Monks in India

Monastic Science in Action

Greenhouse gasses explained

Our small crew has arrived from the other side of the world to share eclipse activities and science with the Buddhist monks and nuns as they prepare for the upcoming eclipse. We were thrilled to see all of the science that is already happening in the monasteries. Even as we arrived, there was an exhibition on the environment at the new Drupong debate hall, as interactive and informative as any Exploratorium exhibit, and infused with Buddhist philosophy and connections.

Our eclipse lessons have started and the science understanding in the class ranges dramatically, reflecting the changing demographics of the monks. Younger monastics were mostly born in India and have gone through primary school here, while many of the advanced leaders come from Tibet where science instruction wasn’t necessarily available or prioritized. Our work is to give the monks and nuns activities to facilitate about eclipses for the community. In the process, many are learning about the science of eclipses for the first time and may are reminded of cosmic geometries they haven’t considered in many moons. We laugh a lot and squint at the hot sun, we drink tea and divide up the activities in preparation for eclipse day and the community we look forward to hosting.

I’ve been working a lot with the nuns and a couple of young women from the secondary school. I am endeared to their ease and gentle kindness with the world. They laugh readily and sometimes nervously when we address them as science teachers. Though they spend much time expressing their understanding of Buddhism, they will be flexing their identities as leaders in the science realm with this eclipse. This goes hand-in-hand with the changes in Buddhist culture. Thanks to the hard work of many in the community, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, nuns have just in the last 3 years been able to get their geshe degrees – akin to a PhD in Buddhism. They are finding and using their voices in increasing numbers and watching them increase their confidence in teaching others is a true honor.

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Sharing the Sun with Students

With all female astronomer presenters, the principal mentioned his excitement in seeing the girls raising their hands as often as the boys.

While eclipses have been observed and tracked for milenia, there is something tangible about looking up and seeing one with your own eyes. Only, it’s dangerous to observe the sun without a filter. There are countless unsafe ways to observe and I have seen many of them at various eclipses – a smoked piece of glass, stacks of sunglasses, or through a mylar balloon (do not observe the sun with these if you value your vision!). When friends at Astronomers Without Borders found out I’d be coming to India for this eclipse, they offered to send some of the 2 million solar viewing glasses they’d collected from the 2017 eclipse here in the US. Even 2 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Indians in the path of the eclipse, but I fit as many as I could into my suitcase and enlisted the help of monks and scientists to help me get them out to the surrounding community in Mysore.

The Hindu god Rahu eating the sun.

There are fears about eclipses present all over the world. It is believed that they spoil food, cause birth defects, bring bad luck. Before they were understood, it must have been terrifying for the sun to suddenly get dark or even for the shadows to start acting weird. Solar eclipses happen so rarely in any one place that these stories often get passed down from grandparents and carry some of the magic of legends and superstitions of an older era. Even some scientists who understand the geometry wouldn’t want to offend their grandmother and eat during the eclipse – just in case.

In the main town of Mysore with help from our monk guide, Setan, we approached three elementary schools and a college nearby, with eclipse glasses distributed to all who were interested. At the second school, we were directed to interrupt a meeting of teachers from 30 different small elementary schools in the local area engaging in a professional development day. Each teacher received 50 glasses and a short training on their safety and how to use them.

Their interest and excitement was palpable but the teachers worried that families would not let their children out to see the eclipse, for fear of bad luck. We demonstrated how to look at the sun anytime, so even if they did not enjoy the eclipse, these tools could be used to observe the sun at other times. I hoped that getting them used to observing with the solar glasses would increase the confidence. We also included a short visual guide with times and what to expect from an annular eclipse.

When the day came, Setan went back to the local school we first visited to see how it went. It was not an official school day, so many of the glasses had been sent home with the families. But some of the students came back to observe too. The shadows of the trees projecting little crescents was a big hit and the glasses had everyone mesmerized.

One of the teachers told us, “Our younger students don’t have books or paper to write on. This is an opportunity they will never forget.” Thank you so much to Astronomers Without Borders, Seten from the Gaden Monastery, and Bryce from Science for Monks and Nuns for making it possible for students to experience this cosmological wonder of nature. In such a vast country with more than a billion people, dragging a suitcase with even 2,000 eclipse glasses around to students with no shoes can seem like even less than a drop in the bucket. But there’s no substitute for wonder and young people know that the best of all. I hope that with these glasses, some of the children stepped out from behind the veil of fear and into a place of awe. Maybe they got to glimpse and appreciate for a moment our unique spot in time and space, passing through the shadow of our Moon together.

Thanks also to our neighbors Peter and Supapon, who took a stack of glasses to her home village Thailand!

