Twenty tiny monks welcome us as we arrive each afternoon, standing together and chorusing “Good afternoooooon Sir, good afternooooooooooon Maaaam,” sitting only after we do. They wear maroon robes and many other things, old fleeces and sweatshirts (Gyatso’s is Chicago Bulls), scarves, hats, knit socks, all in shades of orange or red. Many have crocs, mostly pink, lined up neatly along the wall in the sunny hallway where we have class.
For the first hour Jason teaches second class and I, third. My boys pile against each other like puppies, sitting cross-legged on cushions on the floor; they memorize with incredible speed and ease, and love to sing. We were give no books or guidelines for these English classes we were asked to teach, and so we are making things up as we go.
On the second day I gave them a song about winter (to the tune of Frere Jacques) and by the third time through they knew the words—even the new ones— without looking. I feel curious, too, about their imaginations, and we have begun writing stories sometimes, though it is a challenge. Every day I ask them for words in Ladakhi, which they love giving nearly as much as songs. Last week I learned that one of Jason’s boys is a Rinpoche, the reincarnation of a high lama. His attention is mostly elsewhere during class, except when there is the chance to dance, or run in place, or spin, which he will do with his full heart. As all the boys will: these games are the best way I have found of teaching verbs.
In the second hour I work with four teenagers while Jason talks with Thubstan Lama, the monastery’s director. The older monks’ understanding of English is good, though they are shy and hesitant to speak; it is hard, hard work getting three of them to talk at all. Most classes we spend working through texts they choose, talking about grammar and vocabulary.
Recently I brought the Longman’s Student Atlas—maps of every country and continent, with pages about land use, water access, plate tectonics, climate—I asked them to look through, and write down questions that they had. For the next week, we had the most animated conversations of our time together yet. “How do people on the bottom of the earth stick to it? Why don’t they fall off?” “What made the Himalayas?” “How do islands stay in one place?” “What does it mean, a black hole?” And then, “what is an atom?” “Does the ocean really go up and down?” One day Sonam asked me, “Does earth go around the sun, or sun around the earth?” When I answered he looked at Tenzin, smirked, and clapped his hands—as Tibetan monks will do when making a point in philosophical debate.
Namgial had written, “There is not much snow falling in Ladakh. Why?” We talked about the rain shadow of the Himalayas, but then Sonam said, “But in past times there was very much snow in Ladakh. Now very little. Why is it?” I began telling them what scientists have learned of climate change, and the effects of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. After some time, Sonam looked at me with patent disbelief: “You mean that what people do in America, these places, affects weather? In Ladakh? This is possible?” He wrinkled his nose, not convinced.
After classes we drink tea with Thubstan Lama in the small kitchen, cement walls radiating cold. The monastery was built only eight or ten years ago; the newly constructed buildings have a hard, hollow feeling to me. I remember conversations in college about how spaces inform the lives lived within them. It continues to feel like an important question.
Most afternoons Thubstan Lama walks us half of the way home, so that he may keep practicing English. He was raised in Phey village, with no intention of becoming a monk. He took vows in his late teens, then studied in southern India for some years before returning. We talk about whatever comes presently to mind: the students’ progress, the Dalai Lama’s visit for the Kalachakra initiation, Hinayana, Mahayana, and Tantric vehicles of Buddhism, monastic land ownership, relations between Muslim and Buddhist people in Ladakh, our plans for the rest of our time here. We told him about our wish to start a school in Maine, and he said, “The first thing you must do is build a Ladakhi toilet. Then you will never be worrying about fertility.”
We walk the last mile or so along the winding river road looking down on a rich, living slope, where springs come out of the embankment above the Indus. Small streams wind through an almost moss-like ground cover, and sea buckthorn gives the thickets a lavender cast. Many, many willows grow, pollarded and harvested by the villagers. This land is a commons; people may plant (and so own) individual trees, but nothing can be fenced. Often dzo are browsing there, and birds: magpies, chickadees, and little black-and-white ones with rust-colored tails. As the days grow warmer, more and more often we walk with their songs.
At the beginning of class, several of the small monks will run somewhere to find the chalkboard and its stand. One day two of them, carrying the stand together, playfully fired it like a machine gun into the circle of other boys. “It doesn’t seem to matter,” I said to Jason as we walked home. “Even little monk boys will turn things into toy guns.” “Yes,” he said. “But little monks are much less likely to be carrying real ones someday.”
So maybe it matters after all—what people learn, and how. I wonder how different these monks’ lives will be from those ordained five hundred years ago, or fifty? Will their understanding of the world be changed if they can speak in English about gravity? Will their practice be changed? Will their hearts? How different are their thoughts from the boys their age that I have known in America? Or here, at SECMOL? And when the choice is fully theirs, how will they choose to live?