East studies West at Emory

Sherub Tenzin’s unlikely journey from a Tibetan village to the university’s neuroscience program
Sherub Tenzin

Photograph by Austin Price

Sherub Tenzin slowly stepped out from beneath the large crag where he and his six friends were hiding. The bitter Himalayan winds pierced his sweater, which was lined with 1,000 rupees. But the weather wasn’t his biggest problem: Six Nepalese soldiers were coming down the road. Tenzin ran back under the rock.

“The soldiers are here. We can’t run away,” he whispered. “They’re too close.”

The punishment for crossing into Nepal from Tibet was unclear to Tenzin. He had heard of soldiers turning escapees over to the Chinese military. From there, some were set free, others imprisoned, and a few destined for crueler fates.

Now Tenzin and his friends were trapped. With no room to run and no space to hide, the monks huddled closely together and prayed. Seventeen-year-old Tenzin was about to find out which stories were true and which were false.

When Tenzin was born in the poor farming village of Agong, Tibet, in 1977, eleven years had passed since the start of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a violent crusade against capitalist, traditional, and cultural elements in Chinese society. That reform extended to Tibet, and amid the purge, Chinese soldiers destroyed Agong’s only monastery. And so when Tenzin decided to become a monk at the age of eight, he did so in sparse company—and with less-than-lofty intentions.

One day he saw his friend walk by wearing a red scarf and shirt and holding several pieces of candy.

“Where did you get this sweet food?” Tenzin asked.

His friend said the treats were the reward for becoming a monk. If Tenzin wanted the candy, he should become a monk too. “I can take you tomorrow,” his friend offered.

The next day, Tenzin was a monk.

His parents didn’t know of his decision until he walked through the front door wearing the signature red scarf and shirt. Fortunately for him, his parents had secretly hoped he would take this path. Indeed, they had believed it might be fated: The night Tenzin was born, his father had dreamed of a child dressed in white—a color associated with knowledgeable Buddhist followers.

So when Tenzin declared his intention to become a monk, his parents didn’t hesitate to take him out of school at thirteen and send him to live at the nearby Dongri Konpa Monastery. There Tenzin spent most of his time memorizing prayers alongside 150 other monks.

The teenager was curious about more than prayers. Tenzin wanted to learn about Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan history, poetry, Sanskrit grammar, and astrology. He asked the monastery’s elders for permission to study at a monastery in the Amdo region of Tibet that offered more than prayer memorization. The elders gave him one year to study, at the end of which they sent him a letter asking for his return. He begged them to let him stay; there was still so much to learn. At Tenzin’s request, the elders granted him one more year, but even then he knew that wouldn’t be enough.

By this time, Tenzin was seventeen, and his curiosity was still unsatisfied. He then made a life-changing decision: He would leave Tibet for Dharamsala, India, to meet the Dalai Lama and study the subjects his elders had kept from him.

Escaping Tibet wouldn’t be easy. Tenzin would lie to his parents, he would deceive his monastery elders, and worst of all, he would face crossing the Himalayas, a range of towering peaks that includes Everest and lowland forests. The weather would be icy at times, sweltering at others, and the journey’s length unpredictable. Chinese and Nepalese soldiers and robbers were known to stalk the region. Tenzin kept going.

Tenzin first got permission to visit the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where he spent twenty days with a family from his village. As his hosts helped him prepare for the journey, Tenzin called his parents to tell them that he wouldn’t be returning home. His mom cried. His dad offered advice: “Go to the monastery. Don’t go to school. I hope you can continue being a monk.”

Soon after, Tenzin traded his red scarf and shirt for a Nepalese shirt and sweater, into which his hosts sewed 1,000 rupees. The family found him two Nepalese navigators, neither of whom spoke Tibetan, and six other monks who also wished to make the trek. With bags of roasted barley and fruit, and guides with whom they couldn’t communicate, the seven monks were ready. In the middle of a July night, the group began to climb the first of many steep mountains.

Because Tenzin wanted candy when he was eight years old, because he was curious about Buddhist philosophy, because he wanted to learn about astronomy and poetry, because he lied to his parents and to the monks at his monastery—because of his wants and because of his lies, Tenzin found himself stuck between a rock and a Chinese prison.