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Warm welcome from Tibet in exile

View from atop the science center before the hustle and bustle begins. In the evenings, that yard is spread with tables and chairs and many glasses of lemon ginger tea are shared.

Living among the Tibetan community is full of wonder and joy. Though we are on the subcontinent, it’s slightly misleading to say I’m experiencing India in the Doeluging Settlement. This Tibetan community in exile feels insular from the surrounding Indian towns. Covering 4 acres in southern India, the settlement has grown tremendously in the last 30 years and is now home to 13k+ Tibetans, with 2 of the 3 “great monasteries,” a large nunnery, and 9 camps or towns.

The peace of the early mornings before breakfast

We are staying in the Gaden Monastery‘s education center, right on the main road through town. December 23 was the 600th death anniversary of its founder, Je Tsongkhapa, and what is usually an annual celebration of lights was an outright, citywide hootenanny! His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is in town, bringing with him thousands of devoted followers from around the world (many in traditional dress, wow!) along with vendors, musicians, and transient families pleading for money from those striving towards compassion. It’s a scene!

Adding to the light

We are here to assist the monastics in holding eclipse festivals for the community on the 26th. Needless to say, a celebration such as this is no time to teach astronomy. We’ve set up some loose times to start the activities after the celebrations, panels, and teachings, but until then, we are part of the magic and chaos. I am thrilled to visit some of the nuns I worked with on an earlier adventure. The first night we arrived, we had dinner at their nunnery, outside on the roof under a beautiful sky. My very tired kid couldn’t keep his eyes open and they whisked him into the kitchen and made him a little bed behind the sink. Their patience and kindness is contagious and already I am learning. Also, here’s a short album of some of the places that he’s slept so far with my pink scarf, including in a tuk tuk!

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From molecules to mindfulness

Astronomy can feel, well, far away from our daily life. The nuns are very much interested in the changing earth and have questions about earthquakes, volcanoes, and the newly introduced idea of Pangea. It seems to gel nicely with their idea of impermanence. After dinner on cloudy nights we gather again in the classroom to watch short films, accompanied in spirit through the open windows by some 200 nuns chanting in the hallways. Tonight we watched Powers of 10, the classic film by the Ames brothers. There were questions ranging from the Planck length to the edge of the observable universe until finally I saw eyes drooping and heads beginning to sag under the weight of so many new ideas.

A venerable monk, one of the nuns’ philosophy of Buddhism teachers, stopped by to listen tonight. Once all of the nuns had retired, he stayed late with our unstoppable translator, Karma. We discussed the intersections of science and Buddhism, Einstein, and the nature of emptiness and interconnectivity. He and I met a few days ago when I hitched a ride towards town. Past cows and shoeless children, he told me of his deep interest in the cosmos, about how small it made earthly troubles seem, and how difficult it can be to find reliable information on the internet. When we arrived at his destination – the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, he hailed a passing motorcycle to take me the last few miles up the drizzly mountain. I tried not to think of the impermanence of life as I peered over the steep edge.

My hesitation with Buddhism stems from my misunderstanding of the goal of detachment. I thought that it must have made perfect sense in a religion practiced by celibate monks in search of personal enlightenment. It seemed so removed from the daily interactions of my life. I imagined a very different philosophy would be envisioned by mothers and grandmothers, dedicated to the nurturing and nourishment of a community. The more I talk with the nuns, the more my reservations fall away. Emptiness and impermanence seem closely linked with interconnectivity in ways that spark my imagination. The goal of reducing suffering infuses their every action. I have started reading a book written by the Dali Lama that was recommended as a good introduction by one of the nuns. I hope to learn this new philosophy with as open a mind as the nuns are using to approach science.

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Settling in with the nuns

In what is usually the most serene of settings, tonight there’s a buzz the air. I am staying in a small guest room in Domaling nunnery in the Indian Himalayas. The setting is so different from my time with the monks a few years ago, just up the road. Some 260 women have chosen a 16-year course of study of Buddhist philosophy. Their deep dedication and focus are palpable. So is the joy. There is a dairy and a greenhouse, a temple and a large open area for debate, all carefully tended by the nurturing hands of these women.

It’s the end of monsoon season, with billowy, blustery storms whipping down the hallways. Robes and prayer flags flutter in every direction. Hail coats the cobblestones and streams everywhere gurgle in fulfillment. Tonight we caught a break in the storms and I set up my telescope in the debate courtyard to show tiny ringed Saturn and later the cragged gibbous moon whose brilliance blinded us for the walk home. They giggled as if they’d peeked at the moon disrobed, incredulous that the auntie they knew so well had craters covering her face!

