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Front. Commun., 27 October 2021
Sec. Science and Environmental Communication
Volume 6 - 2021 |

The Path of Science in Future Tibetan Buddhist Education

www.frontiersin.orgDenise Woodward1*, www.frontiersin.orgErnest Ricks Jr.2, www.frontiersin.orgPamela J. Bjorkman3, www.frontiersin.orgPantelis Tsoulfas4, www.frontiersin.orgJane E. Johnson5, www.frontiersin.orgGalen Westmoreland6 and www.frontiersin.orgThomas M. Wilkie5
  • 1Department of Biology, the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, United States
  • 2Department of Biology, Georgia Gwinnett College, Lawrenceville, GA, United States
  • 3Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
  • 4Department of Neurological Surgery, University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, FL, United States
  • 5Department of Pharmacology, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX, United States
  • 6Cancer Discovery Team, Wilkie Laboratory, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX, United States

The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) allowed western science teachers to work with monastically educated Buddhist monks to further their science education. The challenges included teaching through translators, using best practices for teaching within a religious community, and thinking about how to integrate what we learned from teaching in this context to our classrooms back home. In this article, we, a diverse group of western college-level educators and scientists, share our personal experiences and thoughts about teaching in this unique context in several themes. These themes are the challenges of translation and the development of new Tibetan science dictionary, the importance of hands-on learning opportunities as an example of using best teaching practices, using technology and online resources to connect our communities through both space and time, and the imperative of future plans to continue these important cross-cultural efforts.


A great appeal of teaching biology in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) program is the opportunity to meet new colleagues and forge a scientific and cultural understanding among biology teachers from across the United States, the Tibetan Buddhist Geshe Professors from ETSI, and the monastically educated monks starting to learn Neuroscience on their path to become science Geshes at Sera, Gaden, and Drepung Monasteries. During our experiences from 2015 to 2019 with classes in Years 1–6, we confronted the challenges of language translation in education, determined good practices for teaching within a religious community where some scientific views may be controversial, and integrated our learning from the monks into our science instruction practices at home. In this manuscript we share experiences and classroom practices that illustrate the challenges and rewards of teaching in, what was for us, a new and exciting setting. We also address a current challenge: maintaining and expanding science education at the Monasteries in the coming years despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the great distances between us, and the language barriers.

We share our personal narratives and thoughts, and connect these narratives to several important themes: language translation and the development of a new Tibetan science dictionary, the best practices in education, including hands-on activities and debate, and the dual use of technology to keep our communities connected across great distances and time. We also discuss some of the lessons we learned that have influenced our classrooms at home.

Theme #1: The Challenges of Translation and the Use of a New Tibetan Dictionary: Sentience and the Meaning of Life

When Denise and her colleague Erica first arrived at Gaden in 2015 to teach Introductory Biology to the first-year class, they shared a naive understanding of the challenges that they would experience when teaching through translators. They knew the process would require them to think carefully and speak precisely. They also knew that they would need to be sensitive to differences in the way western scientists and the monks view the world. But beyond those elementary recognitions, they were unprepared.

As an example of the challenge of translation, Denise and Erica were not aware that the science monks had two different words for “living.” They have a traditional Tibetan Buddhist word that restricts the notion of life to sentient beings. And they have a newer word that encompasses the western scientific definition of life. Western scientists consider all plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria to be living, but do not believe them to be sentient. During Denise’s first year of teaching, the class discussed and debated the idea that plants are living organisms. At first, these discussions were quite frustrating! For example, during a morning class the monks would happily conclude that plants are living, but within another session, sometimes only 1 h later, the monks would get upset at the suggestion that plants were living, and would argue strenuously that the science teachers were wrong.

What was happening? Denise and her fellow teacher were befuddled for days until they realized that it was an issue of translation. If the translator used the word indicating the western scientific view of life, all happily accepted that plants are living. If the translator used the word indicating the traditional Buddhist view of life as sentient, all the monks disagreed that plants are living. Fortunately, there were several translators, and during a teatime discussion the source of the confusion was uncovered. This new understanding provided an engaging opportunity to further explore both scientific and Tibetan Buddhist thought on the definition of life.

