By Jai Arjun Singh
New Delhi March 5 - Lower Chauntra in district Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, located 6 km from the Tibetan colony in the small hill town of Bir, isn’t the most obvious location for an enormous educational institute.
The few rickety cars you see here clatter along impossibly narrow, winding “roads”, all but scraping each other as they pass.
But turn an unassuming corner and a spectacular sight awaits: the sprawling new campus for a monastic school — the Dzongsar Chokyi Lodro College of Buddhist Dialectics — that was inaugurated here a couple of months ago with much fanfare. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was present on the occasion.
This is the new building for a shedra (school) that has been in Bir since 1985 but has a history that goes back over a hundred years.
The curriculum is based on the study of the texts of the great Indian masters on Madhyamika (the Middle Path), Prajnaparamita, Vinaya, Abhidharma, Logic, and Sakya Pandita’s Three Vows.
“We teach the same subjects as were taught at the legendary Nalanda University,” says Lama Sonam Phuntsho, who has previously worked here as a secretary and is now a revision teacher.
When Nalanda was destroyed by pillagers in the 12th century, valuable texts were lost; fortunately, however, Tibetan Buddhists had already made copies of many of the educational treatises and taken them back to their country.
“So the teaching was preserved and continues to be handed down today,” explains Naresh Mathur, a Delhi-based advocate and dedicated Buddhist.
The curriculum, which spans 13 years, also includes additional courses like grammar, poetry and foreign languages. While the main purpose of the education is to impart a basic understanding of the Buddhist doctrine, Lama Phuntsho cautions that academia can at best constitute only 30 per cent of being a good monk.
“The remaining 70 per cent can be achieved only through meditation, over the rest of one’s life,” he says.
Khempo Jamyang Losal, the school’s principal and a stern-looking man (or at least the solemnest anyone in this place seems capable of being), says the idea is to bring together students from all lineages of Buddhism, and from different countries as well — including Tibet, Bhutan and Taiwan.
“Our institute has produced a number of teachers who have spread the faith both in India and abroad,” he says. There are currently 500 students in the university — compared to just 50 a decade ago — and the number is expected to go up to 1,000.
The campus itself seems more breathtaking the more one explores it. The Lama takes me to the accommodation building’s terrace, which affords a stunning view of the whole breadth of the university: the Ashoka pillar in the centre of the lawns that are flanked by the accommodation quarters; the kitchen block to the left; the library block and VIP quarters to the right; solar water heaters visible on a distant terrace; and, of course, the main monastery — containing the classrooms and a 4,000-capacity assembly hall — directly in front.
“The monastery has been built on the fixed pattern of traditional Tibetan architecture,” says Lama Phuntsho.
The campus took three years to build. Work is now underway on a health clinic as well as on recreational facilities including a football field, a volleyball court...and a cricket pitch.
“Many of our students are cricket-crazy,” rues the Lama, clearly not a bails-and-willow fan himself.
As it happens, it’s examination time at the college. In a large courtyard outside the monastery sit rows of student monks scribbling in their notepads, casting each other surreptitious glances.
Cheery-faced invigilators take rounds, sucking on lollipops, munching dried fruit, murmuring the gentlest of reprimands. A smiling attendant serves generous helpings of Tibetan butter milk and biscuits.
In the background the mountains of the Dhauladhar range, patches of snow cladding their upper reaches, keep their own vigil “If we’d all had this kind of scenic setting growing up, our exam-time memories would’ve been a lot happier,” quips one of the Dzongsar Institute representatives.
In the far distance, I see a group of monks heading off together somewhere; the Lama explains that they are going to another university nearby, to attend a Logic seminar: “we encourage that type of interaction”.
But the monks know that for Buddhism to spread widely, youngsters should be able to relate to it at a non-monastic level too. Which is why the Dzongsar Institute is now planning the establishment of a university that will be open to laypersons.
“We are making space available in Bir for the construction of a non-monastic university that will offer shorter courses,” says Prashant Varma, who allows himself to be described only as a “student of guruji” — the modern incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse under whose guidance the Chokyi Lodro school was built.
“We hope to offer certificates and perhaps affiliate with a university,” says Varma, “ because laypersons need the kind of course that will have value in mainstream education.”
The Shedra's tortuous history
Late 19th century: Buddhist teacher Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo initiates the foundation of a shedra (scriptural college) in Derge Province, Eastern Tibet
1917: Chokyi Lodroe, considered the second incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse, enlarges the college, builds dormitories and invites leading scholars of the time to teach here. This is a non-sectarian shedra where students of different lineages can study the main texts of Buddhist philosophy
1959: The monastery and college are destroyed during the Cultural Revolution
1983: Tupten Chokyi Gyatso, the third incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse, re-establishes the shedra outside Tibet — in Gyalshing, Sikkim. The teaching lineage established at the original shedra in Tibet is thus revived
1985: The shedra is moved to Bir, Himachal Pradesh
2000: Space constraints demand the building of a larger campus. The Dzongsar Institute, aided by donations from their Taiwanese sponsors, purchase land in Chauntra and start the construction of a new campus; this is inaugurated in November 2004.