Tibetan monks study science at Emory, will return to India to teach

The six college roommates trudge through science classes, dawdle on Facebook and hang out with friends at Emory University.

But these six are no ordinary students. They are Tibetan monks sent to college in America by the Dalai Lama. They are pioneers in a groundbreaking program to meet the Dalai Lama’s goal of establishing a modern science curriculum for Tibetan monasteries.

“We have a huge responsibility because we are the first to do this,” Lodoe Sangpo said. “We must do as much as we can because this is His Holiness’ vision.”

Understandably, the monks stand out on campus, with their shorn heads and crimson robes that sway as they walk. But they have absorbed American lessons and traditions during their three years at Emory. They can discuss the nuances of evolution in English. They’re just as likely to wear American sneakers as they are traditional sandals.

They will return to India this month and share their knowledge of biology, neuroscience, physics and math at different monasteries. They expect to serve as teaching assistants and explain what they have learned, said Thabkhe, one of the monks.

They’re writing introductory textbooks and primers in Tibetan to help monks and nuns understand neurons, chromosomes and motion.

At Emory’s May 13 commencement, they will receive certificates recognizing their three years of study. Another group of six monks is expected in August.

The Monastic Science Scholar program is just one part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, which launched in 2007.

This work aims to bring the best of Western science to Tibetan Buddhist monastics and the insights of Buddhist meditative practices to Western scientists, said Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, co-director of the initiative. The Dalai Lama, who will return to Emory in October, has written that “science and spirituality can serve” the world.

The partnership with Emory is a “landmark undertaking,” Negi said, noting the monastics’ curriculum had remained unchanged for centuries before the partnership.

As part of the initiative, professors and translators created new Tibetan words to describe scientific concepts and terms. For the past five summers, faculty have traveled to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives, to teach six-week programs in math and science.

Emory professor Arri Eisen has traveled to Dharamsala to teach and has taught the monks in his biology classes in Atlanta. The Emory monks have a strong undergraduate understanding of science, he said, thanks to five years of summer lessons in India and three years in America.

While it may seem a challenge to teach evolution to monks and nuns who believe in reincarnation, Eisen said it isn’t different than teaching other students. Everyone has some religious or spiritual beliefs that don’t match up to modern science, he said.

Monks, he said, are struggling to find answers to the questions everyone asks: How did humans evolve? Are humans different from other organisms? How do you get life from no life?

Yungdrung Konchok, another monk studying at Emory, said one can’t ignore the contradictions between Buddhism and science.

“We have to be able to give explanations and we all must be open to what is shared,” he said. “Sometimes it is hard to accept what is true but sometimes you just have to because it feels true. Science has own logic and Buddhism has own. I see truth in both.”

Eisen has seen the monks become more comfortable during their time at Emory but stressed it wasn’t an easy transition.

They spoke little English. In essence, they learned two foreign languages — English and science.

Monastery life was cloistered and regimented. College life provided them with options and access to abundant technology through laptops, cell phones and iPods.

“They really had no sense what they were getting into,” Eisen said.

Life was lonely for the monks when they first arrived. In a creative writing class Sangpo wrote a short story about a young Tibetan nomad who moves to the city and is baffled by the noise, lights and options.

They used Facebook to learn English and connect with new friends and monks back home. They downloaded podcasts to improve their language skills and listen to class lectures on their iPods to grasp concepts they may have missed.

They joined study groups, found tutors and asked new friends to practice English with them. As they walk across campus now students wave and stop to talk.

Thabkhe and Geoff Rosen, a junior, regularly meet up in the main quad to talk about class, their families or how different life in America is from India. Sometimes they grab sushi or tacos.

“At first I was nervous talking to a monk but they’re just like us and you talk to them like you would anyone else,” Rosen said.

Rosen said his friendship with Thabkhe has enriched his experience at Emory. He’s heard stories about how his friend illegally crossed international borders and walked for nearly two weeks as part of his journey to make it to the monastery. Thabkhe, who is in his 30s, doesn’t know exactly when he was born.

“You hear their stories and you realize how resilient they are,” Rosen said. “He came here knowing little English and we both sat through the same microbiology class and it was a hard class. It’s incredible to think of what they’ve done.”

Their time in Atlanta hasn’t been just about going to class. They’ve celebrated Thanksgiving. They ride MARTA to get to festivals. They’ve gone to sit-down dinner parties and house parties.

“I thought there would be delicious food at the college parties but there were just drinks and we don’t drink,” Thabkhe said.

At one off-campus party, students taught him to play beer pong, a drinking game. Of course, he drank water instead of beer.

As they’ve adopted to college life, they’ve retained many of their traditions.

They live in a three-bedroom apartment in a complex not far from campus. A photograph of the Dalai Lama hangs in their family room. They meditate. They eat breakfast and dinner together, taking turns cooking traditional Chinese, Indian or Tibetan cuisine.

Junior Rajiv Velury said his friendship with the monks gives him more multi-cultural experiences and allows him to learn more about his own Indian heritage. He’s had dinner with them and talked about movies, travel and science.

“I’ll really miss them when they leave,” he said.

While they are excited to return to India, the monks agreed there is much they will miss.

Top of the list is quick and dependable access to the Internet. They’ll also miss the troves of information in Emory’s libraries.

“And we will miss our friends here,” Konchok said. “Emory has become home and I am sad to leave and leave them all behind. I have all emotions about leaving and mixed emotions.”

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