Buddhists welcome science into monasteries

By Peter Aldhous | New Scientist

SAN FRANCISCO, US, 12 January 2009

The Sarnath Buddhist monastery, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is revered as the site of the Buddha’s first discourse after his enlightment — the stream from which the teachings of Buddhism flowed.

But if you visit the monastery between 20 and 31 January, you could witness the start of a new stream of teaching.

More than 30 Tibetan monks, plus a handful of nuns, will be collaborating with a team from San Francisco’s Exploratorium (“the museum of art, science and human perception”) to build exotic machines to create patterns from sunlight using cardboard, dowels, reflective sheets of mylar and electronic components.

If all goes to plan, the monks will return to their monasteries and start spreading the joys of scientific exploration among other followers of their religion.

The project is the latest reflection of the monks’ spiritual leader’s fascination with science. In the Dalai Lama’s 2005 book The Universe in a Single Atom, the Nobel peace laureate argued that science and spiritual inquiry have much to learn from one other — you can read an excerpt here .

The Dalai Lama is particularly interested in the relationship between the Buddhist concept of the mind and our scientific understanding of the physical brain, and has encouraged his monks to collaborate with neuroscientists to investigate what happens in the brain during meditation.

Under a project called Science for Monks, backed by a Boston-based charity called the Sagar Family Foundation, western scientists also have given scientific workshops for exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks in northern India. The new collaboration aims to spread the appreciation of scientific inquiry yet further by creating a core of scientifically inspired “learning leaders”, explains Exploratorium artist-educator Karen Wilkinson.

“These monks are the most extraordinary students,” says Mark St John, who runs a science education consultancy in Inverness, California, and will accompany the Exploratorium team to Sarnath. “They are total in their attention, often child-like in their enthusiasm, and are very used to working together.”

Teamwork will be important to make the most of the exercises planned the Exploratorium’s Playful Invention and Exploration team. The climax of the workshop will be the construction of Heath Robinson-esque machines to play with sunlight, incorporating electronic devices known as “crickets”, which will be plugged into light sensors and programmed to control the monks’ contraptions.

You can follow the monks’ progress online, as Exploratorium team members will be blogging about their experiences .

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