We started the first workshop by giving the monks a challenge: we divided them into groups of 6, and gave them an example of cardboard automata movement, but we covered up the mechanism that made that movement possible. We instructed the monks to observe and notice as many things as possible about the movement, and then try to figure out what could be going on inside the box. We encouraged them to draw or write down their ideas, and share and discuss with each other.
We were definitely surprised by the gusto with which the monks took to the challenge. Their observation were methodical, precise, and varied, even creative (for example, it was not uncommon for them to hold up the box to their ear to try and determine, from the sound of the mechanism, whether there were gears involved or not). They made very well-thought-out drawings and schematics of possible mechanisms, and then defended their ideas with each other with great vigor.
Then it was time for them to come up to the front of the room, if they thought they had a good idea about a specific mechanism, and tell everybody what they thought. This almost invariably caused a smattering of responses from the other monks, and often one of them would immediately jump up to the from, snatch the example out of the first monk's hands, and proceed to provide evidence that disproved his theory.
In general, the monks found up-and-down movements much easier to conceptualize than rotational movements, and in particular example number 4, in which the cam follower moved back and forth in alternating clockwise and counterclockwise direction, while also bopping up and down, gave them major headaches. No matter, they made valiant efforts by hypothesizing cone-shaped gears, as well as rubber band mechanisms.
Finally, we let them open up the boxes to find out how we had actually constructed the mechanisms. One of our favorite moments do far was this, because the joy and marvel of seeing inside the boxes was so apparent. A certain indication of the level of investment that the activity had generated with them: we saw some of them take photos of the actual mechanism for their own records!
Eventually, we moved on to the next phase, which we were both eagerly anticipating, and were uncertain about at the same time: we told the monks that they would have to start building their own cardboard automata. This took us all of yesterday and today, and we will complete construction tomorrow.
Once again, our expectations were met and surpassed by these amazing individuals, who started building wonderful and delightful contraptions, depicting everything from prayer wheels wishing perpetual peace on earth, monkeys holding a "save animals" sign, to bucking bulls, helicopters, and birds of prey attacking a snake. The imagination and resourcefulness of the groups really shined, but in the decorations, they chose to depict, and in the variety and creativity of mechanisms they designed. Some had to change their goals, and modify either their initial mechanism design, or the narrative they were trying to build on top of that, but did so without outwardly signs of frustration. In fact, the monks seem so impervious to becoming frustrated that it became something of a facilitation challenge for us, because we are so used to being able to detect when participants are becoming frustrated beyond a "healthy" point, so that we can intervene.
It's hard to describe the joy and wholeheartedness the monks immersed themselves in what must have been a strange and unfamiliar activity (and things are only going to get weirder!), so I hope that a few photographs will do a better job of communicating that.