Reflections on a month spent at Manjushree
I recently had the good fortune to spend a month at Manjushree Orphanage near Tawang in Northern India, just 20 miles south of the Tibet border. The indigenous people belong to the Monpa Tribe, who are also populous in southern Tibet. They are a simple people, many of them illiterate. They are extremely hardy, although the harsh environment and weather, poor availability of medical facilities, and hazardous working conditions, lead to a lowered life expectancy. The Monpas are deeply religious; they follow Tibetan Buddhism, and consider His Holiness the Dalai Lama as their spiritual and cultural leader.
The journey to Tawang helps to provide a backdrop against which one can gain a glimpse into the conditions and background from which the children at the Orphanage came. The first thing that strikes the visitor is the extreme remoteness of the area; it takes an eighteen hour jeep ride over largely unmade roads to reach Tawang; a fourteen thousand foot mountain pass, precipitous drops into awesomely beautiful valleys, and landslides and rock falls all to add to the challenge! Our journey was made in good weather, the ‘degree of difficulty’ increases dramatically in the monsoon season! The road surface requires constant attention. The work is carried out by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), who employ local people and itinerant workers on piecework. The men typically blast the mountainside and break the resulting large rocks which women then break into small, gravel sized, stones for use as filler on the road. The sight of these women, often with babies strapped to their backs, smiling, whilst breaking stones with a small hammer, is a very humbling experience.
Since much of the repair work is carried out in very remote areas, the workers live in primitive, often tarpaulin covered huts by the roadside. As the journey nears Tawang, the heartland of Monpa country, more small villages can be seen from the road. Whilst very scenic, these villages are extremely remote, often with no road access, little access to medical care, and sometimes with no school within reach. The villagers gain their livelihood from small scale farming. There are few, if any, cash crops; often the only source of cash is the BRO, with the women breaking stones in all weathers. The harsh life is sustained by a deep religious faith and unfailing good humour. However, there are many orphans and disabled children; the future for these children is extremely bleak unless they can get a decent education.
Up until 1998 there was no help for orphans, the destitute or disabled children. Lama Thupten Phuntsok changed all that by founding Manjushree Vidypath School and Orphanage (MVSO), initially with 18 children. Today MVSO caters for over 200 children, 40 of them are disabled and the remainder are predominantly orphans. MVSO was my destination and I was privileged to spend four weeks there.
Di has described the Orphanage many times, so I shall confine myself to attempting to detail my feelings and impressions of my visit, and the impact that it had on me.
I would portray Manjushree as a beacon of hope in an area which sorely needs that commodity. It is quite simply an amazing place, the 200 children there, range in age from four to eighteen, yet I could count the number of times I heard a child cry on the fingers of one hand. They are very much a family and the love and care they have for each other is very moving. You do not particularly notice the disabled children as they are continuously helped and cared for by a brother or sister. This ethos comes down from Lama Thupten, through the staff, and is genuinely heart-warming and humbling. This pastoral care is accompanied by a rigorous focus on education. This results in many pupils going on to tertiary education, gaining good degrees and gaining employment.
I found the whole experience uplifting and spiritually rewarding. It is, I believe exceptional in today’s world to find the values, traditions, and sheer good manners that were demonstrated by all at Manjushree, both staff and pupils. It reminded me of home, as it was 60 years ago, so much so that I plan to visit again next year!
Visiting Manjushree Vidyapith School and Orphanage this year was quite literally a dream come true. My name is Róisín Purkis and I am 18 years old. My mother has been involved as a trustee of FMVSO for nearly 10 years now, so naturally Manjushree had been a big part of my life growing up. For years and years I planned and worked towards 2015, the year I'd finally meet my Tawang family and put faces to countless letters and drawings I had received.
The journey from Galway Ireland to Tawang was a long one but full of surprises and stop overs. Getting to see the students in Delhi was so special, they welcomed me as their sister and we spent an evening in their apartment singing, eating, chatting and sipping tea. On reaching Guwahati we were met by Jigme (a previous student who now works as a science teacher and hostel warden). Everywhere we went we were looked after, I guess it's the Buddhist belief and the way the children in Manjushree have been taught, to care, to love and to cherish their visitors. Up the winding roads we drove, through villages and valleys. Mountains, snow peaked, standing nobly to greet us. This is a journey I will never forget.
My time spent at Manjushree can only be described as magical. As the days turned into weeks I fell more and more in love with the place as well as the people. Every day I spent with my beautiful brothers and sisters, teaching in class, playing games, learning in the kitchen, helping at the stupa and sitting in study. Listening to their sweet voices at morning prayer I would always reflect on how lucky I was to be there amongst them. One Saturday afternoon I organised an Easter egg hunt for class KG and 1. The children coloured their hard boiled eggs using wax crayons and we had so much fun finding them afterward, bodies running everywhere screaming and laughing. They all hugged and thanked me while we feasted on eggs, the whole occasion brought so much joy and for the following week I'd find young ones searching in the grass for more Easter treats. The smiles on their faces and light in their eyes melted my heart and drew me even closer to the little children I couldn't even verbally communicate with. We had plenty more days like this one and these special moments will stay with me forever.
