June 2nd, 2010
05:27 AM ET

My Take: Can mixing monks and science change the world?

Editor's Note: Arri Eisen is a professor at Emory University.

By Arri Eisen, Special to CNN

The assignment we gave a group of three monks was to imagine a scenario and then describe how the different human organ systems might respond to that scenario. The scene is Dharamsala, India, where I and other Emory University scientists are teaching science to Tibetan monks and nuns and they're teaching Buddhism to us.

We've just spent a day teaching about the different organ systems for respiration, circulation, reproduction, etc.

Kalsang, one of 85 monks in the program, steps to the front of the class of 30 other monks and begins to describe the scenario his group came up with. It was this: they imagined they had just learned of Tibetan independence.  How would the different organ systems respond to sheer happiness?

As Kalsang continued, outlining what his group thought would happen and responding to questions by his peers, a lump formed momentarily in my throat. As had happened many times in my three years of teaching these same monks, their cultural and religious experiences - so far removed and foreign to mine - had enriched a seemingly mundane conversation on science.

Organ systems and Tibetan independence in the same breath.

This was last week, on the holiest day of the year for Buddhists - the day the Buddha was born, became enlightened, and died.

What brought me and the other scientists to Dharamsala was an idea the Dalai Lama had. He saw that science and technology are major forces in modern society. Rather than hide from or degrade new scientific discoveries, what if he created a structure that allowed Buddhism and its 20,000 monks and nuns in exile to invite science in to their monasteries and convents, to embrace, question and explore it?

That idea led to the Emory-Tibet Partnership.

The Dalia Lama’s experiences with neurosciences sparked the idea. Over many years, working with many neuroscientists, he has seen how centuries-old Buddhist practices of the mind can enhance and be enhanced by the brand new science of the brain. The process led to landmark experiments on monks who have mastered the skills of meditation and mind engagement.

And it led me to a classroom listening to Kalsang and friends talk organ systems. Emory and the Dalai Lama have a grand goal of integrating modern science into the ancient curriculum of all Tibetan monks and nuns. We are raising the next crop of teachers to take over after we leave by having lay Tibetans and monks teach with us in India, study science, and teach with us at Emory. We are jointly developing texts and websites to facilitate.

Will our experiment in religion and science bear fruit? Can religion be a successful driver of positive societal change by reaching outside itself and integrating with new ideas. Or will our experiment in structure and function wash away in the monsoons of history like nearly all evolution's eons of experiments?

For now, it's back to Kalsang, spiritedly laughing and discussing with his colleagues what our organ systems might do when experiencing happiness: our circulation rates will increase, he hypothesizes, our respiration will go up.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arri Eisen.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Buddhism • Culture & Science • Opinion • Tibet

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Laila

    preciousmetal: Yeah, that's really what it comes down to. Christianity doesn't fit with me. Buddhism does. thalemp: I don't really understand your intended message. I read your post in full, but don't really see how it applies to what I'm saying. If the story is true, I'm glad that Salavat and his family received money that they needed. However, that doesn't prove.. well, anything. As an aside, just as I'm skeptical to believe about dead Buddhist masters sitting up in meditation for three days when the only sources I can find are from Buddhist organizations, I'm also skeptical of that story due to it being quoted from the Voice of Martyrs. Being a Christian organization, they clearly have a desire to make Christianity look good. That's not an attack, mind you, just a fact that I think most of us would agree on. Gregnor: Funny you mention that, about Buddhism being a more difficult spiritual practice, because nothing is being handed to you. My mom, a Christian, has actually commented on this. She's told me many times that she couldn't be Buddhist, because without God, she'd feel totally helpless. I obviously don't see things that way, but it's still an interesting position. ~mt~: I hope you find success in your studies of Buddhism, whatever the end goal is. I'm glad you enjoyed my post!

    April 4, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  2. Ji Ahn

    Dear righteous-in-christ:

    You asked, "So, tell me, what was Buddha's purpose for mankind?" Well, since you asked, here it is:

    The purpose of Buddhism is to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings.

