Recognizing an absence in the current Tibetan language children’s literature as well as the tremendous cultural changes affecting Ladakh, our project is the creation of a Ladakh-centric, culturally appropriate textbook to preserve the rich cultural heritage of Ladakh. Inspired by His Holiness the Dalai Lama's teachings on secular ethics and moral education, this project seeks to maintain and promulgate the unique heritage of Ladakh through the first textbook of its kind, presenting centuries-old values and traditions to youth using modern curricula developed specifically for them. Through our project, we hope to not only make a significant contribution to the corpus of Tibetan language children’s literature but also to perpetuate the values of altruism, compassion and interdependence that have defined Ladakhi culture for generations.
Our project is being overseen by a Board of Directors that includes Ladakhi educational specialists from Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian communities, the major religious traditions in Ladakh. Our team recognizes that the same ethical values underlie all of these these great religious traditions which all have a long history in Ladakh. By working across these communities, we seek to preserve the shared cultural heritage that all Ladakhis hold in common.
What is Culturally Appropriate Education?
Recognizing the flaws of “one size fits all” education models, culturally appropriate education (CAE) emphasizes the need for the language, culture and experience of students’ lives to be reflected back to them in their classrooms. This student-centered pedagogical approach recognizes that students and their culture are inextricably intertwined and that education embracing this understanding is best poised to meet student needs. In addition to favoring mother tongue instruction, CAE stresses that education will only empower students when it validates the culture and traditions of the community it serves. Unlike standardized curricula that can leave minoritized students feeling alienated and inadequate, CAE demonstrates the crucial link between the students’ lives and the classroom through the active affirmation of their culture and traditions.
Once a part of the Tibetan empire, Ladakh is a place with a sophisticated literary culture and rich cultural heritage. As is true of all Tibetan reading cultures, Ladakh has inherited one of the most extensive literary corpuses of any religion of the world. Yet despite this, Ladakhi (or Bhoti, in Ladakhi) literacy is still low among the youth, one of the contributing reasons young Ladakhis fail to develop knowledge of their indigenous philosophy, history and tradition. It is a sad irony that foreigners travel from all over the world to see Ladakh’s stunning monasteries and yet so many Ladakhi youth, including young monks and nuns, have limited access to their own culture, embodied in their literature.
Many factors contribute to this situation but one of the most pressing is the dearth of adequate materials. Only within the past decades have there been any children’s books published in Bhoti language specifically for Ladakhis. Currently, there are simply no Bhoti language books that present their vast cultural tradition in a simple, graduated manner easily accessible to young people. Though Himalayan cultures are renowned for their cultural traditions, this lack of materials presents significant obstacles to developing a strong knowledge base in their own culture.
The result is that many Ladakhis feel alienated from traditional fields of erudition in Bhoti language, regarding these philosophical traditions as the exclusive prerogative of scholar-monks and a field of knowledge far too difficult for anyone else to engage in. When it comes time to study the classics of Bhoti literature, even many young monastics feel underprepared, having read no Bhoti language texts between recently published children’s storybooks and extremely dense Buddhist philosophy. This is even truer of lay children, many of whom feel intimidated by the very idea of the formal study of philosophy, which they perceive as being too obscure and difficult to even begin.
Since opening to tourism in 1974, Ladakh has undergone intense transformations at a relentless pace. What had once been a relatively isolated, agricultural and subsistence-based society has become increasingly incorporated into India and the global economy. As is frequently the case, such “development” has brought with it dramatic changes in lifestyle, worldview, and values to Ladakh. Today’s Ladakhi youth are at the forefront of such changes, with many feeling like they are straddling two radically differing worlds: their high-altitude homeland, with its rich history and traditions, and the modern world of lowland India and beyond, whose values and priorities often feel at odds with those of Ladakh. The rapidity of this transformation has increased generational divides and created a sense of cultural alienation and isolation among Ladakhi youth, who struggle to balance the demands of the modern education system and economy with the cultural heritage of their older family members.
