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Neuroethics and the Emory Tibet Science Initiative

I recently interviewed fellow Neuroethics Blog contributors Dr. Julia Haas and Dr. Gillian Hue about courses they taught during the summer at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in South India as part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI). Julia (who is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology Program at Washington University) taught philosophy of science at Drepung Loseling Monastery in Karnataka, and Gillian (who is the senior program coordinator for the Emory University Initiative to Maximize Student Development, program associate in the Emory Neuroethics Program, and the Managing Editor for AJOB Neuroscience) taught neuroscience at the Sera Jey Monastery in Bylakuppe.

A neuroscience class at Sera Jey Monastery (Photo credit: Gillian Hue)

The ETSI (part of the Emory-Tibet Partnership) works to introduce science programs into the education of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. Julia explained that “for the past six years they had a pilot program in the north of India [in Dharamsala], and now it is gradually being rolled out as part of the curriculum for some of the higher monastic degrees.” Such degrees are offered at Drepung Loseling and Sera Jey, which function as monastic universities.

In our interview, Julia said that she first heard about the ETSI from Neuroethics Blog contributor Brian Dias who taught in Dharamsala the previous year, and she joined the program when a professor in her department, Dr. Mark Risjord, was looking for interested students. According to Julia, the ETSI wants philosophers like her involved because the Tibetan monks’ education is heavily based in philosophy and they “thought that might be a good entry point for the monks to start thinking about science before they started learning the specifics.”

The philosophy of science class was the introductory class for the program. Julia defines philosophy of science as “the methods and…practices that are involved in scientific research”. It deals with questions such as: “how are scientific discoveries made, … how does scientific change come about, or what distinguishes science from non-science?” The class introduced scientific concepts and terminology such as correlation versus causation, measurements, the scientific method, and scientific theories and also “more abstract philosophical ideas.”

Julia Haas’s philosophy of science course (Photo Credit: ETSI) 

Teaching in the monasteries is a unique and challenging experience for the ETSI instructors, due to the educational and cultural differences and the language barrier. The monastic students have less knowledge of Western science (though there is a Tibetan scientific tradition), but they have deep philosophical knowledge. Because of this, Julia explained that her course was more about teaching the concepts in a way that would fit into the knowledge they already had:

“These are the elite students in the Tibet tradition. … The monks are very advanced scholars already when you when you walk into the classrooms, so they have these rich and sophisticated worldviews that sometimes are compatible with a scientific approach and sometimes less so. It is a question of translating some of the scientific concepts as opposed to introducing them to a blank slate. You are mostly trying to make ideas fit with a very well developed worldview and find where the similarities are or where the differences are.”

The ETSI translated the American instructors’ educational materials into Tibetan, and interpreters (monastic students who spoke English–oftentimes Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars) translated in the classrooms. Julia did not find the language barrier to be much of a problem, stating that the main issue she had with it was having difficulty getting to know her students on a personal level. Gillian said that the language barrier and cultural differences did impact the way she taught and that she needed to remain aware of them in order to make sure she was communicating her lessons clearly.

A monk writing the names of the cerebral lobes in Tibetan (Photo credit: Gillian Hue)

The addition of the science program constitutes “the first change in the curriculum in the Tibetan monastic universities in 600 years.” But Julia noted that the students she taught “were incredibly open to the sciences, given how new it is to their tradition.” She contrasted their attitude with the resistance scientific thinkers faced from “philosophers and religious movements in Europe” when modern science started to emerge. Their attitude is encouraged by the Dalai Lama’s enthusiasm for the program and his belief in the importance of science education for Buddhist monastics. Gillian elaborated, explaining that “neuroscience was the area of study that the Dalai Lama specifically asked to be a focus of the ETSI.” And he had expressed his interest in neuroscience before the creation of the Emory-Tibet partnership, including in a controversial talk at the 2005 Society for Neuroscience meeting where he stated his belief that a better understanding of the human brain could make us more ethical and compassionate: “I believe that the collaboration between neuroscience and the Buddhist contemplative tradition may shed fresh light on the vitally important question of the interface of ethics and neuroscience.”

Gillian said that such ideas are what excite her about the ETSI project and neuroethics in general, though they require background knowledge of neuroscience before they can be properly studied. She commended the ETSI neuroscience curriculum team and instructors for focusing on teaching the basics before discussing more complex issues such as the neuroscience of ethics and consciousness.

(Photo Credit: ETSI)

Both Americans and Tibetan members of the ETSI were aware that there could possibly be unintended results of introducing modern science to an insular and traditional community. Julia explained that she was concerned that it could lead to a decrease in the importance and prevalence of religion in their society, as occurred in Europe in response to the rise of modern science. The issue was also discussed by Dr. Risjord and some of the Tibetan religious leadership, but ultimately they believe that a collaborative program such as this can in fact allow the monks to reconcile science with their religion and “empower the tradition to engage with science, so instead of being threatened by it … they can bring their tradition into harmony with science.”

A project like the ETSI presents many challenges, but such a collaborative effort between different educational institutions can greatly benefit all involved. The ETSI hopes to eventually fulfill the Dalai Lama’s dream of creating a sustainable and permanent science education program within the Tibetan monasteries. One of the main goals behind the Science Scholars program is to train monks to teach the science courses at their own monasteries, which should allow further integration of the science curriculums with Tibetan Buddhism.

Want to cite this post?

Queen, J. (2014). The Emory Tibet Science Initiative: Interview with Dr. Julia Haas and Dr. Gillian Hue. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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