David Kimelman, UW Medicine Biochemistry professor and ISCRM stem cell and developmental biologist, has been in India teaching modern science (including human CRISPR editing) to Tibetan Buddhist monks in a monastery. Why?  His Holiness the Dalai Lama wants monks to learn modern science! UW Medicine is helping the Dalai Lama with his quest.

Dr. Kimelman’s trip is part of the Robert A. Paul Emory–Tibet Science Initiative, an educational program specifically designed to teach modern science to Tibetan monastics. ETSI began in 2006 when His Holiness the Dalai Lama invited Emory University to collaborate in the creation and implemention of a comprehensive modern science curriculum for use in monastic institutions in India.

The ETSI curriculum has now been introduced into three major Tibetan monastic universities in exile: Gaden, Sera, and Drepung, all located in southern India.

“I was at Gaden monastery, which is a re-establishment of the Tibetan original built by the Tibetans in exile,” notes Kimelman. “They built a five-story building that is their science center, which has classrooms and housing and dining facilities for the faculty (all 10 of us). At a monastery near us that is even larger, they have built a large science campus which is really beautiful. So they are really investing in science education.”

The Initiative’s annual summer intensives take place over the course of four weeks, during which monastics receive instruction in the philosophy of science, physics, neuroscience, and biology. Courses are taught by faculty members from Emory and other distinguished universities with assistance from the Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars. Students are in class for six hours per day and are tested on the last day of each course. Classes are comprised of lectures, discussion, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments.

“The students we are teaching are the Geshe students,” explains Kimelman. “These are the brightest students. They are getting a degree in Buddhism that is very roughly analogous to an undergrad and PhD degree combined, although it starts when they are about 15 and goes for about 20 years!,” he laughs. “Since the Geshe students will become the future teachers, the idea is to give them the background they need so they can incorporate western science into the future curriculum, and no longer depend on us.”

Throughout all of this education, the monks have received absolutely no western science education, just traditional Tibetan views of cosmology and medicine. The Dalai Lama feels that the monastics should learn some western science, and even more importantly, learn how western scientists view and investigate the world. The ETSI program is limited to six years, and there are four tracks. “It turns out that the Biology track was initiated by an ex-UW Biochemistry grad student named Arri Eisen,” marvels Kimelman. “He came to the UW to give a talk on this a couple of years ago, and he invited me to participate.”

“I was brought in to teach year four, which is Development and Physiology. Whereas in the past they taught basic developmental biology, I oriented my talks to also include stem cells as they develop in the embryos (from plants to humans), and then gave my last lecture on stem cells and regenerative medicine as well as CRISPR editing of human embryos, since I thought it was important that the monks learn about this issue.”

Asked to sum up the experience, Kimelman is effusive. ”Extraordinary and awesome would be understatements. It truly is one of the most amazing experiences of my life. At the monastery where I am, the ten of us who are biology teachers are the only westerners allowed – not only in the extensive monastery campus, but in the surrounding area, so we are immersed among the more than 3000 monks. And because we are not tourists, but helping them out, they have been extraordinarily kind to us, letting us sit in on their debates and chanting, both of which have to be seen to be believed.”

“The monks themselves are very bright, and they ask a lot of interesting questions. In addition, if we ask them a question, unlike US students who are often afraid to answer because of making a mistake, the monks will answer in a cacophony of voices, and have no embarrassment if you tell them they got the answer wrong. I also have seen Buddhist monks in the US and they are always quiet and reserved, but here, in their own environment, they are very boisterous and funny. I have never laughed so much while teaching as I have here.”