To further this discussion and exploration, during discussions in our morning classes the monks were provided with examples of plants engaging in sentient-like behaviors. For example, parasitic plants can recognize and select which plants to parasitize; plants can communicate with other plants, such as to signal an injury, as well as to other species such as insects and bacteria; and plants can “see” the world by interpreting different wavelengths of light. Microscopes were used in the afternoon labs to view plant stomata–structures used by plants to regulate the exchange of CO2 and O2 in and out of the plant–and discuss how plants “breathe” by opening and closing their stomata in response to changes in their environments. Certain plants synthesize organic compounds that alter the mind and behavior of sentient beings. Plants move more slowly, and act more quietly than most sentient beings. These differences mask the sentient-like behaviors of plants, and elicit the question, what are the biological mechanisms that confer sentient-like behaviors in organisms lacking a nervous system? Questions such as these provide great opportunities for debate and discussion in the classroom and encourage practices that lead to greater student engagement. As others have concluded (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991; Shulman, 2002; Lei et al., 2018), the greater the classroom engagement of students, the deeper their learning.

Theme #2: Best Practices in Science Education: The Importance of Hands-On Experience to Further Scientific Understanding

The great difference in the time scale of a human life span versus the evolution of the extant species obscures the origins and relationships of fundamental features among living organisms. So do great differences in scales of size, such as bacteria versus elephants. Two years after the events told in Theme #1, in 2016 during a third-year class in Biology at Drepung Monastery, Ernest and Tom revisited the discussion, “What Is Living?” The morning lectures revealed differences in basic concepts among the science monks and the western biology teachers. The afternoon labs provided hands-on experiences to further engage these discussions. Students were directed to collect samples from standing muddy water. Ernest and Tom demonstrated preparing slides with the samples, finding organic matter in the field of view, and focusing the microscope.

The world of micro-organisms in pond water is a fascinating discovery for anyone who gazes upon a sample through the microscope. The structural beauty of micro-organisms only visible in the microscope, the mesmerizing motion, the seemingly intelligent behavior of apparently rapidly moving beings avoiding each other while seeking food. One monk, watching this spectacle through the microscope, described to his fellow lab mates the intricate dance before him (Figure 1A). As if watching a performance, awestruck by a particularly nifty maneuver, the monk was overcome by an epiphany. He rose smiling from the microscope eye pieces, and proudly announced his discovery to all in the lab, “it’s sentient!”


FIGURE 1. Morning class and afternoon labs, Drepung Monastery. (A) Science monks running the show during the afternoon lab microscope demonstration. (B) Using Foldscopes and posting images.

The concept of a fundamental distinction between sentient and non-sentient beings had not crossed our minds while teaching biology in America. Most biology instructors think and teach only in terms of living versus non-living. Western biologists draw distinctions between free-living cells and viruses because the latter are dependent on cells that encode the metabolic genes necessary for viral replication. The sharpness of this boundary begins to fade in discussion with the science monks. They ask, is not self-replication, in any form, dependent on other self-replicating life forms?

While teaching biology at Drepung Ernest and Tom first considered the notion of a fundamental distinction between sentient versus non-sentient beings. This is likely because American culture is not heavily invested in answers to the questions, “Is this a sentient being?” or, “Does this being have the ability to perceive or feel emotion?” The implications for most Americans are rather inconsequential, but for the monks of Dreprung, it meant that sentient microscopic creatures are regulated by a special set of rules. In Buddhism, all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature and have human connections through cycles of rebirth. Therefore, Buddhist are not permitted to harm, kill, or eat sentient beings. These commandments have major implications for the afterlife. This perspective not only mandated a vegetarian diet but also had a profound impact on our lesson plans, experiments, and discussions about the organisms of the microscopic world.

Finding compelling laboratory endeavors that complement classroom discussion is a never-ending challenge. Sensitive to the restrictions of experimenting with sentient life, the biology teachers in 2019 Year 5 (Immunology and Disease) proposed that the science monks assess the fungal infection in their neighboring orchard. Of 80 monks in the classroom, only one showed initial interest. The monks asked, “Why study plants if they are not sentient beings—what relevant knowledge and skills would we gain from this exercise?” The counter argument from the teachers was that plants were living, in the biological sense, and because they were not sentient, and we would only be collecting infected leaves, we could investigate plants and practice scientific approach without harm. Furthermore, we could learn critical information about the fungal infections threatening the viability of the orchard, particularly since the monks liked to eat the butter fruit (avocado) and mango harvest. This convinced a few more of the leaders among the science monks, and within a minute of further discussion we had 23 volunteers to sample the entire orchard. That afternoon the science monks took charge and assigned data collection responsibilities by row, gathered the separate data sheets, and without error compiled all data onto a master sheet (Figures 2A–C).


FIGURE 2. Fungal infections in the orchard (2019 Year 5, Drepung Monastery). (A) Science monks collecting infected leaves. (B) Wide-angle photo of the infected orchard. (C) Final data sheet of the distribution and extent of infection in each living (circle) and dead tree (X or entirely filled in circle) compiled from data collected by 23 science monks individually sampling one or two rows in the orchard.

