Biology teacher fulfills Dalai Lama’s request for science education

Mahtomedi High School life science teacher Jim Lane teaches Tibetan Buddhist monks about the life of plants in Bir, India this fall.


MAHTOMEDI — High school biology teacher Jim Lane traveled to Bir, India, at the foothills of the Himalayas to teach Tibetan Buddhist monks about life science this fall.

The teaching was prompted by the request of the Dalai Lama for Geshi-level monks to be trained in western science. They will go back and pass on what they learned at their own monasteries. The training included a “crash course” in astronomy, physics, neuroscience and biology, Lane said. He was part of the biology teaching.

Lane got connected with the program, Science for Monks, because he is a senior fellow at the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation. A call-out for biology teachers to fulfill the Dalai Lama's request was made, and Lane responded.

He and another teacher from Vermont taught 32 monks and five nuns at the Palpung Sherabung Monastery for a week.

“I had them answer the question, ‘What is life?’” Lane said.

“For a classroom full of monks, that is a big question. That is a big question for anyone,” he added, in the middle of his Mahtomedi High School classroom full of plants, skulls and even a live snake.

Lane had the monks come up with a list of 25 characteristics of life, which the monks then debated and refined, he said.

“It essentially was the same list we would have given them,” he noted. Lane explained that the monks learned the scientific process of observation by discussing the question among themselves.

The monks and Lane discovered there are some similarities between western science and Buddhist philosophy, namely that “all life is interdependent,” Lane said. “One organism cannot exist in a vacuum.”

One big difference noted was that Tibetan Buddhists view life as “having a consciousness,” he said. “From that perspective, things like plants are not alive.” But Lane explained to the monks that plants have senses.

“I think they saw plants in a different light,” Lane concluded.

Lane said he and the monks also exchanged ideas on teaching methods. He learned from them more about the role of debate in inquiry-based teaching. Tibetan Buddhist monks are free to debate the core truths of their philosophy and there was debate and discussion during his teaching, he said.

Lane also learned more about focusing on how students are thinking rather than on absorbing content. He said Western schools “assess learning and content versus thinking and cognition” and he would like to get his students to “shift from learning to thinking.”

He has already started using debate more in his own classroom back in Mahtomedi. It gets the students to have to explain why they believe something is correct, he said.

Lane ate a vegetarian diet and drank salty butter tea while he lived with the monks. Turmeric cauliflower was his favorite dish.

“We got to know the monks outside of the classroom,” he said. They ranged in age from 20s to 60s. Each had made the choice to enter monastic life, a decision approved by their parents and their entire community.

Some people in the west might be surprised to know the monks had iPads, iPhone 7s and were texting and taking selfies, Lane added.

He didn't do any sightseeing, per se. The trip was funded by the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation.

Lane also teaches engineering and environmental science at Mahtomedi High School. This is his fifth year teaching in the Mahtomedi district and the ninth year of his teaching career.


Sara Marie Moore can be reached at 651-407-1235 or

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