“Change is inevitable” is a foundational Buddhist maxim and we have no presumption that Ladakh could or should stay static as it becomes increasingly incorporated into the rest of India and the world. Nonetheless, it important that youth not become disconnected from the values and worldviews that make Ladakh unique. Our project seeks to show Ladakhi youth how traditional principles such as interdependence (rten ’brel), altruism (gzhan phan), and discipline (tshul khrims), far from being either esoteric thinking or hollow rhetoric, can inform how to live an ethical, meaningful life in the 21st century.
1. Create a significant contribution to Bhoti/Tibetan language children’s literature
“Whether you call it Bhoti or Tibetan, this written language is important because it preserves the profound culture we share.”
-His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Developed in the 7th century, Tibetan literature is a vast corpus renowned for its highly-specialized philosophical knowledge. In the 8th century, under the reign of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen, Indian and Tibetan scholars began translating the Sanskrit Buddhist cannon into Tibetan, marking the start one of the largest translation projects in human history. The collected translations of the Buddha’s teachings (bka’-’gyur) and commentaries (bstan-’gyur) fill over three hundred volumes and are an invaluable resource for those wishing to study the Nalanda Buddhist tradition. In addition to the translations, there are tens of thousands of volumes of original Tibetan compositions, making Tibetan “one of the great literary traditions of Asia, in terms of both its size and range of influence.”
Sharing the same written language as Tibet, Ladakh is also an inheritor of this great literary tradition. However, this literature remains inaccessible to many in Ladakh, particularly the youth, who find it dense and obscure. Recognizing the immense importance of Bhoti/Tibetan literature, our textbook will serve as a bridge, introducing the content of the classical Tibetan cannon in a simple, gradual manner, specifically designed for young Ladakhis.
2. Increase mother tongue literacy
“Years of research have shown that children who begin their education in their mother tongue make a better start, and continue to perform better, than those for whom school starts with a new language”
-John Daniels, UNESCO Assistant General-Director for Education
Decades of educational research support the conclusion that a child’s first language is the best for developing literacy and learning in primary school. Despite the abundant evidence, the vast majority of schools in Ladakh, from the primary level onward, use English, Hindi, or Urdu as the medium of instruction. If offered, Bhoti/ Ladakhi, is generally only taught as a stand-alone subject.
While our textbook cannot change regional educational policy, we are writing with the clear motivation of promoting mother tongue literacy among Ladakhi youth. In writing a textbook rooted in the language, culture and landscape of Ladakh, we hope to demonstrate the immense value of the indigenous literary and educational traditions of the region, thereby aiding in the development of mother tongue literacy.
3. Provide an unprecedented ethical education textbook grounded in indigenous Ladakhi values
“As someone who has studied ancient Indian knowledge for the last sixty years, I feel that modern education is not sufficient to bring genuine happiness. We should pay more attention to the ancient Indian knowledge to solve the emotional crisis prevailing in the world. Therefore, Buddhism is highly relevant in the 21st century and we should start teaching it as an academic subject rather than just treating it as a religion.”
-His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Ladakh is currently experiencing unprecedented change, with hundreds of thousands of tourists entering the region annually. While this massive influx of foreigners undoubtedly brings benefit to some Ladakhis, their presence has also resulted in a cultural and identity crisis, particularly among young people. In the face of tourists’ wealth and mobility, some young Ladakhis question the value of their own culture and way of life—questions further perpetuated through the formal educational system. With few exceptions, school textbooks are written and published in faraway New Delhi, reflecting the values of a society intent on urbanization and technology, not the land-based, community-orientated indigenous education of Ladakh.
While acknowledging the importance of the secular subjects taught in schools, we believe it is essential to ground students in an ethical, values based education. This is in keeping with the educational commitments of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who frequently observes that the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were the result of immense knowledge divorced from ethics. By teaching traditional Ladakhi principles such as the six perfections (generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration and wisdom) and the principle of interdependence (rten ’brel), we hope to provide a foundation in ethics that students will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Our textbook seeks to bridge the divide between philosophy and everyday life, demonstrating the applicability of indigenous Ladakhi culture to respond to the social and emotional crises of our time.