Enlightenments Entwined: Modern Science at the Monastic University

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‘Enlightenment’ means very different things in Western and Buddhist culture. From one standpoint it signifies an era of scientific progress, and from the other a spiritual awakening that paves the way to Nirvana. But are these enlightenments reconcilable? Aiming for their synthesis, the Dalai Lama has called for a modern science curriculum for monastic universities, teaching Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in exile. Drs Arri Eisen, Jennifer Mascaro and Joel Zivot have taken up the task at Emory University. Together with The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, they are dealing with the potential culture clash by designing curricula around the interests, values, and practices shared across science and Buddhist thought.

Science is always entangled in culture. Social norms and values shape what questions are researched, how experiments are performed, and the way nature is represented in language. After all, the concept of ‘natural law’ emerged from early-modern Europe, where God and monarch were said to rule over all. Cultural conditions were somewhat different in East Asia, leading their science closer to modern schools of thought that doubt the constancy of ‘laws of nature’. This is why a pristine reflection of the natural world is impossible, and why Western science is no exception. Keenly aware of the cultural dimension to science are Drs Arri Eisen, Jennifer Mascaro and Joel Zivot at Emory University in Atlanta, U.S. Their work with The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, creating a modern science curriculum for monastic universities, would require careful attention to the parts of Buddhist culture that can be leveraged to lead Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns into scientific studies.

Aiming for inclusion
In 2005, the Dalai Lama invited Emory University to develop and teach a Western science curriculum for Tibetan Buddhist monastics. Since then, the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) has brought 200 faculty from over 50 universities around the world to teach a 6-year curriculum in Life Science, Physics, and Neuroscience at three major monastic universities, teaching thousands of exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. The curriculum is now taught entirely by Tibetans at purpose-built science centres and labs and is mandatory for all monks or nuns studying for the highest-level degrees at their institutions.

The ETSI translation team has created over 5,000 scientific terms for the already rich Tibetan language.

The ETSI project set out to improve the inclusion of Tibetan Buddhists in scientific learning, communication, and collaboration. Indeed, spreading scientific literacy can enable informed engagement within local communities on issues like public health, as well as international cooperation to meet global challenges to the environment. Meanwhile, a diverse research community in science can broaden philosophical insights and areas of inquiry for a more holistic investigation of the universe and the human condition. But while the benefits are clear, the task of extending science education to previously excluded cultures is beset by complications. How can science curricula be designed to bridge a language divide and remain culturally responsive when these differences speak to core contrasts in how we view the world around us?

Arri Eisen presents science books he has written for Tibetan monks and nuns as part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative to the Dalai Lama.

Mind your language
English is the dominant language of science, but only a quarter of monastic students in the ETSI project understand at least half of the English spoken in class. This has made the contribution of Tibetan interpreters pivotal to the programme. However, translating Western scientific ideas, concepts, and methods into a language and culture with little exposure to such content is difficult. The task requires interpretive work that goes beyond word-to-word translation and into comprehensive, culturally responsive communication. Only through these intricate exchanges can monastic students be equipped with a scientific language that can strengthen connections with their local and global communities.

Tibetan translators have followed a number of key principles since the eighth century, including faithfulness to original texts and close adherence to the syntactic rules and cultural resources of the target language. These guidelines inform the work of the ETSI translation team, which has created over 5,000 scientific terms for the already rich Tibetan language. The team identify which concepts require clarification, take into account Tibetan background knowledge and culture when selecting substitute words, and all while seeking input from a variety of experts. This process makes the team best placed to break down language barriers in monastic science education.

The Buddhist commitment to nonviolence clashes with conventional descriptions of immune cells ‘attacking’ invading cells. Yurchanka Siarhei/Shutterstock.com

ETSI translators grapple with various forms of linguistic divergence. For example, words like water have a more general usage in Tibetan, meaning anything wet, liquid, or flowing, rather than the chemical composition of H2O. These elements of Tibetan lexicon require refinement to express scientific specificities, whilst other words offer interesting parallels to scientific content. For instance, quark has no previous meaning in English, but in Tibetan means “innermost”. The resulting translation of quark into quark-dool – with dool meaning “particle” – creates a compound word that remains close to the original term while providing an intuitive indication of the phenomenon itself, something lacking in the English language.

Conceptual connections
Meditation and states of mind are fundamental to Buddhist philosophy and practice. These interests intersect with the field of neuroscience, providing a starting point for Tibetan monastics to get motivated and ask questions about science. The ETSI project channels this complementary curiosity into a neuroscience course, which fosters a scientific understanding of some key concepts in Buddhist thought – from the interaction of mind and body to the inner workings of perception, memory, and emotion. As well as motivating monastics, conceptual connections between science and Buddhism can also help promote new insights and ways of understanding natural phenomena. For example, the Buddhist belief in a cyclical and interdependent nature to all events provides a new metaphor for teaching aspects of biology, including the immune system.