    Enlightenment, Awakening, Nirvana– these are all the by-products of the -practice- of Buddhism, but not its -purpose.- Its purpose is to relieve suffering and spread compassion. The Buddhist concept of 'salvation' is rooted in the relief of suffering, and in this manner differs from the Christian idea of salvation. Buddhism is also less dogmatic than some traditions, because its ultimate standard is not belief per se, but rather behavior, because it is behavior that generates karma (cause and effect). By constantly teaching the connection between our clinging, desires, and attachments, and the suffering people experience in their lives, we show a path out of suffering, particularly self-inflicted suffering. All of the -practices- of Buddhism tend towards this end– chanting, meditation, conscious mindfulness, these and other practices are essentially a form of mind-training, the objective of which is the generation of wholesome states of being and the relief of suffering. As for religious belief: for most Buddhists, particularly non-Asian Buddhists, that is on a continuum– with some more, and some less. But because **behavior is the ultimate yardstick and not belief, respectful coexistence is possible.** By serving others, with humility and compassion, we work together to relieve human and non-human suffering everywhere.

    And that is the purpose of Buddhism... since you asked.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:36 pm |
  3. Patricia

    I find the "experiment" with Buddhists monks a bit whimsical and simplistic on the part of the Emory professors, especially since so much of eastern meditative practices have a great deal to do with "directing the breath", "thinking with the heart", (checkout heartmath.org, to find out how western science and eastern philosophy have already met) etc. I once visited a Buddhist abbey near Orlando Florida, where the abbot and I entered a discussion about how the heart was the center of the body, controlled thoughts, etc...If one studies chinese medical physiology and anatomy, you learn that many organ functions vary from what we westerners think they are..

    .I am glad to see the collaboration between science and faith, but it seems there is not very much new under the sun, just new people to do "research and learn it"– Monasteries both eastern and western have been at the core of learning, of science, of faith, of culture, and the development of libraries, and other "storage places of knowledge and wisdom. The nice part of this story is that man and monk have had a wonderful opportunity to relax, get to know each other, develop some pleasant memories from what seems to be a joyous heart to heart connect! Blessings to all of you...I would love to come and join you!

    June 11, 2010 at 10:54 pm |
  4. RK

    Buddhism is nothing but an another form of the Ancient Yoga philosohpy of India. The teaching of Buddha, if interpreted from its spiritual aspect is the same what has been taught in the yogic text of the Bhagavad Gita. The religious connotations of Buddhism has distorted the actual hidden meanings in its teachings and that has resulted in creation of the "monk" system of Buddhism. This is the same as the religious overgrowth of the actual Yogic teachings of India into the religion of Hinduism. What we are unable to distinguish is that spritiual learning is often intermixed with religion and there ought to be a distinction between the two. What Gita mentioned millions of years ago about human body is all being re-discovered today with the help of science in its physical aspect. The fact that the human body has something which is not physical in nature (mind and thought) is still beyond Science and will remain that way because Science relies on logic and logic does not rely on sub-conscious. Having said that, all the discoveries in Science was accidental and it went beyond logic, something that touches the sub-conscious, so the relation to the ancient teaching of Yogic philosophy.

    June 3, 2010 at 9:16 am |
    • Jim Bob

      Mr.RK, mind and thought are material products of brain circuitry. Consciousness is the divine spark which illumines the mind and body.

      June 3, 2010 at 11:45 am |
  5. Garrick Arnold

    Great conversation! Thank you to all parties for sharing. I practice Zen but can't claim any expertise but a few thoughts? What was Buddha's purpose for mankind? Buddha was crystal clear: to free humanity from suffering in this lifetime.

    It's a popular misconception that Buddhism isn't a religion. Which begs the question; "What is a religion?" In one word religion is faith. For Christianity it's faith in the salvation, resurrection of Jesus. Faith for Buddhist, or this Buddhist anyway, is faith that a lifetime of sitting will free me from the afflictions of greed, hate and delusion. Throw in faith in Karma and you've got yourself a religion! 🙂

    June 3, 2010 at 8:43 am |
  6. Dr. D

    Back to Buddhism and science. The Buddha viewed the universe much like the science of Quantum Mechanics, with "sub atomic", inticate parts. Mahhayana Buddhists refered to all phenomena being intimatley connected as a endless net (the net of Indra)a view comparable to and compatible with QM. He also did not care to address what came before man or why, simmilar to the theory that before the Big Bang time and space as we know it could not have existed.

    June 3, 2010 at 8:11 am |
  7. Jim Bob

    Make that four times. I just tried again.

    June 2, 2010 at 11:33 pm |
  8. Jim Bob

    I've tried to post my comment three times today to no avail. What did I say that was so bad?

