Science for Monks: Modern Heirs to Ancient Practice?

What did the universe look like, 380,000 years after the Big Bang? What’s the function of messenger-RNA? How does magnetism work? How, exactly, do the findings of quantum physics unsettle classical logic? In January 2007, these and other unlikely questions occupied the minds of some sixty Tibetan monastics who had gathered in Sera Monastery, India for the eighth annual Science for Monks workshop.

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s personal interest in science and technology, as evidenced in his book The Universe in a Single Atom, must be common knowledge by now. During the past twenty years, in the so-called Mind and Life meetings, he has conversed with experts on topics such as consciousness, neuroplasticity, physics and cosmology. It is less well known that in 2000 the Dalai Lama also inaugurated the Science for Monks workshop, offering a select group of Tibetan monks their first encounter with modern scientific thought. Since then, once a year, these monks interrupt their demanding curriculum for a month to study biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics with Western scientists.

Monks and Nuns

Monastics of most all Tibetan traditions attend Science for Monks regularly. Because their command of English is not sufficient to understand classes without translation, and the Tibetan lacks many words for scientific concepts, a small group of experienced Tibetan translators with a working knowledge of science reconvenes each time as well. Over the years, building on previous experience, they share and refine their vocabulary, thus contributing toward the steady growth of a common Tibetan scientific jargon.

Notably, the 2007 workshop witnessed the first ever attendance of six Tibetan nuns—their presence boding hope for their fledgling nunneries’ future. Together with the monks, most of whom had attended previous workshops, the nuns eagerly embarked on a full schedule that provided them with hands on experience in diverse fields of modern science.

In biology class, for instance, their teacher had the monks and nuns sample their own DNA in sealed glass phials on a string necklace, meanwhile explaining how genes govern their bodies’ bio-chemical makeup. Fascinated, they held their flasks to the light, squinting to make out the slight trail of hereditary information that they now understood to make each of them truly unique. In turn, two physics professors asked their students to figure out experimentally if or why a fridge magnet sticks to a metal closet backwards. Now and again great hilarity ensued as the bravest among them presented their group’s finding in diagram form, haltingly delivering impromptu solutions to the teachers probing questions.

Alternating classes, an emeritus professor of physics and a mathematician had the future geshes and lamas wrap their head around the intricacies of modern cosmology, algebra, calculus and math, while in another class a biologist explained the mechanics of cell division and the topology of neural receptor cells.

Conveying Scientific Knowledge

I was there to observe interactions between the teachers and students, and to engage the monks and nuns in conversation on the Dalai Lama’s interest in science. To give them a sense of the difficulties involved in conveying scientific knowledge across cultures and intellectual styles, I showed the monks and nuns unedited footage of a Mind and Life presentation on quantum physics. For many this video was their first ever exposure to the Dalai Lama’s own functioning as a ‘student of science.’ Completely engrossed, they struggled to follow the Tibetan simultaneous interpretation.

Most monastics present at the workshop are nascent scholars of Buddhism themselves. Being very secure in their own traditions, they matched the Dalai Lama’s openness by an apparent readiness to entertain completely foreign ideas. In the past, the Dalai Lama has urged the monastic community to recognise the need and significance of science education. Nowadays, he speaks of a ‘neo-Buddhist’ perspective, a frame of reference that draws from both Buddhist wisdom and scientific knowledge. During a recent Mind and Life meeting on neuroplasticity the Dalai Lama commented that Buddhism embraces scientific, philosophical and religious elements. The first two noble truths the Buddha taught, suffering and its cause, he explained, are scientific; the third, cessation of suffering, is philosophical in nature; and the fourth, the path to cessation, technical.

Distinguished Professor

Last February the Dalai Lama was named Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory University, the first university appointment that he has ever accepted, saying: “I have long believed in and advocated a dialogue and cross-fertilisation between science and spirituality, as both are essential for enriching human life and alleviating suffering on both individual and global levels.” His appointment is the outgrowth of Emory’s longstanding relationship with Tibetan Buddhist institutes of higher learning in India. Indeed, one of the most ambitious projects of this partnership is an initiative to develop and implement a comprehensive science education curriculum for Tibetan monastics, the cosmology part of which was tested at Science for Monks by professor Finkelstein, who is also sitting on the Emory monastic curriculum committee.