Involving monastic students in authentic research studies allows for greater engagement in science. So far, eight research projects in the fields of biology and neuroscience have been launched.

The Buddhist commitment to nonviolence clashes with conventional descriptions of immune cells ‘attacking’ and ‘killing’ invading cells. By reconsidering the immune system as a cycle of life, death, and sacrifice, in which cells die to improve an organism’s overall wellbeing, we can regard the same scientific information through a different lens. Such a revision allows teachers to align the content of immune cell biology with the cultural backgrounds of monastic students, whilst potentially prompting scientists to construct novel research questions and experiments based on these alternative concepts. Likewise, the Buddhist principle that any sentient being may be reincarnated as any other presents problems if bacteria are also sentient. The ETSI programme incorporates this concern into their biology course by encouraging monastics to design experiments in line with these research questions, after learning the fundamentals of cell biology and cell communication.

By reconsidering the immune system as a cycle of life, death, and sacrifice, in which cells die to improve an organism’s overall wellbeing, we can regard the same scientific information through a different lens.

Milestones and moving forward
The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative has made significant progress in advancing scientific inclusion. By cultivating shared interests and interactions, the science curriculum has brought unprecedented and positive cultural exchanges between Tibetan and Chinese students at Emory. Furthermore, the project has become fully integrated into large monasteries established near Tibetan settlements in exile. This provides a pathway for new scientific insights to enrich the local community through talks, teachings, and other academic conversations open to the public. Monastics have also created social media groups, further disseminating scientific learning and lexicon. Moreover, by deepening their engagement with science, monastics have begun to collaborate with ETSI scientists in original scientific research. For example, Tibetan Buddhists have produced neuroscience research investigating the brain activity of participants of monastic debate, which has been featured in news articles and Western journals. Meanwhile, public health projects have been established in monastic communities to study and find solutions to the problems of diabetes, depression, and water quality.

As science takes root in monastic culture, ETSI is moving forward with the project. After all, involving students in authentic research studies allows for greater engagement in science, provoking learners to ask questions that presently have no answer. Eight research projects have so far been launched in the monasteries within the fields of biology and neuroscience, including an investigation into the impact of meal-timing on weight, factors leading to feelings of anger, and the effects of meditation on blood pressure and heart rate. Another area of study relates to educational perspectives and practices developed through the initiative. For example, some ETSI members are looking into the experiences of monastics’ learning evolution, to compare it with the exposure of other cultures to an evolutionary education. Considering the self-awareness of Buddhists regarding their own mental states, other researchers are examining the metacognitive ability of monastic students in contrast with those in US institutions, to help design interventions to boost this cognitive skill. The Dalai Lama has called the productive exchange between science and Tibetan Buddhist culture a 100-year project. Indeed, with impressive points of progress already attained, this prospect marks an exciting future for the endeavour of scientific research and social cooperation.

What inspired you to set up this initiative?

When a Nobel Laureate, known the world over for his work in peace and compassion, asks you to collaborate with him, you tend to listen and get inspired. As scientists and educators in academia, we are always looking to expand and enhance science and better integrate it into and understand its context in the world; here was a unique opportunity – to contribute to revolutionary changes in a curriculum that had not changed in six centuries. Naively, we didn’t realise that we would learn as much or more from these Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns as they would from us.


  • Gray, K., Namgyal, D., Purcell, J., Samphel, T., Sonam, T., Tenzin, K., Tsering, D., Worthman, C. and Eisen, A. (2020). Found in Translation: Collaborative Contemplations of Tibetan Buddhism and Western Science. Frontiers in Communication, 4. Available at: https://www.doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2019.00076
  • Gray, K. and Eisen, A. (2019). The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative: Rethinking Cross-Cultural Science and Teaching. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 20(1). Available at: https://www.doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v20i1.1618
Research Objectives
Drs Eisen, Mascaro and Zivot and their colleagues have developed a modern science curriculum for the monastic university education of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in exile. This has led to novel, cross-cultural research projects as well as unprecedented and positive cultural exchanges between the monastics and Chinese students at Emory.


  • The Templeton Foundation
  • Joni Winston
  • Emory University
  • The Dalai Lama Trust

Arri Eisen, PhD, is the Nat C. Robertson Distinguished Teacher in Science and Society and Professor of Pedagogy in the Department of Biology and the Institute for Liberal Arts at Emory University.

Jennifer Mascaro is Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, Emory University

Joel Zivot is Associate Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at Emory University.


Department of Biology
Emory University
1510 Clifton Rd NE
Atlanta, GA, 30322

E: aeisen@emory.edu
T: +1 404 727 4354

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