Between Two Curricula

Shechen Gompa in Kathmandu was founded by the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a teacher of the Dalai Lama and one of the most accomplished meditation masters, scholars, philosophers and poets of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the 20th century. Like several other important Tibetan monasteries in South Asia, the Kathmandu Shechen is a mirror of the institution in Tibet. It was established in exile following the Chinese incursion into Tibet at a time when Tibetan Buddhism was under great threat in its homeland.

Tibetan monasteries have their own curricula of Buddhist study discreet from subjects taught in secular schools. Young monks and nuns begin by learning the Tibetan alphabet and then study classical Indian philosophy, starting with pramana (logic). They progress to learn the classical texts of the Indian Buddhist tradition from Nalanda University. Nalanda is renowned as the first international university and a center of learning in the ancient world, drawing scholars from as far away as Korea, China, Tibet and Central Asia. In 1200 CE, Nalanda was destroyed by the invading army of the Mamluk dynasty, a Muslim sultanate based in Delhi. The army regarded Nalanda as a heretical institution and razed it, slaughtering the monastic scholars and burning to the ground the six-story library, filled with more than a millennia of accumulated classical Indian knowledge. Fortunately for our shared human heritage, several centuries earlier, a lineage of Tibetan kings sponsored the translation of this vast cannon from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Tibetan monasteries are, therefore, the last to maintain the rich tradition of Buddhist scholasticism, erudition, and debate inherited from India.

Nepal has a policy of compulsory education for all children through class 8, which must follow a government regulated curriculum. This poses a new challenge to monastic schools, which now teach their students secular subjects alongside the centuries-old Buddhist curriculum. I visited the Shechen monastic school to examine how these two curricula are taught beside each other.

As is common of many “Tibetan” Buddhist monasteries in Nepal, none of the 140 students in the primary through class 8 school are Tibetan; they are all Nepali citizens from the Himalayan border regions. Overwhelmingly, these children come from extremely poor backgrounds, their parents often sending them to become monks in Kathmandu as much to relieve a financial burden as to accumulate merit. It is also rare for such children to have educational opportunities in their home region as there are frequently no schools and if there are, teacher absenteeism is high.

The Shechen school teaches Tibetan, Nepali and English, the former deemed essential for Buddhist study while the latter two are needed to study the compulsory government curriculum. At the staircase leading to the classrooms are newspapers published in all three languages, which are also present in posters and books throughout the schools.

The school’s principal is Jhabindra Kumar Subedi, a Brahman by caste from the plains of Nepal but a practicing Tibetan Buddhist for more than twenty years. Having served as the principal at the Shree Mangal Dvip school for many years, he brought with him strong knowledge of Himalayan peoples and the challenges of incorporating Buddhist and government mandated curricula.

Ultimately, the teaching of the government curriculum has supremacy at the school, as this is required for student success on the national standardized exams. Still, the majority of teachers at the school are monks and nuns and their Buddhist worldview pervades into secular subjects. Jhabindra-ji also organizes Saturday classes specifically concerning Buddhist philosophy and weekday classes following the school day on how to conduct the elaborate rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.

Currently, the school ends at class 8, at which point students can either study at the separate monastic college at the monastery, exclusively teaching Buddhist philosophy, or enroll in another government school for classes 9-10. The principal has the aspiration that next year they will add class 9 and the following year class 10.

There is still a large gap between the two curricula, which are based in different histories, epistemologies, hermeneutics and worldviews. However, if we believe the assumption that both systems attempt to understand truth in order to better the world, there are many possibilities for integration and cooperation. There is nearly limitless work to be done, but the Shechen school is at least attempting to bridge the gap between these educational systems.

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