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Tibetan monastics and a neuroscientist: Some lessons learned and others taught

By Guest Contributor Brian Dias, PhD

Imagine your day starting out near the Northern Indian town of Dharamshala with thirty minutes of spiritual chanting and meditation among Tibetan Buddhist monastics. Now you follow that by spending the whole day teaching Neuroscience to these same monastics. “Bliss”, “introspection”, “questioning”, “challenging” and “why” are some of the words that may come to mind. They certainly did for me while I had the privilege of being a Neuroscience faculty member as part of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) this past summer in India. Other faculty members included Dr. Melvin Konner (Evolutionary Anthropology, Emory University), Dr. Ann Kruger (Developmental Psychologist, GSU) and Dr. Carol Worthman (Medical Anthropology, Emory University).

An audience with His Holiness The XIV Dalai
and teaching monastics in Dharamshala, India.

I intend to use this blog post to shed light on the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and western science as seen through my fifteen days with the monastics (a term used to include both monks and nuns). Started in 2007 with the blessing of His Holiness The XIV Dalai Lama, the ETSI has been administered by The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and Geshe Lobsang Negi who is a professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. Over these years, the ETSI has been teaching Math, Physics, Neuroscience and Biology to cohorts of monastics from monasteries across India. After a 5 year science curriculum, this was the second ETSI graduating class. An immediate survey of the monastics revealed a skewed sex-ratio in that the class comprised of 42 monks and only 2 nuns. This inequality of representation is being slowly but surely remedied with the first group of nuns sitting for their Geshe exams that will confer upon them the status of a Buddhist scholar equivalent to the male scholars.

Having had some experience teaching and mentoring within academic circles in India and USA, I felt equipped to deal with normative classroom experiences. What I experienced was anything but normative. For one, the monastics revere their teachers to an extent I have never experienced. This is in keeping with the philosophy that teachers help the pupil uncover knowledge that helps in the attainment of Nirvana. Not to confuse this reverence with obeisance, the monastics were among the most engaged and questioning audience that I have ever taught.

The monastics listening to the Neuroscience faculty teaching.

In keeping with this questioning was a long session on the ethics of using humans and animals for research purposes. While using human subjects for research seemed to pass by relatively unquestioned by the monastics after they ensured that the well being of the subjects was taken into account, animal research and consequently my work came under intense scrutiny and discussion. A central tenet of Buddhism is to minimize the suffering of all sentient beings and animal research is hence at odds with that pursuit. Research with rats, mice and monkeys was glossed over to discuss why cockroaches were used in research and what was done to ensure that the cockroaches were treated in a respectful manner. Such an audience attentive to the ethics of working with humans and animals would make IACUC and IRB panels proud.

Tamden, one of our translators with a topic that the monastics debated.

From a mechanistic point of view, we taught with the help of translators. These amazing individuals have science backgrounds, are trained by the LTWA and are instrumental in any success that ETSI has had with this undertaking. This of course meant that we spoke in 2 sentence bursts that were then translated before we went on. Any questions by the monks went through this route as well. What is even more awe-inspiring is that a whole new vocabulary has needed to be invented to implement neuroscience terms into the Tibetan dictionary. I was informed that while ancient Tibetan scripture does talk about biology, physics and math, there is very little mention if any, of anything neuroscience-related and consequently the need for a new lexicon.

Most fascinating to me was the debating that is the cornerstone of the monastics’ learning and teaching process. As explained to me, a monk or nun reads a scripture, interprets it and then receives a teaching from his or her teacher at the monastery. Armed with this interpretation and teaching, the monastic then enters debating court, wherein either in a paired or group setting, engages in a debate about the scripture, interpretation and teaching with peers. What is particularly striking about this exercise is the seriousness and intensity of the debate paired with an absence of ego. Neither the challenger (standing up) nor the defender (seated) is trying to prove the other wrong; instead the goal is to move closer to the truth via intense debate and discussion. Accompanying such debating is a lot of gesturing, mainly by the challengers. Focusing on one of the many gestures, I have been given to understand that the slapping of the wrist is done to make a point but also contains some nuances. To begin, the slap of the palm is striking a wisdom nerve in the hope that the challenger and defender receive wisdom while closing the door to ignorance with the downward motion of the palm. A slight backward pull of the hand after striking the palm of the other hand is meant to convey two pieces of information: (1) let us open the door of knowledge, and (2) let neither of us hold on to our opinions too tightly. I find this last motivation quite poignant in that we in the West would do well to emulate this lack of attachment to our own agenda when we enter into discourse with parties not sympathetic to our point of view.

Paired debate with one of the monks in the midst of vociferous gesturing

As applied to their learning and teaching practices, the monastics imbue themselves with characteristics from which any academic, business, entrepreneurial and personal pursuit would benefit from: the lack of compulsion to be “right” about what they know, checking their egos in at the door and in lieu being like sponges eager to learn, keeping an open mind to a variety of opinions, ensuring that all beings are treated with respect, and the child-like joy that accompanies their learning. In summary, my experience with ETSI this year has left me with a profound respect for the reverence and mind-fullness that the monastics bring to every aspect of teaching, learning, and existing.

Want to cite this post?

Dias, B. (2013). Tibetan monastics and a neuroscientist: Some lessons learned and others taught. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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  1. I am very interested to know how other cultures (especially non-Western) look at and study the mind. Thanks for the blog.


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