Home > Himalayas, India, Monks, Tibet, Travel, Volunteering > Me and the Man From Bhutan

Me and the Man From Bhutan

I was slightly nervous before meeting Ngawang for our first English tutoring session together, (and yes his name is hard to say. It’s pronounced ‘Ng’, as at the end of ‘thing’, a -wang). The previous day we had visited the ‘Volunteer Tibet’ office in Dharamsala to offer our services, and we were both excited about helping people from a culture we had come to love. There is always a long list of people looking for English tutors in the community, so Lhakpa the Managing Director of Volunteer Tibet soon found us some ’students’. The first young man who came into the office could speak next to no English; he did all the communication that was necessary by choosing the pretty young female as a teacher rather than myself, (yes I do mean Hazell). My victim was a humble, maroon robed monk, who introduced himself and asked if we could meet the following morning at the nunnery he was staying at. Inwardly I was chuffed that I had been given the opportunity to work with a practicing monk, and I was looking forward to a rewarding exchange. He was on ‘holiday’ from his Tibetan monastery in South India and was in Dharamsala to learn English and hear the Dalai Lama teach.

The following morning I made my way to the Nunnery and tentatively knocked on his door. In my mind I had planned to use the hour as a ‘getting to know each other session’ and to understand his motives for learning English so we could have a focus. His English level was good enough that we could have a reasonable conversation, and he told me eventually he would like to travel to Europe and teach Dharma in English. He was very self motivated and had his own English grammar text book and ‘Tibetan to English’ dictionary. It was at this stage that I realised my A-Level linguistics studies had hidden themselves under a rock in my mind. ‘So I’m up to the ‘Present Continuous’ chapter in my text book’. ‘Er, OK. Sterling work Ngawang; full steam ahead. We’ll look at that next time OK.’ He also showed me a short piece of written work he had done, which he wanted me to correct. His handwriting was better than mine, but bar this knock to the ego, I enjoyed helping him with his work. It was particularly nice to have a student who was so eager to learn, and for the first time in a while I felt as though I had an asset that I could utilise in helping others. The respect Tibetan monks are taught to hold for any ’teacher’ also became apparent, as Ngawang addressed me as such and even gave me an apple at the end!

Our meetings continued throughout our three week stay in Dharamsala. As we got to know each other better, we spent a lot of time discussing each others cultures and backgrounds. Ngawang’s parents are Tibetan and from the Tsang province, but fled to Bhutan under the Chinese occupation. He is the second oldest of ten children and he suspects his parents had cultural preservation in the face of the Chinese as a motive for the number of offspring! All the major Tibetan monasteries have active counterparts in the exile community in South India, and Ngawang is undertaking the final three years of study in a Gelug monastery for his ‘Geshe’ degree, (the culmination of roughly 25 years study). He has been unable to visit his ‘homeland’ Tibet for his entire life, and the discovery that we had seen more of Tibet than many Tibetans became a distressing theme while in the community.

A reliable method in challenging ones own customs and beliefs is to compare them to those of an alien culture; the comedic value of explaining what are often just habits to a bemused listener really helps to broaden the mind. Ngawang told me he had recently asked a ’western’ English teacher how old she was and had been met with a rather cold response. Understandably, he was a little perplexed at why such a basic question had caused such offence, and in all honesty I had no rational explanation. ’Erm, because….we‘re British. Ngawang, talking man to man here, there are many things about the British female we will never understand, so we just stopped asking. But next time why don’t you ask her how much she weighs, that’ll cheer her up. You know that Buddhist teaching on the habit of protecting the ’illusory ego’? Well here is your chance to see it in full effect.’

In the more structured elements of the tutoring, (there were some), I showed him my CV and we discussed how he might structure his. Admittedly the details were slightly different; my ‘fifteen years in education culminating in work as a television tea boy’, would have to be replaced by Ngawang’s ’25 years of scriptural and experiential study into the ultimate nature of reality and wisdom.’ We also discussed how he might approach Buddhist institutions for work, and in particular how he could structure a formal letter. This again required a rummage through the memory banks, ’now is it ‘Yours Sincerely‘ or ‘Yours Faithfully?’ Trying to uphold the traditions of the English language in the age of e-mail and Facebook is rather difficult it would appear.

In later lessons we started to discuss Buddhist teachings a little further, as Ngawang’s overall goal is to teach Dharma in English. He recommended a succinct piece called ‘The Thirty-Seven Practices of All Buddha’s Sons’ by Thogme Zangpo. It was very interesting to discuss the intricacies of the language used and especially the meaning that was sometimes lost in translation. It became apparent that to fully appreciate any scripture, it is of most benefit to learn the native language. Ngawang also really enjoyed sharing what he could with me in English, though I think it was a little frustrating for him when he realised he didn’t have the vocabulary to explain the finer points! This would usually end up in him bursting into fits of contagious laughter while rubbing his shaven head. I always enjoy being around people who are able to laugh at themselves and their mistakes; it’s certainly a habit I could benefit from developing!

At the end of our last meeting I was rather sad to be saying goodbye. After a photoshoot, Ngawang had kind words to say and thanked me for ’spending my precious time with him.’ I told him that the values of his culture and religion are an inspiration to me, and therefore not to think of our time together as having been a burden. The Buddhist teachings Ngawang has spent twenty-five years studying place selfless, compassionate action at centre stage; he could therefore understand my motive for volunteering and that my ‘payment‘ was far greater than any financial reward.

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