Pema Maya, a student of Rinpoche’s from New Zealand, set up the first formal English program at Dzongsar Institute in Chauntra this spring. For the first time, students from year 8 onward are encouraged to study a language of their choice in addition to Tibetan. Ninety students are now studying English intensively. Here are excerpts from Pema Maya’s journal of her experiences in working with the students.

29th March
My first week, and the monastery feels like another world. Days start to the sound of conch shells calling the monks to puja, and end with hundreds of monks debating under floodlights in the courtyard outside the temple.

I stay right above the kitchen, and this morning joined the cook and kitchen staff for a 6am Tingmo breakfast. The cook gave me a cup and filled it with salty butter tea. He sliced in an extra knob of butter and showed me how to dip the pieces of tingmo (steamed white bread). It was okay, but not so easy to drink the tea afterwards!

Food preparation starts at 4am each day, the Machen-la and five live-in staff preparing three meals a day for over 550 people. The kitchen is well set up; with 6 huge stainless steel gas powered rice cookers (each as tall as a person) an electric dough-kneading machine, steamers and a row of very large pots on gas rings. Steamed bread and tea are prepared for breakfast; rice, dahl and subji for lunch; rice and dahl for dinner, and Tibetan butter tea twice a day. All this seven days a week.

I hear there is also a canteen somewhere here for the monks to buy snacks.

4th April
Just found out a bit about the schedule. The monks are woken at 5am for an hour of free time – to meditate of self-study as they wish. They then start puja from 6am. There are meal breaks and two half hour tea breaks throughout the day; then again 10-11pm is free time. Amazingly, many do use this time for extra study.

14th April
Our English language teaching assistant has arrived from the UK. He’s here for four months as part of his gap year, and has been an instant hit with the monks. Harry is already playing and umpiring cricket, has a number of snooker bets on the go with the non-ordained staff, and has been initiated into the football ‘scrum’ in the monks TV room. [There are two TV rooms which are open on Sundays and from 8-11pm Saturday nights] The monks are naturally close with each other, so Harry’s had to get used to them grabbing him by the hand, leaning on him and delivering the odd friendly slap to the bottom. LUCKILY he has a very good sense of humour.

In class we don’t use chairs or tables – the students sit on carpets on the floor. Today Harry issued the students’ textbooks and ended up with a monk lying on his back, one sitting on each knee, and the rest in a pile on the books. It’s now the 10-11pm break, and he’s out at the canteen with Tulku Ngawang (the cricket captain).

Here’s a quote from Harry’s journal, describing the layout of the monastery and his impressions on the Sunday he arrived here:

“The monastery itself is very Tibetan in its style, with a large complex for the students and then two buildings standing parallel are offices, this leads to the focus of the institute’s complex; an impressive Temple, a maroon read, the pillars decorated in a selection of bright and bold contrasting colours, the roof is the golden yellow typical of Tibetan temples. That afternoon, I sat and watched the monks. It being a Sunday and a noted day of rest for Buddhists, the monks did what any normal person does on their day of rest they held a one day test. It was funny to see the fusion of the pious and auspicious red robes and the western sportswear logos on top (Nike and Adidas). During the game lunch (rice and dahl) was served and a few of the fielders left their plates, unattended. The wild life took quite an interest and started picking at the dish. This invariably stopped play and one of the younger monks was put on guard duty. The monk who was small for a 15 year old could not stop the larger kites who were circling above him, his focus was torn between the game and the large birds above him. One such bird I watched closely as it made smaller and smaller circles and dived towards the plates, the young monk, out of terror leapt backward and toppled over the wall he was seated on. Not only had the poor monk taken a fall and been humiliated in front of his holy friends, but he was covered in dahl and had to replace the monks lunch he was guarding.”

30th April
Last night I talked with the Khampa couple who look after the old construction office – now more an informal guest reception and meeting/TV room for the khenpos (and also the only place to go for non-butter tea here). Kham-ke, the dialect of Eastern Tibet, is really broad and includes a lot of different words to standard Tibetan. It’s the main dialect used in the monastery, but is new for me. I found out Ngawang has been a wood carver for the Tibetan (Kham) branch of Dzongsar monastery, making the detailed woodblocks used for prayer flags.

The Khampa people are pretty amazing. Full of faith, humour and resilience. They have kept their spirit and devotion through all the years of Chinese occupation, including the destruction of their precious monasteries and widespread persecution, imprisonment and torture of their people.

Many of the Dzongsar monks braved the Chinese border guards to come here from Kham to study – Sonam Dorje told us his story over tea and momos in Bir this week: he left home at night, without telling his mother or father, to hitchhike and walk over the Himalayas to the Nepalese border. There he was imprisoned along with 50 others, questioned for two days by the Nepalese police, and given no food or even tea (butter tea is a staple for Tibetans – an all-in-one meal and beverage). The Tibetan government-in-exile negotiated their release and travel to India – from where Sonam Dorje called his sobbing mother to let her know he was safe. He has not been able to return since, and said he was terribly homesick for his first year. This is his final year, and he will try for a passport and visa after finishing his studies.

