Gerry Kopelow

Exactly how do four people packing really good telescopes illuminate the wisdom of the east? Manitobans can find out July 21 through July 24 when our city becomes the first stop on a unique multi-continent meditation teaching tour.

At the invitation of the Dharma Centre of Winnipeg, four Buddhist teachers with a passion for astronomy will visit here. Their intention is to make the contemplative practices of Asia accessible to North American minds by way of a multi-media program that combines art, physics, psychology, body-work, and astronomy. After Winnipeg the program moves to western Canada and British Columbia, then to the south-western United States, then on to Chile.

The four visiting instructors are two Lama-couples, life-partners mutually committed to exploring and teaching the wisdom of Buddhism. Karen Russell has studied meditation for 23 years. She uses meditation techniques in her work as a therapist. As an artist she has participated in the creation of a number of Buddhist sculptures and monuments. Karen’s husband, Robert McConnell, teaches Astronomy and Physics at the University of Toronto. He has studied meditation for 27 years. Terry Hagan spent over a quarter century as personal assistant to the Buddhist Meditation Master Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche, one of the first Western teachers recognized by the Dalai Lama. During this time he traveled constantly around the world with the Rinpoche, giving teachings in many countries. Hagan’s partner, Mala Sikka, is a Seiki-Soho practitioner and movement artist of Indian origin. (Seiki-Soho is a Japanese martial-art variation that focuses on healing.) She has over twenty years experience teaching dance and body awareness, drawing additionally on a background in visual arts and theatre.

Traditional Buddhist practice is primarily devotional, but in North-America Buddhist teaching is becoming less formal and more experience-based. This development is a revival of the fundamentals of Buddhism; the Buddha himself said that he was not a god, and should not be depended upon as an agent of salvation. His very last teaching was a firm instruction to his followers to practice the techniques of inner growth for themselves. The Buddha also said that these techniques should be taught in the language of the people.

But ancient practices, in their original forms, can be confusing to the typical westerner. So here in North America, we are beginning to see leading-edge Buddhist teachers using the modern languages of physics, art, medicine, psychology and yes, even astronomy. Terry Hagan says that Buddhist meditation and the scientific method have a lot in common: “Both are focused on cause and effect. Both are studies of universal laws and universal mechanisms.” In the same way, art and meditation are related because “they both explore the interaction between consciousness and experience.” Astronomical observation, says Rob McConnell, “is a direct view of the divine in the process of unfolding.”

Each day, at a retreat site just south of Bird’s Hill Park, the four teachers will offer a new view of universal form, both inner and outer. Each night participants in the retreat will have the opportunity to make deep-sky observations with first-class telescopes.

One of the most subtle concepts in Buddhism is ‘sunyata’, often translated as ‘emptiness’. Sunyata means that everyday reality is not what we intuitively understand it to be, that seemingly solid matter is not really solid. The idea that reality is a concept rather than a fact is difficult for most of us to grasp. But quantum physicists now know that the microscopic building blocks of reality, sub-atomic particles, are much less substantial then once thought – this is the physics of emptiness. And astronomers investigating the vast emptiness of outer space experience sunyata on a grand scale. The Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche – who over the years owned fifteen different telescopes – once said: “We should use all our gifts to pursue awakening, and in this day and age, science is a gift. As the mind and the eye behold the marvels of the outer, the inner can be transformed.”

For thousands of years seekers have found that direct experience of our extraordinary universe can lead to inner awakening. Twenty seven hundred years ago the Buddha instructed meditators to concentrate on accessible natural formations such as flowers, trees and moving water. Today Rob McConnell uses modern optical instruments to discover “enormous mind tools in the night sky – spiral galaxies, exploding stars, and multi-coloured nebulae.” It is amazing what one can see through a really good telescope.