Tuesday, November 15, 2011

East meets West, at the cellular level

Prayer flags fly over a field in Dharamsala, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. iStockPhoto.com.

Following is an excerpt from an article written by Emory biologist Arri Eisen, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

To teach my biology class today, I took three planes for a total of 9,000 miles nearly halfway around the world. My students have left their sandals at the door. As I walk in, they sit, maroon-robed and expectant, cross-legged on the floor. My body clock registers 11:30 p.m. the day before. I write on the board: "Are bacteria sentient beings?"

This is my fourth year coming to Dharamsala, India, home of the Tibetan government in exile, in the foothills of the Himalayas, as part of an unusual collaboration—the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative—between the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and Emory University. About seven years ago, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans, invited Emory to develop and teach a contemporary science curriculum for the more than 20,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in exile. …

Over the years, I've come a long way from thinking that teaching science to Tibetan monks and nuns is just a cool thing to do. The monastics, on the whole, are astoundingly open-minded and approach problems with a thoughtful rationality that is, ironically, often missing from my Western colleagues' approach to science and the world. An ancient Zen koan goes something like: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. That is, destroy preconceptions, question everything—especially if you think you've figured it all out. Most of the monastics in my classroom embody that attitude.

They are busy integrating East and West at the cellular level, re-examining everything they thought they knew. For them, the question of whether bacteria are sentient has serious karmic implications. If these single-celled organisms are, indeed, sentient beings, then any other sentient being could be reincarnated as a bacterium. They face this question with calm, engaged clarity, ready to rethink and integrate whatever they may discover.

Read the whole article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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