The children and staff living at Manjushree come from many different backgrounds and through talking to them I got to learn so much about their culture, beliefs and ways of life. The children are taught to respect and love, they work extremely hard and are so grateful to Lama Sir and the amazing opportunity he has provided them with. From spending time with everyone some of their ethics rubbed off on me and made me think about ways I can improve myself as a person, their compassion towards others, non-judgemental attitude and their strong will to never give up, these are all things I have taken back to the Western World with me. We forget in our busy lives about these core values, my Manjushree family have taught me never to forget, seeing children with no hands achieving, blind children achieving, deaf children achieving (with little to no resources) brought it all back to reality for me. These children aren't looking for sympathy or attention, these children (thanks to their teachers and dedicated Lama Sir) are being treated as equals, learning ways to deal with the challenges life has posed and raising far beyond and above them. Never mind Angelina Jolie or Michael Phelps, these children are my inspiration and will remain so forever.
The connection I now feel with my Manjushree family and with the spiritual mountains of Tawang is unbreakable. I could fill 20 reports with many reasons but the main reason is undeniable love. I cried many tears while waving goodbye but my heart has been touched by some of the kindest people on earth and while driving away I was so overwhelmed with happiness as saying goodbye means I will once again be able to say hello when I next return.
My first view of India for nearly thirty years was of the new International Airport, it was very impressive, modern, smart, efficient and incredibly clean: a very different experience to my previous visits to Delhi.
We managed to grab a couple of hours’ siesta before surfacing for my first ever meeting with any Manjushree students. There are six studying in Delhi and two of them were able to travel across the city to meet us for supper in the hotel. Well, to say I was impressed is an understatement. We met the senior student, Thupten, who is in his third year studying Politics and Economics, and Sangey, who is also studying Politics and hopes to become an Army Officer. They are both charming, courteous, and erudite young men who are acutely aware of the privilege they have been granted as a result of being adopted by Manjushree. They are doubly blessed since study in Delhi is only offered to those students who achieve over seventy five percent in their final school exams, usually sat at age eighteen. I hope that Thupten will not mind me mentioning that he had both arms amputated below the elbow when he was a child. He is so adept, and his personality is so bubbly and attractive, that it was barely noticeable, and certainly not a limitation for him.
Next day we flew to Bangalore and were met by Lama Thupten, the founder and inspirational leader of Manjushree. The highlight of our two day stay was meeting the three Manjushree students (all boys) and Jambey, (who graduated from college and is now in gainful employment in Bangalore) for a good chat and dinner. Again, I was very impressed by these young men; their appreciation of all that has been done for them was palpable. I think the abiding impression I gained from these, and all the students, was their sense of family, their support for one another, and their love, devotion and enormous gratitude to Lama Sir and to ‘Mama Di’.
Our next stop was overnight at Mysore, just a couple of hours from Bangalore, where we had the privilege of visiting two Buddhist monasteries near Hunsur, Gyudmed Monastery and School, Lama Sir’s alma mater, where we spent two nights, and the huge Sera Monastery and University, noted for its debating sessions. There are 500 monks at Gyudmed ranging in age from five to considerably older, even than me!
The primary purpose of this visit was to meet the seven Manjushree students who are studying there. What a joy, delight and a privilege to meet these outstanding young men, they are a credit to Manjushree, to Lama Sir, to FMVSO, who have helped them on their way, and most of all to themselves. The opportunity to see two Buddhist Monasteries, hosted by one of their most famous old boys was a privilege rarely afforded to westerners and Di and I appreciated and enjoyed the experience enormously.
Mangalore is the fourth nexus of Manjushree students, with six young ladies studying in the area. Namgey, the senior student, who is in her third year nursing, had been spending a few days holiday at the Monastery with a friend and helped to look after us. We had a very interesting bus ride from the Monastery to Mangalore, giving us a view of the general poor conditions of rural South India. Two nights were spent in a hotel in Mangalore and we had a great opportunity to meet and socialise with our six students, and two friends from the Tawang area. Well, what an delightful and impressive group of young ladies. Again they were an absolute credit to Manjushree and to Lama Sir’s teaching and guidance. Lama Sir had to depart on the second day and I take this opportunity to thank him for being so generous with his time and for providing us with an insight into his background and formative period.
We finished our trip with a week at an Indian Beach Resort Hotel at Malpe Beach, just an hour north of Mangalore. Our stay there was greatly enhanced by the fact that four of the students and two friends came to see us for a two day stay. This allowed us more time with the girls in a very relaxed environment, we all enjoyed ourselves immensely.
I will conclude by paying tribute to Di; the love and affection shown by all the students to her was obvious and palpable. It is of course fully reciprocated. I know that Di has earned that love and respect by her hard and devoted work over the last ten years. It was particularly gratifying to hear Lama Sir describe FMVSO and its supporters as ‘the backbone of Manjushree’. This visit showed me how enormously worthwhile all FMVSO’s efforts are.
