This month Meg and I signed up for a two week volunteer program teaching English to ‘baby monks’ in a Tibetan monastery. It turned out to be completely different to how I’d imagined, and also one of the best things I’ve done in my trip.
Pema Ts’al Sakya Monastic Institute is a school and monastery that houses boys as young as four, who are sent there for their education. They are all from Tibetan refugee families who have left Tibet because of Chinese occupation. In the monastery they receive a high quality education that their parents would not have been able to afford, and they study Tibetan Buddism and language (both of which are under threat because Chinese language and culture is now dominant in Tibet). Not all of the students are monks, only those who choose to be. The boys don’t pay anything as the monastery and students are sponsored.
The boys were so far from the subdued, disciplined monks we anticipated. There were cheeky, sweet and full of personality – just normal schoolboys. There were ninety altogether – sixty in the six school grades and thirty studying their philosophy college degree. The volunteers were also some of the best people. They came from USA, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, England and were intelligent, genuine, talkative. There were lots of heated debates over the dinner tables.
The food was nice but repetitive. Tibetan bread for breakfast with potatoes, beans, peas or (if we were lucky) peanut butter and jam. Always dahl bat for lunch (rice, veg curry and lentil soup) – occasionally with a piece of fruit, bowl of yoghurt or a boiled egg. Dinner was very plain, steamed bread with miso soup/bean and egg soup/dahl, or fried rice or noodles with a tiny hint of carrot and onion. We went to Pokhara on the weekends to get our fill of fresh fruit and veg, sometimes meat, and of course coffee (and beer)!
There was no reliable wifi at the monastery and we only used it one morning of the whole time we were there. It was far nicer to be cut off from the world and engage in the life of the monastery. By the end I felt out of the loop with everything happening in Sydney and for that matter the world. It was so hard to leave and if we hadn’t already booked our flights to Myanmar we would have stayed an extra two weeks. As it was we only had three days spare so we stayed as long as we could – in total 2.5 weeks.
This building is where us volunteers and the college monks slept
Messing round before bedtime
Swimming in the river behind the monastery
One of my favourites in the classroom
The youngest monk dressing up as me