Altaf Qadri, Associated Press
SARAH, India — The shouts of more than a dozen Tibetan monks echo through the small classroom. Fingers are pointed. Voices collide. When an important point is made, the men smack their hands together and stomp the floor, their robes billowing around them.
It's the way Tibetan Buddhist scholars have traded ideas for centuries. Among them, the debate-as-shouting match is a discipline and a joy.
But this is something different.
Evolutionary theory is mentioned — loudly. One monk invokes Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Another shouts about the subatomic nature of neutrinos.
In an educational complex perched on the edge of a small river valley, in a place where the Himalayan foothills descend into the Indian plains, a group of about 65 Tibetan monks and nuns are working with American scientists to tie their ancient culture to the modern world.
"I'd like to go back to my monastery ... to pass on my knowledge to other monks so that they might bring the (scientific) process to others," said Tenzin Choegyal, a 29-year-old monk born in exile in India.
If that seems a modest goal, it reflects an immense change in Tibetan culture, where change has traditionally come at a glacial pace.
Isolated for centuries atop the high Himalayan plateau, and refusing entry to nearly all outsiders, Tibet long saw little of value in modernity.
Education was almost completely limited to monastic schools. Magic and mysticism were — and are — important parts of life to many people. New technologies were something to be feared: Eyeglasses were largely forbidden until well into the twentieth centuries.
No longer. Pushed by the Dalai Lama, a fierce proponent of modern schooling, a series of programs were created in exile to teach scientific education to monks, the traditional core of Tibetan culture.
At the forefront is an intensive summer program, stretched over five years, that brings professors from Emory University in Atlanta. For six days a week, six hours a day, the professors teach everything from basic math to advanced neuroscience.
"The Buddhist religion has a deep concept of the mind that goes back thousands of years," said Larry Young, an Emory psychiatry professor and prominent neuroscientist. "Now they're learning something different about the mind: the mind-body interface, how the brain controls the body."
But why are Tibetans now embracing modernity?
Many of the roots can be traced to 1959, when Chinese soldiers invaded Tibet amid an aborted uprising. The Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled across the Himalayas and into India, creating an exile community that now numbers an estimated 150,000 people around the world.
Beijing says Tibet is an integral part of China. And while the Dalai Lama insists he only wants autonomy for his homeland, Beijing disparages him as a quasi-terrorist intent on wresting control away from China.
The Tibetan culture, meanwhile, is increasingly imperiled. Ethnic Han Chinese, encouraged by generous government subsidies, now outnumber Tibetans in much of Tibet. The traditional Tibetan herding culture is dying out as people move to cities. Many young Tibetans now speak a tangle of Chinese and Tibetan.
The shifting cultural landscape has torn at Tibet, sparking violent uprisings every decade or so. In the most recent wave, some three dozen people have burned themselves alive over the past year in ethnic Tibetan areas of China, protesting Beijing's policies.
Amid such tumult, the Dalai Lama — a man raised to live in regal isolation as a near-deity — has instead spent much of his life seeking ways that Tibetans can hold onto their traditions even as they find their way in the modern world.