School in Tibet in the old days was, as described by my husband Kalsang who attended Lhasa’s Nyarongsha School in the 50’s, an institution that taught exclusively calligraphy, dispensed a wide array of punishments, and had painfully long hours. In short, it had all the elements for inducing extreme boredom tempered by fear. As Kalsang described it, returning to school after 15 days of glorious summer picnicking by the river was like going from heaven to hell.
These methods, which were the only ones known, provided the guidelines for education in the early times of the reestablished monasteries in South India. In Tibet, monks generally enrolled in the monasteries in their teens or twenties and already knew how to read and write. If they enrolled at a young age, it was their teacher’s responsibility to teach them the basics . In India, the Buxa monks, after moving from the former internment camp in Assam, their home for ten years, to the new settlements in the South, began to enroll new monks. These were inevitably very young, children of refugees and new settlers, many who sent over a son or two to lessen their burden. The monks had no choice but to set up a school of sorts to teach them collectively how to read and write, in the only way that they knew. Around fifteen, they would begin the monastic curriculum, which was highly complex and demanding, and they had to be ready.
Loseling School, which I visited in 1978, was a simple rectangular structure where boys between five and twelve sat cross legged on the mud floor, a large wooden tablet spread on their laps. As in Tibet, they practiced on an erasable surface, as paper was scarce and resources limited. They etched letters into the tablet, and brought the result for review to their teacher, who sat menacingly at the front of the class, an electric wire (not a live one) in hand, ready to strike at any emerging naughtiness. The atmosphere in the room was electrifying; the energy of forty feisty boys bottled up doing something very boring, constantly weighing the urge for a prank against the deterrent of the wire. The scene was beautiful, though and I never tired to walking by to photograph it.
In the years that followed, talk emerged of a better education for young monks, one that would introduce math and science, and even English. Elder monks were always afraid that the lure of the outside world would lead their young pupils astray, but in the mid 80’s monastery recruits began to pour out of Tibet, swelling the numbers. Sera Je in Bylakuppe settlement lead the way with a progressive school funded by an Italian monk, and the other Colleges followed. When I visited in 2016, all had modern style schools. Loseling still had the calligraphy class, but the teacher sat in a relaxed manner at the front of the class, reviewing his pupil’s tablets in a conciliatory and helpful manner. The room was calm; within an hour or so, the children knew they could play, jump and run outside in the school’s recess ground.
In other classrooms, English, science and math were being taught, even to older monks who had begun the monastery’s curriculum. Concepts that would have elicited suspicion and doubt thirty years back were the new normal.