Molly’s Reflection

The picture above was taken right outside the room I was staying in. In the distance, where there is a large tree standing tall on the farmland, is where Alistair and I accidentally got lost for a few hours. After lunch one day, we decided to walk to Golden Temple, a neighboring monastery. The trek there was very easy. We started on the road and cut through farmland that had clear paths to the Golden Temple from monks who walk there frequently.

We walked around Golden Temple (above) for a while, embracing the sounds and sights. We also joined lay people and monks on their walk along the sides of the buildings and around the prayer wheels (below). I remember it started getting late and dinner was about to be served back at Sera Monastery soon, so Alistair and I decided to head back home but take only farmland back as a new challenge.

Long story short, the sun set faster than we had anticipated, and we were both lost without seeing the monk’s dirt paths. Soon we were convincing ourselves that we saw large animals or spirits around us and I began thinking we would be lost in India forever (luckily the monks taught us that everything is impermanent, so this fear did not last too long). Fortunately, we ran into a farmer who didn’t speak any English but gestured the right way with his flashlight. Eventually we made it back, missing dinner and covered in mud. So, we decided to rinse off and eat chocolate cake at the café as a reward for overcoming the great farms of the south of India. Now, being back in America I would do anything to be lost on that farm one more time.

These next few pictures were taken on our adventure to a nearby lake. As
I write this back home in New York, I am still afraid of getting our friends in trouble for bringing me and Alistair along. So ‘theoretically’, Alistair and I became good friends with one monk who is very funny, charming, and friendly, who ‘theoretically’ may have had a motorcycle.

So, one day we joined him and his friend for a ride to a lake. But little did we know how beautiful and life-changing that trip would be. We rode on the busy, hectic highways of India, through a jungle (with tiger crossing signs along the paths), and eventually up steep, grassy hills until we reached this large, open lake where we went for a swim.

This day is my favorite memory of the whole trip! I had never felt so free and content with everything going on around me (P.S. I have goosebumps as I a writing this).

We swam, listened to music on the rocks (specifically “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses and “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias), had a photoshoot, and watched a breath-taking sunset.

Afterwards, they treated us to dinner and we promised them we would take them out for a bite when they come to visit us in America.  Thanks to this experience, I really want a motorcycle to feel that feeling of freedom and true happiness back home, and because I also told our friend I would take him for a ride on my motorcycle when he comes to visit.

Alistair’s Lessons

Lesson One: Common Culture

Before departing for India, I was warned, “I think you’re going to be in for a bit of culture shock.”  In truth, my biggest shock during my trip was how utterly un-shocking everything was.  At least for me, the small but crowded city of Kushalnagar, a brief tuk-tuk away from Sera, was incomparably more navigable than the New York City an hour away from my home.  The streets were much the same, save for the differently colored dirt along the sides and the completely lawless yet cooperative and fairly effective Indian driving style.

Most importantly, though, all of the people with whom I interacted were easy-going and friendly.  This was the case both at the monastery and elsewhere.  Instead of focusing on where to walk, who to avoid, and who’s safe to talk to, I spent my time eagerly in conversations and making friends.  Reflecting on my conversations throughout the trip, a primary takeaway is that despite our cultural differences, I related quickly and easily with everyone I met.  Of course, I was in a somewhat sheltered environment at the monastery and not in a major city when I left it, but I believe this lesson still holds value.

My Indian experience highlighted the common culture we all seem to share no matter the country or region, and which should be celebrated just as much as our differences, as a uniting element among peoples who ultimately face the many of the same basic human desires and problems.

Me and Molly with Tsering (middle) and Jamyang, two monks from Sera.  Tsering, who we called “Lungto,” became a good friend to us and took us to a stunning lake with Jamyang on our last day.  We miss you Lungto!

Lesson Two: A New Area of Interest, A New Eagerness to Learn

From left to right: Me, Dr. Pierce, Tony, Chris (Dr. Pierce’s co-instructor), and Molly.  Tony served as a translator for Dr. Pierce’s class, will be conducting neuroscience research in Russia in the Fall, and is a genuine guy with a great catch phrase: “Time to lunch!”

