Teaching monks in Bhutan
Shiriin Barakzai's first diary entry introduces us to the joys (and challenges) of teaching English in the beautiful region of Nalanda.
I’d been in Bhutan about six months and finally settled into a routine of work and social life when a Bhutanese friend invited me to come and teach monks at a local monastery on the outskirts of the capital, Thimphu. I went along the first time to see how the classes were organized, as I’d never taught anyone in a classroom situation before. The volunteer teachers, both Bhutanese and chillip (foreigners), came twice a week and taught between 7:30 and 8:30am before heading off to their day jobs. As a result it was often quite rushed and there were times when not all the volunteers could come due to work commitments.
I was also worried because my job as an engineer with the Department of Roads meant that I was often on tour visiting various project sites, meaning I sometimes wasn’t able to attend for one or two weeks at a time. So although I ‘signed up’ due to their desperation for people who had transport (by default most monasteries are on hilltops or other hard-to-reach places), it wasn’t an ideal situation with at least one class each week without a teacher.
However, the winter break came and went and because I never heard about when the monks were due back, I moved on to other things.
One Friday afternoon, whilst having end-of-week drinks in a small bar with colleagues, a monk approached me and said he was the principal of the Nalanda Buddhist Institute in Punakha, two hours drive from Thimphu. He said he recognized me from the other monastery and asked if I could help him set up some English teaching for his own monks. We chatted and I said I’d think on it and get in touch, as the majority of chillips are based in Thimphu, so regular teaching at Nalanda would be difficult due to the distance.
A few months later we’d managed to get some old school books from the Department of School Education and I’d convinced a couple of teacher friends to go up there on the weekend and give classes, but I still hadn’t managed to get there myself.
However, from June, I changed to a part-time contract, working only three weeks a month. This meant that I could finally go and spend a week in Punakha and therefore the 50 minute drive up the hill to Nalanda would be doable. Lebeh (teacher) told me that they have English twice a day for an hour, from Sunday to Friday. Currently, three monks who attended mainstream school before joining the monkhood teach the three groups A, B and C. The most senior of these three reached Class 7, and so their capacity to teach is constrained by their own limited knowledge.
Nalanda Monastery was founded in 1754 by Gelwang Shaja Rinchen Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Rechungpa. The site is situated below Talo village, ‘the place of a holy person’, where the Mind Reincarnation of the first Shabdrung preferred to stay when he was governing from Punakha Dzong, at the bottom of the valley. Gelwang Rinpoche built this second Nalanda to help pious people who wanted to undertake pilgrimage. The first Nalanda is in Bihar in India, but because there were very few roads it was very difficult to get to India. Even when they got there, pilgrims faced many obstacles including culture, food, language and the risk of getting robbed. So he built this second Nalanda in Bhutan.
Shaja Rinchen Rinpoche chose this site after seeing a number of auspicious signs. The main monk body has a tradition of spending the winter months in Punakha Dzong, and the summer months in Thimphu. Once, whilst travelling across Dochu La (pass) for the winter, he saw eight vultures flying to this spot, which he thought were the eight scholars of the original Nalanda Buddhist Institute in India. This was confirmed when they appeared to him in a dream that night and gave a teaching. So he sought out the place and more good signs appeared during the construction.
During Shaja Rinchen Rinpoche’s life, the monastery was used as an institute for teaching, but after he passed away the teaching stopped. Other lamas came and restarted the teaching, but this also ceased once they died. In 1991, His Majesty, the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, ordered for the teaching to start again and two lopens began with 20 monks. Over time, the number of lopens and students has increased. Now, in 2008, there are six lopens and 105 students, ranging from 8 to 28 years of age.