Share / Discuss

An Unforgettable Lesson

Professor Emeritus of Biology Scott Gilbert had a good reason for going to India this past winter: to present a lecture on embryology to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Gilbert, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is the author of the textbook Developmental Biology (now in its 11th edition), which is used extensively in India.

Arri Eisen, who was charged with teaching biology to Tibetan Buddhist monks, had learned from Gilbert’s book as a student and had used it as a teacher. Anna Edlund ’91, a developmental biologist and one of Scott’s former students, had also been teaching in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. They recommended that he be asked to speak at the first congress on Science and Tibetan Buddhism, held in conjunction with 600th anniversary of Drepung Monastery.

Below, Gilbert shares his thoughts on the trip:

In December, my wife Anne and I traveled to the Tibetan refugee facility in Mundgod, India, for the experience of a lifetime.

I was invited to present a lecture on embryology to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama to help celebrate the 600th anniversary of Drepung Monastery in Mundgod.

Over the years, the Dalai Lama has made numerous changes in the Tibetan education system, and some of these were manifest during the anniversary celebration. One change is that the Geshe Degree (the equivalent a Buddhist Ph.D.) would include Western science. The second was that the degree would be open to nuns as well as monks. This December saw the first group of 20 nuns receiving the Geshe degree, as well as the first congress on Science and Tibetan Buddhism, titled “Bridging Buddhism and Science for Mutual Enrichment.” I was invited to present at this congress—the first of its kind—sponsored by Emory Tibet Science Initiative, a joint enterprise of the Dalai Lama and Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

Unlike Portland, Ore. (where I now reside), the temperature of Mundgod was in the 90s (it’s the coolest month of the year!) when we arrived. We were awakened at sunrise by the low wail of the long horns, and monks brought hot water into our room to wash with at 5:30 a.m. The science talks were held in the brilliantly colored prayer hall, a building constructed in the 1980s and beautifully adorned with Thangkas depicting Buddhist stories, and with banners depicting the five elements. The Buddhist symbol of the intertwined knot was displayed atop the monastery, showing the interpenetration of all things, especially wisdom and compassion as well as secularity and religion. Statues of boddhisattvas surrounded a serene Buddha on the dais, and there was a throne for His Holiness. He didn’t use it during the science talks, but came directly to sit at the discussion table.

The science sessions consisted of several different talks. Each featured a Western scientist and a response from a Buddhist monk who had extensively studied both Buddhist philosophy and science. A majority of the monk scientists have been to Emory, since the Dalai Lama has an agreement with them for training monks in science. I had the easy talk. The first set of talks concerned the origin of the universe. My talk (along with a response from a very knowledgeable Buddhist monk) focused on the origin of the body (embryology). The set of talks after mine concerned the origin of consciousness, something of profound importance for Buddhists. (The Dalai Lama is fascinated by neuroscience, and fully endorses the concept of evolution. He mentioned to me that he was especially interested in the evolution of the mammalian and human brains from the reptile brain.) The last group of talks centered on the concept of emotional intelligence and compassion and how scientific research is beginning to show that the Buddhist notions of the interpenetration of compassion and wisdom can be fruitful in teaching empathy. These studies showed the multiple benefits (including higher academic performances) gained by incorporating the teaching of skills for emotional intelligence in school curricula for all ages.

My talk focused on the critical importance of reciprocal interactions during human development. This includes the cooperation between two cells during fertilization, the cooperation between two tissues during organ formation, and the cooperation between several species (bacteria and mammalian) to generate gut capillaries shortly after birth. It linked these to the fundamental Buddhist notion of dependent co-origination, the idea that nothing has its own essence, but rather is formed in concert with other things. Embryologists call this reciprocal induction. At the end of my talk, the Dalai Lama whispered that he enjoyed the presentation.

The meeting also included lunch with His Holiness and about a dozen others, where he spoke about politics. This topic may have been put forward since reporters (such as CNN’s Sanjay Gupta) were also present. 

It was an amazing time, full of special moments. My wife and I found ourselves, for instance, walking down a dirt road in rural India, full of persistent beggars and lowing cows, discussing gene expression in the developing brain with a maroon-clad Buddhist monk. We found ourselves listening to a group of U.S. educators and Switzerland-based Buddhist nuns discussing how they trained medical students to retain their empathy for patients during medical school. We also saw the monks debating, in a highly theatrical performance where thinking on one’s feet and having memorized hundreds of Buddhists texts are a prerequisite.

For me, meeting and lecturing to the Dalai Lama was the culmination of a path that began when I started taking courses in science and religion in college, getting a B.A. in both the biology and religion. It’s a real validation of a liberal arts education!