It would be entirely appropriate for a college professor to assume that students know that a tree is alive and a rock is not.
Or would it be?
For several summers, I had the pleasure of teaching biology to Tibetan Buddhist monks exiled in India. This program, called ETSI (Emory-Tibet Science Initiative), was sparked by discussions the Dalai Lama had with researchers at Emory University in the 1990s and has evolved into a way for monks everywhere ages to learn science in the decades that followed.
The differences between modern biology and traditional Buddhist understandings of nature can seem significant – even in their definitions of what is “living”. Biologists’ understanding of life includes animals, plants and bacteria. Traditional Tibetan monastic teachings, on the other hand, base life on the idea of consciousness. Bacteria and animals, including humans, are recognized as having consciousness and are therefore considered “living” beings. Plants, according to these traditional teachings, have no consciousness and are therefore “non-living”.
But such differences have made me realize what I take for granted in my teaching at the University of Richmond and how much richer the learning can be when we step back to explore the most fundamental questions together, but the most important. Thinking about how I would present various topics to the monks gave me concrete lessons to take back to my class in Virginia.
Take a close look at life
I study the relationship between bacteria and plants. In most introductory biology classes, students bring an intuitive sense of what science defines as “life,” a sense they have constructed since kindergarten. But what if educators didn’t assume that students “know” what defines a living being – or, better yet, what if we used assumptions to prompt inquiry?
Developing a definition of a “living thing” can be an effective way to introduce scientific research. Through an activity in which students place something in the living/non-living/once-living categories, they can explore boundary issues. For example, is a virus a living being? And artificial intelligence? How would we decide when we discovered extraterrestrial life? These philosophical discussions about life spark interesting discussions in both cultures.
In both pedagogical contexts, we can use students’ observations of pond water under the microscope to discuss how scientists have constructed their concept of life, based on the following characteristics: something that is made of cells, has the ability to reproduce, grows and develops, has evolved, uses energy, responds to stimuli, and maintains homeostasis – a way to maintain proper levels of all kinds of chemicals and large molecules .
Different biologists will include or exclude some of these properties, and discussing whether to include them in our class definition can be an exciting process for students. Additionally, we often extend this conversation to discuss how the definition of life has changed over human history and examine questions that biology may not be able to answer, such as the notion of soul or the Tibetan Buddhist concept of consciousness.
To ask questions
There are also apparent contradictions between the views of scientists and monks on other matters. For example, traditional Buddhist teachings affirm spontaneous generation – the idea that life can arise from non-life – which biologists rejected in the 19th century, based on the experiments of Louis Pasteur and others.
According to Tibetan Buddhist perspectives, some life, such as worms and bacteria, can be created by “moisture”. Also in the opinion of the monks, all animals are sentient, which means they have consciousness, unlike plants, which do not. This is how Tibetan Buddhism traditionally forms a definition of life.
To explain the view of biologists, we ask ourselves: how can biologists really show what makes something “alive”?
The key is the scientific method, based on testing and analysis. At the monastery, science instructors address questions about spontaneous generation or sentience through the method’s series of questions: What experiments could you perform to test your hypothesis that life arises from non-life? What checks would you include to be sure of your results? How do you increase your confidence in the conclusions?
These conversations highlight that the foundation of modern science, this scientific method, is extremely compatible with the Buddhism practiced by the monks.
This is partly because debate is central to their monasticism. Like the scientific method, debate requires participants to approach ideas with skepticism and ask for “evidence.” Tibetan Buddhists practice debating for hours a day. As one monk challenges another, they steal a religious idea back and forth to develop a deeper understanding of the concept.
While scientists don’t practice formal debate, we exercise similar muscles when we try to build a deeper understanding of life’s processes through theory, experimentation, and challenging the ideas of others.
Where science and religion meet
As we progress through any type of classroom—monastery or university—teachers and students sometimes find questions for which biology does not have particularly satisfying answers: What are the origins of life? What is the purpose of sleep?
As teachers, we can use them to spark student curiosity, as well as additional questions about the intersection of religion and biology. While some may bristle at the idea of theological questions entering a biology class, raising them can engage students by integrating science with deep questions they may have about their lives. What does biology say about the evolution of religions? How does what we learn in biology influence the concept of soul? If we believe in the idea of souls, what organisms have them?
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For monks, this last question is essential, because Buddhism teaches that all life is sentient and sacred. When working with the monks, the visiting teachers are very careful not to get rid of the microorganisms that we inspect under a microscope like I would at the University of Richmond. Out of respect for their opinions, we simply dump the microorganisms out into the grass. The monks gave me a new perspective on experimentation, including reconsidering the need to use certain organisms in research and teaching.
Scientific research truly crosses cultures. And when we address our differences head-on, with openness and compassion, it can spark more meaningful learning for teachers and students.
I would like to thank Geshe Sangpo la for his insights on Tibetan Buddhism that helped guide this article.