UTHSC’s Detlef Heck Participates in Unique Program Merging Science and Spirituality

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Detlef Heck, PhD, left front, had the opportunity to spend time in India as part of a program through Emory University designed to teach science to Buddhist monks living in a monastery outside Bangalore. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Heck)

Detlef Heck, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, recently got the opportunity to participate in a unique mix of science and spirituality in a classroom more than 8,000 miles away from his home campus.

As a faculty member of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at UTHSC, he is used to teaching the science of the brain. This time, however, his students were Tibetan Buddhist monks living at the Sera Monastery south of Bangalore, India.

The monks at the Sera Monastery were excellent students, Dr. Heck said.

Dr. Heck traveled to India with Emory University’s Robert A. Paul Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. The innovative educational program aims to teach modern science to the monks. It began in 2006 when the Dalai Lama invited Emory to collaborate with the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

“The goal of this program is for Buddhist monks to basically learn about the scientific view of reality,” Dr. Heck said. It also fosters collaborations that further knowledge of the mind-body connection.

“The Dalai Lama is a big fan of science,” Dr. Heck said. “He famously said, ‘If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then Buddhism must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.’ ”

To that end, every summer for the past four years western professors have made the trek to three remote monasteries in India to teach courses in physics, biology, philosophy, and neuroscience to the monks in residence.

A long-time colleague from Emory told Dr. Heck about the program. He applied, and was accepted.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Buddhism. I think it’s a great philosophy of life — the whole idea that you devote your thoughts to helping others, to practice compassion, rather than helping yourself,” Dr. Heck said. “I told him if there’s ever a chance, I would love to be part of that program.”

Expansion of the program created a need for more faculty, and Dr. Heck was one of eight instructors of neuroscience to travel to the Sera Monastery. He was one of two to teach introductory neuroscience — how the brain works, the different structures of the brain, how neurons operate – to a group of the newest monks.

“The monks speak Tibetan, so our coursework is done in advance and translated into Tibetan,” he said. Translators assist in the classes, and the lessons are taught as PowerPoint presentations. “The students sit on the floor, and are eager to debate and question what we teach them.”

The mornings were devoted to lessons, the afternoons to activities that reinforced the lesson.

To reinforce the lesson, the monks used Play-Doh to fashion parts of the brain. They used cellphones to photograph their handiwork.

“In our class, we had them build brains with Play-Doh,” Dr. Heck said. “We had them construct the different parts of the brain or build a neuron to see what the different parts of a neuron are. Or we had them act out the functions of certain aspects of the brain, like what is a particular action where you would use the Prefrontal cortex, so that would deepen their understanding.”

The monks were not the only ones who learned from the nearly two weeks of instruction. “I learned they’re very happy people,” Dr. Heck said. “That’s quite impressive. Nothing can really shake them.”

A rafting trip on a whitewater river brought that fact home, he said. Dr. Heck and several colleagues became stranded when their raft got stuck on a rock. The river was known to have alligators. One of the monks was in the raft with them. “It was pretty scary stuff, but he was never in any way affected by it,” Dr. Heck said. “That was pretty impressive, because we were all quite shaken and angry with our guide, while he kept his calm and a smile on his face.”

While the eventual goal of the program is to turn over the teaching to the monks, there will be at least two more years of western instructors. Dr. Heck said he hopes to return, and have more time to learn from the monks

He is particularly interested in meditation. “What I brought back is the understanding that if you want to meditate, you need to join a group,” he said. “I am looking for some place in Memphis where they do this.”

During his time at the monastery, Dr. Heck found the monks to be a happy group. “Nothing can really shake them,” he said.