May 8th – the week José came
José was invited to consult on rubbish disposal this week, and look at recycling options for the monastery. Brazilian, but currently based in Dharamsala, he travels to communities as a volunteer. Whilst in the community, he sources buyers for recycling, helps arrange collection points and advises on responsible landfill. Here, he also held talks for the Khenpos and staff to give an overview of the problems caused by pollution.

I caught up with him a few times during the week, and he said he was really happy with the response here, particularly from the discipline master, who has to implement the new processes. The Geko had thanked him for explaining the whole pollution problem and how it’s being dealt with (or not) in the world, and passed on all the new procedures to the monks at their evening assembly. José was so happy he gave the usually reserved Geko a big bear hug, which was really sweet!

Previously, the rubbish was disposed of by burning, as there is no public rubbish collection system. Now the recycling plan is in place, with stage two being a landfill.

Harry and I helped edit José’s report sitting out with the monks in the debating courtyard and watched an incredible electrical storm come in over the hills. When it finally hit, the rain poured down and everyone scattered.

16th May
Another storm hit this afternoon just before class. When the rain comes it’s literally like buckets of rain being poured suddenly from the sky. In class we had no power, so moved right over to the window to go over yesterday’s test corrections – I wrote in BIG letters on the board.

The Elementary students mostly did well in their first test; quite a big deal for them to understand the whole process, and I think they were happy to get an idea of what they really understand at this stage.

Tashi Pa, who is a student in Harry’s class, showed us through the Tara hall where he does daily puja and attends the shrine. The room has beautiful statues of the twenty one forms of Tara (brought from Nepal). We also leaned over the balcony and watched the sculptors at work on the statues in the main hall: a seated Buddha with standing Manjusri and Avalokiteshvara on either side. At the moment the statues are surrounded by scaffolding as clay is applied over the steel framework.

17th May
The monks’ study is so focused that they don’t learn about subjects such as maths, science, etc.(unless they’ve attended school before joining the monastery). In class we have discussed a few things, and even did some percentages one day (which I am seriously not the right teacher for!). We are expecting a new English teacher in June, who is also a science major, so hope hewill be able to help out a bit there.

20th May
The monks invariably argue about the translations of Buddhist terminology and with 8 or 9 years of debating training (2 hours a day), they know how to argue. Today we basically spent the whole hour discussing four lines – The Four Seals – which come up in the sutra commentary the intermediate students are working through. Gyaltsen asks very direct questions: “In English, is emotion in the body or in the mind?” – stabbing at his arm and staring at me. Sonam Lhundrup usually sits with him and sometimes mediates. They argue together while at the same time one will be using the other ones back to lean on, or today Sonam Lhundrup was massaging Gyaltsen’s knee with his foot (as kind of a moral support). They all amaze me, when I think of Sonam Dorje setting out from Kham on foot, alone, with the equivalent of 70 rupees to come to India; and of Dargye, who escaped from Tibet as a 9 year old and cried nearly every day his first year in Sakya Monastery. Then there is the monk I shared a taxi with this week, who has been trying to get a pass and visa to return to Tibet for the last 3 months. His brothers and sisters have told him to hurry home, as his father is very unwell. His mother has already passed away during his time in India, and he said he is considering sneaking over the border if the embassy doesn’t hurry up.

21st May
Sunday today, and I went on an amazing walk down into the valley with Gabriel, the monk from Brazil. We crossed the train track below the monastery and wandered down little paths through trees and fields and past clean brightly painted farmhouses, old stone hay barns, and many beautiful pink flowers which looked like lotuses, but grew straight from the rocky ground. Sometimes the path took us straight over someone’s front garden; the local people were sitting on their verandahs and said “Namaste” and helped us find the road. We followed the road down for about an hour before turning back and stopping for a cold drink on the way up the hill. We talked about the simple lifestyle of the people we met and walked past, about the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, about the monastery, and how incredible it is to be able to live somewhere like this in this modern world.

