A Western Astronomer, his Journey East, and a Remarkable Encounter Between Western Science and Tibetan Buddhism
Chris Impey with a Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Details and Description
“This book will provide readers with a greater awareness of the spirit of curiosity and inquiry that lies at the heart of the Buddhist tradition, as well as the fruitfulness of maintaining active communication between the Buddhist and scientific communities.” —from the Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
In Humble before the Void, Impey, a noted astronomer, educator, and author gives us a thoroughly absorbing and engaging account of his journey to Northern India to teach in the first-ever “Science for Monks” leadership program. The program was initiated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to introduce science into the Tibetan Buddhist monastic tradition.
In a vivid and compelling narrative, Impey introduces us to a group of exiled Tibetan monks whose charm, tenacity and unbridled enthusiasm for learning is infectious. Impey marvels not only at their enthusiasm, but at their tireless diligence that allows the monks to painstakingly build intricate sand mandalas—that can be swept away in an instant. He observes them as they meticulously count galaxies and notes how their enthusiasm and diligence stands in contrast to many American students who are frequently turned off by science’s inability to deliver easy, immediate payoffs. Because the Buddhist monks have had a limited science education, Impey must devise creative pedagogy. His new students immediately take to his inspired teaching methods, whether it’s the use of balloons to demonstrate the Hubble expansion or donning an Einstein mask to explain the theory of relativity.
Humble before the Void also recounts Impey’s experiences outside the classroom, from the monks’ eagerness to engage in pick-up basketball games and stream episodes of hip American sitcoms to the effects on his relationship with the teenage son who makes the trip with him. Moments of profound serenity and beauty in the Himalayas are contrasted with the sorrow of learning that other monks have set themselves on fire to protest the Chinese oppression in Tibet.
At the end of the three week program, both the monks and Impey have gained a valuable education. While the monks have a greater understanding and appreciation of science, Impey has acquired greater self- knowledge and a deeper understanding of the nature of learning and teaching in the East and West. This understanding leads to a renewed enthusiasm for making his topic come alive for others.
Table of Contents
Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama / vii
Prologue: The Edge of the Roof of the World / 3
1. Knowledge and Uncertainty / 9
2. Scales of Space / 43
3. Beginnings and Endings / 79
4. The Forces of Nature / 115
5. Structure and Evolution / 151
6. The Meaning of Life / 187
Epilogue: The Seven Ages of Monk / 225
Afterword / 229
“Chris Impey’s heart-warming account of teaching modern cosmology to a group of very human Tibetan monks in northern India turns out to be a brilliant way to introduce a Western audience both to modern cosmology and Buddhist philosophy.”
Fans of the Tibetan monks and science novices alike will fall in love with this tale of one professor and twenty-five monks who lose themselves to the spirit of curiosity and openly test their assumptions and preconceptions through their study of cosmology.
With a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, this narrative brings together a dialog between science and religion that captures the Tibetan monks’ personal stories while also presenting state-of-the-art information on the universe.
Humble Before the Void provides a counterpoint between the questing and inquisitive tradition of Western science and the humility and contemplation that characterizes Buddhism.
“This is a very unusual book, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama, about a three-week Science for Monks programme building on his interest in the dialogue between science and Buddhism and educating his monks in the process. He sees the spirit of curiosity and enquiry at the heart of both Buddhism and science, also referring to interdependence and causality. The making of sand mandalas is a striking symbol of impermanence as these can be swept away in an instant. The curriculum is set out in a wheel with the following categories: knowing, space, time, matter, energy, structure, life and meaning – pretty comprehensive.”
“The course begins with an investigation of knowledge and uncertainty, moving through the other topics and arriving finally at meaning. The author finds imaginative ways of explaining complex concepts. At the same time, he relates his own experience with the monks, so far removed from his normal environment (he is also accompanied by his son). Not surprisingly, time slows down and he finds himself becoming more patient. In one amusing teaching incident, he uses the proposition ‘a monk has farted’ to explain the entropy involved in this sulphide emission. Going home, he sees his life through new eyes and questions some of the assumptions that he had left with. The book is thoroughly engaging and highly informative.”
“Buddhism emphasises the interconnectedness of things, which is confirmed by scientific study of properties of the universe and its beginning as a singularity. Yet Impey can’t quite stomach reincarnation, and while the Buddhist idea that human lives are inconsequential and somehow unreal may have some resonance when we think about how mysterious the universe remains, Impey is sceptical about the Buddhist idea that painful life experience are simply illusions. His willingness to be open about this, and about the fact that science is not always exact, or all-encompassing, makes this book particularly engaging.”