It is not unusual to see the traditional maroon and gold robes of Tibetan monks mixed in with the flip-flops and T-shirts on Emory University's campus.
The private college developed a partnership with Tibetans living in exile across the globe over the last 16 years, launching studies on the health effects of meditation and student and faculty exchange programs with Tibetan monasteries in India.
The close ties led to the decision by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, to accept a distinguished professorship that begins on Monday after a weekend of events on campus.
The relationship started in 1991 when Tibetan monk Geshe Lobsang Negi moved to Atlanta with the blessings of the Dalai Lama to establish the Drepung Loseling Institute, a Buddhist monastery and learning center.
Negi began taking graduate courses at Emory University, and slowly a partnership began to evolve between the Dalai Lama and the university. In 1998, the university formally launched the Emory-Tibet Partnership during a visit by the Dalai Lama to campus to speak at graduation.
"This whole landmark undertaking ... shows tremendous openness, vision and courage," said Negi, who co-directs a program that designs science curriculum for Tibetan monks.
The partnership does not stop at Emory's gates.
Each spring, about 20 Emory students travel to Dharamsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama's headquarters, to study at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, where the spiritual leader is the founder and a top teacher.
And starting in January, Tibetan monks and nuns living in India will take science classes designed by Emory professors as part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, launched last year by Negi and others at Emory.
"Emory is like a portal between two worlds," said Chuck Raison, an assistant professor who came to Emory a decade ago to conduct research on meditation with Negi.
Emory students sometimes have "Dalai Lama" sightings on campus, not realizing that they've just encountered a monk from the nearby Drepung Loseling Institute.
The monks often mingle with students on campus by helping teach classes, leading meditation and playing Frisbee on the campus lawn.
"They play basketball. They make jokes," said Addie Davis, a senior who participated in the Dharamsala exchange program last year.
"Now it's not anything unusual, but before I went on the program, I think it's definitely different than what I would have expected a monk would be doing," Davis said.
Administrators say the aim of the Emory-Tibet Partnership is to combine Eastern and Western ways of thinking in hopes of creating something new.
"If you bring these two bodies of knowledge together, the potential for creating new knowledge is earth-shaking," said Preetha Ram, co-director of the science initiative and assistant dean of undergraduate science.
The Dalai Lama, the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, has talked of mixing science and mathematics training into monastic life, but until now no one had developed curriculum in the monks' native tongue, Ram said.
Emory is one of just a handful of US colleges with Tibetan studies programs, and it is the only college that has a formal ongoing student exchange program with the Dalai Lama's Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in India.
Virginia has the largest Tibetan studies program in the US. Other colleges with programs include the University of Wisconsin, Harvard University and Columbia University.
Although the Dalai Lama has honorary professorships at universities across the globe, Emory is the only place he has accepted a teaching professorship.
His visit this weekend will include a conference on meditation and depression, a lesson on the basics of Buddhism, a free public talk at Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta and the first of many lectures to the Emory community.
His appearance will also bring with it high security, including a Secret Service detail, Emory officials said.
The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 amid a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He remains highly popular among Tibetans, despite persistent efforts to demonize him by Chinese authorities.
China claims Tibet has been its territory for centuries, but many Tibetans say they were effectively independent for most of that period.