Tomorrow many of the nuns will take a test of some sort and I passed them up late in the dining hall, cramming in the universal pre-test panic. I feel for them, because the buzz is not coming from the nunnery. We are at the end of the road in a tiny town. Perhaps in celebration of the newly cemented sink hole two houses down, or the break in the rain, or some other occasion there is a big old dance party reverberating up the hillside. Once again I am thankful for one deaf ear as I turn in for the night. More soon!

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Astronomy with the Monks

Welcome! These blog posts are all about an adventure I took in October 2014 to bring the science of astronomy to Tibetan monks.

I had the honor of teaching astronomy to a group of distinguished Buddhist monks and nuns in Dharamsala, India. The students are Rinpoches and Geshes, directly translated as “virtuous friend” and equivalent to having earned their PhDs in Buddhism. They spent 4 weeks studying neuroscience, physics, biology, and more. They are learning science because of the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who believes that Science and Buddhism can enrich each other’s perspectives. This is happening as part of a larger science workshop under the direction of Science For Monks, an incredible organization. While I was able to give some insight into the outer Universe, they showed me some important things about my inner universe.

I talked about the experience on 365 Days of Astronomy. Listen here:

Cultural Astronomy on 365 Day of Astronomy

You can also see me talking about the experience in person with Mike Simmons from Astronomers Without Borders here:

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Still Learning

Back home, I’ve had a lot of questions about what I took away from my experience working with monks. I’ve also been getting great emails from the monks about ways that they are incorporating what they learned into their studies. How will I use my new knowledge? What exactly did I learn? Here is a quick glimpse into my post-monk brain.

quote-only-two-things-are-infinite-the-universe-and-human-stupidity-and-i-m-not-sure-about-the-former-albert-einstein-56412I know even less than I thought. As an astronomer, my understanding of the universe is tenuous at best. I mean, there’s just an awful lot that we humans don’t know about space. Add to that all that actually is known about space, but that I personally just don’t know. But then it turns out there is also an awful lot that I don’t know about our inner universe that I hadn’t even considered. I can see why you’d need more than one lifetime.

A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I was inspired by hearing the Dalai Lama speak and the small bit of reading that I did on Buddhist thought. In one class, I attempted to connect science with the Buddhist ideas of relative truth vs. ultimate truth. I’m sure I sounded to them very much like the layperson who asks me, “But what if on the other side of a black hole, there’s this land of gnomes and dragons and…” The monks were very patient with me, but I was talking utter nonsense and there was no simple way for them to explain huge ideas that took them decades to grasp. I definitely learned humility and was reminded of what it feels like to be a student in unfamiliar territory.

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I didn’t say I was original, just learning…

Truth is indeed relative. I started my first class by admitting that science is my religion. I know this won’t sit well some of my colleagues but I am at peace with its implications. Science’s ultimate goals relate to an understanding of the properties and nature of the universe. These are big, relevant questions that I care deeply about and will continue to study. The protocol I follow to this end includes evidence, logic, and verifiability. We have our reasons. I am part of a movement that truly believes we are forever approximating reality to a higher degree using specific tools.

The Buddhist scholars spend lifetimes in pursuit of completely different goals that include enlightenment the reduction of suffering. Their quest for understanding incorporates strategies that I do not understand well (see previous section) but which appears to include morality, mental development, and insight.

"ahh, old Joe" as my mom would say

“Ahh, good old Joe,” as my mom would say

There are many areas of overlap and understanding between science and Buddhism, but the two quests are ultimately in search of different answers. Who am I to assume which path is asking a nobler question? One of my favorite inquiries of my time there was, “When I look up, the Moon looks like a smooth, cool disk. When we look through the telescope, I see that it has craters and plains. But when man goes there, the ground is covered in rocks and sand. Which one of these is true?”

If I left the monks with anything, I hope it’s a glimpse into how much there is to learn through science and that this approach can be a rewarding way of understanding the world. When I met them they already had iPhones and email but no entry point for accessing a scientific worldview. Where would one begin in a Google search – ‘What is the universe?’

I am forever grateful for this unexpected experience. The monks and nuns have shown me a different perspective of the world and opened my eyes to possibilities I had never considered. What was I going to Google – ‘Directions to my inner-verse?’ I’ve been inspired to ask different questions and hope I can keep seeing the world through these freshly open eyes, with more awareness and less ego. I have so very much to learn.

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Sweet goodbyes

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And now, as quickly as it started, my two weeks here are over. I ended the class in the same place where we started, with The Known Universe video. I might as well have played Spongebob Squarepants for all they got out of it on day one. On that first day of class, I promised that I would take them on this adventure from the Himalayas to the edges of the universe. When we watched the video again after taking that journey together, it held a whole new meaning for all of us.

