Education for the “Forgotten Children” of the High Himalaya
August 1, 2017
Only a few minutes walk from the Great Stupa of Boudhanath, Kathmandu stands Shree Mangal Dvip. SMD is school established by Thrangu Rinpoche, a high lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, to care for the children from the Himalayan regions in Nepal bordering with Tibet. On meeting Shirley Blair, a Canadian who has served the school for more than 20 years, she explained that when Thrangu Rinpoche initially arrived in Nepal from Tibet in 1959, he was living in a cowshed. Even then, however, he knew himself to be far wealthier than most Nepalis due to his education; this was at a time when the average literacy rate in Nepal was 5% and only 1 out of 100 people had the opportunity to attend school. Thrangu Rinpoche committed himself then to one day provide education for the youth in his adopted country. After establishing himself in exile and building a following of disciples and patrons, in 1987, he had the resources to found the school to serve children from the high Himalayas. Currently, the school has students from the pre-primary level to class 10, educating more than 500 children at a time, most of whom live in boarding hostels at the school.
Coming from the Himalayan border regions, the children have strong cultural and linguistic ties with Tibet. Historically, some of these regions, such as Mustang and Dolpo, were once a part of greater Tibet but nearly all were heavily influenced by their Buddhist neighbor to the north. Only following the Chinese incursion into Tibet in the mid-twentieth century did these regions begin having more ties to Kathmandu than Tibet, after the border became highly militarized and almost entirely closed. This disrupted historical cross-border trade routes and yak herding rotations for nomads, leaving people in these Himalayan regions highly isolated. Access to Tibetan monasteries, previously an important source of education, was also closed. These are currently among the poorest regions in Nepal, which is one of 48 nations deemed as a “least developed country” by the UN. A majority of the parents of SMD’s students are illiterate and have had no formal education. These children, therefore, are often the first generation to access schooling.
Given the culturally Buddhist and Tibetic linguistic background of the students, SMD has developed a unique curriculum that both fulfills the Nepali government’s educational requirements while simultaneously supporting the students’ Buddhist heritage. Science, social studies and English are all conducted in English and, along with Nepali classes, follow the government curriculum. Children have to select between math or Tibetan language as an elective, the former being a prerequisite for future study of engineering or science, the latter the gateway to the vast Tibetan Buddhist literature. Decisions such as these are but one of many obstacles preventing Himalayan students from succeeding in both the schooling system and maintaining their Buddhist culture.
Despite the need to conform to these governmental standards, the school does attempt to preserve the Himalayan heritage of its students. Signage throughout the school is in both Tibetan and English and Buddhist art adorns most hallways and classrooms. Every evening, students gather in a religious hall for meditation and prayer. On Saturdays, the principal, Archarya Wangchuk Tenzin, or another monk teach the students about basic Buddhist philosophy.
Though the students come from some of the poorest regions in Nepal, the school has a strong success record of their alumni being accepted to universities in Nepal, India, and abroad, and receiving scholarships to further their studies. Monastic students, after completing compulsory government schooling at SMD, often further their education at monastic colleges, going on to receive higher degrees in Buddhist philosophy. Many SMD alumni, such as the current principal Acharya Wangchuk Tenzin, work in the education sector on the completion of their high studies. In this way, they help provide their community the same educational opportunities they received.
The school is highly dependent on donors and currently has 62 children without sponsors. Please read more about the SMD and consider donating here: https://www.himalayanchildren.org/