Students explore Tibetan perspectives on mind-body connections

By Aspen Ono | Emory Report | June 28, 2016

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Two dozen undergraduate students spent five weeks studying with the Tibetan refugee community in India as part of Emory's unique Mind-Body Sciences Summer Abroad Program, which includes a private class with the Dalai Lama.

It's 5 a.m. in New Delhi. Twenty-four jet-lagged undergraduate students pile into a fleet of white taxis and find themselves catapulted into the chaos that is morning traffic in India. Ironically, the students came to India to study inner peace and are making the 12-hour pilgrimage north to the Sarah Institute of Buddhist Dialectics College, located in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Their mission: to study the connection between the mind and the body from the point of view of the Tibetan Buddhist contemplative tradition with Emory’s Mind-Body Sciences Summer Abroad Program.

The five-week immersion experience, which spanned May 17 to June 23 this year, is part of a unique relationship that Emory has cultivated with the Tibetan Buddhist refugee community, including His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, now residing in Dharamsala, India.

In fact, Emory is the only Western university to which the Dalai Lama has accepted an appointment, joining the faculty as Presidential Distinguished Professor in 2007. Through his role as a professor, the Dalai Lama has offered a private class to the annual Mind-Body Sciences summer program, which started in 2009.

"It was a truly profound experience to meet someone who actually practiced what they preached, who not only set high standards for themselves and the world, but met those standards and led by example," says program participant Geoffrey Solomon, a rising junior.

This unique summer study abroad program was a direct consequence of the Dalai Lama’s attempt to promote and nurture a relationship between the scientific perspectives and studies of the West and his own Buddhist philosophical worldview.

With the help of former monk and Geshe (the highest degree in Tibetan Buddhism) Lobsang Tenzin Negi, professor of practice in Emory College's Department of Religion, the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative began in 2006 to attempt to blend modern science and Tibetan monastic culture.

Through this program Emory faculty, among other scientists, travel to India in the summer to teach short intensive courses on scientific topics ranging from physics to neuroscience, as well as the philosophy of science and the scientific method.

After observing the tremendous success of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, Negi sought to take the relationship between the two communities one step further.

“I wanted to offer Emory students the chance to study inner science, contemplative science, healing science," he explains. "I wanted to create a forum where Tibetan Buddhist monastics and Emory students could inspire each other and encourage young minds to learn from one another, in the hopes of cultivating strong relationships and generating a dialogue for future interactions between these two different worldviews.”

Combining Buddhism and science 

So in 2009, a small group of Emory undergraduates took part in the first expedition to India. Since then, the program has continued to gain traction and attention from the Emory student body as a whole.

“I have always loved Buddhism and science and I wanted to do something that would combine my passions for both topics. Honestly, this program is one of the reasons I chose to attend Emory in the first place and I am so excited that I got to experience this amazing culture firsthand,” says Micaela McCall, a rising junior in Emory College and participant in this summer's trip. “The main thing for me is I’ve never realized how much your thoughts impact your physiological well-being."

Fellow summer abroad participant Courtney Clark, another rising junior at Emory, agrees. "I’ve come to learn that negative thoughts can literally make you sick or suffer," she says. "I never really understood that before."

Changing the body, changing the mind 

Geshe Kelsang Wangmo, a revered teacher and nun in Dharamsala, explains the Tibetan understanding of the connection between mind and body.

“Changing the body, from a Buddhist point of view, is changing the mind," Wangmo says. "Sometimes I think Western medicine and health practices overlook this mind-body partnership. But in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the mind is the ultimate source of clarity and well-being.”

Summer program participant Emma Neish, a rising senior at Emory, plans to bring that perspective to her future career as a physician.

“Being a pre-med student, I am already appreciating the agency we have over our own perceptions, emotions and mind and how that relates to our health and well-being," she says. "Never before would I have considered that one’s 'emotional hygiene' plays an equally important, if not more important, part in his or her life and health than the daily maintenance of one’s physical hygiene.

"It has given me a new perspective on health and medical intervention, which I feel will serve me in my future studies and understanding of Western medical practice," Neish continues.

New perspectives on the human condition

The Mind-Body Sciences Summer Abroad Program continues to evolve and develop as its popularity grows. The program now includes students from other universities who seek to learn more about the Tibetan Buddhist contemplative tradition.

In 2014, the program expanded to include two-and-a-half weeks living on the grounds of Drepung Loseling Monastery, in the southern city of Mundgod, India, instead of the entire program taking place in Dharamsala. This enables students to become fully immersed into the Tibetan Buddhist Monastic culture and offers a unique opportunity to live and interact with more than 3,000 Buddhist monks.

“I hope that this program not only educates students in their academic endeavors, but also provides them with a new perspective on human purpose, life and meaning, giving students a new dimension to understanding the human condition as viewed form a Tibetan Buddhist perspective," Negi says.

"I want this experience to inspire further investigation and collaboration with the Tibetan Buddhist community," he continues. "But ultimately, I want students to gain different tools to enrich their lives, tools that better their internal wellbeing and education as they pursue their external academic endeavors once they return to the West."

Whatever career and life paths the students ultimately choose, Negi hopes they will take with them important lessons from the summer abroad experience.

"I hope they find that the Tibetan Buddhist doctrines of compassion, altruism and mindfulness allow them to live their life in a new way through the cultivation and discovery of their own inner dimensions and mind," he says.

Editor's note: Aspen Ono is a student in Emory College and a participant in the Mind-Body Sciences Summer Abroad.