At the end of classes, Geshe Lockdor from the library came to campus and presented us with thank you gifts for sharing science with the monastics. And all of the monks and nuns whipped out their camera phones and we got individual pictures. Here’s one of all of us together. I love a culture of grand gestures!

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We spent the last night observing and I woke up this morning at 4am, incredulous that my time with the monks is over. I wrote them each a short note and left the bowls in the classroom where they will find them tomorrow. So long, fine friends. It has been the adventure of a lifetime. I should be wearing 21 new strings around my arm the way they do in an effort to keep their teachings close. I’ve learned so much I will try to carry with me back into my world, no strings attached.

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Sky stories from the monks

Our last night together and we observed the Andromeda galaxy, the farthest thing we could find in a small scope. We had talked about it in class earlier and the appreciation for distance was gleeful, even if all they saw was a faint fuzzy dot. I’ve loved observing with them and want to share some of their stories too.

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Most of these are not from any Tibetan text but stories of herders and farmers. They were passed down orally from family members. The storytellers have given me permission to share them.

When I was a boy, I would go on long trips with my father on horseback. I liked to watch the moon and always thought that it followed us home.

When I was young, my family was nomadic. We would watch for the seven sisters in the spring. If you could see them it would be a drought year but if you could not, there would be rain.

As children, we are told to be like the six sisters, all together. Do not be like the seventh sister, running behind. I think that the seventh sister was lagging behind because she had to stop to feed her baby.

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The story we tell says that the first person to look at the sky was an old woman named Pema. The young people did not believe her when she looked art the sky and predicted when to plant crops. (this part was in song) “I can read the moon, I can read the stars. What do you youngsters know of the world?” She was right.

(About Orion) He is the hunched over host who welcomes visitors to his house.

(Also about Orion) This is a blanket and there are 3 thrives hiding beneath.

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We laughed a lot at the telescope. In class, we did an activity about Galileo discovering Jupiter’s moons. More than half the class got up before sunrise to observe them in the telescope – twice! (To be able to see them change position with their own eyes.) Only one of the monks had ever looked through a telescope before this trip. It was an honor to be able to introduce them to the moon and Jupiter and the fainter fuzzies. They came back night after night. We observed 7 times in these two weeks together, even with many foggy evenings!

Palden, Lhakpa, and Ugyun have learned how to set the telescope up and how to find things on a star chart. I leave it in their capable, curious hands. I’m passing my binoculars onto Ugyun, an amazing young Tibetan volunteer for this program who wants to study aerospace engineering. I have no doubt that he will.

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Big shifts for all of us

I don’t usually teach classes like this, in so many ways. I am used to talking astronomy with the general public in short bursts, at star parties with a telescope, or doing activities at festivals, or maybe a visit to a classroom. I think that gives me some advantages and also presents some challenges. I’m used to questions from all ages and backgrounds, but rarely have much time to explain things in depth. Structuring a course over 2 weeks has given me the luxury of delving deeper into the history and exciting details of planets and stars. The biggest challenge by far has been assessing their prior knowledge. Such as…

I explained the life cycle of stars today, equating the stages to the life of a butterfly (thanks, Marni). They seemed to be following until the last few sentences. I ended with what is usually an “ahhh-ha!” moment about how all of the calcium in our bones and iron in our blood had been created by stars. All good, but no “ahhh-ha” this time. The story was great but they had never heard of these elements (or atoms at all) it turns out. Whaa-whaa.

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On the other hand, these guys spontaneously picked up some supplies for other classes and made telescopes, noticing when they got inverted images and testing out different combinations. Cool!

Back to the challenges. A few monks took 3 days and 4 attempts to convince that people in Australia did not have to hold on for dear life in order to stay on the planet. It required a deep look into gravity, pictures of kangaroos and penguins, mind models with dropping balls, and I’m still not sure they buy it.

Yesterday we made guesses about the timeline of earth, placing single-celled organisms, the first animals, and such on a timeline stretching back almost 5 billion years. This one gives most everyone trouble, but this is the first time I’ve seen anyone place humans as the first living thing to appear on Earth. Their completely sensible reasoning? If someone wasn’t here to observe it, how do we know it happened? They had never heard of evolution or even fossils.

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So many subjects that I don’t feel prepared to teach well! I’m sure there are engaging ways to introduce evolution, the periodic table, and fusion. The new part is that they’re just not questions I usually get from adults with the reasoning skills to really understand the concepts fully, like these monks and nuns have. They are so curious, open to new ideas, and have the attention spans to really delve deeply into a subject. It’s been hard to reconcile their keen ability to grasp complex concepts with their lack of exposure to any of the basic building blocks of science. I’m making these new connections in my own head every day, thanks to them.

Day 3 of no internet, so I will just keep writing here and post when it’s back. Forgive a few in a row!

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