In addition to learning about western science from western scientists,* during their Leadership Institute the Monks learn about and develop their writing skills by working with educators from the National Writing Project (NWP). Along with NWP’s Tanya Baker, I was privileged to work with members of the third-ever cohort that launched a year ago.
Like science, writing is a recent addition to Monastics’ education. Although, in most cases, writing is not so much about thinking and learning, but serves as a proxy for memory. In some of their examinations they are meant to reproduce some of the “root philosophies” in writing. During one workshop session, Bryce Johnson, the leader of Science for Monks, spoke directly to the Monks and Nuns, and offered an eloquent explanation for why the program puts an emphasis on writing:
I want to say why we do writing in the workshop – we are trying to cultivate opportunities for you to grow your skills as leaders. And so – writing is a way to investigate your own understanding, your own mind… As Monks and Nuns, you have something valuable to say – you will have a much larger audience to share with those who are not in your presence if you can write.
Privately, Bryce expressed his hope that each member of the cohort would produce a piece of writing suitable for a group anthology. We opted to build on our predecessor’s work. In 2016, Richard Sterling and Christine Cziko from the NWP, invited these same monks and nuns to write about what amazes them.
I won’t lie. I felt apprehensive about how quickly we could form a plan to support the monks in writing this essay. Tanya didn’t flinch. Whether or not she uses the term, backwards design (see, Wiggins and McTighe, 2005), that’s precisely how I would describe her vision. Tanya had the monks create a graphic organizer, four corners and diamond, to see the whole essay. We asked the monks to write “What Amazes Me” in the diamond, and label each of the four corners: a personal encounter, a Buddhist perspective, a scientific perspective, and a teaching perspective. Eventually, we added a downward arrow and offered several ideas for how to conclude the essay.
Once I could see the whole essay, I could imagine what we needed to teach. And for each of the next several days, we used our 90+ minute workshop time to support the monks and nuns in generating drafts for each section of the essay. For my part, I took the lead on the personal encounter. At Tanya’s urging, I introduced a favorite concept of mine: Reading like Writers. The main idea was to help them see that writers – even His Holiness – make craft decisions in order to bring readers into an understanding of their worlds and perspectives.
As a way to explain the concept – and I wasn’t sure how it translate – I brought a hand-crafted leather belt out of my backpack and tried to frame writing as a series of “craft” choices, not too dissimilar from those a belt-maker might make about what color leather, what stitching design, what buckle, what width, and so on. Katie Wood-Ray introduces this analogy in her book Wondrous Words (1999) about an expert seamstress.
Then I asked one of the translators to read aloud – from the original Tibetan text -passages from chapter 2 of the Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. In these passages, the 14th Dalai Lama recounts being a little boy in the Potala Palace and discovering his early, satisfying encounters with taking apart and putting mechanical things (e.g., watches, microscopes, and automobiles) back together again. The young Dalai Lama lived by himself with tutors in the Potala Palace. Also known as The Winter Palace, the palace was completed for 5th Dalai in the 1600’s.
The passages, when looked at as writers, are memorable for how the author helps readers empathize with his early perspective, while also offering description of objects, people, and places. We worked to identify “details” and “description” that allow us to “see” the author’s point of view. After “naming” the craft details that we saw, I invited the writers to craft a description of an early encounter with what amazes them. Below the photo of the palace is one of the passages we studied for its craft.
* The purpose of the Sager Science Leadership Institute is to build monks and nuns’ capacity to be leaders of science education at their monasteries. Broadly speaking, participants deepen their scientific knowledge while developing also materials to help them teach science. Keep in mind that science was not a part of Monastic curriculum for centuries and this effort, less than 20 years old, reflects the vision and hopes of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, to bridge this gap. Each institute cohort meets several times over the course of three years. The cohorts include four participants from 8 different Monastic sites in Southern India. [I was surprised to learn how large some of the Monastic universities are: one, Sara Jey, has 3,800 monks].