Monks the Dalai Lama urges Tibetan ecclesiastics to change their perspective, to recognise that their relationship with the West, perhaps even with their Western converts, is actually reciprocal in nature: They need to learn from each other. He speaks nowadays of a ‘neo-Buddhist’ perspective, a frame of reference that draws from both Buddhist wisdom and scientific knowledge. During a Mind and Life in 2004 meeting the Dalai Lama observed that Buddhism embraces scientific, philosophical and religious elements. The first two Noble Truths, he explained, are scientific; the third is philosophical in nature; and the fourth is religious. Framed in this way it would seem that Buddhism, in contrast to other religions, has nothing to fear from science. But what about particular Buddhist schools? Is the Dalai Lama simply making up for time lost on a difficult but familiar path, or is he forging a new path in an unknown direction?

The Gelug school, for example, is often portrayed as scholastic in character. It owes its identity to its 14th century founder, Je Tsongkhapa, who still commands supreme authority within the tradition, and whose insights, set forth in the canonical texts, are “rediscovered” by new generations of practitioners over the centuries. There is some room for interpretation, but not to the extent that its doctrinal foundations, in particular Je Tsonkhapa’s texts, can be superseded in any way. In this sense the future is fixed: Whoever completes the path to enlightenment arrives right where the tradition began centuries before.

Where does this leave Gelugs, even those with the mildest doctrinaire inclinations, confronted by the march of modernity? How long can external pressures be ignored? Ultimately, centuries of isolation could not spare the Tibetan people from subjugation and exile. Is bald denial of modernity tradition’s best defence? Or put another way: Is Gelug wisdom set in stone or will Tibetan monks find themselves admitting, like scientists, that the search for truth entails an ongoing development of provisional insights?

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