Last fall I had the amazing opportunity to travel to India to participate in the Science for Monks programme. Science for monks is a project that has been established by the Library for Tibetan Works and Archives to teach monastic graduates (mostly geshes) about Western science. They have created this programme at the request of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Every year a group of monastic graduates from a wide range of monasteries all over India (this year even including some from Bhutan) travel to study together for a month and learn the basics of physics and neuroscience. The programme is mostly taught by faculty from the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. However, towards the end of the programme, some scientists currently doing research are invited to share some of their latest findings. This is how I came in. I was requested to come to India to teach about my work on computational models of the mind and meditation. You can imagine I was pretty excited!
Now what a difference was the arrival in Dharamsala, where the course was held, with crammed Varanasi! When we flew into Dharamsala, we were welcomed by a team from the organisation and brought to the monastery. The teaching programme took place in Sarah, a monastic study college somewhere to the south of Dharamsala. Every day was divided into four sessions with lectures from each of the lecturers in turn. We had all sent our slides beforehand, so they could be translated into Tibetan. Now how often does it happen that you get to present from Tibetan slides, and have a translator by your side who turns every phrase into Tibetan? What made this interesting is that it forced me to be much more precise about what I am saying!
Things got a bit more intense when I presented my computational model of meditation (or at least the beginnings thereof). While they understood my interest in studying meditation, they were worried that this ignored many important aspects of the practice. I agree, and this led to good discussions about how science consists of making models of reality, that are clearly only approximations. The important thing is not to start believing in them too seriously! Another interesting question they asked me is why I needed all these participants in my experiments. Since I am a meditator myself, why could I not just study myself? This led to some good discussions about the science of measurement and needing larger groups to be able to generalize to the whole population.
The monastics had pretty intense days, because apart from our lectures during the day, they did some ritual practices ("puja") in the evenings, as well as debate. Debate is its own story, and quite fascinating to watch. In a very stylized physical game, monks debate important philosophical issues to increase their understanding. Even when you do not speak Tibetan and cannot understand what they are talking about, it is still a fascinating thing to watch!