    June 2, 2010 at 11:31 pm |
  9. Helena Handbasket

    Wow... this is the most polite, positive, and constructive discourse I have ever witnessed on a CNN-reported story. There has to be a positive, unifying message underscoring this particular topic of communication. Maybe we can all consider one another's ideas in a mindful, mature manner... agreeing on some aspects, disagreeing on others, but always maintaining a thoughtful respect for each other and not allowing the conversation to disintegrate into angry or vulgar rants. Thank you.

    June 2, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  10. coyote123

    Buddhism is not a whole piece of cloth. There are many Buddhisms in the world. Theravada is the oldest and closest to the original, the farthest away from the original teaching would be Pure-land and Nichiren. In between there is Chan and Tibetan amongst others. Theravada Buddhism does not have dancing, sand mandalas, all those funny gods, music played by monks and the cult of reincarnated teachers etc. Original Buddhism is atheistic and does not believe in a soul this distinguishes it from all other religions (many say Buddhism is not a religion at all). All religions are like a picture in a frame, the frame is not the teaching but is to make the picture beautiful. This frame is all the stuff that is other than the teaching itself, such as miracles and supernatural stories. When that is removed and just the teaching remains, then you can see the teacher and understand what he is trying to communicate, the picture he paints. The Buddha lived and taught (in great detail) for 45 years so , unlike Jesus, there is a lot of material he left. His teaching deals with the mind and body, it is psychology more than religion. So the word "Buddhism" does not fit all representations. This word was invented by the West, the Buddha himself called his teaching "Buddha Sasana" or the teaching of the Buddha or sometimes Dhamma/Vinaya, the teaching and the discipline.

    June 2, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
    • Peacemaker

      Coyote123 – remember the eight-fold path includes right speech. Right speech includes abstaining from divisive speech.
      From the sutra:
      "And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech."
      Pointing to different denominations within the Buddhist Sangha and trying to invalidate them by propping up your own above others is not a profitable endeavor – it does a disservice to you and your own practice. If you have found a system that benefits your practice, that is wonderful. It would be more beneficial to turn your energies toward strengthening your own practice instead of trying to weaken or invalidate others'.

      June 2, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
  11. Steven Walls MA

    One area where I see Buddhist practices merging with science is in the field of mental health. Mindfulness meditation, intended to enhance compassion and presence, tends to help many of my clients achieve calmness and presence of mind and body to life. Many of the clients I see have experienced being present for the first time since they were children. Most of our stress comes from not being present. Take for example, a person who is very involved in their work. It seems very difficult for this person to simply enjoy gardening or fishing because they are never truly present with what is happening in the here and now....they are remembering a meeting they attended or planning for the future of their work. They are not truely present with what is happening right now right here.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • whynowcnn

      I agree with this hypothesis, my wife is never really in the here and now with me, 2 phones, a laptop, and an overactive mother-in-law with no man so then she accuses me of not listening to her unrelentless rants about what's on tv, and who won what, and I'm trying to see what makes the world go around. She is wound up tighter than a green plum in June, and she misses the point until it is already done so I would love to sign her up for something like this, and I would attend as well!!! Thank you!!!

      June 2, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  12. Madhu Sudan Vashist

    I have gone through major life changing experience where I found with patients faith is one very important process of healing despite having the most advanced cure available to them. The most intriguing aspect of science has been how 52% of kids are diabetic and how we can find marginally good healthy scoiety so health care will be exception vs rule. Religion and Buddha found pain as something which should be cured, science does with its own means and religion does with theirs. Joining them will produce a more natural way. Very good work if it can lead to practicle applications, I have not been successful in meditation where as couple of years back I was.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
  13. C. R.

    It appears to me that this is a dramatic and fascinating intersection of two faith systems. On the one hand, we are witnessing the movement towards and the integration of concepts of faith into a rational scientific perspective and on the other hand a rationalization of what was once relegated to the realm of the religious. It speaks to the character of Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition that they are able to look at science not as a contradiction of their faith, but as a conformation of it. Look at the sorts of conflicts that arise among individuals too locked into their mental constructions of the world to allow discourse and growth along these lines. Why should there be a conflict between faith and science? It makes more sense to foster a dialogue that enriches both rather than digging the proverbial ideological trenches. I do not mean to say that this sort of interaction is limited to Buddhism, it can be found in every major religion in the world, but it must be said that few are quite as open to adapting radically different ideologies as these monks appear to be. It can only be hoped that this sort of dialogue between faiths (don't kid yourself, science has undeniable faith aspects) will continue to enrich the discussion worldwide.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
  14. Gary Carlisle

    This is truly a facinating experiment and reach for the buhdist community. I myself have recently discovered my own true faith callin, Gnosticism. In it's simpiliest form it means accaptance of all religiouns and ways of thinking regardless of being right.

