Inspiration

We Spoke to Former Monk Lobsang Phuntsok to Understand His Life as a Teacher at Jhamtse Gatsal

Apoorva Chakravarty
We Spoke to Former Monk Lobsang Phuntsok to Understand His Life as a Teacher at Jhamtse Gatsal

JHAMTSE GATSAL, which means “garden of love and compassion” in Tibetan, is a children’s community in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, India. It was founded by a former monk, Lobsang Phuntsok, in 2006, with only 34 children, three teachers, two housemothers, and three support staff.

Lobsang La was trained to be a Monk at the Sera Je Monastery in South India. He attended the Millennium World Peace conference at the United Nations and taught Buddhist philosophy in the United States and Canada. In the past, he’s given talks and conducted workshops on education, peace, non-violence, leadership, and integrating the universal principles of love and compassion in diverse fields at Harvard University, Boston University and Clark University among other educational institutions.

But even after doing such substantial work, he did not feel at peace within, which is why he came back to India to do something for the children of his region. Those kids who are most at-risk of having a destructive path in their lives, of being lost, those kids in whom he saw himself.

Here is an exclusive interview from the easternmost wilderness of India, narrating a simple and humble story of a former monk and his resolve to be a father to the orphaned children of his community.

Excerpts:

Being trained as a monk, your life has been pretty unusual. Somehow it is expected that monks would stay on the same path, whereas you chose your own and started Jhamtse Gatsal. Would you please share what went on within you to believe in a new direction? 

There are two kinds of people who go to the monastery: those, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who have the natural gift of wisdom and compassion. Then, there are struggling people like me for whom even society has no place. I was sent to the monastery by my grandparents so that I could have a place to belong. While the journey at the monastery is that of becoming; for me, and for others like me, it is a journey of unbecoming and shedding the baggage of my past, of evolving.

My years of growing up in a monastery certainly gave me a different preparation for life. The troubled start of my life was very similar to that of most of the children at Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community today. My grandparents sent me to the monastery because they were worried about the person I was becoming and that there would be no one to look after me after they passed away. They believed that monastic life could help me find my humanness. In their eyes, I did not even qualify as a human being because of my challenges. They were not wrong. I needed the discipline and structure that a monastery can offer to be able to heal myself. In my monastery, I also found some of the most skilled teachers who could support me in my journey of unbecoming to becoming.

When I was the most unlovable, they loved me dearly;

When I did not trust myself, they never stopped believing in me;

And when I saw no hope in myself or my life, they saw great potential in me.

This potent mix of love, trust and hope with discipline and structure revived my love for myself, which fueled my ability to trust myself and believe in my potential. So, in a nutshell, my grandparents gave me the gift of finding the human in me and my teachers helped me find my purpose in life.

While I deeply appreciate what monastic life had to offer me, somewhere I also began to wonder if it was the only way to help children like myself break free from their past to find meaning in their life and build a purposeful life. Thus, the dream of creating Jhamtse Gatsal was born. There were many children in my own native region who were struggling to survive. I felt a deep connection to them and wanted to give them space where they could experience childhood as well as learn the internal and external skills to build a happy and enriching life.

I feel that building the essential skills of love, compassion, trust and belief is lacking in our modern education today. With our resolute focus on academic excellence, we are preparing our young for market needs, but we are also making them fragile in life. Reading about the growing mental health challenges in our youth deeply saddens me. Our ancient educational models had this beautiful amalgamation of developing inner and outer skills, but we have lost them along the way. Jhamtse Gatsal is my small endeavour to revive that inclusive and holistic educational model which prepares our young to make the world a kinder, gentler and accepting space for all. 

What kinds of difficulties did you face during the inception of Jhamtse Gatsaland what was as easy as breathing?

Nothing came easily when we started Jhamtse Gatsal. Our remote wilderness in the least developed circle of our district made it challenging to meet even the most basic necessities of daily life like potable water, electricity, food, connectivity, etc. We used to send our truck - our only mode of transportation - with two large water tanks to the nearest water source to bring water to the Community. We got whatever food supplies were locally available to provide three square meals a day to the children. We had no phone, forget the cellphone, connectivity! We sent a person twice a week to go halfway to the nearest town (about 8 km away) and someone came from the other side to exchange news of what was happening around us. We did everything we could to keep our children safe and healthy because access to healthcare was inadequate. We had no power and survived on kerosene lamps.