We basic research scientists could learn from the orchard demonstration of self-organized teamwork, precision, and accuracy. Such experiences in the monasteries stimulated us to reflect on our practice of teaching students in science classrooms in American universities. Through our collective discussions over the years, we have all thought more carefully about our definitions of life and recognize both the similarities and the differences between our ways of viewing the world. The need to use language carefully is common to both settings. More importantly, we were able to reflect on the students’ engagement with the material. The debates we had in our monastic classrooms were lively and engaging, and we all left the classroom feeling intellectually stimulated.

Chickering and Gamson (1989) stressed the importance of engagement in good educational practice in their influential essay, “The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” In particular, they stressed that good practice encourages contact between students and faculty, cooperation with other students, and active learning. The practice of debating issues of importance to students satisfies these three points. This is uncommon in our American classrooms because too often students do not see connections between the material under discussion and their personal lives. Through our ETSI experiences, we have learned to better recognize engaging links between classroom topics and real life for our students.

Theme #3: Technology Connects Our Communities Through Distance and Time

One of the appealing aspects of teaching in ETSI is the freedom individual instructors had to convey information to an extensive range of students in age, education, and experience. Instructors gathered in the monasteries from a wide variety of institutions across the United States. We learned new technologies and approaches to teaching from each other and the science Geshes (examples follow). The new outlook helped us embrace diversity at our home institutions and transform our teaching.

Microcosmos: As part of the Year three class in Biology (Genes and Cells) in 2018 at Drepung, Pamela and Pantelis brought origami “FoldScope” microscopes for each monk. These inexpensive microscopes ($3.50 each) are assembled by students from a kit of cardboard components and a lens; and have a magnification of ×140 and a resolution of 2 µm.

During an afternoon activity session each monk constructed his own microscope according to a FoldScope website ( instructional video describing the process of joining cardboard, tape, and lens. Despite the challenges of translating an English video into Tibetan, all 70 science monks in the class assembled a FoldScope (Figure 1B). The monks were then dispersed, challenged to find biological samples in pools of water in gutters, drainages, or surrounding fields. They mounted these samples on slides, and documented their observations in drawings, as well as photos and videos using a smartphone attached to the FoldScope with a magnet. Several monks posted distinctive photos and videos of microscopic creatures swimming in pond water. Of the many observed micro-organisms, the multi-cellular invertebrate rotifers (0.1–0.5 mm long) were the most easily identified. While swimming they looked streamlined, like tiny nematodes. But when they found food, typically protozoa and algae, the rotifers transformed, as if magically. They attached to a substrate by their tail spurs, and hidden trochal discs emerged and spun rapidly to channel food through their mouth and into their stomach.

These observations led to an impromptu lecture on rotifers using information and anatomical diagrams gleaned from the internet; and reinforced concepts about organ systems, such as their “pseudo coelomic” digestive system, which had been discussed earlier in the morning class. The monks were inspired to use their FoldScopes to observe slides prepared by themselves or from biological supply companies available in the lab. They posted photos from their smart phone, pad, or laptop computers (Figure 1B) to the Microcosmos website (, alongside posts from users around the world sharing FoldScope images, videos, and blogs. Several monks were motivated to make videos translating the FoldScope instructions from English into Tibetan, and another monk made a version in Nepali.

Sufficient unassembled FoldScopes remained at the monastery for each of the nuns taking Biology in 2019 to assemble their own by the guidance of the Tibetan-translated folding assembly video. Future observations and discoveries from the science monks and nuns as they independently explore their environments extend the influence of the ETSI experience.

Effective science pedagogy includes student engagement as well as opportunities for students to use the tools of scientists. Edgerton (2001) stresses that for students to truly understand a discipline, they must engage in tasks and activities that specialists perform within that expertise. By introducing the science monks and nuns to microorganisms, they now have a deeper knowledge of the biological world, the practice of science, and the importance of technology in influencing our understanding of the world.

#instaMETSA: #instaMETSA is a communication platform that focuses on telling science stories in pictures on Instagram. FoldScopes coupled with smartphones or iPads provide an excellent opportunity for the science monks to communicate with other scientists from different parts of the world. The activities include assembly, creative acquisition of samples, and sharing stories of discovery, experimentation, method, mechanism—any creative process that can be described in pictures or videos, and a few words.