My second lesson in India was to remain open to new chances to learn.  At the monastery, where the monks debate daily, discourse is encouraged and the monks are eager to talk to us about anything at all.  Taking advantage of this opportunity, I had many fantastic conversations at the monastery about culture, the monks’ lifestyles, and Buddhist philosophy.  I even had the privilege of meeting the abbot of the monastery, who recently won the British Empire Medal for his work in Buddhism education in the United Kingdom.  With him, I discussed different aspects of studying Buddhism from a Western educational and cultural background, and he had fantastic advice for me as someone interested in learning more.

Through all of my conversations during the trip, my interest in studying Buddhism blossomed into a passion and an eagerness to learn.  This is one of the things I am most grateful for from the experience; it is a lasting passion that may possibly lead my professional life in a new direction, but will certainly teach me to act and think in new and helpful ways which apply to all areas of my life.

Lesson Three: Don’t Be Ashamed of Where You’re From

As an American coming from another culture with somewhat differing values and a different educational background, how can I expect to succeed in a place like India or a Tibetan community within it?  This fear was slowly, but not entirely, assuaged during my stay at Sera.  Speaking with the monks, a common theme was that many were eager to speak with us because of our unique background.  A few monks even asked me about my academic background in philosophy, genuinely interested in the differences in topics, methods of analysis, and cultural influences between Buddhist and Western philosophy.

Through this experience, I realized that I had been viewing my background as a disadvantage in my new environment, and that this attitude had been unproductive and even held me back in some invaluable learning opportunities – my shyness and fear of offending anyone had kept me quiet in times when I now see there was no danger at all.  Rather, I learned to see my academic background as an advantage in many ways, and for the second part of the trip focused on cultivating my differences in a positive, productive way.

A panoramic view of Sera and its surroundings from the balcony where Molly and I meditated in the mornings.  A sight I hope I’ll never forget!

Lesson Four: Balance of Ambitions

It seems plausible that happiness or success, however one defines them, might be found in many places and in many forms.  One lesson from seeing India in person is that a lack of my home culture and amenities may turn out to be miniscule in comparison to the benefits of a change in location and lifestyle.  As I learned from Nicolas, the Canadian monk whose interview will also be posted on this blog when technology cooperates, even a Westerner might find contentedness and peace in a place as remote as Sera.  As he emphasized to me, he is a monk at Sera simply because he loves to be there.

Realistically, many people cannot hope to change location in quite this manner – people have ties and relationships in the places they come from.  However, Nicolas still showed me that there is a world of possibility for learning through travel, and that maybe I can do it while maintaining a job and life in America, too.  As a young American, I see clearly that many people my age naturally agonize over where they will be and what they will be doing in their future.  They may wish to stay in the US forever, to travel abroad often, or to live abroad forever.  In my view, herein lies the immense value of the EnCompass programs and other like them – they are able to provide some much-needed perspective for young people rapidly who face many paths forward in a confusing and overwhelming world.  Whether I become a financial analyst, professor of philosophy, a monk, some combination of these, or something entirely different, I am able to make a more informed, comfortable, and confident decision because of my experience.

This photo (taken at a hotel our first morning in India) is poorly lit, but I think it really captures the big smile I had throughout the trip! 🙂

Final Lesson: Some Food is Definitely Too Spicy for Me, and I’m Okay with Admitting That Now

I’m just going to say I learned that no matter how delicious the food was at one of my first meals in India, sweating and red lips should have been a good enough indicator that I might be making the following few days less pleasant than they could have been.  I will not provide any more details on how I learned this lesson…

Science Teaching at the Monastery

This is the science center where we teach the monks. Alistair and I are helping Dr. Pierce and another teacher, Chris, teach a second-year class on evolution. Like any other class, there are students who are very attentive and taking notes in the front of the class and other who are on their phones or giggling in the back with other monks. They are all very kind and seem to enjoy learning and asking questions. It is interesting to see what concepts tend to stump them like the differentiating between scientific and Buddhist ideas of a living organism and sentience.