Hours before, the guides had left to find an alternate path around the military checkpoint. Now soldiers were on their way. After praying, the other monks huddled under the crag and buried their faces in their arms. Only Tenzin watched, his stoic brown eyes tracking the green-and-white uniforms. The soldiers were listening to one of their group tell a story, but Tenzin knew that if any soldier were to look back, the journey would be over.

For five minutes, Tenzin watched their backs.

They never turned around.

‘‘This is my death day,” Tenzin thought. “I can’t go to India. I can’t meet the Dalai Lama. I can’t study Buddhist philosophy. I can’t return to my family. This is my last life.”

After the near-miss with the guards, sneaking by a house full of Nepalese soldiers, getting into a brawl at a small restaurant, after finding refuge in an abandoned shack and being told to hide under the piles of garbage that filled the room, he was still alive.

But now Tenzin found himself in a deep valley, staring at a bridge the length of a football field, under which a furious river swelled and crashed. At both ends of the bridge were military checkpoints flanked by tall spotlights. The escapees realized there was only one way to cross the bridge: clambering across the steel frames and pillars that supported the structure from underneath.

The group waited in the forest until the middle of the night, and once the soldiers turned off the lights, one by one they balanced themselves on the steel beams. One of the guides started crying. Slowly they inched across the bridge, a single line of monks and guides with nothing to hold on to, scooting their feet until they could wrap their arms around a pillar. Beneath them, the river roared. Tenzin knew that if he fell, he would certainly die, but worse than that, his body would be lost to the unknown.

As Tenzin made his way across the bridge, his stomach growled, reminding him that his last real meal had been a week earlier. His every step squelched; leeches had latched onto his feet and filled his shoes with his own blood.

That night, nobody fell into the river.

After sleeping in the forest, the group reached a nearby city, where they found a bus that took them to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. They stayed for twenty days at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center.

Amid large crowds, Tenzin waited his turn to board the bus as the Center sent fifty Tibetan refugees at a time to Delhi, India. Once Tenzin reached Delhi, he traveled to the Kirti Monastery in Dharamsala. By now he was eighteen.

One evening, people from Dharamsala and monks from the Kirti lined both sides of the main village road. Tenzin joined the crowd. “What’s happening?” he asked an onlooker.

“The Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has returned,” the villager replied.

Tenzin stood on his toes for a better view of the road, where he saw a man wearing a crimson robe smiling and waving from the inside of a car. Tenzin’s eyes filled with tears; he had found Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. As he wept, he felt very happy.

Like Tenzin, the Dalai Lama had fled Tibet, doing so in 1959, nine years after Mao came into power and sent troops into the country. Mao’s demands soon had the farmers and citizens of Tibet starved and angry. Thousands revolted and formed armed resistance groups. By 1958 an estimated 80,000 people had joined the Tibetan Freedom Fighters. Then one year later, in March, rumor spread that the Chinese government was planning to abduct Gyatso, already identified as the incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Some 300,000 protestors surrounded the palace where Gyatso lived. On March 17, two artillery shells struck the palace, and that night Gyatso and his bodyguards made for the Himalayas. They reached India, where His Holiness established an exiled Tibetan government.

Between 1959 and 1960, in what became known as the Tibetan Diaspora, 80,000 Tibetans crossed into India. It is estimated that 3,000 Tibetans cross the Himalayas every year into Nepal and then India, which provides refuge for more than 94,000 Tibetans, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the Central Tibetan Administration.

Tenzin did not stay at the Kirti Monastery for long. After receiving permission from the High Lama, Tenzin traveled south to Hubli, a city on the west coast of India and home to the Drepung Gomang Monastery. There he studied Buddhist philosophy until 2010. Sometime during that year, Tenzin received a letter from the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. The letter said that he had one of the highest scores on his modern science exam and offered him a chance to study science at a college in the United States.

Excited by the opportunity to learn about Western culture and Buddhism’s place in science, he accepted the offer and spent the next six months learning English. Later that fall, Tenzin and five other monks enrolled at Emory University.

Stepheni Uh traveled more than 2,000 miles from Boise to Atlanta to attend Emory. She intended to study political science, determined to fight for human rights. As a freshman, she enrolled in an entry-level biology class and was surprised to find she loved the subject. Second semester, she took Biology 142. The professor structured the class around case studies and intensive group discussion. Early on, Uh noticed that one of her group members was struggling to keep up. One day she asked him if he’d like to meet before class to discuss the material and review the key concepts. Without hesitation, he accepted Uh’s help. The student was Sherub Tenzin. Uh knew Tenzin wasn’t the only monk on campus. Their shiny shaved heads and crimson robes stood out among T-shirts and skinny jeans. Few Emory students felt comfortable approaching them: What does one say to a monk? Why are they here? Should you greet them with a bow? Do they even speak English? How old are they?

