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Jefferson Award winner Lobsang Tenzin Negi has worked to bridge two traditions for one humanity
profile image of Lobsang Tenzin Negi

Lobsang Tenzin Negi has dedicated his scholarly work, strategic thinking and tireless energy to fusing Tibetan monastic tradition with Western science. The result has been nothing short of world-changing.

— Photo by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video.

Few have done as much to build transformative programs and bring positive international attention to Emory as Lobsang Tenzin Negi, the winner of this year’s Jefferson Award, which “honors faculty and staff who have significantly enriched the intellectual and civic life of the Emory community through personal activities, influence and leadership, usually over the course of many years.”

Across his more than 30 years here, Negi has dedicated his scholarly work, strategic thinking and tireless energy to making Emory the institution that, in the words of the Dalai Lama, bridges two traditions for the sake of one humanity.

“One of Emory’s founding principles of education is not just to mold intellect but to mold character. That’s why Emory resonated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, because of that dedication to the education of the heart,” says Negi.

Negi trained as a Tibetan monk at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, before receiving his Geshe Lharampa degree — the highest academic degree granted in the Buddhist Geluk tradition — from Drepung Monastic University in south India.

In 1991, he was sent to Georgia to develop a meditation center, at which time the Dalai Lama advised him to study Western philosophy and the science of the mind. Negi began looking into graduate opportunities at Emory, where he found Robert Paul, a scholar who had deep knowledge of the rich Tibetan contemplative education system and who became his mentor. Negi was offered a scholarship and began studying at Emory.

Paul and Negi continued to work together, discussing the possibility of building a stronger relationship between Emory and Negi’s alma mater, Drepung Loseling Monastery in India.

During the Dalai Lama’s 1995 visit to campus, a delegation from Emory and Drepung Loseling in Atlanta presented His Holiness with the idea of creating a partnership between Emory and Drepung Loseling Monastery in India.

When asked where they should start, the Dalai Lama kept things simple: “Start small, and if it is helpful, it will grow.”

“We all came out of that meeting and said that’s really helpful,” Negi recalls. “Primarily because we had no clue how we were going to do it. There was a sense that we wanted to do something really big, but there was no structure at the time. So, his advice was both a relief and an inspiration.”

With Negi at the helm, that relationship has grown exponentially — all from the initial desire to bring Tibetan scholars to lecture at Emory and send students to Tibetan communities in India via study-abroad programs.

“As I look back, the program really grew because it was filling a need for the community at Emory and the world at large,” says Negi. 

Taking root and branching out

What began as the Emory-Tibet Partnership has since grown and was renamed the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics in 2017 — often shortened to the Emory Compassion Center, which now houses three signature programs.

First, the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative is a six-year science curriculum implemented in nine monasteries and three nunneries. Much like Negi himself has modeled, this unique education brings together the strengths of both the Western and Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

“He models in his teaching and in his program building not only the possibility of conjoining Eastern and Western traditions and modes of thought, but the creativity, innovation and richness of doing so,” says Carla Freeman, director of the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry and the Goodrich C. White Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

In 2004, Negi developed Cognitively Based Compassion Training (CBCT), a secularized meditation protocol based on ancient Tibetan mind-training techniques to help students reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and to advance the science of compassion. During the past 20 years, CBCT has been offered across 19 countries and by more than 150 certified teachers.

Much has changed since the early 2000s — but students are still seeking the same guidance.  

“More and more, students see that programs we’re offering are helpful for them to cope with this fast-paced life, the stresses that they are going through and to gain tools to regulate their emotions,” says Negi. “But now, they also have a better understanding of how our emotional health is critical to academic achievement and for life, to really thrive, have better relationships and make the right decisions.”

The success of CBCT ultimately ushered in SEE Learning (Social, Emotional, and Ethical Learning), which has engaged K-12 educators across the globe to promote compassion and ethics while being grounded in contemplative science. Negi led the team that developed this framework and a developmentally appropriate set of curricula, which was officially launched in 2019 in India, in the presence of the Dalai Lama. Since then, it’s been implemented in more than 40 countries, at more than 70,000 schools and has reached more than 10 million students.

The number of people whose lives have been changed for the better by aspects of Negi’s compassionate leadership, scholarship and pedagogy is incalculable and global in scope. As a result of his efforts, Emory is acknowledged around the world as a leader in the study and practice of compassion meditation and ethical education.

“I had no idea that when my incredibly kind mentor, Dr. Paul, and I started exploring some kind of partnership between the two cultures — Western science and the contemplative tradition from the Tibetan world — that in 25 years we would be seeing the programs that people around the world embrace,” says Negi.

It may have surpassed anyone’s original expectations. But Negi knows it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“When you think about the need, the scope of the work, we are still at the beginning stages. There is still so much to be done and right now we’re reaching a fraction of the world population,” he says. “What we are creating and offering is resonating with people and I believe it will continue to grow with nurturing and attention. The potential for this to serve humanity is huge.” 

A team effort

His colleagues unanimously describe Negi as humble, explaining that he’s not one to take credit for the vast amount of work he has done. That trait bore out when he received a phone call from the president and provost, congratulating him for this award.

“My reaction was really just the feeling of humility,” says Negi. “I felt deeply humbled and grateful for all the people, among them His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Emory leadership, Dr. Paul and Dr. Gary Hauk.

“I felt humbled because this work and recognition isn’t really for me, it’s for the work. And one person cannot do that work, it’s the product and result of countless individuals, especially the deeply dedicated and talented staff of our Compassion Center.”

From a starting team of just a handful of people, the Compassion Center now employs 30 full-time staff members across the three core programs and has touched innumerable lives.

“I have a tremendous sense of gratitude to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for providing not just the vision but the guidance. That’s invaluable and really has been one of the primary reasons for whatever small success we have achieved,” Negi says. “In the Buddhist sense, any benefits from my small contribution that count, I want to dedicate that to His Holiness’ long life and good health, and for his far-reaching altruistic aspiration for humanity to be realized.”

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