Quantum theory says that the world is a product of an infinite number of random events, while Buddhism teaches that nothing happens without a cause, trapping the universe in an unending karmic cycle.
Reconciling the two might seem as challenging as trying to explain the Higgs boson to a kindergarten class. Yet if someone has to do it, it might as well be the team of academics, translators and six Tibetan monks clad in maroon robes at Emory University in Atlanta.
They were joined last week by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, who decided seven years ago that it was time to merge the hard science of the laboratory with the soft science of the meditative mind.
The leaders at Emory, who already had formal relationships with Tibetan students there, agreed, and a unique partnership was formed.
For the monks, some of the challenges have been mundane, like learning to like pizza and trying to understand Lord Dooley, the university’s skeleton mascot.
For the team of professors involved in the project, called the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, there are the larger issues, like how to develop methods to quantify the power of meditation in a way the scientific world would accept.
However, for the Dalai Lama, an energetic 78-year-old who rises at 3:30am for four hours of meditation, his pet project is a no-brainer.
Buddhist teachings offer education about the mind, the Dalai Lama said in an interview on Thursday.
“It is quite rich material about what I call the inner world,” he said. “Modern science is very highly developed in matters concerning the material world. These two things separately are not complete. Together, the external and the internal worlds are complete.”
The first batch of six monks arrived on campus in 2010 and have since gone back to India, where most Tibetan exiles live, and started teaching. Dozens of monks and nuns have taken lectures from Emory professors who traveled to Dharamsala, India, to instruct them, and 15 English-Tibetan science textbooks have been devised for monastic students.
The university spends about US$700,000 a year on the program, which includes tuition for the monks, who then go back and teach science in the monasteries.
However, it has not been a smooth road. It took until last year for Buddhist leaders to accept science education as a mandatory part of monastic education. It was the first major change in the monastic curriculum in 600 years.
Many of the toughest battles are down to seemingly simple issues of lexicon. How does one create new words for concepts like photosynthesis and clones, which have no equivalent in the Tibetan language or culture? How does one begin to name thousands of molecules and chemical compounds? What of words like “process,” which have several meanings for Tibetans?
So far, 2,500 new scientific terms have been added to the Tibetan language.
“Much of our work is to make new phrases novel enough so students won’t take them with literal meaning,” said Tsondue Samphel, who leads a team of translators.
Learning has gone both ways. Professors find themselves contemplating the science of the heart and mind in new ways.
Debate is a constant, said Alexander Escobar of Emory, who has gone to India to teach biology. For example, monks have wanted to know how he could be so sure that seawater once covered the Himalayas. (The answer? Fossils.)
Western academics are looking at their work through a new lens, contemplating matters like the nature and origins of consciousness.
One result has been the development of cognitively-based compassion training, a secular mediation program proven to improve empathy.
The partnership has had other, more practical applications.
Social worker Linda Hutton, whose clinic treats sexually abused children and families in Greenville, South Carolina, teaches her patients to practice mindfulness, and how to use meditation and breathing to cope with trauma.
“I draw from a lot of medical research, but what I have found here [at Emory] transcends that,” Hutton said.