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Winter 2003 | Volume 26, Number 2 | Faculty
Teaching Physics to Tibetan Monks, Vokos Learns Another Way to Instruct

, leader of the Tibetan people, invited Western scientists to teach physics to Buddhist monks, Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor Stamatis Vokos answered the call. Over Christmas break, he and four other instructors flew to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives as the head of the Tibetan government in exile. There they taught math, physics and genetics in the fourth workshop in a series designed to prepare monks for coursework in science, to promote good-will and, as Vokos says, “to slow down the cultural bleeding to the West by bringing science to the East.”

Cosponsoring the workshop series are the Sager Family Foundation and the Dalai Lama himself. “For many years,” the leader explained, “I have been interested in modern science. Buddhist philosophy searches and establishes truth through rational thought, similar to that of science. I also believe that modern science can benefit from Buddhist perspectives.” When the professors met with the Dalai Lama personally, he smiled and said, “Lord Buddha has told us many things about the world, and we would like to know if any of those things are wrong.”

As Vokos taught the monks, he found learning to be a two-way street. “They are used to debating heatedly for hours every day,” he marvels. “This is how they learn, not by listening and writing down what the professor says.”

For example, the monks argued that shadow cannot be the absence of light. “If light is necessary to see an object, how can we see darkness?” they asked. “How can we see shadow, if it has no light?” Vokos found these perspectives enlightening. With the other physicists in the workshop, Mel Sabella (Chicago State University) and Hunter Close (University of Washington), he modified his teaching to capitalize on the monks’ tradition of debate. “In the Eastern way of teaching,” says Vokos, “the teacher uses questions rather than answers, like Jesus did.”

On Christmas Eve, Vokos invited the monks to attend a candlelight service. To his surprise, nearly all of them came, creating a sea of red robes in the pews. The next morning, the monks held a Christmas service for the first time in the Buddhist temple and asked Vokos to speak.

“If someone gives you 20 minutes to speak about Jesus,” muses Vokos, “what do you say?” He decided on the Creation, the Fall and the story of Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead. “They know a similar story,” explains Vokos. “A widow’s child is sick, and she begs Buddha to heal him. Buddha says she must go back to her village to find one house that has not seen death. The widow cannot find one, so her child dies. Jesus’ story has a different ending. I didn’t recite their story; I just wanted them to think about it in light of this new story.”

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