In a series of special features, TPI journalist Colleen McKown reports from India's largest Tibetan settlement, Mundgod, in the southern state of Karnataka.
Tenzin Phenthok is a monk at Drepung Loseling. He has lived his whole life in Mundgod, and talked with the Tibet Post about his life and dreams, the ways the settlement could develop, and the importance of dialogue between ordinary Tibetans and Chinese.
Tenzin's parents came from western Tibet, near Mount Kailash, and escaped to India in 1960. They lived first in Dharamshala and Delhi before moving to Karnataka in 1969. Like many other refugees at the time, they found it difficult to adjust to the drastic difference in climate between Tibet and south India. They also experienced financial troubles, living as part of a joint family of twelve, with never enough money to go around.
Both of Tenzin's parents died of tuberculosis when he was very young - his mother when he was two years old, his father when he was 13. He was raised mainly by his aunt and two elder sisters.
Tenzin began his monastic studies at age eight and, after receiving a basic Buddhist education, entered Drepung Loseling monastery. He has completed his Geshe degree and now serves on the monastery's board and teaches young monks.
Importance of Education
Regarding conditions at Mundgod, Tenzin said, "Compared to what the Tibetan refugees experienced in the past, it's much, much better. Most people have their basic needs, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s," but added that, "There are still problems, and many still struggle."
Tenzin identified one of the main problems as families' financial inability to send their children to university after they graduate from high school. "They have money for their daily expenses, but that's all," he said.
He has traveled to America many times as part of a monastic cultural program, Mystical Arts of Tibet, and says that many friends and relatives have asked him to help him find sponsors for their children to attend college.
Tenzin agrees completely with both His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the new Kalon Tripa (political leader) Lobsang Sangay on the importance of education.
"We need higher education now - 2012 is coming!" he said, laughing.
"If someone wants to be a doctor, they should have the financial support, but if their parents are farmers, how can they?" he asked, pointing out that this past year, farming was "shot because of untimely rainfall."
"A half century ago, we could have been satisfied with basic education. Now we cannot be. We must struggle more, have more determination, more confidence."
Tenzin has great hopes that the new Kalon Tripa will bring change regarding higher education policy, saying, "He has a smart viewpoint - he knows the new reality of the situation."
He also believes that Lobsang Sangay can build bridges between the younger and older generations, as he recognizes the importance of preserving cultural identity whilst incorporating modern education.
In Tenzin's view, there should be affordable colleges and universities in Mundgod so students don't need to pay the high fees to study in large Indian cities such as Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai.
"There is a huge gap between us and the people of the West," he said, speaking about levels of education. "We are too much backward. We need to make more efforts - we need political leaders, religious leaders."
"We can't be satisfied with what we have. This is why we lost Tibet. We lacked modern education, modern language, and we could not communicate with other countries."
However, Tenzin also believes in the importance of retaining traditional culture, saying, "Many lay people have misunderstood, thinking that modern education is enough. This is not what His Holiness said - this is not what he meant."
"Many people say they are Buddhist, but they do not really understand - they are lacking the knowledge. Many young people have very poor writing in Tibetan. This is sad."
Tenzin thinks basic education should focus on traditional values and that, later on, there should be opportunities to study at a higher level: "Otherwise you lose your identity - you lose the meaning of being Tibetan."
Experience in America
Tenzin has travelled extensively in the United States with a group of monks on the Mystical Arts of Tibet tours. He has been with the group for seven years and has visited 48 of the 50 American states. These tours, produced by American actor Richard Gere, focus on world healing, peace, and perpetuating and sharing Tibetan culture and identity.
To raise awareness about Tibet and financial support for Tibetans, the monks perform sacred chanting and spiritual masked dances, demonstrate debating, and hold workshops on creating mandalas (sand paintings). They also lecture on Tibet and Buddhism.
The monks stay with host families and perform mainly at universities. Tenzin says the support has been tremendous - "People are very kind and supportive."
He has found that people are warm and receptive to the monks. "There is a genuine sense of loving and caring," he said. However, he has been surprised at how isolating American culture can be, giving the example that in the US it is considered unusual to show up at a neighbor's house unannounced, whereas this is normal in Tibetan culture.
On the other hand, Tenzin commented that in America people have "huge, complete freedom to do whatever they want." He himself aspires to study quantum physics and neuroscience in the US, then return to educate Tibetans in modern science.
During his many trips to the US, Tenzin has had the opportunity to interact with hundreds of Chinese students. Some have visited Tibet and are open to the realities of the situation there, but he has also encountered hostility. He told one compelling story about his time at Tulane University in New Orleans. After giving his opening speech there, hundreds of angry Chinese students approached him and "some of them were shaking, they were so upset."
Students for a Free Tibet had posted graphic pictures of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and the students thought the monks were responsible.
Tenzin, who has a calm, monastic demeanour, suggested they all have a dialogue and share their viewpoints. Many Chinese students demanded angrily, "How can you say Tibet was ever independent?" and "How can you say the economic development in Tibet is bad?"
Tenzin pointed the students to websites which address human-rights violations committed against the Tibetan people. "They had only ever heard the government propaganda," he said. "They brainwash the students."
Within a few days, the Chinese students had researched the Tibetan issue and many came back to Tenzin, often crying and saying they had no idea.
"Many became our friend. Many Chinese students helped us pack and brought us flowers and fruit when we left."
Tenzin hopes that further such interactions between Tibetans and Chinese will contribute to Tibet one day achieving meaningful autonomy.
"His Holiness also emphasizes more interaction - that the best way is reconciliation," he said. He mentioned organizations such as the China-Tibet Partnership and the China-Tibet Friendship Society as examples of such interactions in progress.
Tenzin said that without visiting the ‘outside world', he would not have had the opportunity to talk with Chinese students. "It opens everyone's eyes," he said.
"We need to break narrow thoughts," he added. "We need to be 21st Century Buddhists. The Buddha gave us freedom to analyze and investigate. You are your own master and your own enemy."