Science and Spirituality Converge Through Dalai Lama Initiative

The monks of Drepung Loseling monastery chatter excitedly all around physics professor Michelle Kuchera: They are about to see the stars above through a telescope, some for the first time in their lives.

This summer, Kuchera participated in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI), a partnership between Emory University and His Holiness the Dalai Lama that aims to bridge two bodies of knowledge—modern scientific research and Tibetan science of mind. Scientists from around the world join the monks at Drepung Loseling for mini-semesters of instruction and debate.

  • A traditional Tibetan Buddhist debate, on a topic bridging science and spirituality: entropy, heat transfer and the laws of thermodynamics applied to a living vs. dead body.

  • Traditional “response cards” used in physics education in the United States (with colors instead of Latin alphabet characters) fit well with Tibetan Buddhist active learning methods.

  • A view of the prayer hall from the science center at Drepung Loseling monastery.

  • The main gate of Drepung Loseling Monastery near Mundgod, India, a replica of the monastery in Tibet, which was taken by the Chinese government in 1959.

  • Prayer flags originated in Tibet, and the monks in exile often travel to this Indian hillside and hang prayer flags if they have a big exam the next day.

  • A view from inside the prayer hall at the local nunnery. This was the first year that the nuns participated in the science program.

  • A massive mode of transportation, spotted on a trip into the town of Mundgod while in search of a working ATM.

  • Interactive small-group activities and labs fit well with the Tibetan Buddhist approach to active learning.

  • Measuring the temperature of ice water over time taught the concept of phase change while relating it to a topic that the monks were very interested in: global warming. This was also the first time that many of the monks ever plotted data.

The program provides monks with the tools and expert guidance to analyze and understand the world from a scientific perspective. The monks provide the faculty with opportunities to learn about their culture and religion.

Kuchera and her academic colleagues traveled to see prayer flags, toured a local Buddhist nunnery and attended an organized discussion about karma with two geshe. In the monastic system, to graduate as a geshe, which can take two decades, is to attain a scholastic degree that also contains certain specific "karmic imprints" of Tibetan Buddhism.

With the help of translator Lopsang Gunpo, Kuchera and her classroom partner, Assistant Professor of Physics Nicole Ackerman of Agnes Scott College, taught a group of 103 monks in third-year studies about atomic structure, states of matter, thermodynamics and waves.

In close proximity to the physics program at the monastery, nuns learned about the philosophy of science from two philosophy professors. This was the first year the nuns participated in ETSI, a cultural note not lost on Kuchera.

"Religion does not exist in a vacuum," said Kuchera, who traces her own interest in religious cultures to her undergraduate classes in Buddhism, religions of southeast Asia, and death and the afterlife in Tibetan Buddhism. "It was interesting to me to witness the intersection of Tibetan and Indian cultures in this remote region in southwest India."

Active Learning

Debate is a strong tradition in Tibetan Buddhist monastic education, which has long centered on methods that are currently termed "active learning" in American pedagogical circles, said Kuchera.

It worked beautifully with physics.

"The science faculty inform the monks about science. The monks then critically relate this to their Buddhist worldview," said Kuchera.

In Kuchera's class, the monks debated the relationship between the physical understanding of the body's heat transfer and entropy at death to the Buddhist ideas of heat and death.

Kuchera and her colleague we were on hand during the debate to address any physics questions that the monks had, but debating the science's relationship to Buddhism was done only between monks.

Traditional Tibetan debate format calls for paired participants, each addressing four questions and four statements in an open forum filled with pairs of peers all doing the same thing.

It's lively.

"The monks are not afraid of being wrong," Kuchera said. "They have to hold a stance in debate, and part of that stance may be wrong. There are no winners and losers. They just smile and laugh and move on."

Whether the topic at hand was karmic philosophy or scientific empiricism, Kuchera noticed something else during her time at the monastery: Students are students.

"These monks, even though they've chosen a monastic path in life, they have smartphones, many have Facebook accounts, they are always joking around. There are a lot of differences, but they are also very much like any college student," she said. "They took us to see their prayer flags. Sometimes they go there to pray for their exams."


John Syme




  • July 27, 2017