Seeing science through a spiritual lens, with the Smithsonian's help

A MEETING OF MINDS: The Dalai Lama at the opening of "The World of Your Senses," part of an ongoing effort to teach science to Tibetan monks.
A MEETING OF MINDS: The Dalai Lama at the opening of "The World of Your Senses," part of an ongoing effort to teach science to Tibetan monks. (Bryce Johnson)
By Amy Yee
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 18, 2010

NEW DELHI - The northern Indian town of Bir was greeted with an unusual sight when Scott Schmidt carried six-foot-long plywood sheets on his head through the streets. Schmidt, who develops exhibits for the Smithsonian, had retrieved the wood from the village carpenter and toted it on his head to the Buddhist institute he was visiting. "I got impatient," said Schmidt. "I probably broke every rule of how a Westerner is supposed to act in a village in India."

Schmidt was helping a group of 30 Tibetan monks plan "The World of Your Senses," a bilingual science exhibition displayed last month in New Delhi at the India Habitat Center, an arts and culture venue in India's capital.

The wood was used to build a prototype of the display panels. Schmidt's effort - and sore head - were worth it. The exhibit showcasing Western and Buddhist perspectives of the five senses was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama and viewed by hundreds of visitors over five days. Plans are underway for the exhibit to tour in India next year and possibly at a Smithsonian museum in the United States.

The exhibit was the latest effort in a 10-year-old initiative to teach science to Tibetan monastics, started at the behest of the Dalai Lama. In 2001, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's exile home in India, and the U.S.-based Sager Family Foundation began bringing Western scientists and educators to India to teach science to Tibetan monks. India is home to about 120,000 Tibetans - the largest population outside of Tibet.

After a decade of instruction and workshops in the Science for Monks program, an exhibit was the next step in the monks' dialogue with science, says Lhakdor, director of the LTWA. (Like many Tibetans, he goes by one name.)

While the Smithsonian works with various communities to tell their stories, "The World of Your Senses" was a more hands-on project that immersed Smithsonian staff in a culture far from the museums of Washington. The exhibit's cross-cultural, interdisciplinary combination of science, philosophy and art - the panels were painted by a Tibetan thangka painter - also made it unique.

Tibet's spiritual leader, known for tinkering with watches and engines as a boy, has long been fond of science. The Dalai Lama considers science and Buddhism as complementary "investigative approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking the truth." Modern education is critical to the survival of Tibetan culture and identity for the Dalai Lama.

Tibetan children in India learn science in school, but Tibetan monks and nuns have followed a traditional curriculum largely unchanged for centuries. Until a decade ago, Tibetan monks had learned no science at all. Since then it's been a crash course in science for some monks, with classes on topics ranging from cosmology to neuroscience.

As part of the Science for Monks program, a select group of geshes (monks who are the equivalent of PhDs) from monasteries across India attend biannual workshops taught by scientists and educators from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Arizona, the Exploratorium in San Francisco and, most recently, the Smithsonian. The program is funded by Boston philanthropist Bobby Sager.

At the exhibit in New Delhi, Indians, Tibetans and overseas visitors perused seven-foot-tall panels depicting colorful images of anatomy alongside dancing Buddhist deities, all painted by a master Tibetan thangka painter. Red-robed monks explained to visitors in English and Tibetan the nuances of how sound waves vibrate in the inner ear, as well as abstract Buddhist concepts for how sensation is perceived.

Ultimately, the exhibit looked polished, but it was a frantic rush to put together in six months what would normally take a year by professional standards. A team from the Smithsonian traveled from Washington to India for two-week stints from December 2009 through last month to help the monks conceive, develop, execute and stage the exhibit.

Stephanie Norby, director of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, helped the monks launch a science fair in June 2009 that was a precursor to last month's formal exhibit. "We gave a broad overview of what might be done but were sensitive that the monks do it on their own. We wanted it to be their exhibit," said Norby.

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