Monastery Information

Me in front of the Sera Jey Monastic University! There are two monastic universities here, Sera Jey and Sera Mey. The monks are divided between the two, based on their origin of where they came from. Yesterday, Alistair and I spoke to one of the translators for a science class and he was sharing his story of escaping the Chinese government who overthrew Tibet. On his journey from Tibet to Nepal he almost died three times. It is crazy to imagine what the monks who have escaped went through. Monks who were born in Tibet belong to Sera Mey while those who were not belong to Sera Jey. The two monastic universities seldomly intertwine except for in the ETSI program, or their science classes. The other night we were able to watch a debate between the two monastic universities. We tend to imagine that Buddhist monks are very quiet and have reserved personalities but I was very surprised once I started spending more time with them because most can be very outgoing and have a great sense of humor. The debate was even more surprising because they raise their voices, push each other, and clap fervently to get their point across. Below is a picture of the debate.

Dogs at the Monastery

At the monastery, you are able to spot a dog or pup around every corner. Most are very friendly and adorable (one tried stealing my tea!), It’s very tempting to bring a few or at least one home. We asked the monks why there are so many roaming free and they told us the villagers in the camps outside of the monastery will have dogs that eventually have many puppies, but their owners cannot take care of so many pups. Their solution then is to drive up to the monastery and drop off a box of puppies and drive off because they know the monks will not kill them and will feed them.

Traveling to the Monastery


June 6. On our way to Bylakuppe from Bangalore, we were able to experience an authentic car ride in India. The lines of the road, as well as the rules of the road do not hold as much meaning as they do in America. Instead buses, cars, tractors, and motorcycles are driven in an “efficient” manner, in which the driver chooses their routes. In this picture, we are actually driving in the wrong direction on a one-way road. The horns of the vehicles are also much higher in pitch, more of a “bEpp” compared to the American “bEEP”, and are used in a much friendlier manner by the drivers here. For instance, our car would beep as a sign of “excuse me” and the other car will move over so we could pass. After we arrived at the monastery in Bangalore, I considered this way of driving seemed way more efficient than the driving in America, as long as the drivers were as attentive as they are in India and not on their phones as much as we are in America. However, it was scary when we would try to pass other cars and appear as though we were about to get in a head on collision, so maybe not!



Thursday, June 6

Keychok is a monk at Sera Mey who plays a major role in the coordination of ETSI.  He is a pleasure to talk to, welcoming and open to questions and with very good English.  I showed him the picture above today, and he explained to me that this is a stupa.

Every time a lama (similar to a chief or high priest) passes away, a new stupa is built containing a piece of their hair, a piece of their fingernail, and perhaps some other body parts as well.  In addition, writings which were precious to the lama are included.  Many Tibetans believe that circumambulating a stupa (typically clockwise) generates good karma, which can have positive effects in the present life or in one’s subsequent reincarnations.  Though my further research did not corroborate this so I may have misunderstood, Keychok said that the construction of the stupa is also a representation of the mind and its constituent parts.  For example, perception may be symbolized in part through the eyes on the higher portion of the stupa, and speech is represented by the writing on the plaque at the stupa’s base.

The Crocodile

The Crocodile

Thursday, June 6

When I saw this, I have to admit that the last possibility running through my head was that this is a crocodile.  I think Molly described our impressions best, as a “lion dragon tiger elephant thing.”  As it turns out, the monks completely agree that it looks nothing like a crocodile, but it does have a very interesting meaning and story behind it.  The following is my understanding from a conversation with one monk about the statue.

In the landlocked Tibet, he tells me, the crocodile and all aquatic life are symbols of naga, or wealth.  This is a desirable sort of wealth as the monk explained to me, rather than a negative worldly distraction from the studies and practices of a monk.