Tenzin came to Emory through the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a program founded in 2007 that aims to give Tibetan monks the opportunity to learn modern science at an American university. The partnership originated nearly two decades earlier, in 1991, when university administrators worked with Tibetan Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, who came to Atlanta to found a monastery and earn a graduate degree at Emory.

With His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s blessing, Negi founded the Drepung Loseling Monastery. Now operating on Dresden Drive in Brookhaven, Drepung Loseling hosts weekly meditation sessions, offers courses on Buddhism, and strives to share Tibetan culture with the public. The Dalai Lama returned to visit Emory and Drepung in 2007 and in 2010, when the university appointed him a Presidential Distinguished Professor.

The Dalai Lama encouraged monks like Tenzin to learn modern science as a supplement to their monastic curriculum so that they might return to Dharamsala to become teachers themselves. In the summer, Emory professors, translators, and students travel to Dharamsala, where they lecture to monks and nuns.

At Emory, Tenzin—like any study-abroad student—experiences language barriers. When said language involves molecular genetics, genomics, and cell signaling, the barrier becomes problematic. Yet Uh approached Tenzin with the patience of a monk, calling on her experience as a volunteer at the Emory Autism Center and as a tutor for underprivileged kids in a school reading program.

Every Saturday or Sunday, the two met for one hour in the biology building, where Uh reviewed the class lectures, some of which she barely understood herself. Tenzin would place his digital recorder on the table, and after each session, he would listen to the recording three or four times on his iPod. In the beginning, Uh did most of the talking while Tenzin nodded his head approvingly. Soon enough Tenzin was asking questions about the lectures and offering his own commentary.

One day during a session, Tenzin said something that took Uh by surprise: “I see you as a good teacher for the future.”

It had been more than a decade since Uh last considered becoming a teacher like her father. While she knew explaining the concepts to Tenzin was beneficial for her own understanding, his comment made her reconsider education as a vocation.

That would not be the only time Tenzin gave Uh perspective. Uh was surprised at how Tenzin could reconcile his spiritual beliefs with his scientific knowledge.

In the same way Tenzin wasn’t daunted by technology he hadn’t seen before, he seemed unconcerned by his consistent choice of clothing in public. His crimson robe with either brown sandals or tennis shoes was hardly a fashion statement, but he didn’t seem to care. Tenzin and the other monks had come to Emory with their own culture, and they weren’t ashamed of it as far as Uh could tell.

When her mom questioned whether she had time to tutor Tenzin, it was Uh who provided perspective. “Mom, you have no idea,” Uh said over the phone. “This is helping me more than anything.”

These days, both Tenzin and Uh have their future journeys planned out. Uh is majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology, with hopes of earning her Ph.D. and incorporating ethics classes into her curriculum.

Tenzin is finishing his last year at Emory, sharing an apartment with other monks/students. In the summer he will return to Dharamsala, where he will teach science to monks there. He says he looks forward to seeing his old friends back home. As for his time at Emory: “Stepheni is my best teacher and my best friend.”

Emory’s Tibet Connection
Sherub Tenzin’s story represents just one facet of the Emory-Tibet Partnership. He is one of six Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars, the first group to study at Emory. These scholars, along with more than two dozen Emory faculty and seven full-time translators, also work to write and translate science textbooks into the Tibetan language. In March 2012, the university held the Fourth International Conference on Science Translation into Tibetan, which brought together translators, science professors, and language experts outside of Emory. The university has already acquired more than 30,000 volumes of Tibetan texts in collaboration with the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

The partnership extends beyond science. The Dalai Lama is a Presidential Distinguished Professor at the university, and the campus celebrates Tibet Week every spring. In addition to lectures and special events, monks, some from the nearby Drepung Loseling Monastery in Brookhaven, create mandalas; lead meditation sessions; and hold discussions on culture, medicine, politics, and religion. Tibet Week 2013 will take place March 25 to 29. For more information: tibet.emory.edu

This article originally appeared in our March 2013 issue.