My most vivid memory of these weeks at Sera Monastery is of watching the film ‘Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution’ together with the monks and nuns in a makeshift rooftop movie theatre. After a while, a noise poured into our room through the open windows, sounding much like a home crowd cheering its football team. Curiously, I peeked outside. From where I sat I could see thousands of monks sitting on the vast grounds outside Sera Jey gompa. I realised they were all Gelug monks of Ganden, Drepung and Sera, gathered there for the traditional inter-monastic Winter Debate on Buddhist epistemology.

Gendun Chöpel

Epistemology, the study of the nature and limits of knowledge, has always been of central importance to the Gelug tradition. Ever since Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) expounded the import of critical acumen and logic in realising the path to enlightenment, the possibility of valid knowledge has been hotly debated, and Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarttika has long been one of the five canonical texts that aspirant geshes study intensely for years. Deemed a form of scholasticism by modern scholarship, around the 1950s this tradition’s self-proclaimed authority in epistemological matters was seriously challenged by one of its own when infant terrible Gendun Chöpel (1903-1951) wrote Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thought, disputing Gelugs’ views on the foundations of knowledge.

The past few days of the workshop, I had been discussing Gendun Chöpel in the class I offered myself, exploring biographical details found in Lopez’ insightful The Madman’s Middle Way, the first English translation of Chöpel’s philosophical work. In fact, citing the Dalai Lama’s observation that Chöpel’s observations on modern science often coincide remarkably with his own, I had asked the monks and nuns to reflect upon the personal qualities that might be required to question traditional authority the way he had done.

The World Is Flat

Gazing outside, I remembered how Chöpel, against prevailing opinion, stated in his essay The World is Round or Spherical that at least part of the traditional Buddhist cosmology had been invalidated by empirical evidence. To make matters worse, as Lopez makes clear, Chöpel had argued that, for Buddhists and non-Buddhist alike, the Buddha’s description of the world as flat is utterly inconsequential to any discussion of its real shape, and that, therefore, resisting scientific findings on the basis of scriptural authority was completely futile.

Likewise, in the Adornment Chöpel said that no amount of consensus, even if confirmed by sacred scripture, can establish truth. Nor, for that matter, the omniscience and infallibility of the Buddha: “One may think, ‘We concede that our decisions are unreliable, but when we follow the decisions of the Buddha, we are infallible.’ Then who decided that the Buddha is infallible? If you say, ‘The great scholars and adepts like Nagarjuna decided that he is infallible,’ then who decided that Nagarjuna is infallible? If you say ‘The Foremost Lama [Tsong kha pa] decided it,’ then who knows that the Foremost Lama is infallible? If you say, ‘Our kind and peerless lama, the excellent and great so and so decided,’ then infallibility, which depends on your excellent lama, is decided by your own mind”.

Debating Grounds

Meanwhile, outside Sera Jey gompa, amidst a sea of monks lit by a thousand points of light, a small group of present-day Tibetan epistemologists, heirs to an ancient practice, vied to debate one of the three monks seated in front of them. Every now and then, sensing where the argument was going, the crowd couldn’t contain itself—encouraging the contestants with roaring cheers of excitement or cracking up with uproarious laughter.

Onscreen, employing a cinematic metaphor to connote galaxies “cooking up” elements, host Neil deGrasse Tyson watched a chef prepare a soup, preluding astronomer Sandra Faber’s remark that research into the formation of galaxies heralds a new version of the cosmic myth: “This time it’s scientifically based. From the Big Bang until now: Big Bang; formation of galaxies; formation of heavy elements in supernova; sun; earth; life. One unbroken Chain of Being.”

Dismayed, the monks and nuns gasped for breath while the cook added one final ingredient to the thickening broth: a plate full of prawn and lobster. And while the film ended, credits scrolling, its finale almost drowned out by the commotion outside, I wondered: Of these monks and nuns, who will be the first to explore the epistemological ramifications of the most daunting, counterintuitive of scientific ideas—nonlocality, evolution, emergence—on the Tibetan debating grounds?