To top it all, we faced scepticism and disbelief from everyone around us. The children at Jhamtse Gatsal found a home, but the Community became orphaned with little support from those around us. We lived a very Survivor-esque life! However, the ray of hope and sunshine in our lives was the Community itself. The people who were here believed that this was not just work; it was their life’s purpose. We had a thriving community spirit with a lot of laughter and time to spend with each other. I miss those days now. While life may have been hard in many ways, being surrounded by supportive and caring people, many of whom are still with us today, made it all worthwhile!

How many children does your community host? Is it difficult to gain the trust of these children as they have suffered so much in such young ages? 

Today, the Community has 103 children in its care, ranging from preschoolers to young adults pursuing higher education in different parts of the country.

As parents, we don't worry about trust when we are raising our children. The harshest consequence we can set for our children is that we would send them back to the villages. Hearing this is very difficult for them because it leaves them feeling that we may have exhausted all of our resources to reach out to them. However, it’s not the fear of this ultimate consequence which stops our children from misbehaving or making mistakes. It is our understanding and acceptance of them despite their behaviours which makes them transform themselves. Their misbehaviours and mistakes are not the real issues. The true reasons are their underlying and unresolved wounds from the past which make them ask for love and care through the most unloving behaviours and attitudes. Their struggle is not trusting, but not knowing how to ask for the help they need.

What positive changes do you see in the children and the community around, after all these years?

Most of the children at Jhamtse Gatsal would have been vulnerable or at high risk of falling into a life of addiction and/or crime had the Community not accepted them. They would have become a liability to society. However, at Jhamtse Gatsal, the children learn to heal themselves and transform their lives. They are able to alter the course of their life from barely surviving to becoming contributors to society. The most positive change that I see in the children today is that where they had nothing and no hope in their life; today, they are dreaming and thinking of doing something for the world at large; they are thinking of paying forward the kindness of their supporters and caregivers. This, to me, is the biggest achievement of all. 

As for the positive change in the region, I think the grandfather of one of our children best described how he witnessed the growth of Jhamtse Gatsal. He told me that he was sceptical about sending his grandson here, but today he is happy that his grandson is a part of Jhamtse Gatsal. He said that our children are not handicapped by modern education, rather their education prepares them fully for every aspect of life irrespective of where they may choose to live. Often, modern education only prepares us with one tool or in one skill, but it handicaps us in all of the other aspects of life. The fact that children at Jhamtse Gatsal learn to take care of their surroundings, grow their own vegetables, live sustainably, participate in all community activities, be it cooking, cleaning, carpentry, masonry, day-to-day management, traditional practices, etc., they are prepared for life. He appreciates that the inclusive and holistic educational model of Jhamtse Gatsal has prepared children such that they can fit in just as comfortably in their remote villages as in the hub-bub of city life. He appreciates that the children are self-reliant and independent with a diverse toolkit of skills and infinite opportunities to explore.

Take us through an ordinary day at Jhamtse Gatsal, to what extent does your direct contact with the children remain possible on a regular basis?

At Jhamtse Gatsal, every day is much like it would be for a family. Children start their day with meditation, clean the campus, do their chores and go to school. A lot of life skills like cooking, cleaning, farming, etc. are integrated into their routines. I consider my role in Jhamtse Gatsal to be more of a father than a director. Just like any father, I try to spend as much time as possible with my children. Apart from the 1-2 months that I spend travelling to different countries to share our story, I spend all my time in the Community. We live together, eat together and work together. As a director, I do oversee the day-to-day operations of the Community, but I make it my priority to spend time with the children and hear about their life, their struggles and their joys.  

How is the organisation kept afloat monetarily?

Our biggest contributors are individual donors, supporters and friends of Jhamtse Gatsal. We have also received a corpus fund from the State Government of Arunachal Pradesh, which gives us a steady source of yearly income. Finally, a recurring grant from Wipro Cares, the CSR-initiative of Wipro Ltd., helps us meet our financial needs.

How do the geographical location and lack of internet or phone signals affect the daily education of children?

