Having survived our first night in India outside of the safe and familiar confines of a western-style hotel, yesterday marked the official beginning of the workshops. After the communal breakfast (and all meals are, indeed, communal) Geshe Lhakdor lead the monks in what he told us would be "a few auspicious prayers".
We were a bit unprepared for the official tone of the proceedings, and found ourselves sitting at the front of the room we'll be using, together with Geshe Lhakdor, Mark St. John, Bryce Johnson, and the vice-chancellor of the Institute, facing a room full of monks. After a few short words, they launched into a long and beautiful chant, and if everything else hadn't already convinced us, we knew we weren't in Kansas anymore right then!
After the chants, Geshe Lhakdor spoke for a while. We didn't understand what was being said, as it was in Tibetan, but when later asked, the Geshe told us that his message essentially boiled down to this: you (the monks) have to find the confidence to take what you learn in these workshops, and go back to your monasteries and become teachers and leaders for other monks. Monks teaching monks is the future he envisions.
The task of introducing the workshops and the significance of what we are going to do fell on Mark's shoulders. He did an amazing job, framing the proceedings within the concept of what he called the "three legs of the stool" of science.
One leg is the content of science, the knowledge we acquire that help us decipher and understand the world around us better.
Another leg is the process of science, the method and practices by which we come to gain the knowledge. This is, at its core, a process of inquiry.
Finally, there is the empowerment that comes from science, both on a personal level, and when it comes to benefiting society and humanity at large.
These three legs are equally important, and just like in a stool, they have to be approximately of the same length, or the whole construction is unstable.
Geshe Lhakdor concluded the proceedings by recalling that, when the monks did a lengthy workshop about color investigation, they started calling themselves the "color monks". Therefore, he said, they should now call themselves the "tripod monks"!
The ceremony was lovely, but it also made us a little uneasy, as it seemed very formal, and the monks very serious. A big component of our work is playfulness, and a sense of fun, and we were a little concerned that this audience would not take to that aspect of the activities we have planned.
We had some time after tea break (which happen frequently; the monks appear to be addicted to tea!) and before lunch, so we took a rickshaw ride (after dutifully suppressing our western reservations about being driven around by another human being) to the old Stupa. Some photos will give a better description of the place than many words would.
In the afternoon, it was time for us to give an introduction about the Exploratorium, and ourselves. This was our first time having to navigate the sometimes difficult task of communicating in a way that is simple enough to be unambiguously translated, yet not "dumbed down". This meant that we had to plan what we were going to say much more carefully than we normally would under such circumstances, and hopefully we didn't come off as being too formal. Then we opened up to questions from the monks.
We had been warned about this: nobody seemed to be willing to be the first to ask a question. After a lengthy pause, the most senior geshe (teacher) asked the first question. Surprisingly, it was a question about neuroscience. Many others followed after the ice had been broken, and we found that the monks are supremely interested in the subject: do we have exhibit to investigate the brain? How about imaging? How can one understand the workings of the brain by dissecting a dead sheep's brain? Can we learn things while asleep or under anesthesia? And so forth...
After an initial barrage about the brain, the questions started shifting toward the museum, and the monks were very curious and thoughtful in their questions: where does our money come from? How many visitors do we get? What ages? How do we deal with kids running around, don't our exhibit break? Do we make scientific discoveries? Do we present scientific discoveries?
Most of all they had very pointed questions about our philosophy of not giving the visitor very detailed and in-depth explanations of the phenomena that are being presented, but rather letting them find a path of discovery of their own. It seems that many of the monks are not yet sold on the idea that doing inquiry is a good way of finding things out about the world, rather than being told what is true and what is not.
Of course we hope to give them some evidence that inquiry is valuable by doing lots of it today and in the days to follow. After having had real interactions with the monks, albeit in the still rather formal format of a question and answer session, we realize that they are not as serious as they had seemed that morning. They respond to humor, laugh at themselves and the world around them, and have a lively and shrewd curiosity about the world. I think they will be very fun to work with!