A group of Tibetan monks has been sent to an American university by the Dalai Lama to study science.
Wearing the traditional crimson robes and closely shorn heads, the six men – mostly in their 30s – are taking physics, biology and chemistry classes with hopes of returning to Tibetan monasteries in India to teach science to other monks and nuns.
It is the first established programme for Tibetan monks from India to train at a Western university, said Geshe Lhakdor, director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in India.
The programme is a product of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, which is helping the Dalai Lama with his goal of training monks and nuns for the 21st century.
“The monastic institution is traditionally the learning centre, so we must put science in this institution,” said the Dalai Lama. “Even Buddha himself said ‘All my followers shouldn’t accept my teachers out of faith, but out of constant investigation.'”
For the monks, the year spent at Emory in Atlanta means long hours sitting in classes conducted in a language they struggle with and terms they’ve never studied before. Try explaining the concept of photosynthesis – a process where plants turn carbon dioxide into oxygen with the help of sunlight – to someone who has never even heard of a chemical compound.
“My mother wasn’t happy about my coming here,” said Ngawang Norbu, 36, who is from Bylakuppe, the largest Tibetan settlement in India. “But when I told her it was part of His Holiness’ vision, she was very happy. I’m taking a small step toward fulfilling his wishes.”
In their free time, the monks study, watch science teachings in English on YouTube and play sport with Emory classmates. Some of the monks listen to the Dalai Lama’s teachings on MP3 players on the way to class or watch videos of the spiritual leader online.
The monks use Facebook as a way to connect with classmates at Emory and keep up with their fellow monks and nuns back home. Some of the monks had to take a crash course in using a computer when they got to campus because they don’t have much access to technology at the monasteries.
“In the monastery, we don’t use the Internet that much,” said monk Kunjo Baiji, 30, adding that the connection is slow and undependable in India.