On Geshe Wangdu’s recommendation, I visited the educational NGO he established, the Spituk Khamzang Education Society, housed in a small office on the third floor of a building just beside the Leh bus stand. Inside was a monk sitting on the floor typing away on his desktop, surrounded by stacks of Tibetan books: books on philosophy, medicine, science, meditation, Himalayan history, Tibetan literature. He looked up from his work, sighed with relief when I spoke to him in Tibetan (“I’m too shy to speak in English,” he said starring at the ground), and invited me take a seat beside him on the floor.
6 days a week, for 8-10 hours a day, Gen Thubten Takpa sits crossed legged in front of his computer, surrounded by books, at work on an unprecedented project: the creation of a comprehensive, culturally appropriate series of pre-K through class 8 Ladakhi language textbooks.
“It’s a strange situation. None of us had any experience writing textbooks. And the three of us, we’re all monks, so obviously none of us have any children. But the kids weren’t learning our language, our culture. They needed books; books they could understand, relate to, have fun reading. This needed to be done and no one else was doing it. So we just started doing it.”
Gen Thubten was showcasing trademark monkly humility. “Just” writing these textbooks was preceded by more than three years of intensive research. Gen Thubten, Geshe Wangdu, and one Tibetan monk-scholar traveled to schools throughout Ladakh and the Tibetan exile communities in Himachal Pradesh, interviewing Ladakhi and Tibetan language teachers about what materials would best improve their classes. The three scholars poured over all the Tibetan language textbooks published in the Himalayas, including all the Tibetan-speaking regions of India, Nepal, Bhutan and China. Geshe Wangdu even traveled to England for an intensive English course, not to study English so much as to learn Western pedagogy for language acquisition, all with the aim of improving their future textbooks.
Concerned that all of this work would be pointless if the textbooks were not used, Geshe-la made informal agreements with Ladakhi language teachers at private schools throughout Ladakh, agreeing to send regular drafts of the books and incorporate teacher feedback for revisions on the condition the books would be used on final publication. The active solicitation of teacher feedback, extensive research, (and likely also the Ladakhi deference to learned monks), paid off: these textbooks are currently used by 95% of the private schools in Ladakh, including all schools with the highest proficiency in Ladakhi language. Even the government schools have begun using the pre-K textbooks, having lacked any of their own.
As a student of Tibetan, I found myself wishing I had access to these textbooks when I began learning the language. The complex grammar and spelling rules are explained in a gradual and systematic way and the books are full of original poems, songs, and illustrations perfectly suited to the beginning learner. The books are also designed to inculcate Buddhist values of altruism and compassion in the students, against an increasingly urban-centric education that focuses on individualism and moneymaking. Gen Thubten, gently thumbing through the pages, showed me a song about an apple from the grade 2 textbook. The chorus repeated, “half for you, half for me,” explaining that apples tasted better when they are shared. In the grade 1 textbook, he showed me a poem recited by a boy about the kindness of his mother.
“We tried to incorporate traditional Ladakhi values into our textbooks. Before in Ladakh, people always cooperated and worked together; this was our way of life. This is increasingly being lost on the new generation, as more and more people are only thinking about money and competing with each other to own more things. We wanted to make sure to emphasize the traditional values of our culture.”
To this point, the society has written and published seven textbooks, three pre-K books and books for classes 1-4. They are currently at work finishing textbooks for classes 5-8. Additionally, Spituk Khamzang has translated more than 20 children’s books into Ladakhi, which have been distributed throughout rural Ladakh by the NGO 17,000 feet. These are the first concerted efforts to create comprehensive Ladakhi language materials for children in the region. Prior to this time, the only children’s books Ladakhis could access were in Tibetan, which while identical in the classical language, can be very different in the colloquial language used by children.
When I asked Gen Thubten about the research and writing process, he responded, “At first, it was very difficult. But revolutions are never easy, are they?”
“Is this what you’re doing? Starting a educational revolution?”