By CHASE STEWART
NANJING — “Tashi delek!” the smiling, red-garbed monk said as he placed a long, white silk cloth around my shoulders. Having been to Tibet before, I knew these were the greetings of the Tibetans. “Tashi delek” means “blessings and good luck” and the cloth is a khata, given for goodwill and good luck.
I had just arrived in Xining and was headed to a monastery in Qinghai Province. Known as Amdo, this Tibetan region is the home of 14th Dalai Lama and Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism (Yellow Hat sect). Being outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) was a more relaxed experience. No special permits, tour guides, or police checking papers, different from my experience inside the TAR.
Through a friend of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, news of an opportunity to teach English at the monastery reached me. After some text messages, I was in a hard seat on a thirty-hour train bound for Xining.
Life at the monastery was simple. Each house was surrounded by mud walls. The monk’s house had two small buildings. One house was his; the other, his cousin’s. There was no running water; each house had a well. There was no heating; wood and coal powered the stove. There was no sewage; just a hole in the ground. There was electricity, WiFi, and, to my surprise, more than one monk with an iPhone 6. This highlighted the changes and challenges of Tibet’s modernization: embracing technology while still lacking basic necessities.
The monastery was holding a fifteen-day “Tibetan Winter Camp.” Families of the monastery’s four hundred monks came to study English, Tibetan, and Buddhist philosophy because the Chinese government has cracked down on the teaching of Tibetan and Buddhism in their normal schools. Participants ranged from kindergarten to Master’s students. The monk had brought two nieces and a nephew to study, and his brother taught Tibetan.
As the English teacher, I taught two-hour lessons in the afternoon. Eighty students crammed into each classroom and sat wide-eyed and smiling at me, the first foreigner many had ever seen. Teaching was the most enjoyable and the most trying part of the day.
Before class, I woke with the family at 7am, Beijing time. China has only one time zone, so in this more Western province, that is akin to 5am. We began the day splitting wood and bringing in coal for the stove, cleaning and sweeping the houses, and washing in the water just boiled on the stove. At first, the monks wouldn’t allow me to help, but after a few days I was up and started on the chores before they could stop me.
After eating breakfast together — leftovers from the night before — the family went to teach, study, or pray and left me at the house. I used to this time to read, listen to Buddhist teachings, or learn Tibetan. Tibetan uses an alphabetic writing system, and by the time I left I could write it, but was unable to read or speak it.
Lunch was prepared by the children and was normally instant noodles or bread and jam. After lunch, I went to teach my classes. Then, I often headed down into the villages or up into the hills. My host and his family couldn’t understand my obsession with exploring and mused that it must be a Western thing. I spent hours roaming the hillsides admiring the prayer flags, brightly colored square banners covered with Buddhist prayers that local Tibetans had hung across small valleys, on top of staffs, and in tent-like structures.
During the evenings we would eat dinner together, and afterward we sat around and talked. During the first few days the topics were very general, such as what America is like; later, the conversations became deeper. We discussed karma, reincarnation, Buddhism and Tibet’s history, as well as modern issues including Xinjiang, the Middle East, and America’s role in the world. This was the most enlightening and thought-provoking part of my stay.
After dinner on the last evening, the monk asked everyone to discuss the most important thing they had learned over the past two weeks. The youngest child provided the most insightful answer, saying that what he learned during the winter camp was like a drop of water, and that their life was like a tree. One drop of water was too little, but if he studied hard and learned Tibetan and the Buddhist scriptures, then all of the individual drops together would be enough.
At the end of the two weeks, I was sad to be leaving but excited to be setting off on another adventure. The monk’s brother had invited me to come with him and spend the next part of my trip in his Tibetan village, a different and complementary experience to my two weeks at the monastery.