22nd May.
Today in class the students were in pairs to talk about one line of the Four Seals each. We had a new rule that anyone who tried to debate in Tibetan had to stand up and sing a song; it really worked, and they spoke much more English. In the beginners’ class the students had to bring a photo to describe. The monks laugh at each other easily and even though the speakers did really well, I had to keep telling the class to be quiet. We clapped for each speaker, then finally Jamyang Phuntsok stood up to talk about a photo of him with his bother in Ladakh. For some reason he wasn’t wearing his monk’s robes, but a leather jacket and baseball cap, which looked quite funny. Some monks laughed and then I started giggling too, which the monks thought was really funny -soon everyone was in fits of laughter. Ladakh Jamyang Phuntsok took it really well but I’m a bit nervous to try presentations in class again.
Harry is off to Bhutan for a month, so here are a few excerpts from his journal before he goes (the boys view…)

April 30th Football
“This morning I was woken up at 7.10 by a monk who wanted me to play volleyball. I walked over with him, Sonam Tenzin, to the dusty court where monks had already stripped off their robes and thrown them on the rocks and underneath were their sports clothes. After half an hour playing volleyball in a small circle I was invited to join the football. The monks playing football all had nicknames of real football stars and were all wearing football shirts and shorts. The club shirts that were there were Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and then a few national strips: Tibetan, Brazilian and English and even Korea. The pitch was big and made of a few patches of dry grass, dust and gravel. Not ideal conditions but fun all the same as small dust clouds would rise up in front of you and obscure your view or hide the ball when it was at your feet. The first game I played in was a draw after 10 minutes, and therefore it was penalties. Many of the monks wanted me to take a penalty but I waited until my team was one ahead and then I decided to take the pressure. In goal was the tallest and broadest of all the monks, Tashi Rinchen, Such a nice monk who I nick name Gap toothed Big foot (the nick name explains why). His English is poor even though he is in the highest class, and he doesn’t want to move. Whenever he sees me his huge gap toothed grin spreads across his face and can be seen from miles away. He always grabs my hands in his bear like paws and bows repeatedly saying “He..l..l.o, Tashi deli, Ye..s, Hel…ol… I hit the ball as hard as I could praying for success he stood still not moving looking at my face as I took the shot. The ball bounced off his knee and he grinned again”

2nd May Gabriel’s Birthday
“Today was the birthday of one of the monks and he invited me to his night time birthday bash. We got singing various Indian and Tibetan songs and Brazilian, of course I was forced to sing so I gave them a few English numbers, nothing too dramatic like Mama Mia, but some poppy songs. I got chatting with a Khempo/ Lama, I wasn’t sure and he was really nice and offered to do my “Mo” for me. I’ll have to think about it and more importantly what questions to ask: ‘Who was I in my past life’, ‘The plan out of my future’ etc. At eleven the monks have to turn out their lights or they get a 500 rps fine. I thought that also signaled sleep-tight time. But in reality most of the monks stay up a little later. The party continued in the warm glow of candle light until about midnight when I returned to my room shattered.”

Debating
“I was halted by some of my class monks. They pulled me over and were trying to make me debate. In a hurry to get back and quite keen to try I agreed and thought I could get it over with quickly. The groups around stopped to watch me try. I had learnt a Tibetan phrase: ‘Ny ama inchi lumpa la uri..Hakosong ey’ Meaning: ‘My mother is from England, do you understand’. I decided that this was my only debating tool. I stepped back on my right foot, raising my left leg and hands up in the air. Then I came crashing down stamping my left foot on the ground and slapping my hands with my right hand pointing at my opponent. It was only at this moment I saw the monk sitting on the ground. It was Rinpoche, Holy Potter. I was a little taken a back by this realization. I wasn’t sure what to say next. Fortunately he was smiling and laughing so I said “Okay, umm” as I raised myself up for another attempt. “Flintoff is the best cricketer in the world”, expecting no reply but a laugh I hadn’t prepared myself to defend my statement. “No said the Rinpoche, “Shambhu is the best”. I hadn’t ever heard of this cricketer but I guessed he was Indian. In a bit of a hurry and so unprepared I ended the debate with a feeble “well, possibly”, and walked off. No more than 5 metres more and I was stopped again. This time Dargay stopped me and ushered me over. I took a flip flop from him and sat down. I explained to him that I couldn’t stay long because I was busy and didn’t want the Geko (monk police) to spot me. “Geko” he said, “Yes the Geko Dargay”, he said “Yes, yes Geko” I was puzzled “Geko, Geko” he whispered. I followed the direction his eyes were motioning. Towering above us was The Disiplinator. To me he didn’t come across as very scary especially when I stood up and he was no longer able to tower over me. But I respected his position even if I teased him in front of the normal monks. I was bitten by a dog.”

27th May
Today was a holiday at the monastery for the rotating of monks’ jobs. Tibetan people came and helped cook a huge meal, which we were invited to. Before lunch I dropped in on Khenpo Jampa Tenphel to ask if Harry and I could sit with him. In Khenpo’s room one of the monks was typing in Tibetan – a book that Khen Rinpoche, the founder of Dzongsar shedra here in India, is writing. Some other khenpos and the Geko were there discussing a recent conference on vinaya and whether updates to the monks’ discipline might be needed. As we waited for the lunch gong I listened to everyone’s fast Tibetan and drank an incredibly strong glass of orange cordial. Lunch was really tasty, with many different types of vegetables and mangos for everyone.

