Henderson ends six years teaching Tibetan monks

Photo Credit: Opening celebration at one of the main Tibetan monasteries
by Brooke Adam August 27, 2019

Photo above: Students from all six years of the program at Drepung Monastery, abbots from the associated monasteries, and faculty teachers were present for the sixth year opening ceremony. 

David Henderson, Robert R Chambers Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, has been reaching new people and places with his teaching. For the past six years, he has taught Philosophy of Science to Tibetan monks as a part of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI). This program aims to connect modern science and the traditional spiritual teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist Monks. It was created at the urging of the Dalai Lama to ensure the Tibetan monks have a continued connection with a world that is centered on this science.

Because of a friend at Emory University and his own interest in Buddhist culture, Henderson joined the program in 2014. His Philosophy of Science course is the first course each cohort enrolls in when starting the program. By grounding students in the philosophical understanding the scientific thought, the monks are provided an important bridge to connect their spiritual background and modern science in the subsequent courses.

Henderson with two monks

Henderson and two nuns posed in the monastery.

After his course, students continue to take traditional science classes such as physics, biology, and neuroscience. One hundred students meet for eight to nine days, seven hours every day to learn. Although this schedule may sound intense, there are several breaks throughout the day, including tea time, lunch, and naps, to make the rigorous learning and teaching more manageable. “The students have amazing powers of concentration as you would hope and are quite active learners,” Henderson said.

Tibetan monks learning in the classroom

Monks in Henderson's classroom listening to the lecture. 

The classroom is in some ways very similar to a traditional western lecture hall. Lectures, PowerPoints, note taking, and class discussion are all a part of class time. One major difference, however, is that only about 20 percent of Henderson’s students speak English. As a result, translators are required within the classroom as well. These translators work in the Library of Tibetan Works translating texts, including a number of scientific works, into Tibetan. Some also are the site coordinators for the program. But a translator does not hinder learning according to Henderson.

“All of them would have had a number of years of science education at Emory so they make very good translators and are extremely conscientious. Even so, teaching through a translator is itself quite a shock. On the one hand you’re not really in control of what comes across but on the other the translators are probably better placed to know what could come across than you are.”

One part of monastic life that has especially made the monks prepared for the classroom is their debating tradition. The monks are assigned topics to debate for several hours a day, six days a week. It’s usually one on one with one person posing the question and the other answering. The tradition serves as a way of examining and analyzing issues and doctrine within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. 

Tibetan monks debating in a courtyard

As a part of their monastic duties, monks debate almost every night. The standing partner poses the question while the sitting partner refutes. The debate continues until one person's response cannot be consistently developed. 

“You could think of it as a friendly, adversarial study session where the job of one party or group is to catch the other in a mistake or contradiction where they are posing questions that have to be answered about particular issues,” he said.

In debate, their actions are quite animated and are both a part of regular monastic life and sometimes implemented within the ETSI classroom. Henderson recounted one experience where he asked a few students to debate a topic in class. By the time the debate was over, the original two participants had grown to a dozen students trying to get their word in.

Tibetan monks debating in a classroom

This classroom debate started with just a few students, but grew substantially, with several monks trying to add their own statements and questions as the debate went on. 

“Imagine you have 100 students whose major focus for that week was what you were laying down and whose training was in this kind of reflection – who would read everything you gave them and who would go back and forth between what you were saying and any text,” said Henderson, describing his students’ presence in the classroom.

After teaching the six student cohorts in the past six years as planned by the ETSI program, Henderson’s portion is finished. Although the introductory philosophy of science course is no longer needed, there is talk of a follow on course.

“Several of us with research funds have generally urged that they give the philosophers another crack at the students at the end of the program,” he said. “So that we can see what they've learned about the science – which is the point of the program – and how they've come to terms with it philosophically within their tradition.” The idea remains up in the air, however, and is pending approval from Emory University and the Tibetan monasteries.

Henderson with his sixth year class and other co-teachers

Henderson's entire sixth year class along with translator and other co-teachers. 

Another project that Henderson has developed because of this experience is a book for the students that have finished the program. “I am co-writing with my friend at Emory a textbook for the program called The Dharma of Science: Philosophy of Science for Buddhist Scholars. It's a textbook that basically serves as support for what they've learned going forward. It will be published by the Library of Tibetan Works, but first it needs to be translated into Tibetan. But it really was meant as a basis for revisiting what was taught in the course.” Henderson will visit India again this December at which time he will present a copy of the translated book to the Dalai Lama.

Through this overall experience, Henderson has found a growing appreciation for the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. “I suppose I’m more and more a Buddhist every year,” he laughed, “but I think they are an inspirational set of people. I want to help and I appreciate the central ideas that they try to live by.”