    I do commend the post by Reality which is a quote by crossan who points out the obvious. I think this in it's self is a great step foward in our understanding of things.

    June 2, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  15. Reality

    When Buddhism, Christianity and Science don't mix:

    "When I look a Buddhist friend in the face, I cannot say with integrity, "Our story about Jesus' virginal birth is true and factual. Your story that when the Buddha came out of his mother's womb, he was walking, talking, teaching and preaching (which I must admit is even better than our story)-that's a myth. We have
    the truth; you have a lie."

    I don't think that can be said any longer, for our insistence that our faith is a fact and that others' faith is a lie is, I think, a cancer that eats at the heart of Christianity."
    – Crossan

    June 2, 2010 at 8:21 am |
    • righteous-in-Christ

      So, tell me, what was Buddha's purpose for mankind? By you not taking to time to talk to your friend once in a while about Christ is being ashame of Christ. I have friends and family that are Catholics and believe that they can pray to Mary and other idols that were hand made by men....see the book of Isaiah, it teaches about idolatry. I talk to them about Christ, but I don't force them to accept and they are very respectful as to what I preach to them. Also, I don't talk to them about Christ every time I see them, there is a time and a place for this.

      June 2, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
    • Gary Carlisle

      He is not stating anything mearly quoting what someone else has said. Aside from that the quote's last sentence states exactly what you are saying about not pushing on people.

      June 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
    • Andrew

      Buddha's purpose for mankind? Granted, I'm not a Buddhist, but even with my relatively minor knowledge of the religion that seems decidedly... anti-Buddhist. The Buddha provided teachings, wisdom, a path to enlightenment, not to provide or fulfill a any specific purpose. The teachings are broad, general, and subject to one's own interpretation to make it what you will. "If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha", there's no reason to hold the Buddha to have a "purpose for mankind".

      June 2, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
    • JuniorSem

      Excuse me righteous-in-Christ, you commented that you "have friends and family that are Catholics and believe that they can pray to Mary and other idols that were hand made by men....see the book of Isaiah, it teaches about idolatry." I want to address this common misconception. As a Catholic seminarian I am constantly getting asked why do you worship Mary and saints? Let me clear this up...CATHOLICS DO NOT WORSHIP MARY AND THE SAINTS. We pray to them (that's different and I'll get to it in a second). Also...CATHOLICS DO NOT WORSHIP IDOLS.

      Catholics, like all other Christians, worship one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray to Mary and the Saints to intercede for us. This is exactly the same concept as going to a friend or family member and asking them to pray for you. Have you ever asked your parents or kids to say a prayer for you? The Church teaches that saints are already in heaven and thus are currently closer to Jesus than we still on Earth are. If I would ask my best friend on Earth to pray for me, would it not be wise to ask a friend who has moved on and already with Jesus to pray for me as well? Mary as mother of Jesus (and thus mother of God) is the queen of the saints and thus we believe she her prayers on our behalf have extra volume in the ears of God.

      As far as the statue issue goes, do you have pictures of your family? As saints are our family in heaven, we like to have pictures and statues of them around to remind us of the special people they were just like we also have pictures of family members we love to remind us of them. If having a minature statue of St. Paul in my room is idolatry, by the same logic I guess so is having a picture of my dead grandmother on my desk.

      Please, before you go off about someone else's religion (Catholic, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or other wise), please make sure you have solid understanding about what you're talking about. You wouldn't want someone else misrepresenting yours.

      June 2, 2010 at 11:27 pm |
    • Froman

      Sitting still for many periods of time eventually some things become apparent. It is already in our nature. By practicing being still action comes easily. This is more complex than faith alone.

      June 3, 2010 at 1:10 am |
  16. Bob Wallace

    Science and Buddhist meditation are now merging into a field of discovery that will be of great benifit to society. As one who has been practicing dream yoga for over twenty years I look forward to the inclusion of this practice as part of the process. The secret transmission of dream yoga is now entering the public domain.

    June 2, 2010 at 8:13 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.