Emory-Tibet Science Initiative: Where East meets West

Spirited Thinking | May 22, 2013

Emory University faculty and students are now in northern India for the latest installment of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI), which is bringing comprehensive science education to Tibetan monastics.

One of the faculty members teaching this summer is Paul Wallace. Wallace came to Emory as a Master of Divinity student at Candler School of Theology in 2008 having already earned a Ph.D. in physics from Duke University.

Wallace is teaching half of what is essentially a college-level introductory astronomy class. The topics he’ll cover include historical astronomy, focused on the Copernican revolution and the work of Kepler and Galileo; a survey of the solar system; an introduction to relativity and black holes; the Milky Way and dark matter; cosmology and cosmic evolution; and a short bit on extrasolar planets. The latter are planets that orbit stars other than the sun (there are a little over 700 of these exoplanets known today).

Over the course of the summer there are several dozen Emory people traveling to India, from the physics department as well as faculty from biology, neuroscience, philosophy and other departments, and a number of non-faculty Emory employees, most of whom work with the Emory-Tibet Partnership or ETSI itself. In addition, there are a number of undergraduates who attend a summer mind-body program not directly related to the ETSI.

ETSI has as its goal the establishment of modern science in the Tibetan Buddhist monastic curriculum. For centuries their curriculum has focused on Buddhist philosophy, which is as it should be, but the Dalai Lama wants to incorporate science into the monastics’ regular education. So Emory instructors go to India to teach the monks and nuns who have been judged to hold the most promise as teachers themselves; they in turn will become the science teachers of the future.

Six Tibetan Buddhist monks who are part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, are taking their new-found scientific knowledge back to India to help teach science to other monks and nuns. Several Emory faculty are in Dharamsala, India, teaching in the program.

But how do we know what we know?

"I find it challenging to work with students who are so focused and not distracted and who really want to know how we know things," says Wallace. "Often in my classes in America I can say things like, 'the Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way once every 250 million years,' and most (not all) students accept that. The monastics typically do not. They want to know how in the world we could possible know something like that."

Wallace notes that his Tibetan students are not challenging him personally; they are just curious. Such curiosity keeps him on his toes, making his pedagogical goal "to become a better teacher by constantly rethinking what lies beneath what we call scientific knowledge, and that is observation."

Wallace also remarks that teaching such philosophy-steeped students is really tough, and what makes it interesting is that their philosophy is not Western; their assumptions about how the world works are not the same as those of their Western peers.

An ordained Baptist minister, Wallace notes the theological differences as well as the cultural differences in his work with the ETSI. However, "as one draws near to the center of apophatic theology, things begin to look a little bit Buddhist," Wallace says. "This is not to say that it’s the same as Buddhism, because it’s not really, but certain resonances do begin to emerge and in my opinion they’re unmistakable."

Wallace holds a great respect for and perhaps even a little understanding of some Buddhist basics like emptiness and impermanence, and it makes his journeys to India that much more meaningful. "At the same time,” he says, "my lens is distinctly Christian and I bring that to the discussions that tend to pop up over meals and during free hours. It makes for interesting cross-cultural moments."

Written by Jacob D. Myers, a fifth-year doctoral student in Emory's Graduate Division of Religion.