While technology has an important role to play in our younger generation’s life today and there can be great purpose and value to it, I feel that it is mostly overused and ineffective in building the right kind of skills in our children. Personally, I see a great benefit in having access to these tools as young adults when children are more capable of building a healthy relationship with the use of technology. I see great opportunities in our remote location to create a distraction-free and relationship-rich environment to raise our children. Most significantly, our children are saved from being inundated by a conflicting plethora of choices from a young age, which are a daily struggle for children in urban settings. Furthermore, given the lack of access to technology, we have found that when children are compelled to find solutions to their problems instead of becoming dependent on the Internet to get their answers, it helps build their logical thinking and reasoning capabilities. Even with the fairly limited access to technology, many of us at the Community feel that our dependence to it has grown in the past few years. This has sparked an interesting debate among community members to consider creating tech-free days, weeks or months.

This being said, we understand the need of this generation and children at Jhamtse Gatsal are allowed the use of computers and technology for educational and research purposes as they grow older. When they go on to pursue their higher education, they get their first cell phones and laptops to facilitate communication and learning requirements. Emergency life and medical situations are the few times when our remote location and limited connectivity become an impediment. At all other times, we find them an asset to create meaningful relationships and life for our children and ourselves.

What does the future look like for the organisation, what would you want to focus on?

The three pillars of Jhamtse Gatsal are Awakening Mind, Kind Heart, Healthy and Skilled Body. Currently, one of our two long-term goals is to create a unique school and educational space, which has in its design the ability to stimulate and facilitate the learning and engagement of a child’s body, mind and heart. We seek out-of-the-box thinkers and designers who can help us turn this vision for our physical space into reality. We envision this space to be sustainable and geared towards right livelihood choices.

Our second long-term goal is to turn Jhamtse Gatsal into a model learning environment which embraces the full circle of life. We envision the creation of a Right Livelihood Village within Jhamtse Gatsal where those who serve the Community lifelong would be entitled to live even after they retire if they so choose. We believe that it takes a village to raise and educate a child. Thus, spending time with caring grandparents would help young children learn about life and supporting them would help the children learn through service. Most existing educational models are limited in their focus on some skills. However, if we believe that the function of education is to prepare children for life, then a learning approach which involves the knowledge and experience of three generations can truly enrich a child’s preparation for life.

Please talk about the documentary movie Tashi and The Monk. What are your thoughts on it, how surprised were you when you were approached for the documentary?

Today, Tashi and the Monk is far beyond what I imagined it would be. I had assumed that, like most films, it too would have a limited shelf life, but it's timelessness and the universal connection that people from all over the world feel with the story never ceases to amaze me. I am in awe of the filmmakers, Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke, for their skilful and artistic capture of the life and essence of Jhamtse Gatsal. Even after six years since its release, I continue to receive heartwarming messages from people around the world at how the film has touched them and how much they can relate to the story arc. The film and people’s response to it reaffirm my belief in the universal and transformative power of love and compassion.  

The journey of the making of Tashi and the Monk started a few years prior to its real filming. Andrew Hinton came on a three-day assignment to Jhamtse Gatsal to film the experience of a Thiel Fellow from the US who was then volunteering at Jhamtse Gatsal. After finishing the assignment, Andrew came and asked me if he could stay back for a few more days. He tried to convince me about his idea of making a high-end documentary film on Jhamtse Gatsal, which could become something big. I told him jokingly that if that happened, I would quit my job here and move to Hollywood.

Many visitors come to Jhamtse Gatsal with a camera and want to capture their experiences here. I thought the same of Andrew. However, before leaving, Andrew asked me for an interview about my life and journey of creating Jhamtse Gatsal which brought him to tears. I was touched by his seriousness and genuineness and said Yes to him. I was moved by how much the desire to make the film came from his heart. While I had said Yes to him, I still didn’t harbour any expectations of the film coming through.

When he left, Andrew said to me that he would raise funds and return to make the film, which he did a year and a half later with his friend and editor, Johnny Burke. Together Andrew and Johnny captured many hours of life at Jhamtse Gatsal on film, out of which came their labour of love, Tashi and the Monk

ScooNews is honoured to be a part of Lobsang La’s life and Jhamtse Gatsal's. People like him reaffirm faith in humanity and prove why monks are held in high regard all over the world. We wish to see many such children find a home and education in this community.

Tashi and the Monk is available on https://vimeo.com/242367699

 

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