This representation of a crocodile originally came from a Chinese design which made its way into Tibet.  In families of artists, sons copied the designs of their fathers, iteration after iteration – none of them ever seeing a crocodile, of course.  After hundreds of years and changes with each iteration, the monk tells me the result is “not even a little bit like a crocodile.”  I had to agree and we had a good laugh.

Food (Indian and Monastic)

This post contains material from Dr. Pierce’s blog,, written after his India trip in 2016.

A common question upon returning from my trip concerned the food. Fortunately (for me, anyway), we ate at the monastery hotel and not the typical monk fare. I’m sure I could’ve handled the food the monks ate, which was just a vegetarian rice served in mass quantities.

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The breakfasts every day were the same and very good. They contained a fried dough that was pita-like, an egg soup with some potato, and a semi-spicy potato dish. There were also boiled eggs and bread with condiments, but I stuck to something that looks like the picture below. I went with the black tea (no milk!) and juice, and dipping that bread in the soup and using it to pick up the potatoes was ridiculously tasty.

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The lunches and dinners varied, and we went out to eat Tibetan/Chinese food at a restaurant one night and Indian food another. Unfortunately I didn’t play the part of the obnoxious American, taking pictures of the food, but I was able to find something close on Google. The lunches and dinners at the hotel in the monastery usually consisted of a variety of vegetable dishes and tingmo, the Tibetan Steamed bread shown below. After eating it for a couple days, though, I couldn’t handle it anymore (not sure why, maybe it was too bland?) so I went with just a couple veggie dishes for lunch.

The best Tibetan dish I had was momos, which are fried or steamed dumplings with veggies or meat inside. They are served with a spicy condiment, like the one below, and the fried ones have that crispy outside and savory middle — just fantastic. We were told that “traditional Tibetan food” wasn’t very good, consisting of raw meat among other things, and the food that we were served was more of a Tibetan/Chinese hybrid. Whatever it was, it was outstanding.

We stopped several times for Indian food, which included masalas, biryani, paneer, and tandoori. All served with delicious naan and all delicious. I’ll spare the internet pictures on these (as they are fairly ubiquitous now in the US) and just show my first dish, a masala omelette. I wasn’t super ambitious, taking the advice of Emory’s TravelWell and avoiding any raw fruit or vegetables that have edible skin. I didn’t get sick except for some stomach issues that I curbed quick with Imodium AD, so I’d keep this strategy in the future. The food was a highlight of the trip, though, and I’m salivating for those fried momos as I write. Maybe I’ll try to make them soon!

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Children in the Monastery

This post contains material from Dr. Pierce’s blog,, written after his India trip in 2016.

I was under the misconception that the monastery just housed monks. Not only do many non-monk Tibetan exiles live around the monastic settlement, but there are a many children who go to school at the monastery. The school-age children have the traditional robes and shaved heads, like the monks. What families send these children to the monastery? Remember, many Tibetans are living in exile in various parts of India. Traditionally, every first born Tibetan son is sent to become a monk (while daughters can become nuns), as early as age five, though this is not the case for every family. In my understanding of the Buddhist tradition, the body is a vessel for the spirit, and therefore it is viewed as a great honor to join the monastery. This monastic life is ultimately a choice, however, and monks or nuns are allowed to leave at any time.

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I’m not sure how many children are going to school at Sera Jey, but I’d guess it’s in the thousands.  The school website is really interesting, especially the highlighted student work on the lefthand side — fair warning, though, some of the stories are heart-wrenching.


The children students learn a traditional Buddhist curriculum, and have a very regimented schedule (see below). Debates are a large part of the curriculum, though it is not a traditional Western debate with a winner and loser; rather, debates are designed as an opportunity to share knowledge — I’ll address debates more in an additional post.

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My first day at the monastery was also the day off for the children (and the monastery as a whole). Looking out of my room, I could see lots of children playing in the courtyard — it wasn’t hard to imagine my son joining in the games they were inventing!

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