Sri Lanka Course Spring 2014

Pilgrimage to Sri Lanka: An Exploration of Buddhism, Culture and Self

Dec. 21, 2013 – Jan. 4, 2014
3 units credit; optional auditing
Instructors: Andrew Harlem amd Kapila Wewegama

Photos from the 2012 trip >>

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General Course Description

This is a two-week study abroad course held at various locations in Sri Lanka. Its broad objective is to provide therapists-in-training a unique opportunity to learn “in situ” about the irreducible relationship between culture and psyche. As participant-observers in a vibrant yet unfamiliar cultural setting, students explore a wide variety of historical, spiritual, medical, artistic, ritual, and everyday aspects of Sinhala Buddhism.

This unique course utilizes an experiential learning model. It fully engages the learner’s spirit of adventure, as well as the clinician’s keen interest in grasping the complexities of cultural variation in human experience.

The Locale

Sri Lanka was described by Marco Polo as the most beautiful island in the world. The physical setting is breathtaking and remarkably diverse, stretching from idyllic white beaches and the clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean, to dense inland tropical rain forests teeming with wildlife, to mountain highlands dotted with world famous tea plantations. All of this is contained in an area the size of West Virginia.

Sri Lankan culture is equally fascinating and diverse. As the oldest continually Buddhist country, it is known as a world center for the Theravada tradition. In addition, Sri Lanka is home to longstanding and unique Hindu/Tamil and Muslim populations. Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences are also evident throughout the island. Its incredibly rich cultural history is reflected in the beautifully preserved ruins of ancient capitals, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the spectacular medieval citadel Sigiriya, the cave temples at Dambulla, the fascinating Hindu-Buddhist pilgrimage village of Kataragama, austerely beautiful Buddhist temples (including Kandy’s famous Temple of the Tooth), and innumerable other sites and attractions.

For the visitor, exploring Sri Lanka’s extraordinary history is just the beginning of an intoxicating experience. The island’s populace, the majority of which remains firmly embedded in a traditional rural way of life, is known for its friendliness and hospitality. Small rice farming villages dot the landscape, interspersed among verdant expanses of paddy. Healthy (life expectancy of 75 years) and literate (91% literacy rate), Sri Lankans offer the casual visitor a look into an exotic and centuries-old agricultural society

Perhaps what makes Sri Lankan villages so extraordinary, however, is the ways in which Sinhala Buddhist tradition so artfully blends the island’s many influences. This blending is most evident in the realm of healing practices. Sinhalese Buddhism, Ayurveda, local spirit religion, astrology, Hindu gods and goddesses, and allopathic medicine are seamlessly intermingled in healing practices. These offer the Western visitor, and most particularly therapists-in-training, a sophisticated and refreshingly synthesized perspective on wellness and sickness, and on the human condition itself.

Learning Program and Objectives

The curriculum will consist of a planned and sequentially meaningful series of visits to Sri Lankan cultural, religious and artistic attractions, as well as participant-observation in local events, ceremonies, and other culturally significant “in situ” learning activities. Consistent with the training needs of therapists, there will be an emphasis on matters of psyche, spirit, and healing. Students will have the opportunity to learn from local cultural experts, including Ayuredic physicians, astrologers, Buddhist monks, and Western-trained psychologists. In addition, the instructors will introduce conceptual frameworks from psychology, anthropology, and (sustainable) economic development theory as adjunctive learning tools.

As the result of participation in this unique course offering, students will gain an intellectually stimulating and experientially meaningful understanding of the interdependence of culture and psychology. The benefits of participation in this intensive study of Sri Lankan culture and society can be expected to generalize beyond the specific knowledge gained, as students will be encouraged to reflect on themselves as culturally-situated subjects (and healers).

Prerequisites and Requirements

This course is intended for graduate students who are training as mental health professionals. While there are no curricular pre-requisites, participation in the course requires approval from the instructors. As this course will be taught and guided by local experts, interested students need not have prior travel experience (although this is beneficial); required, rather, is an adventurous spirit, curious mind, and deep respect for others.

Course participants will be expected to attend a pre-departure orientation and complete assigned readings on Sri Lankan culture.

In addition, students interested in taking the course for full academic credit (3 unites) will be required to submit a ten-fifteen page paper on a selected topic relevant to Sri Lanka and their academic program at an interval following return to the United States (no reading, writing, or traditional classroom activities will be required while in Sri Lanka, as participants will be immersed in experiential learning). Students wishing to audit the course will participate in all course activities but are not required to submit a course paper.


Andrew Harlem, PhD, is Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). His educational background is interdisciplinary, spanning the fields of clinical psychology, cultural psychology, psychological anthropology, and life course development studies.Dr. Harlem has a special interest in the relationship between culture and psychology, on which he has taught courses at CIIS, Harvard Medical School, and Santa Clara University. Dr. Harlem has presented and published papers on indigenous conceptions of mental health and illness in Sri Lanka, as well on the topics of cultural psychology, immigration, and contemporary psychoanalysis. He was awarded the National Institute of Mental Health's National Research Service Award for his research on culture and mental health. Dr. Harlem has a longstanding interest in the culture, politics, and history of Sri Lanka that began with twenty-seven months as a United States Peace Corps volunteer in a remote Sinhalese Buddhist village.He has deep gratitude and affection for the Sri Lankan friends that have shared their lives with him, and in doing so profoundly influenced his development as a person and a psychologist.

Kapila Wewegama serves as an independent management and training consultant/facilitator. He is currently providing training consultancy to the Corporation for National and Community Service, Peace Corps and other non-profit organizations. Kapila also serves as a trainer and curriculum developer for Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory and Bank Street College of Education, New York in training VISTA Volunteer, Leaders and supervisors. He consults as a Peace Corps Staging Director and trains Peace Corps volunteers prior to departure for their assigned country. Kapila also designed and taught a graduate course on cultural competence in community development at the North Park University in Chicago for seven years. He has over twenty years of training and management experience. Kapila served as the Associate Peace Corps Director (Director of Program & Training) with Peace Corps in Sri Lanka for eight years. He has designed and provided numerous cross-cultural and diversity trainings to organizations and participants over the last twenty years. In addition to his training designing and facilitating expertise, he also designs and conducts Training of Trainers.