7th June Tingmo
The secretary spent a couple of days visiting flour mills in the area and has negotiated a deal where the monastery gets the highest grade flour cheaper than the previous (below average) grade, and with free delivery. While he was doing that, an old man who is a bread-making consultant came and tuned up the Tingmo machines (he was staying next door to me, so we met out on the terrace). Now the Tingmos are great! They are fluffy and fresh – even still ok the next day. The secretary (Tashi) has started working on the rice and oil.

11-17th June
The World Cup opening ceremony was shown outside under the stars on two big TVs. For the next few nights the monks watched all the games outside on cushions, pieces of sack etc., very kyipo (comfortable/pleasant).

First night of World Cup was also Saka Dawa – the anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment. To celebrate, the monastery has decided to stop serving meat from now on. To kick the new regime off we had special vegetarian lunch of paksa-maku, which is bread mixed with butter and salt. This was served with yogurt and mangos and was supposed to put us in a good mood for positive actions all day. Was kind of an odd meal, but was fun joining the monks to eat it.

The evenings are warm and pleasant outside at the moment but very hot in my room, after the walls have been heating up all day -even the toothpaste is hot. I sat outside chatting until about 10 on Saka Dawa.

13 June
Nikyil arrived from Delhi. Doing his masters in computer science at USC, and back home for his sister’s wedding, he has taken some time to come and help us sort out the computer lab. His dad scans manuscripts for the Tibetan digital library in Delhi, so offered to send him. Is great to have him here!

14th June
The monks who have been working on the computers all had CompSci 101 today and yesterday with Nikyil. I came too, for part of the time. Was mildly alarmed that Nikyil had the monks pulling the computers apart, but he says it’s the only way to go, the machines are all around seven years old and there is no service available nearby. Better that we learn to do it all in-house.

In the evening we all had jobs to do – the monks re-formatted the hard drives of all the computers in the lab, installed Windows XP and then the application software; pretty good for two days training.

19th June
Gabriel deleted a month’s work on Khen Rinpoche’s book from Khenpo Jampa Thenphel’s computer today. Sonam Tsering, who is doing the work, didn’t break down or get mad; actually his wall-to-wall smile carried right on and he said he’ll just start again.

Our new teacher arrived and will spend a week preparing his class. He is planning a two month intro to science starting with some basic maths, trigonometry, soil experiments and chemistry;  which sounds really cool. I get to hunt for agar agar and Petri dishes in Delhi when I go down next month. He will also help out with one of the English classes when I’m away. Tonight he’s gone to the guesthouse to watch the England match with Sonam Lhundrup.

28th June
Luden Khen Rinpoche, a Sakya Lama from Dehra Dun, is arriving tomorrow. Previously, his incarnation was from the same monastery as Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, I’ve just been told. Today the monks cleaned the entire monastery and put coloured flags down either side of the road in. There are piles of pine branches ready to light at the entrances and Tankas hung in the temple.

Tonight I stood on the ramp to the office and the monks explained the different flags; Sakya, Dzongsar, Buddhist, Indian and Tibetan. Then the jeep arrived with another load – the Khenpo’s bed from the old monastery, which had been taken apart, and some other furniture. Jamyang Phuntsok and Karchen wrestled with a heavy sofa, trying to get each other to drop the side they were hoding. Drakpa, the painter, pretended to have a limp but was forced to help.

It’s stopped raining and the sky was beautiful and orange with a new moon rising as the sun set – is funny and cool how everything happens here at the last minute, and everyone so cheerfully does their work or just chills out – either seems ok.

29th June
Luden Khen Rinpoche arrived this morning and was greeted by clouds of incense smoke, the monks playing instruments and holding banners and parasols. We stood with the local Tibetan people and held up white scarves in offering while Rinpoche was escorted into the Temple for prayers and formal offerings. It was wonderful to sit there in the temple, although the reception was very formal, the atmosphere was happy and relaxed.

1st July
Thupten Tsering has just been in as I write this. He was pestering me sooo much about when Harry would arrive so we gave him a call. Thupten Tsering answered the phone and I heard them exchange all their combined Tibetan/English greetings: “Tashi-delek” and “Yeeees boss!” a few times. I took the phone to find out that Harry is halfway from Dharamsala in a taxi, so only an hour or so away. Today is the Anniversary of Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro and the monks are doing puja in the Temple. We’ll have a special lunch together.

2nd July
Watched the England – Portugal game with Harry and the monks last night – wow! it was so much fun. The TV was on the temple porch, in case of rain, and more than 100 monks came to watch. They are sooo funny – cheering at every near miss, laughing when the refs start jumping around and especially when anyone cries, plus they all have bets on the go – so are really get behind their team.

I’m off to Bhutan for a couple of weeks now….will report from there!

Pema Maya