A letter from the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan…

Karma wrote us a letter from Thimphu, the capital of the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan, about her amazing educational project in the Tharpaling Monastery in Bumthang:

It was in October 2013 coinciding with the peak season for foreign tourists, I invited some of my friends from Austria and Germany as personal guests to the Kingdom of Bhutan; a last bastion of peace and tranquillity on earth. Once in Bhutan, we jointly prepared an itinerary to visit some of the most remote places and hamlets of Bhutan starting from Paro in the west to Samdrup Jongkhar in the far east. We visited several places of historical importance such as monasteries and temples and also schools, in which modern education is being imparted and taught. This is done in order to find the best suitable project for observing one of the important events relating to the YOU Foundation-Education for Children in Need, also formally known as Foundation for UNESCO-Education for Children in Need in 2013.

During our onward trip to Bumthang in the central part of Bhutan, we also made it to the Tharpaling Buddhist Monastery. Tharpaling Monastery was built in the 14th century by Lama Kuenphen Longchenpa during his self-exile from Tibet for 10 years. The place was also used for retreat and meditation by several great Lamas such as Jigme Lingpa, Nyoshel Khen Rinpoche and Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche. It is located at an altitude of 3,600 meters in a very remote area, which is ideal for practicing monks, who seek peace and solitude. The journey takes about ten to eleven hours by car from the capital city, Thimphu, to the nearest town, which is Chumey. 

After another 2-hour drive by car and a walk on foot in torrential rain, we finally reached the Tharpaling Monastery. The Head Abbot, His Eminence Chungtrul Rinpoche, warmly welcomed us with traditional butter tea and meals prepared by the monks, who were learning and practising Buddhism in a secluded sacred place, away from the hustles and bustles of modern cities. We were surprised to learn that Rinpoche was fluent in English and he was able to communicate and share with us some of the difficult problems faced by his institute and the monks. 

He explained how the monks were taught in Buddhist literature and the practices followed by them and how many of them came to the monastery. The parents in Bhutan send their children to monasteries to become monks so that they can receive Buddhist teachings and lead a spiritual life for their benefit, as well as for that of all living beings. However, it is often a question of poverty for the families to send a child to become a monk once they are accepted. The monastery covers the basics needs of the novice. Children get enrolled as monks at the very early age of four to five years.

At a later stage of their life monks become teachers and religious heads of social communities. However, at the age of at least 17, the novices can decide if they want to return to their families or stay in the monastery forever.

The monastery is an important religious landmark of Bhutan, a Buddhist school where an ancient specific monastic tradition is taught, and which holds an annual prayer, a Moenlam, in the first lunar month.

Winters in this area are very cold, which makes the life of monks very difficult. Learning at present is still done like it used to be many decades even centuries ago untouched by modern technology. 

In our modern time, monks elsewhere in urban areas can access modern technology to make learning easier and more convenient. Nowadays, many religious texts are available in soft copy. Religious teachings by great masters are readily available in the internet and a vivid interchange of opinions takes place in the World Wide Web. Also, life skills, important for all and in every situation, can be taught via the internet and information can be spread by email or skype. Such technological access was not available in the Tharpaling Monastery. 

Chungtrul Rinpoche’s main concern was that the monks did not have easy access to the modern education system and were thus deprived of the benefits of modern education as compared to their counterparts, who were taught in modern schools. Once the monks graduated from the monasteries, they were equipped with only Buddhist teachings; they had no skills to interact with outsiders, who were conversant in English language and information technology. 

Our small group was quite amazed with the succinct description of the difficulties by the Rinpoche affecting his monastery. While the visitors tried to speak to young monks, they could not speak a word in English though they gave wide smiles to the visitors. 

Accordingly, we all agreed that we could start working on a program that provides education in basic English and in IT/computer knowledge to enhance the chances of the under-privileged youth in rural areas. Chungtrul Rinpoche assured the team the full cooperation of the monastery as well as the provision of space and security.

As envisage in the project, there is more usage of English language and IT technology in recent times in exchanging information with other religious and civil organizations in the country. However, this monastery could not provide such facilities due to limited financial support.

We thought it necessary to align the project with the government development policies so that the project could supplement and complement the national efforts to distribute development activities evenly. The project team learned the need to cross-check with the government to see if the projects are being planned in such a way as to be implemented effectively and efficiently in line with the national development policies, and to get approval before hand so that there is no waste of time in preparing proposals that cannot be carried out.

Learning English at the monastery and communicating with rest of the world by using IT technology has greatly helped the monks, who aspire to share their knowledge and exchange views with different communities of monks and the Buddhism practicing people around the World. This facility has increased their possibilities to reach out to different communities and societies and the use of IT technology has particularly been useful spreading Buddhist teachings in a very direct form.  

Not withstanding the above benefits, it is vital to note another lesson learned. There are many areas which the government tries to give support both economically and socially, but it is not able to reach all corners of the country. The project team derived full satisfaction in being able to supplement the government’s development goals and to contribute to the overall development of Bhutan.

The Tharpaling Monastery project enabled the use of basic computer literacy and English language as a medium of learning and communicating. The project activities were carried out for two years and were extended for one more year i.e., until 31 March 2018 at the request of the Head of the Monastery and due to diligent and economical use of the funds.  The Tharpaling Monastery is located in an area, which is opening slowly to tourism. Along with the Buddhist studies, learning English has become a necessity to be able to communicate with foreign visitors and to exchange ideas, view-points and knowledge.  Also, English is the second language in the country and most of the texts are also translated in English these days.

Apart from educational support, the monastery was also supplied with  giant size (250 litres) hot water boilers. This was extremely necessary and of high demand as no adequate hygienic facilities nor wastewater disposal existed at this very remote and high altitude religious School. It was such a joy to see the young novices take their first hot bathing ever in a wooden tub together with their friends.

I am so grateful to all of you who contributed so generously to this project and I do know, that His Eminence Chungtrul Rinpoche and all of his other senior monks, teachers and the students join in my words of gratitude. 

It was a lifetime experience for me to work with such worldwide renowned organizations, the UNESCO, the YOU Foundation and HOPE'87. 

Thank you so much! 

Tashi Delek from Bhutan!