The Spirit and the Letters
When Tibetan refugees fled to India, one Rinpoche set up a school to preserve their traditions. To mark its 50th anniversary, Sudurjaya reports on a remarkable place where the pupils are so happy that learning is a Joy
A Dharmachakra wheel stands in the central courtyard of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Institute (ITBCI). Around this symbol of the BuddhaÕs teaching is engraved the motto of Dhardo Rinpoche, the Tibetan Lama who founded the school in the Himalayan town of Kalimpong. Cherish the Doctrine, Live United, Radiate Love.
When I taught at the ITBCI, I came to believe that the whole community in this remarkable school Ð teachers, students, families and visitors Ð still truly embody this motto of Dhardo Rinpoche. For a western Buddhist visitor, being at the ITBCI was a magical experience. Imagine meditating while in the background mantras of the 21 versions of the Bodhisattva Tara are chanted rhythmically by
children; the cacophony of noise at the end of the Manjusri mantra; the quiet voice of Yeshe Namgye, the old Geshe monk who lives at the school, teaching the Dharma in Tibetan. After meditation, looking out down the Teesta river, I would see banks of cloud moving up the valley until the landscape disappeared.
Dhardo Rinpoche founded the ITBCI in 1954. It was the first school of its kind to be set up
in India and so it is the oldest Tibetan refugee school in existence. In the 1950s many Tibetan refugees fled to Kalimpong in the beautiful Himalayan foothills of North-east India. Dhardo Rinpoche foresaw the Chinese occupation of Tibet and was deeply concerned that the Tibetan religious and cultural heritage should not be lost. His vision was to provide an education for the children of these refugees that included Buddhism and Tibetan cultural studies as well
as the usual school curriculum.
Teachers worked for miniscule salaries and the members
of the Tibetan community supported the school. Rinpoche kept it going for many years until funding became too difficult. It was then that my teacher, Sangharakshita (who founded the Western Buddhist Order in Britain), a close friend and student of Dhardo RinpocheÕs, helped to raise funds. After visits from members of the wbo, the charity they had founded Ð now called the Karuna Trust Ð became a major supporter.
Dhardo Rinpoche wanted the school to be open to any child who wanted a Buddhist education, so alongside Tibetans, there are Buddhists who are Bhutanese, Bhutias, Sikkhimese, Lepchas, Tamangs, Gurkhas, Nepalis, Newars, Assamese, and Mawaris. Many students speak four or more languages and often come from remote places, as much as five daysÕ journey away. The school also caters for poorer students, many of whom receive sponsorship.
As a schoolteacher and a member of the wbo, I res-ponded to a plea for English teachers from the headmaster, Jampel Kaldhen. In 1957 Rinpoche invited Jampel, then 10 years old, to leave Tibet and join him in India. Jampel Kaldhen became manager and translator for Rinpoche until his death in 1990. The Kaldhen family lives very simply at the school with three other families; the pupils, especially the boarders, seemed to be regarded as extensions of these families, and treated with as much care. Consequently the children all seemed happy and emotionally secure. When my son Vincente and I arrived, we were welcomed wholeheartedly and experienced so much love and friendliness.
ÔDhardo Rinpoche wanted the ITBCI to be built Òlike a monasteryÓ,Õ Jampel told me, and Buddhist emblems and symbols abound. There is the wheel and deer emblem found on most Buddhist monasteries, symbolising the BuddhaÕs first teaching in the Deer Park at Sarnath. There are Makaras, mythical guardians in the form of composite animals, on the roofs of the two uppermost schoolrooms. One of these rooms is the shrine room containing the life-sized statue of Dhardo Rinpoche made after his death. The other is the future living space for the KaldhenÕs grandson who was recognised as the tulku or ÔrebirthÕ of Dhardo Rinpoche and, now aged 12, is studying at Drepung Monastery in South India. DhardoÕs own rooms have been preserved and are cared for by both adults and pupils. Butter lamps burn constantly on all the shrines.
At the ITBCI all subjects are taught in English. I taught English Literature to classes from second to fifth year. Unlike most schools where the ages are the same at each level, the pupilsÕ ages varied significantly. This was because some started their education late due to family circumstances and joined the class appropriate to their level. I was impressed by their strong motivation to learn and their gratitude to the school. I found that storytelling, drawing and bookmaking, so much a part of my teaching in London, were taken up eagerly by the students, although some were concerned that they werenÕt being taught what was needed for their exams.
Their usual way of learning is by rote. Frequently we ended lessons with songs, the children belting out the words with huge smiles on their faces. In their workbooks I often came across the words of the songs written from memory. In fact there were few times during the day or evening when singing could not be heard. Auntie (the matron) would often say, ÔThey are so happy,Õ and I could only agree.
Children who are not coping at other schools are welcomed, which is quite unusual for India. One boy, a day scholar, was admitted after being excluded by other schools for truanting. He was at least 10 and found it hard to settle, crying and screaming before assembly every morning. Eventually the difficulty was solved by allowing him to ÔleadÕ the prayers.
Some years ago the late Mrs Kaldhen discovered a young boy begging in the street and brought him into the school. His mother was desperately poor, working as a labourer whenever she could. Sponsorship was quickly organised to pay for him to attend school. While I was there, he was admitted to hospital with TB. ÔAuntieÕ visited him every day and Jampel paid for his medicine out of the school funds. I was surprised to meet him one day near the derelict buildings adjacent to the cremation ground. This is where his extended family lives.
The most important part of Dhardo RinpocheÕs vision is that the school teaches Buddhism and Tibetan culture as well as a high-quality education. The students chant their prayers in Tibetan every day before and after school. I loved hearing the different tones of the three and four-year-olds shouting prayers with great gusto in their own classroom. Vincente and I would be in our room, which was above the classroom, laughing with delight at their enthusiasm. The boarders chant before and after meals, before and after study periods, and for an hour every afternoon. All the students chant the Buddhist precepts, homages to Manjusri, and sing the Tibetan and Indian National Anthems. They also recite the ÔRejoicing in the Merits of Dhardo RinpocheÕ, written by Sangharakshita, in English.
They learn Tibetan language, cultural dances, songs and music, and are often invited to perform publicly in Kalimpong, Darjeel-ing, elsewhere in India, and in Europe. One of the dances, Tashi Shova, is performed with masks, sticks and much stomping of feet, and calls on the Bodhisattva Vajrapani to purify the stage for the performances to follow. As they develop their skills, children gradually learn the religious sig-nificance of particular dances and songs. They also perform music from Tibetan folk traditions.
Staying with JampelÕs family I saw how many people, including ex-students and foreign visitors, felt they belonged, even more than they belonged to their own family. I felt I was sharing my life with 100 other people who all cared for me and my son, and I loved seeing the wholehearted acceptance of young people within a community Ð the older pupils acting as surrogate brothers and sisters to the younger ones. I delighted in watching Soiba, the cookÕs little two-year-old, joining in with assemblies, kindergarten classes and football. When I showed him my Tara statue, he kept pulling it towards him, touching it with has forehead, a Tibetan act of devotion. Living in this community gave me a sense of how deep devotional feelings run in Tibetan Buddhist conditioning.
My life has changed profoundly through living in Dhardo RinpocheÕs realm. At times I experienced a remarkable force leading me to strong insights. In his rooms I felt like a baby amid an infinite spiritual landscape; and his influence evidently lives on in the atmosphere of the school itself. This is a remarkable school where the children feel so secure and happy that learning is a pleasure.