“Failure is the pillar of success”
- Tibetan proverb
The next day we set the monks onto their next challenge: to construct a machine, or a kinetic contraption of some kind, based on some of the qualities of light that they had noticed the day before. During the previous day’s discussion about the light exploration exercise, we noticed that, while being extremely skilled debaters on a logical and analytical level, the monks had some trouble either noticing or talking about the aesthetic qualities of what they were seeing. This turned one of our preconceptions on its head: before leaving, we had a feeling that the monks might find the cardboard automata activity too mechanistic for their enlightened minds, and that they would be taken in by the inherent beauty of light reflections; the opposite happened. So, being mindful of their attitudes, we tried to emphasize that they should concentrate on the aesthetic (a word that doesn’t exist in Tibetan) qualities of light when thinking about their machines.
Another thing that surprised us is how quickly the monks come up with ideas that are creative, ingenious, and well formed. A few of them started by sketching out design ideas on their notebooks, while some others had an initial concept that they started, we would say, “prototyping”, by either modeling a certain motion or projected image with their hands, or building quick and limited versions of what they intended to ultimately realize.
By now, the monks have become much more comfortable and skilled at building. They approach the materials table with an air of purpose, and quickly scour it for the materials they need. They are also becoming much more comfortable flagging one of us down to ask for help, where to find materials, opinions on how to make something specific happen, and just to share their excitement at some of their discoveries.
At the beginning of the session, Mike made an introduction in which he talked, among other things, about the difference between low-tech, middle-tech, and high-tech, specifying that all three types of technologies are equally important as ways of learning through building, and that they could choose to use any of them in their contraptions. The monks took this to heart, and we had examples of all three:
Lobsang Dhondup made a contraption that is technically very simple, but very beautiful and ripe with meaning. His process was interesting and relatively unusual, in that he spent a very long time just playing with the materials, making observations, letting the quality of the reflections, and the interactions with the material (Mylar, in this case) “speak” to him and dictate what he was going to make. Initially he expressed frustration that he did not know what to do, did not have an idea for a machine. After being encouraged by us that what he was doing was exactly right, he made a number of observations about the way that light reflects, and how minute changes in light source and material positioning result in big changes in the image that it projected. Eventually he stumbled onto a reflected shape that reminded him of a lotus flower, and immediately knew what it was what he was going to do. This is the beautiful result.
Konchok Choephel and Tenzin Choegyal made an example of what we called “middle tech”: their contraption projects beautiful and multi-colored light by using a simple slow-moving motor to rotate a disc. Interestingly, this was a direct off-shoot of their previous explorations with Mylar in a cardboard tube. They also first built a prototype, using just two tubes and turning the disc with their hands to see if their concept would work. The final piece projected a dazzling light show on a surface, which they further modified by reflecting that off a piece of crumpled Mylar.
Finally, Tashi’s machine made use of a PicoCricket
computer. We introduced these as a possible tool for the monks to use, but left it entirely up to them as to whether they wanted to incorporate them into a machine. We noticed before that Tashi’s creations are very much rooted in Buddhist philosophy, and this one was no different. He fashioned a selector, which would rotate between three possible choices: buddhist, scientist, or neutral. We then helped him program a cricket computer so that when a button was pressed the motor that spins the selector would start running, and when it was pressed again it would stop. The idea was that of a game, in which a person could close their eyes, press the button, and after a while press it again, and the machine would tell them which of the three they were! Of course, to keep with the “assignment”, he had to enclose it in a Mylar box, so that, when a light was shined on it, it would also project beautiful reflections on the ceiling.
Some of the monks’ choices surprised us for their creativity and playful spirit. Two monks decided to create a Mylar dish that could project beautiful reflections on the wall, and also double as a water boiler (for tea, maybe?). Others made a “peeking box”, lined with Mylar and filled with balls, the object of which was to trick observers so that they would not know how many balls were inside. Finally, Geshe Niyma made a machine that could be activated by either the wind, a motor and a switch, or a cricket, therefore combining low-, middle- and high-tech in the same machine.
Once again, these inspiring individuals surprised us with the insights they brought to the activity, their engagement, and humor!