Teaching Monks and Nuns in India

2019 was my 5th year traveling to the South of India, where I taught Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns as part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. This unique opportunity is one of the highlights of my year, not only for the amazing classroom experience, but also for a precious cultural experience. Every year I have returned to the Drepung Loseling Monastery (now at the Meditation and Science Center), so I have been able to create ongoing friendships with the staff, translators, instructors, and monastics there.

The general class structure is to offer two lectures in the morning, each 90 minutes with a tea break in between. Typically two instructors work together, dividing and sharing the material and responsibilities as they see fit. As many of the students do not know English, a translator works side-by-side with the instructors who are unable to lecture in Tibetan. In the afternoon the focus is on hands-on activities. We have about 100 students in our class, so there are two lab sections offered to have smaller groups to work with.

Within ETSI, the subjects of physics, biology, and neuroscience are taught. For the past 6 years, the monastics at Drepung, Gaden, and Sera (the largest monastic universities in India) who are in the final years of their Geshe studies participated in summer intensive courses. Each subject had about 8 days of instruction with a culminating final exam. Many faculty (typically from the West) were involved, since a new cohort of monks began the curriculum each summer. This summer of 2019 marked the final year of the “implementation phase”, with all 6 years of the curriculum offered simultaneously.

I taught the 3rd year of the physics curriculum to the monks, which covers matter, states of matter, heat, thermodynamics, waves, and sound. This was my 3rd year teaching this subject. Previously I taught the 2nd year curriculum, which covers mechanics. It is nice to return to the same topic, as I am able to refine my slides, explanations, and demonstrations, based on the challenges and misunderstandings of the students in the prior year.

After teachings the monks, I was able to stay and teach the nuns’ cohort. Unlike the monks, who primarily come from Drepung Loseling and Drepung Gomang, the nuns comes from institutions all over India. There is only one cohort moving through the summer workshops, with about 40 nuns participating. While they are coming at an earlier stage in their Buddhist studies than the monks do, more speak English and some have a greater traditional education.

This was my third year teaching the nuns, so I have gotten to know many of the students well. I was also teaching the 3rd year content, so I was able to focus on one topic for both the monks and nuns. In past years, I taught different curricula to the monks and nuns – quite a challenge!

I love teaching the nuns for many reasons. First is the goal of furthering women’s educational opportunities. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has advocated for women’s equality, and the opportunities for women’s education within Tibetan Buddhism is much greater now than it historically has been. The nuns are incredibly enthusiastic students, knowing that they were chosen (from their respective institutions) to have this science education. Some have little opportunities for science education at their home institution. Second is the warmth and friendliness that they have with each other, and that they share with me. While this is also true with the monks, there are some language and gender barriers that are less strong with the nuns. The nuns who do not speak English are happy to talk to me in Tibetan to see how much I can understand!