Communication is an essential aspect of scientific discovery. Scientists tell stories of their findings—tales woven of facts rather than fiction—in words and pictures. Telling a good story takes practice, feedback, and revision. The challenge in teaching is to stimulate students to discover their own interests and build their own networks of scientists and projects. As such, #instaMETSA is a useful venue for young scientists to describe their discoveries in 10 panels within a structure of Title, Abstract, and Figures (still or video). Instagram features include comments and messaging functions, allowing public and private discussion. Revised posts can replace earlier drafts. This is much like the process of publishing scientific manuscripts and grants, with reliance on friends, colleagues, and people in the research community who can improve the research and the true stories that we share. Through #instaMETSA, trainees and mentors share their discoveries, discussions, and revisions in small private groups, across the three ETSI science monasteries, or around the world.

Video shorts: The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI) program explores the interface between science and philosophy in Physics, Biology, Neuroscience, and the Philosophy of Science. Additionally, a course on scientific method and English language for the younger monks in residence within the greater Drepung Monastery was taught by Jordan, Tovah, and Galen in 2016 and 2019.

While living at Drepung and teaching at the Sakya Monastic School in 2019, Galen learned that although the young monks may live a vastly different lifestyle than kids their age in the United States, they share the same fascination for social media. The young monks enjoy occasional access to smart phones and the internet, and a few even have Facebook accounts, but never had they starred in their own video production.

Galen was initially enrolled to help Professor Carolina Compos teach young monks basic English. The two of them developed an imaginative project that would simultaneously use Galen’s expertise in video production and improve the monks’ English. Galen filmed a skit starring several of the young monks. The initial concerns were the language barrier and limited acting experience. However, five young monks had great excitement about the project, and had blocked out a skit and roles before meeting with Galen. To Galen’s astonishment, they proposed to perform a short story from one of their books that mirrors the “Who’s on First” skit by comedians Abbott and Costello. The young monks’ version featured three friends, “You, Me, and Minddle.” When You goes missing, serious confusion erupts as his friends seek help from the police and other adults. Denied help and threatened with punishment by the frustrated adults, Me and Minddle give up the search, only to find You at home feasting alone on their lunch snacks.

Carolina and Galen helped the young monks write their scripts in English. The actor-monks surprised everyone by memorizing their lines, making storyboards to establish scenes and locations, and producing advertising posters with their names and roles. After 1 day of rehearsal, 3 days filming, and 2 days editing, they were ready to show their masterpiece to the young monks and professors on the final night of class. From the hilarious acting to funny bloopers, the premiere was a blast for everyone. After the first showing, the young monks demanded repeated encores so they could see themselves and their friends on the big screen. Galen is delighted to have helped them experience writing, acting, and producing their own movie short. It is a pedologic technique Galen learned from his own school projects. In turn, the young monks’ commitment and enthusiasm, despite language barriers and a quirky, demanding director, inspires Galen to this day.

Looking to the Future and Lessons Learned: How Have Our Experiences Changed Our Classrooms at Home?

Graduation day celebrates collective accomplishments at the conclusion of each section of the summer science classes in Physics, Biology, Neuroscience, and the Philosophy of Science. It is a time to take heart in the amazing advancements in science education accomplished by the ETSI project over the first 13 years of the undertaking, and to contemplate plans for expanding science education and contributions by the science monks at Sera, Gaden, and Drepung. Areas of expertise might first include the objective needs for clean water, food, and health care, as the monks build towards scientific expertise in Neuroscience, Mindfulness, and Compassion. While it takes decades to build the laboratory facilities and technical expertise to contribute to global science advancement, more rapid contributions to cutting-edge science might be achieved by building think tanks in select fields and developing ideas with scientists around the world. The science monks and nuns can hone their scientific thinking by critically evaluating current literature, writing white papers in traditional journals, and producing visual content in new online platforms. Future Tibetan Buddhist scientists could help lead the world in the most immediate areas of need and interest among the science monks, nuns, and young trainees.

Teaching in unique classroom and laboratory settings in the monasteries transformed our approach to classroom and student interactions at home. Beach et al. (2016) conducted a large-scale study of the field of faculty development in higher education. Three conclusions of this study relevant to our experiences are the importance of engaging in student-centered teaching, integration of technology into classroom and learning environments, and multiculturalism and diversity.

