By David Barker
Morning teaching includes Linda teaching half the monks Cosmology, and David Presti teaching the other half Neurology and Visual Perception with myself adding an occasional snack to illustrate one of his points. David P. is amazingly clear and knowledgeable about all things relating to the way we see and perceive, and snacks such as Blind Spot and Peripheral Vision will help the monks to explore their retinas first-hand.
After lunch and a writing break, I have my afternoon Snack Session. Not knowing what to expect, I launch into Visual Illusions, showing a variety of classic illusions, including the Impossible Triangle, Necker Cubes, and the Angel Columns. When I flashed the slide of the Angel Columns on the wall, one of the students exclaimed, “They’re monks!”
Next, we began experimenting with three-d cubes. First I hold up a paper cube and ask the monks to draw it. They came up with a variety of approaches, some two-dimensional, some three and beyond.
Then I cut away three sides of the cube and made a version of Bob Miller’s Far Out Corners exhibit. Depending on one’s attention, an “innie” cube could look like an “outie.”
We then make cubes out of drinking straws and pipe cleaners, and practice flipping the image of the cube back and forth in our minds. They are clearly excited about the concept of “attention” and how it affects our understanding of what we see.
After playing with the idea of edges and dimensionality, I show a few slides introducing “figure-ground” effects. When I show the Angel Columns, one of the monks says, “It’s Monks!”
We then got the monks to project their faces on construction paper while another one traced the image. Then they cut the silhouettes out to make a Face-Vase of themselves. It wasn‘t long before their creations were going up on the walls, being stacked and decorated into totem poles and flaming candles. It was obvious this was a curious and playful group of students, motivated and ready to take the lessons beyond what was planned.
This began a weeklong discourse about Inner and Outer Reality, Attention, Objectivity… in other words, exactly what we hoped would transpire: what happens when Buddhism and Science collide? Or overlap?
By David B.
Mid-morning brought a respite from the teaching regimen: teatime. We would all wander to a nearby room and enjoy rich (too rich for some of our group) hot buttery tea and conversation. One student cornered me and asked a question.
“When I look at my robe, I see red. And my friend looks at it and he sees red. Is the red we both see the same, and is red a reality or a construct of our individual inner minds?”
“Yes,” I said. (Then I waffled by launching into a discussion of cones, color-blindness, subjectivity, and so forth.)
“But what is reality?” he countered (they love to debate in the monastery, more about that later).
“Well, you’re the monk, isn’t that your job?”
By Linda Shore
Probably the oldest pedagogical weapon in my arsenal against astronomy misconceptions is the “Project Star Salute” (or PSS). I learned it over 20 years ago as a doctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics while doing educational research for the center’s science education department.
In the PSS, you extend one arm while keeping your elbow straight. You close one eye and look at the tip of your pinkie finger. Any object in the distance (or in the sky) that appears to be barely covered by the tip of your pinkie is subtending an angle of about 1° of “sky.” Using some similar triangles and simple mathematics, you can discover for yourself that any object subtending an angle of 1° is also 60 times farther away from you than it is wide.
The Moon subtends an angle of only 0.5° – which means that the Moon’s distance from us is equal to 120 moons laid end to end. When you build a scale model of the Earth and Moon, you’ll need to place the objects a distance equal to 120 moon-models laid end-to-end. When you stand next to the Earth model and look at the Moon model and use the PPS, you’ll see that the model of the Moon also subtends an angle equal to 0.5°. Geometry is wonderful.
I have done this activity 100 times, but never with Tibetan Monks. When asked how big the full Moon appears to be in the sky – they answered like everyone else. The Moon, they believed, is as big as the largest coin in their currency (or maybe even as large as a small dinner plate). Many Monks thought – like others I’ve taught – that it depends whether you are looking at a Moon on the horizon or overhead. Of course it doesn’t matter where the Moon is compared to the horizon, a fact that proved to be as unsettling for the Monks as it has been for everyone else. Once they built the scale model and tried the PPS, they were only somewhat convinced. Fortunately the Moon was full that same night so all the Monks could try the PSS with the real thing.
But the mind blowing thing for me was watching Tibetan Monks do the Project Star salute. They eagerly helped each other understand what was going on, marveled at the distance between the Earth and Moon, and built more accurate conceptions for themselves. Despite our cultural difference, we really do hold the same private theories about the world and we really do all learn the same way.