Meg Hart, Director of The Siddhartha School Project in Lismore, Australia traveled throughout India and Bhutan to study different forms of traditions and innovations in education. She has written a thoroughly engaging report of her experience.
Searching for Siddhartha
On the education trail in India and Bhutan
by Meg Hart, Director, The Siddhartha School Project
“You should go to Kalamandalam,” Rinpoche told me last year, opening his iPhoto to pictures of lithe girls in vivid costumes dancing under a spreading banyan tree. We were having an informal Siddhartha School meeting in Brisbane, Australia. The pictures were delightful. But what did he mean? What could we learn from Kalamandalam? And where exactly was it, anyway?
The Siddhartha School Project has been bubbling along for several years with curriculum development supported by Jackie Mitchell of the Shambhala School, Children’s Days at Southern Cross University, rap videos on green issues, fundraising events, and location scouting. But questions still remain: What does “a secular school based on Buddhist principles” look like? How will timeless wisdom make children fit for today’s fast, complex world? And how do you combine the sacred and the worldly in a curriculum that satisfies the needs and realities of children, parents, and government—and delivers relevant education?
Perhaps Kalamandalam had some answers. With the help of Prashant Varma, Director of Deer Park Institute in Himachal, we set off in June on a self-funded tour that started in South India—and ended in Bhutan.
Sacred and Secular Education in India
First stop was the Kalakshetra Foundation, established in the 1930s by Theosophists in Madras (now Chennai). Here, through bharatanatyam dance and training in other arts, children learn to become consummate performers, adept in their discipline, poised and confident—whole human beings.
A day’s ride away, in Andra Pradesh, we visited Rishi Valley School. Founded by J. Krishnamurti more than 75 years ago, its vision is to be a place for children to “learn a way of living that is whole, sane and intelligent… (to learn) about the totality of life… and develop fully as a complete human being.”
Then it was on to Kerala and Kalamandalam, where this Indian vision of education combining the traditional and the modern continued. Using the kathakali performing arts as a base for cultivating refinement and discipline, students also take innovative courses in cultural journalism, multimedia, mass communication, and women’s studies.
In nearby Thrissur, we joined students at the Brahmaswam Madham Institute studying the Vedas under the ancient gurukula system of master-student tutelage as they have for more than 500 years. Only now, computer studies, science, and social studies are added.
At the Kanavu Forest School in the Wayanad mountains, we observed an extraordinary experiment in education aimed at reviving the culture and arts of the indigenous mountain people while preparing their children to enter the secular education system.
The children we met—at Kalakshetra, Rishi Valley, Kalamandalam, Kanavu—were vibrant, confident, yet still innocent and open. They exuded joy in learning and poise in their bearing. India had answered some of our questions about this “new model of education” envisaged by Rinpoche, with its defining qualities of:
• The sacred and secular joined through the arts and contemplative practices
• Nature and ecology as an integral part of daily school experience, often symbolised by a tree at the centre of the campus
• Gurukulam—deep mutual respect between teacher and student
• Universal human values if cooperation, responsibility, creativity, social intelligence, joyful discipline
The outcome of this kind of education is a graduate with intelligence, refinement, and natural dignity.
But there were still some questions to explore: How will these students be equipped for the rapidly changing world they’ll enter? Will they be wise, savvy, and confident enough to challenge the myth of unlimited growth and limited liability that currently dominates the global narrative? Will they have the courage to practice compassion and wisdom in the face of ignorance and greed?
Bhutan provided an answer to these questions—a model of success that embodies spiritual poise and engaged citizenship.
Gross National Happiness in Bhutan
In December, the Government of Bhutan in collaboration with Tashi Coleman’s GPI Atlantic hosted a ground-breaking workshop, “Educating for Gross National Happiness.” The workshop aimed to develop a new curriculum for Bhutanese schools that would equip its graduates to be nothing less than responsible world citizens. With its four key components—environmental literacy, practice of its ancient wisdom culture, sustainable and equitable economic growth, and good governance—GNH is a model for enlightened living. Placing the happiness and well-being of the whole of society and the natural environment at its centre, it encourages balanced, long-term thinking and courage and compassion in public policy and personal action.
GNH graduates, like future Siddhartha School graduates, will be well-informed, grounded in innate wisdom, involved, caring, and responsible members of their community, engaged in right livelihood, inspirational role models, agents of beneficial change—and like Siddhartha, able to accomplish their full potential in this lifetime.
“I would like graduates who know that success in life is a state of being—when you can come home at the end of the day satisfied with what you have done, realizing that you are a happy individual not only because you have found happiness in yourself, but because you have given happiness, in this one day’s work, to your spouse, to your family, to your neighbours—and to the world at large.” ~ Lyonchhen JY Thinley, Prime Minister of Bhutan