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Laughing with Buddha: The delights of teaching in a Tibetan monastery in Nepal

December 28, 2009

December 27, 2009
By JIM HECKEL
For the Tribune, Great Falls, Montana

Of all the memories we have from our recent return from teaching in a
Tibetan monastery in Nepal, the sight of a classroom full of monks doing
the hokey-pokey is the oddest and in many ways symbolizes the surprise
and delight we found there.

When I first contemplated my retirement as director of the Great Falls
Public Library, my wife Pam and I knew that we wanted to travel and
participate in some vital way in the culture of the countries we
visited. Volunteer teaching afforded that combination.

When the opportunity to teach English in a Tibetan gompa (monastery) in
Kathmandu, Nepal, arose, we immediately made plans to journey there in
October and November.

We worked with a volunteer coordination agency, one-to-one, and I took a
40-hour online course about teaching English as a foreign language to
get the required certification.

We opted for a two-week teaching period, long enough to see if we liked
the process, short enough to not be trapped into a bad decision. We
decided to couple the teaching with an eight-day trek to the Annapurna
Base Camp in the Himalayas.

Pandemonium personified

Our flight ended late at night as we landed in the fabled city of
Kathmandu, Nepal. It was the fourth day of the five-day Newari New Year
celebration, and from the air, Kathmandu sparkled like a fairyland from
the festive lights strung around houses.

We were assigned student housing in Thamel, the tourist section of
Kathmandu, and the epicenter for the riotous celebrations that capped
the Newari New Year, a major part of which unfortunately took place
right outside our room. In addition, a garbage strike had rendered the
streets knee-deep in garbage of every description and smell.

Thamel is comprised of narrow streets filled with small taxis, roaring
motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, vendors, animals and of course, dense
and nervous crowds of pedestrians. We quickly understood why Kathmandu
has been called "panadonium personified."

Traffic flows roughly on the right, British style, but that is only a
vague suggestion. In reality, every vehicle, every pedestrian, fights
for any opening available. Horns are used continuously. Traffic from all
sides converges erratically. Nightly blackouts lasting about two hours,
Moaist strikes and, at times, a heavy army presence, add to the
challenges. Every major street was like that.

Kathmandu is easily the most intense place we had ever experienced, and
we were there for three weeks.

The gompa

Every morning we set off around 8 a.m. for an hour's walk to our gompa
(monastery), nestled on the side of Swayambhunath, the famous "monkey
temple" and sacred hillside of Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas
(temples). The walk was far off the normal tourist beat and took us
through the through lower levels of caste and economic circumstances in
one of the poorest nations on earth.

Sidewalks are nonexistent, garbage flows everywhere and shouts and
smells permeate the heavy atmosphere. Tiny shops sell everything from
freshly killed goats and chickens, to rice and spices and other small
necessities of life. Nearly all materials move on the backs of people
and bicycles.

The air pollution in Kathmandu heralds ecological disaster. It is an
acrid combination of diesel and dust that brings a sore throat and the
onset of the "Kathmandu cold," a discomforting sniffling that takes at
least three days to ease.

In Nepal, one does not see a doctor, but simply finds a small chemist
(pharmacy) shop and, after describing symptoms, receives packaged
medicines. For example, I bought a course of effective antibiotics
(which I ended up not using, but Pam did) for about $1. The water is not
drinkable, and all of it is filtered or purchased in plastic containers,
adding to the refuse.

The Guatam Boudha Gompa follows the Tibetan form of Buddhism, a complex
mixture of Buddhism and the ancient animalistic Bon religion. Elements
from Hinduism overlap. The monks range in age from 7 to some in their
late 20s. We were introduced to the acting lama, Karma Tshering, a
remarkable 21-year-old monk from Bhutan.

Most of the monks are from Nepal, Bhutan, India and Tibet. The Chinese
have exerted intense cultural disruption on Tibetan monasteries so that
whole populations of Tibetans and their culture have been resettled in
Nepal and India.

We taught two classes of an hour each. The first classes held about 14
monks ranging in age from 7 to their mid-teens. The second class had
older monks. There was no curriculum, no textbooks and certainly no
regular teachers. We didn't even have a clue as to what earlier
volunteer teachers had covered. The level of English proficiency ranged
from beginning to lower intermediate.

We immediately fell in love with the monks, who were eager to learn,
bright and extremely focused.

To our surprise, they had an enormous capacity for spirited play and
humor and were cheerfully willing to try anything. They also had an
ability to focus that's just not found in children in this country.

Before, between and after classes, we went to the lama's room and had
tea, crackers and soda. Karma was the perfect host and was very
attentive to our every need. We soon grew to love and respect his focus
and intelligence. Karma comes from Bhutan, and his mother still lives
there in a small village. In addition to his studies, which included
mastering Tibetan (all scriptures and prayers were in Tibetan),
Nepalese, dialects of Hindi, and English, he was tremendously curious
about the outside world. He was delighted when I left my computer with
him so he could practice.

Karma took us on an intimate tour of the monastery. The gompa consists
of the living and teaching areas and a four-tiered structure for prayers
and pujas (extended prayer sessions). As the levels rise, the importance
of the manifestation of the deity elevates, culminating with the
Bodhisattva of Compassion.

Extraordinary paintings and statues filled each level. It turned out
that Karma was also the music teacher, and he demonstrated the Tibetan
long horn and cymbals that characterize Tibetan music. He was also adept
at making the beautiful torten, flowers made of colored wax and butter,
which decorated the altars. He is a particularly good football (soccer)
player, having won awards in India and on his local team.

We divided the classes into two age groups in each class. We focused
mostly on grammar, sentence construction, verb forms and vocabulary.
What we found was that the monks, who learn primarily by rote and
chanting, were excellent at repetition but somewhat lost when we asked
for more independent response and thought.

We kept things short and spirited, and as a loosening up exercise, Pam
led them in doing the hokey-pokey. The sight of monks of all sizes and
ages doing an energetic hokey-pokey is a memory we'll always treasure!

We also brought photos of the large game animals in Montana, grizzly
bears fascinated them, and Pam led them in singing the Montana state
song. Montana now has a solid group of fans in Nepal.

The last day was a sad, bittersweet experience. We brought in pens and
balloons for each student. As soon as we inflated and set loose the
balloons, a riotous clamor for them commenced. We said goodbye to each
student, but formed a special relationship with Karma. He came to call
us mother and father, and we still maintain contact with him.
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