We just arrived on Sunday (yesterday) after a long 30-hour journey by train. We left Bodh Gaya in the middle of the night and spent a day on the train before arriving in Dehra Doon midday the next day. Trains are quite safe (as compared to buses and other means of public transport) and somewhat clean (the bathrooms, though…) but I still feel lucky to have arrived without any problems. We bought tickets in a good class and were comfortable in our bunks; despite the stinky Eastern toilets and the musty and moldy AC, we’re all good.
I just want to acknowledge how spectacular India is, and how blessed I feel to have such a rich experience of this country: living at the best Indian boarding school for five weeks in central India when I was 16, tourist-bus travelling Delhi-Agra-Jaipur with two German exchange students, a Korean-American girl and a Colombian boy, meditating and studying Buddhism for two months with Theravadan, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhist teachers including one reincarnated lama in Bodh Gaya, and now, travelling through North India and spending two weeks living at a Tibetan Children’s Village school among Tibetan children and teenagers about my age. Still, with this wide range of experience, I still don’t understand India. As much as I want to see many places and many countries, I really value revisiting countries.
We settled into the guesthouse above the office of Migmar Bhuti – the secretary and our contact person for our arrangements. All building are made of brick and inside our living space is furnished a bit like a cabin. Sam and I sleep in sizable double rooms with a big common room space in between overlooking the football field and the campus. I was initially in a single, but it didn’t have hot water and it had an Eastern toilet ( I know, I should just get used to it, but two weeks is a long time and it’s freezing here!), but most of all it just didn’t feel that living it (cobwebs and fist-sized spiders near my headboard). I guess the hot water isn’t necessary- feels a little but like we’re camping up in Yosemite – chilly-can’t-get-out-of-bed mornings, wrapped-in-a-shawl breakfasts and then the sun warms up the whole campus in the afternoon. My three layers of clothing becomes really excessive by noon. I wear my patagonia jacket almost all day, with leggings under my clothes- my body has been training for humid and hot Bodh Gaya.
Two of the students that I met at ISAK last year – Tenzin Kunsel and Tenzin Dadul met Sam and me at our rooms. After hugs, I introduced them to Sam. They toured us around campus. Every so often we’d come to a (site-specific) science project from their “Science Day” class projects. Houses made out of bottles, a podium and canopy made from recycled materials, an organic garden etc. Students find places of solitude on the grounds quite easily. The campus is spacious and green. Together we circumambulated all the circular paths (it’s customary to walk clockwise around circular paths even if it not the most direct path – this is sacred practice when at Buddhist stupas, generally, and it is done three times). They showed us the ‘healing farm,’ which is a huge patch of land that the student worked together to clear last year. The principal wanted this space, so every student contributed an hour of their free time every day for a month to pull weeds, clear trees, and plant fruit trees. In the middle is a tree that is a descendant of the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, symbolizing Buddha’s enlightenment.[added 26 November 2013] One of the coolest things is that we get to eat every meal with the children. The school is divided in hostels and homes. Students in Class 9 and above live in the girls and boys hostel respectively, and students Class 8 and below live in one of five homes. Each home has a ‘home mother’ who we call ‘Amala’. We were assigned to Home 1, where Tenzin Norzom and Tenzin Dadul live. Because Sam can’t eat gluten (wheat, bread, soy sauce, noodles, etc.), we were served lots of rice with lots of different vegetables. Each home and hostel has an altar with pictures of the Dalai Lama and many thanka paintings surrounding it. On the first night, we attended prayers in the home. Hearing young children chant together is quite powerful.
Interviews with Students
The day after we arrived, it was a Monday morning – the kids rose early for morning exercises at 6am, while Sam and I struggled to get out of bed. We walked over for breakfast, then got ready for assembly. At assembly, the Principal, Duke Tsering-la (‘la’ for respect) introduced us first as Alexx Temena and Sam, then Alexx Tomena and Tam. The students kept joking about this. He spoke a lot about the school’s relationship with ISAK and his gratitude that ISAK has provided so many scholarships for the students. I’m not the one giving out the money, but he was thanking me. It was wonderful to hear how much they value ISAK. They draped us with traditional katas, which are white scarves – symbolizing something along the lines of giving someone flowers (Tibet is too cold for flowers). After assembly, we met with Duke-la, Migmar-la (the secretary) and Gompo-la (Asst. Headmaster) in the Principal’s office and Duke-la said, “Okay, so we’re here to talk about what you need to complete your project. Tell us what you need and we’ll arrange it.” Boom. Easy. They starting naming of students that they would arrange us meetings with and told us that we’d have ‘empty periods’ with students. I wasn’t sure what that meant.
The next day we were given a schedule. Entire classes of Class 12 and Class 11 students were to meet us in the meditation hall throughout the day. And we were to have individual interviews in addition. Good thing I scrambled some interview questions the night before. We were only somewhat prepared when our first interviewee arrived.
I have so many things to say about our interviews! Actually, I have about 30 pages of notes from interviews with students and teachers. Here are a few highlights:
1. Overall, the students have a level of generosity and compassion that I’ve never ever seen before in any other community. If I thought ISAK students were compassionate ( and I still do! ), this is a different realm of compassion. I asked questions about their motto, ‘others before self’, and in my opinion, it seemed so natural to them that they didn’t have much to say. Duh. You think about others before yourself. You help others. That’s just what you do.
2. Many of the students have escaped from Tibet. Their parents are still in Tibet and they have little contact with them. One student told us about hiding from a Chinese camp and walking through the mountains to get to Nepal. One student told us how she called her parents from Nepal and as soon as she said the words “I made it to Nepal” they hung up because they knew she didn’t have enough money to continue talking. This student politely asked us not to write her name down out of fear that she will be found out by the Chinese and sent back. Migmar-la and others have told us about how the numbers of students arriving from Tibet are dwindling because of the increasing border control and manipulation of the Nepalese government. Further, some students are forced to leave the TCV to go back to their families in Tibet.
3. These students are the brightest of the brightest in the TCV system. They are selected from the dozen other schools in India to go to TCV Selakui based on their exam performance. They are curious and really hungry to understand everything – many students have asked Sam and me to talk to them about applying for US universities or to help them plan their careers. Many students are interested in neuroscience, so they ask me how to become a neuroscientist (as if I know how…). We spent lots of time trying to give back by talking to the kids about the Common App and opportunities for financial aid, and trying to broaden their idea of US universities by introducing to them schools outside of the big three Ivies.
4. Regarding my topic in particular, it was hard to find how Buddhism “influences” the school. Buddhism is so ingrained in their culture that is inaccurate to present it as an “influence” in their “secular” school. Students were hard-pressed to find ways that they school is “influenced” by Buddhism – and probably tried to see their school from my Western and secular-school perspective in order to provide an answer to my question. They came up with things with prayers in the evenings, but we received lots of answers like, “I can’t really tell what the Buddhist influences. It’s just part of my culture. I grew up with it.”
It’s 12pm right now and I just found out my train to Gaya is cancelled. So, I’m gonna go deal with that over lunch. I have so much left to say! Stay tuned.