Denise and Erica’s experience of struggling with the challenges of teaching through translators and debating about the scientific meaning of the term “life” versus the Buddhist meaning of the term underscores several important issues. These issues include the increasing challenges in teacher-student communication as classes become more diverse. For example, terms that have specific meanings within science may have different meanings outside of science. As faculty, we typically have different backgrounds and language usage than our students. Our experiences teaching in the monastery reminded us that building a shared vocabulary with our students enhances learning and emphasized the value of a student-centered classroom where students are actively engaged in learning. By contrast, teacher-centered classrooms create a one-way dialogue with the instructor telling the students how the discipline works. By creating a classroom environment where the monks felt engaged and welcome to share their point of view, we were able to overcome a problem of translation.

One important goal of the use of technology in the classroom is creating opportunities for students to engage in learning communities. The use of #instaMETSA and the Foldscopes allows students from anywhere in the world to share their science. Scholarly video shorts can be shared with other students around the world. These activities increase student engagement within the discipline and provide students with greater ownership of their learning. Seeing the effectiveness of these practices has encouraged us to use similar tools in our home classrooms and modify some existing assignments, such as traditional lab reports, into video productions that engage the students more fully.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (2019) surveyed University presidents, provosts, and student affairs professionals about the greatest challenges facing higher education. The survey identified student mental health as one of the top challenges. Student anxiety is a serious classroom issue that hinders learning and can cause students to either leave their desired major (this is a particular problem in STEAM fields) or leave college entirely. One aspect of student anxiety is a fear of academic failure. Recent studies (for example, Hjeltnes et al., 2015) have looked at the potential for mindfulness techniques to help students reduce their anxiety with a goal of “moving from fear to curiosity” in academic learning. As guests of the monastic community, we were all provided the opportunity to learn to meditate and engage in other mindfulness activities and some of us now use these techniques in our classrooms.

We witnessed the curiosity monks had for learning science. A notable difference between our classes at the monasteries and our classes at home was the joy and curiosity monks had for science. Without the fear of tests, grades, and “wrong” answers, the monks could focus on their own curiosity. Eric Mazur, the Harvard physicist turned science education guru, has spoken of assessment as the silent killer of learning. This idea becomes more salient after the teaching experience at the monastery. In the United States we created an educational system that rewards focusing our students on grades. An ambitious goal, very much a work in progress, is to transform our classrooms from rewarding points to encouraging learning.

The experiences of our ETSI classrooms were profound and have influenced our teaching by being more mindful of the importance of language and diversity, reinforcing the value of student-centered classrooms and student engagement, and using technology to create authentic learning communities for our students. Mindfulness techniques and changing our classrooms to reduce student anxiety and fear-of-failure are also important results of this experience.

Data Availability Statement

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article/supplementary material, further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author.

Author Contributions

TW, JJ, and DW collectively wrote the first draft of the manuscript. Contributed to conception and design of the study. DW, JJ, TW, PB, PT, ER, and GW wrote sections of the manuscript. All authors contributed to conception and design of the study.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


We thank our wonderful translators and would have been lost without their knowledge, compassion, insight, story-telling talents, and humor in both Tibetan and English. Namely, Gehshe-la’s Dadul Namgyal, Dawa Tsering, Tsundue Choephel, Gelek Gyatso, Lodoe Sangpo, Yungdrung Kunchok, Sonam Choephel, Bat-Itgel Tsedendamba, Legpa Gyatso, and Tenzin Rabga at Drepung; Geshe-la’s Ngawang Norbu, Kalden Gyatso, Legpa and Lobsang Gonpu at Sera. We thank Jordan Wilkie and Tovah Zivot for their contributions to teaching English and Scientific Method to young monks in the Drepung complex. We are indebted to Ken Duffy, Roland DeGouvenain, Yalda Zolghadri, Tom Templeton, Bonnie Sand, and Leslie Ross for comments on the manuscript, and all our friends and colleagues who provided inspiration and shared insights over the years. We also say thank you to Tsetan Dolkar, who helped everyone, everywhere, with everything.


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Keywords: emory-tibet science initiative, science education, monastic education, student engagement, cross-cultural education, lecture and lab practicals, #instaMETSA, foldscope

Citation: Woodward D, Ricks E, Bjorkman PJ, Tsoulfas P, Johnson JE, Westmoreland G and Wilkie TM (2021) The Path of Science in Future Tibetan Buddhist Education. Front. Commun. 6:731604. doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2021.731604

Received: 27 June 2021; Accepted: 17 August 2021;
Published: 27 October 2021.

Edited by:

Arri Eisen, Emory University, United States

Reviewed by:

Sinead Younge, Morehouse College, United States
Valerie Haftel, Morehouse College, United States
Kai McCormack, Spelman College, United States

Copyright © 2021 Woodward, Ricks, Bjorkman, Tsoulfas, Johnson, Westmoreland and Wilkie. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Denise Woodward,