Home > Himalayas, India, Tibet, Travel, Volunteering > Positive Karma in Dharamsala

Positive Karma in Dharamsala

After travelling Tibet and witnessing the oppression of the Tibetan people at the hands of the Chinese Government, we felt a cold shadow of guilt softly surround us on our journey. The money we had spent in Tibet had gone back to the very government that was tormenting the culture and the people that we had come to love and respect. We decided to re-address our karma by volunteering in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government in exile and thousands of Tibetan refugees, many of whom had braved months of walking through the freezing Himalayas to get there. Many refugees arrive with severe frostbite, many without toes, feet or hands, while others arrive without the loved ones they’d begun their journey with. One of the goals of these refugees who’d fled their homeland was to get educated. They refused the Chinese education that has now fully established itself within the schools of Tibet, in favour of skills such as languages and IT; skills which will help them spread their Buddhist message, and establish a voice within the world.

Carl and I arrived in Dharamsala on Saturday and on Monday we had joined ‘Volunteer Tibet’ as tutors, teachers and office helpers. The volunteer community here must be one of the most advanced in India. We joined many travellers, some with similar experiences to our own, who were all here to help the Tibetan people. We met some very inspiring volunteers as well as students. Gerry, an IT expert from Holland, had come over with computers and set up daily computer skills classes for beginners and advance level students. He was in Dharamsala for 4 weeks and in that time he trained Tibetan students to take over as teachers and run the classes themselves. He left behind a new, fully functioning institution offering free computer classes to refugees and locals to gain new skills. This man wasn’t a traveller or rich philanthropist, he was a normal working man in his fifties and had collected the computers by asking friends for old equipment. Then he’d persuaded his workplace to give him four weeks off, and when they found out about his plans they also donated some equipment.

Well, Carl and I didn’t bring computers but we did bring our native English, which in Dharamsala is considered gold dust, (even if my native English is a Welsh-English). I jumped straight in and began teaching a class and helping out in conversation classes both at Volunteer Tibet and another organisation called LIT (Learning and Ideas for Tibet). In ‘conversation classes’ teachers are sat with a group of 4 to 7 students and given a topic along with some questions to discuss. Through introducing new themes the students, (whose age ranged from 11 to 70) learnt new words and ideas. The topic would usually relate somehow to their situation or their religion; topics that the Tibetans wanted to discuss and investigate with the outside world. I really enjoyed going to these classes and meeting new people everyday. More than once I found myself sitting outside the classroom or walking around Dharamsala chatting with students who were keen to continue their practise outside the classroom. The students who attended the conversation classes were a little more advanced than my individual tutee, Lobsang.

Tutoring was a very daunting but very necessary task. Volunteer Tibet had a waiting list full of students who were either too shy or knew too little English to attend any of the formal classes. My student, Lobsang came from a Tibetan family who lived in Shangrila. He spoke both Tibetan and Chinese fluently but only knew very basic English. I didn’t really know where to start – how do you teach someone when you don’t speak a common language? I bought a Tibetan phrase book to help me but I was usually able to explain things to him by pointing and with drawings (which made him laugh a lot!). We started with pro-nouns and basic phrases and through these we exchanged information about ourselves and got to know each other. I wanted to find out about him so that I could teach him the kind of English that would be useful for him. We talked about goals and the future. He told me that his goal was to become a famous actor and teach the world about Buddhism and give all his money to poor people. And this was why he wanted to learn English. So I thought we’d start with question words…

Lobsang had fled with other refugees to Dharamsala when he was a young boy and had then moved on to Karnataka in South India to become a monk. His Uncle is a High Lama who had also fled Tibet to study in South India. Lobsang studied Buddhist philosophy under his Uncle and other Lamas. Lamas are currently unable to teach in Tibet under the Chinese occupation, so universities and centres of Buddhist teaching have been established elsewhere by the refugee community to enable Tibetans to study their religion. Lobsang showed me photos of his past life as a monk. I didn’t really find out why he’d left monkhood, but he did express an interest in having a family so that could have been significant in his decision. He wasn’t as politically involved in the Free Tibet campaign as many other young Tibetans I met. He had grown up in Shangrila which is half Chinese and half Tibetan and he told me that in Shangrila they lived together in peace. Although I cannot be sure of his political stance he seemed to favour peace and togetherness over freedom.

Other Tibetans I spoke to were not so laid back about the situation. Those who spoke decent English wanted to talk to me about three things. The first was politics and their experiences of oppression under the Chinese occupation. The stories they related with such enthusiasm were often about losing loved ones or being violently beaten. But more distressing for them was the seeming loss of their culture and heritage. The second topic of conversation was Buddhism. In no way were these conversations given as single pointed lectures. The students were especially keen to know what Westerners thought of the Buddhist concepts and how these can apply to the Western world. The third topic was me. They were all so keen to know about my life, about Wales (an obscure small country that no-one had ever heard of), about my family, friends and work. In a conversation with one monk I started to talk about my job at Azza working with Sudanese refugees. He was in complete shock and called others over to listen. The question on all their lips was ‘how did the refugees walk from Sudan to London?’ It was this question that really made me realise how ignored the Tibetans have been by the international community. While other refugees had rights, and flights, over a sixth of the Tibetan population have been killed by the Chinese communist regime and more now continue to die as they risk their lives fleeing over the Himalayas into Nepal and India. But back to blogging about teaching…

After 3 weeks with Lobsang we’d covered much ground and I could really see a difference. He was even using the correct verb tenses (I’d introduced 3 new verbs a day), writing simple sentences and using conjunctions to link his sentences. I was very proud. I’d put a lot of effort into making various materials for his learning and to show how grateful he was he spent hours everyday after our tutorials memorising new words and learning the grammar for the next lesson. He also took me for lunch a few times and gave me the white scarf that he had personally received from the Dalai Lama when he first arrived in India as a refugee. He wanted me to have it to keep me safe on my travels and I was very humbled to receive it. Although I never got given an apple like Teacher Carl did.


  1. December 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    amazing article! really inspirational – i’m going to see about working w/ Volunteer Tibet.

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