Two Georgia College professors will soon embark on a once-in-a-lifetime experience teaching Tibetan monks in India as part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI). 

While teaching onsite, the professors will live among the monks for two weeks, observing the religious life of prayer and taking meals at the monastery. 

Dr. Donovan Domingue and Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge were among 30 physics professors nationwide chosen to teach modern science — including astronomy, electromagnetism, biology, and neuroscience — to the monks. The ETSI program was launched in 2008 and was inspired by the Dalai Lama’s efforts to update monastic training with Western thought. 

According to the ETSI website, the program was founded with a vision to create a comprehensive and sustainable science education program for the Tibetan Buddhist monastic university. Since its inception in 2006, ETSI has worked to develop a curriculum that spans various scientific disciplines and implement it across six years of study. 

 “I’m looking forward to seeing how they think about the world,” Domingue said, “and how that can improve my skills for explaining how Western science works and how we know things.”

According to GC officials, Domingue will teach monks in the sixth-year program at Sera Mey Monastery in the Mysore District of India. He’ll introduce them to cosmology and Mahabaduge will teach electromagnetism and optics to fourth-year monks at Drepung Loseling Monastery in Mungod, India. 

Explaining complex theories to people who know little science will be a challenge, both Domingue and Mahabaduge said. The monks have not been exposed to concepts like atoms or, in lower-grade levels, even simple mathematical tools like equal signs — but they’re experts in logic and debate, so they will question things.

 “It’ll be like starting from scratch,” Domingue said. “The monks like to ask, ‘How do we know that?’ I’m looking forward to that. I wish all my students would ask the same thing.”

Mahabaduge said that at the very moment he read the call for applications, he knew that the program would be challenging. He saw participating as a service to a community but said he also believed it to be an excellent opportunity for him to grow as an educator. He said he sees this trip as a retreat where he is doing what he is passionate about (teaching science) and in a place both beautiful and peaceful.

“To be honest, there was a secondary reason that I wanted to be part of the ETSI program. I’m originally from Sri Lanka,” said Mahabaduge. “My hometown is about two hours away from a direct flight from any of the monasteries they were planning to conduct the program (compared to 19 flight hours from Atlanta to Colombo, which is always almost a day when you include transit time). This was basically killing two birds with one stone for me — being part of the ETSI program and visiting my family in Sri Lanka on the same trip.”

Courses will be taught with the help of translators, and Mahabaduge said he is interested to learn how close his native Sinhala language and Tibetan are related. Having English as his second language, he said he had experienced the difficulties one might come across when teaching and learning are carried out in different languages. 

“This is actually not a worry but a welcoming experience I’m looking forward to. My native language, Sinhala, and Tibetan may have the same roots, and some of the words in these two languages might be the same,” he said. “I’m looking forward to coming back to GC and sharing the experiences with my colleagues.” 

According to Emory University officials, the students are in class for six hours per day and are tested on the last day of each course. Classes are comprised of lectures, discussions, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments. Monks and nuns at other academic monastic institutions can participate in the ETSI program via distance learning. Through the use of printed materials and video lectures, all academic monastic institutions interested in participating in the ETSI program will have the opportunity to do so. 

The programs’ implementation phase will be complete this year, and the sustainability phase will launch in 2020, with completion estimated by 2026. The sustainability phase will focus on making the science education program at the monasteries sustainable by providing intense courses to a select group of monastics to deepen the understanding of the six-year curriculum, by organizing workshops on research and pedagogy, and by creating teaching materials. It is through this phase that two cohorts of monastic science teachers, one year apart, will undergo training every summer for five years each ensuring the program will continue past Emory’s implementation phase. 

For more information on ETSI, visit www.tibet.emory.edu/emory-tibet-science-initiative.

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