Those traveling from Trashigang (the far eastern province) to the southern border province Samdrup Jongkhar, the only highway passes through the small hamlet popularly known as Dewathang (the flat area of happiness) which cannot be missed. It is a familiar place of historic significance and a pleasant reminder for weary travelers that the business hub Samdrup Jongkhar is not too far from this point on. I did know the small monastery that existed above this settlement but never visited before. Those days, the only noticeable objects were white prayer flags. From this same bus stop now one can see the magnificent temple surrounded by a cluster of buildings against the lush green hillock—Chokyi Gyatso Institute (CGI).
CGI—I came to know about this monastery being upgraded to the present institute with its unfamiliar curriculum known as The Druk 3020 Curriculum. I discovered it while Goodling for some information on meditation and mind training, one of the pathways for Educating for Gross National Happiness (GNH). Out of curiosity, I started reading this curriculum. It gave me not only the information I was seeking but also some profound thoughts and inspiration about holistic education, the theme I was working on for my doctoral dissertation. In fact, this changed the course of my dissertation proposal. I decided to trace the curriculum to its founding principles and place—where it is being implemented, and that is how I landed at CGI.
I arrived at CGI on Sunday, June 15, 2013, around 3:30 pm. Dawa the new curriculum teacher received me and ushered me to the guest house. After organizing my things and taking a shower, I came out to get a better view of the institute campus. The first thing that captivated my attention was the sight of the main temple construction in its splendid architecture. The final details are not fully done as yet, still, its unique feature such as the four Victory Banners on the second floor top corners stand prominent and auspicious. As I circumambulated below, it gave me a sense of being blessed. A sense of spiritual energy was around, and I experienced peace and tranquil that prevails. As I walked a little further down I couldn’t help but stop and admire the panoramic view across overlooking Dewathang. Those settlements along the highway looked much different from above, stretching beside the Flat Space of Happiness (Dewathang) into the distant hills. After standing spellbound for a while I called it for the day.
Next day I joined Dawa to observe his class. After he introduced me, the class began by reciting the Heart Sutra. This was my first time hearing the Heart Sutra being recited in English—quite unusual but impressive. With much stress on some specific words, most read aloud and all seemed excited reciting in English. This was followed by a few minutes of meditation. Meditation is, in fact, one of the main focuses of my study, and sure enough, I started paying full attention to see what goes on in a meditation session. I was particularly interested to see meditation in relation to classroom teaching and learning, in terms of focused attention, wakefulness, information analysis and retention, and the like which meditation is acclaimed for. To be able to see such outcomes, intense interactions will be carried out in teaching the next unit, Air and Space. What follows are my prior observations over the first couple of weeks:
Eating with Khenpos (Professor or Senior Monk) and Lams (ordained Buddhist teachers) in the commons, I realized after a few days that there was not much variation in what they eat. Whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the main diet most of the time would be rice and potato curry. Not that I didn’t like the taste of the food but there was no balanced diet. In my casual conversation with Dawa one evening, after supper, I mentioned—it will be nice to have chapatti (Indian flatbread) once in a while for lunch or dinner and for breakfast, fried rice mixed with soaked chana (chickpea) could be served, as it contains high protein. These items just popped up in my mind from my memories of eating in the college commons while studying in India where chana dishes in various forms were often served as part of the balanced diets. To our surprise next day, dinner was served with chapatti and the following breakfast with fried rice mixed with soaked chana.
Considering this act from one’s students, I thought it was a significant gesture. Unless they had given some serious thought to what they had overheard, they wouldn’t have done what they did. Such kind of transformation is what I wish to see in students from what they hear in classrooms. Could this be an impact of information analysis—a carryover from meditation exercises—a sense of applied focus?
Likewise, another creative transformation students displayed was after we had a session on Zero Waste management from one of the Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative staffs. To reduce, reuse, and recycle waste was the message. That session was specifically on how to reuse waste, for which various examples such as how to make a T-Shirt Bag, Umbrella Cushion, and Plastic Broom were demonstrated.
The very next day I saw at least half a dozen of the students carrying the t-shirt bag they made out of their old t-shirts. They found this idea handy as many of them had old unused t-shirts. The t-shirt bags became handy for carrying plates and cups to the dining and other play items during the breaks. Some used their t-shirt bags for carrying classroom materials as well.
For one boy, he didn’t just want to reuse the reuse ideas demonstrated in the class. Instead, he demonstrated his own innovation. When rest were working on the reuse ideas just demonstrated, he had walked to a heap of broken electrical appliances and picked a part of a broken fan. I saw only when he was hammering hard with a piece of plank to pin some nails. He had no proper tool whatsoever. Next moment he walked into the classroom using it as a Sang Phob (incense burner). Whenever the classroom got damp and humid, he would bring in the burning Sang (incense) to purify.
My overall impression of CGI was very favorable. While the above examples are simple and anecdotal, for me, they affirmed the importance of creating a learning environment that is inclusive, student-friendly and conducive to creativity and self-expression—one that abides in mutual respect and harmony for students and teachers alike—a true learning community.
Despite advocacy for such ideals, learning is often dominated by fear, wariness, and concern for certain end results, as opposed to learning as a process, fun, and wonder. For such ideals to take root in a learning community, the foremost prerequisites I believe are a mutual respect, trust, care, and concern for each other, particularly between student and teacher. I am impressed by the display of these qualities in both the conduct and mannerisms of the students and teachers at CGI. The communal peace and harmony is visible as well as felt. The young monks are as comfortable with any other senior monk. For example, it is fun to watch the little ones amongst the seniors in the playground and other communal activities. Every young one are taken care of by one of the senior monks who is referred to as Ata (big brother). Ata plays the role of a mentor as well as a friend for the young ones. CGI could be a living role model for an inclusive and child-friendly school for the rest of Bhutan.
Contributed by Dr. Yang Gyeltshen