Teaching Tibetan Monks English

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    Oct 02, 2013
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Teaching Tibetan Monks English Photo by Sezgi Yalin

‘A strong mind and heart, you have,’ softly said Tashi, a 25-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monk, as we reached the peak of a mountain about 5,000 meters high, resting proudly south-east of the Ganden Monastery in Tibet. It took us about two hours to climb the steep mountain patched with snow and the yaks’ favorite sweet green grass. We could now see the 598-year-old Ganden from top with its temple of golden roof and count the tiny matchbox-like rooms of 450 monks. The room of Tashi-the-monk was among these rooms, and in that particular room, I stayed for about a week in May 2007.

When I was strolling through the narrow streets of the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa in late May and throwing curious looks into several Tibetan tea shops, a man in his middle thirties approached me with a never ceasing smile that Tibetans usually wear on their faces. He invited me into a tiny tea shop, and the conversation I had with him determined my time in Tibet in the next one week. This man is the brother of Tashi – the monk whose room I stayed in at Ganden monastery, and he introduced me to Tashi who in turn invited me to teach English to some of the monks at his monastery.

This was my second time venturing into something forbidden in Tibet or the Tibetan Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – a name imposed by the PRC on the occupied land of Tibet. My nationality – being a Turkish Cypriot – would not matter in the least to the PRC but being a foreigner definitely would. Without a Tibet Tourism Bureau Permit (TTB), not a single foreigner is allowed to enter Tibet which is under strict political control of the PRC, and without the consent of the Chinese police, no one is permitted to stay within a Tibetan monastery – especially in a monk’s room. My first ‘illegal’ act was when I entered Tibet from China and traveled through East Tibet to reach Lhasa on a motorbike with two of my friends without a TTB permit from the Chinese authorities. My second misdemeanor was staying at Ganden monastery and teaching English to four Tibetan monks each night at 8 pm for two hours.

Each morning, the therapeutic chanting of the monk next room combined with the soft whispers of a crisp mountain breeze woke me up in Tashi’s room. And there was only one single reason to come out of my sleeping bag and to remove the thick black coat Tashi wears when praying in a lotus position in his room – it was Tashi himself, who softly knocked the door at 6 am every day to prepare us a breakfast of butter tea and tsampa – roasted barley mixed with yak cheese. His greeting tashi deleg was always followed by a modest smile when scrutinizing the five layers of clothes I wore when going to bed every night. I always felt warmer outside the monastery when I occasionally went out to take walks with Tashi around the monastery or during nights when I walked to another monk’s room for my English lessons.

I walked to my class at nights with a cheap Chinese flashlight in hand and with Tashi, who always made sure I did not step into snow or fall into small holes carved by ice. As we reached our classroom through the eerie silence and darkness of night, I always imagined the monks’ rooms to be fireflies, with unstable electric currency flowing into the single electric bulb dangling from their wooden roofs.

Our classroom was in the quarter of a monk called Gonbo, who has been at the same monastery for 15 years and is now eligible to stay in a quarter with three rooms. Gonbo is also the English teacher-in-residence and speaks English more fluently than my other monk students. He uses the same tiny classroom at nights as well to teach those monks at Ganden willing to improve their English.

‘I know it is too small; you are probably used to teaching in bigger classrooms,’ said Gonbo, avoiding direct eye contact with me, perhaps thinking I would feel uncomfortable teaching here. As tiny as a rectangular matchbox with an iron stove and two mattresses on a mud floor, our classroom gave me hardly any space to move but was humble as it could get.

I sometimes sat on one of the mattresses by the iron stove to allow the monks practice speaking English in pairs. I listened to them carefully to later point out major grammar mistakes but at the same time, I was lured into the silence around us sometimes disturbed by the iron stove, slowly gobbling the yak manure. Other times, I moved to the square white board hung loosely on one of the white washed walls to write new vocabulary. Gonbo’s only board marker was hardly visible on the white board which was big and wide enough to allow me to write four or five words at a time.

The monks’ enthusiasm to learn more and improve their English was so overwhelming that it would always break the eerie silence and dimness engulfing us on the Tibetan roof of the world and dispel the damp smell of the room invigorated by the snow water slowly seeping through the walls. 

‘Tibet is magical,’ said one of the monks as he stood up to present his country during one of our lessons and as the other students got ready to note down any mistakes in his English. ‘Buddhism is our way of life, and Tibetans are deeply religious people,’ he continued, concentrating on pronouncing the words accurately and fully devoting his heart to the presentation of his beloved land and people.  

‘Our lives are simple,’ he continued, briefly stopping to look into my eyes to see if I agreed. ‘Simplicity is not only practiced in monasteries – it carries itself out into everyone’s lives in Tibet.’

The word ‘simplicity’ momentarily sent me back to my room in the monastery – one narrow bed, an alarm clock, several Buddhist prayer books on a colorful Tibetan chest, some postcards from Australia, the picture of Ganden Monastery Lama, a small oven, a huge slab of yak meat dangling from the ceiling, Tashi’s ceremonial robe and hat, and a bucket to carry water from the monastery well. ‘This is all Tashi owns in life,’ I reminded myself, ‘and a heart of gold and a mind of steel.’

The voice of the presenter brought my thoughts from my room back to our classroom. ‘Not only simple but strong, too – my people in Tibet,’ he concluded his speech. ‘As strong as your English,’ I praised the presenter’s language skills, encouraging everyone in class to applaud him.

A tiny damp classroom almost ready to collapse, dim nights brightened by a tiny electrical bulb or sometimes candles, and chilly nights warmed by yak manure…a strong mind and heart one must have to spend two hours of hard work under these conditions to improve English, especially after a long relentless day of Buddhism studies and daily life chores at an altitude of 4,500m away from the comforts of ‘civilization’ but in the midst of continuing Chinese government oppression. And my students, the Tibetan Buddhist monks of the Ganden monastery, do carry, undoubtedly, minds and hearts – mighty as the mountain nobly resting by their monastery. 

(Names and placenames have been changed)

Author's Profile

Sezgi Yalin earned her M.A. in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and English Literature. She worked as an English teacher and teacher trainer in the USA and Poland, and gained additional experience in the field in various countries such as UK, Spain, Egypt, China, Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam and Turkey. Read more of Sezgi's articles at sezgiyalinteachingntravelling.com.

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