FEATURE: From philosophy and meditation to basic English

THIMPHU (Kuensel/ANN) -  Somewhere in India, more than 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha of the Shakya clan left his princely state in search of universal truth. He taught his followers to renounce the worldly knowledge and seek wisdom instead.

After 2,500 years, the situation is a little different in almost all Buddhist countries. The need of intellectual knowledge and modern education is reflected in Buddhist conferences, workshops, research, and panel discussions. To adapt with changing times, it is considered an important component to attain the supreme goal of enlightenment.  

The globalised world required Bhutan to pave a similar road to her red-robed communities as well.

In the outskirts of Thimphu, Tango Buddhist University stands as an epitome of Buddhist studies in the country. Aspiring monks from around the country come to the centre, to pursue both monastic and modern education.

The clock struck one in the afternoon. Tightly clutching on his notebook, Sonam Dorji, a follower of the Buddha’s path briskly walked towards his classroom for his daily English lesson.

Before entering the class, he timidly smiled and bowed. A contract teacher at the university, Dorji Dema asked the class, “What should you say?” The class replied in unison, “Please can I come in, Madam?”

Dorji Dema began with a short story reading session and an exercise. Sonam Dorji and his 17 other friends in the first year giggled and took turns to read from a handout.

It was not a challenge for Sonam, who attended school till class four and continued to read English throughout his monastic life.

“There are other monks who did not even study pre-primary level English. It is difficult to teach at different levels in this way,” Dorji Dema said.

Meanwhile for monks, English learning was a brief escape from hours of meditation, focused on dense and serious subjects, and deep reflection. Roars of laughter filled the classroom with mispronounced words and strange accents.

About 48 monks in the university chose English over other optional subjects like Sanskrit and Information Technology.

Sonam Dorji took grave interest in learning the language. Daily, he spent about half an hour to read English posts and stories on social media websites, and eBooks. Whenever he faced difficulties, he referred to dictionary and other sources. He likes reading on meditation and books by Osho.

“With changing times, if we can’t communicate in English, we are like blind people,” he said.

The Human Resource Officer with the Central Monastic Education Council, Dorji Khando shared similar views.  He said that once the monks and nuns graduate with Bachelors or Masters in Buddhist studies, they should have high school equivalent certificate in case they want to pursue English language further. “They should be able to work and communicate with audience from different regions in social work, and dharma teachings.”

While Sonam Dorji doesn’t want to pursue ambitious career after learning English, Dorji Dema says otherwise.

“Upon graduation, most of the monks plan to go abroad as Buddhist teachers and translators whereas others choose to become Dzongkha teachers in the country,” she said.

However, on the other hand, program requires major reforms to deliver the aforementioned objectives. Dorji Khando said that, without uniformity in the curriculum, content of teaching depends on individual teachers. The teachers are recruited on contract basis due to lack of budget, which results in shortage of specialised and trained teachers for the job.

Dorji Dema said that lack of proper books and a library also hampers her teaching. Whatever she has to teach, she asks her friends in other schools and search the internet for resources. Currently, the monks are taught the non-formal education (NFE) level English which is not adequate for some at advanced level.

“The monks in second year refuse to learn NFE English because the course is not designed for monks. They don’t like it,” she said.

Back in the class, Sonam Dorji and his friends tried to read word by word, “Reading makes man perfect.”