Book Review: Beyond the Robe

Jeffrey Martin

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Beyond the Robe relates the story of the Science for Monks program, launched more than a decade ago to bring science education to the Buddhist monks and nuns of the Tibetan diaspora. The program was first conceived by the Dalai Lama and made possible with the funding and management resources of American philanthropist Bobby Sager. As described by the participants, the program was launched with the recruitment of a cadre of translators and the creation of a lexis of relevant and translatable concepts. Scientists were brought to India for periods as short as a summer to teach basic science principles to the equivalent of Tibetan college students. The program is ongoing and has resulted in an exhibit for science museums of a series of traditional thangka paintings contrasting Buddhist and contemporary scientific methods of understanding the senses, as well as the spread of science education to other sectors of the Tibetan exile community.

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Some of the more interesting passages in the book reveal the initial fears of both students and teachers. Monastics were concerned about the relevance of the hard sciences to philosophy and religion and imagined the program a potential Trojan horse sent to corrupt Buddhism from within. Educators, on the other hand, feared students might be too intellectually rigid and worried how to approach the students without offending their religious sensibilities. In the end, both groups were surprised to find themselves reflected in the other – people of intense intellectual curiosity eager to understand the world. The program has since broadened its aims to include teacher training, sending monastics into the local primary and secondary school as science educators. This seems to be one of the greatest accomplishments of the program. Not only are the benefits shared among a greater population, but as a result the monastics grow in esteem within the wider community. A recent NY Times article points to the increasing irrelevance of monastics in secular, capitalist Thailand, where a similar program might reap similar rewards.

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The limited edition of Beyond the Robe (presumably a regular edition is forthcoming) weighs 4kg and has a span of 70cm when opened. It’s a book that demands a table. Presumably, the publishers saw the content as worthy of such heft, but after reading through all 300 pages in a morning, I struggle to see the value and wonder if resources might have been more prudently allocated. From the point of view of this blog, I was interested in the artistic elements, principally what the promotional materials refer to as the “fine art photography” of Bobby Sager, the same man whose foundation funds the program. The majority of images selected for the book are portraits of monastics. Two styles predominate: full-body portraits against black background, and extreme close-ups, mostly of faces. Sager succeeds in capturing a range of moods and expressions in his subjects, but the close-ups are perhaps too much so for a book this size, especially since it appears little was done in post processing to fix shinny faces. The intention may have been authenticity, but page after page of oversize pores and greasy skin was discomforting. Perhaps in keeping with the theme of science, there is little of the supernatural in the photo collection, no celestial Buddhas, or demons, or other mythological features found in Tibetan Buddhism. There seem to be a few too many photos of prayer flags, often in close-up, that again don’t seem to work so well in such a large format. The same is true for photos that appear to have been shot in resolutions that did not benefit from enlargement, like the aerial of the Boudhanath stupa. Many photos appear soft and out of focus. Sadly there are no images in this collection that are staggering, the kind that make you want to sit and look, the kind you go back to again and again. Production aesthetics are excellent, including a gorgeous cloth burgundy cover woven with the symbols of the vajra and the shrivatsa.

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I was once on a month-long Zen retreat sponsored in part by the local community. At the end of the program, participants were asked to reflect on what they had learned by writing about their experiences. These essays, along with relevant photos, were collected and published in a small book sent back to the community as a way to document how their money had been spent and as a way of thanking them for their support. Beyond the Robe feels a bit like that. Its purpose is to memorialize, rather than explicate.

At $200 for the limited edition, you might like to ask your local library to procure a copy, or wait for a more reasonably priced regular edition.

Beyond the Robe
Photography / Buddhism / Science
powerhouse Books, New York, 2012
Written contributions: The Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, Robert Thurman, the monks, nuns and scientists of Science for Monks
Photography: Bobby Sager
Hardcover, 33 x 43 cm, 300 pages, over 100 photographs
ISBN: 978-1-57687-629-9
US$200.00

Links:
Beyond the Robe
Science for Monks

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