Leo Gallagher 06/02/15
REFLECTIONS ON MY VERY EXCELLENT ADVENTURE
There are moments in our lives that mark us forever and my trip to Manjushree has made a deep and lasting impression on me, so much so, that I frequently think of how soon I can go back and what I can do to help. However, I have been struggling to explain clearly to others – and to myself- why this should be so.
In telling others about Manjushree, I related glibly how Lama Thupten Phuntsok founded the orphanage in 1998 and launched into details about how and why, but after my visit, I stopped and really gave some thought to what that means: to formulate the wish to do good is not unusual but to carry it out and take it to such successful lengths is breathtaking. Imagine saying to yourself, “I will work as a Tibetan teacher and save money and buy land and I will start a school”. I am awestruck at the determination, hard work, compassion and vision needed to carry through this project as successfully as it clearly has been.
This success is more comprehensible after meeting Lama Thupten in person. His honesty, sincerity and commitment shine in all his words and actions – all accompanied by a mischievous sense of humour.
When I went back to work in my secondary school, where many of the children come from socially deprived backgrounds, I was struck by how unhappy and dissatisfied the pupils looked. It is not the fault of my pupils. They only respond to the society they live in and what they see around them. I felt heart sorry for them and realised that the children in Manjushree are in many ways luckier than my students who are materially rich but spiritually poor.
What a contrast at Manjushree where the children are polite, friendly, helpful, charming and kind to each other. The senior boys and girls provide positive role models for the younger ones, and help practically, such as washing clothes for the kindergarten children. In the 4 days I was there, a senior girl used wool we had brought her, not to make something for herself, but a woollen hat for a 5 year old. If the children did not have much, they did not complain but made the best of what they had with gratitude. A piece of wood, and paper tied with string make a very good substitute for a cricket bat and ball.
No visitor can fail to notice, or be impressed by, the loving-kindness that is apparent from Lama Thupten, from the dedicated teachers and between the children. His practical but unsentimental compassion have made Manjushree into a model society, one in which each person is valued and loved for who they are. Lama’s vision, ethos and Buddhist principles and beliefs are reinforced and consolidated daily through prayers, meditation and shining example, without too much interference from outside influences. Nothing in life is permanent but I have every confidence that the values instilled in the Manjushree children go deep and will be a bedrock of stability for them whatever happens in the future.
I was not in the least bit surprised to hear that Lama Thupten had been awarded the Sri Padmashri Award, the highest civilian honour in India. No one deserves it more. This is why I consider it a privilege and an honour to be a Friend of Manjushree and to be involved, however incidentally, in the astonishing, joyful community that is the Manjushree Family.
DOCTOR TIM PARDOE
MY VISIT TO MANJUSHREE
In November last year I had the privilege of visiting Manjushree Vidyapith School and Orphanage; I was lucky to accompany my childhood friend, Di Gallagher (known to all at Manjushree as ‘Mama Di’) and her son, Rory. I had recently retired from General Practice in Cornwall and an invitation of “why don’t you come with us?” was all I needed.
Just getting there was an adventure; the flight to Delhi was followed by a two day train journey through the northern India plains of Bihar and Assam, then 3 days in a Tata jeep wending our way up through the Himalayan foothills, over a 14000 foot pass, then on to Tawang.
Nothing could have prepared me for Manjushree; I felt humbled by the generosity of spirit of Lama Thupten Phuntsok, the founder of the orphanage, and also of all his staff who seemed prepared to give so much in return for so little in the way of material reward.
The children themselves were happy, and exemplary in their behaviour. It occurred to me that I never saw them cry because they were not getting their own way. I came away feeling that these children were, in a lot of ways, luckier than many children in our world because, despite their lack of expensive toys, clothes, treats etc., they had what children need more than anything else and that is genuine love and affection.
I keep many happy memories of my visit and I have the greatest regard for Lama Thupten, whose vision has made all this possible.
RORY GALLAGHER (first visit)
THREE WEEKS LIVING AND WORKING AT MANJUSHREE
To get to Tawang, one must be fairly determined. It is a long way from anywhere (closer to Lhasa than to any Indian city), and is situated at 10,000ft, separated from the rest of India by a pass at 14,000ft. This pass, the Sela, was a foot deep in snow when we crossed it in mid-April.
From the moment I met Lama Thupten – the founder and director of the orphanage – I knew that here was a friend, and even a brother. He is one of the warmest and kindest people I have ever met. I immediately felt at ease with him, and I believe that he inspires confidence, respect and love in everyone he meets.
I quickly found that the school is extremely well run, and the children very fast learners (they learnt elementary Spanish in 45 minutes!). There is a family atmosphere there that I have never seen before in a school, and I soon became “big brother” to all the kids. Lama Thupten is obviously responsible for the high standards and wonderful sense of belonging that one feels at the school. Credit should be given to the teachers too, who give their all to the school and children, for relatively low wages. Theirs is a true vocation. The children are central, however, and what completes the picture is the happiness and love that one can see in them.
What is needed now are funds to help Lama Thupten continue his work, to offer better facilities for the children and staff, and to allow more orphaned, handicapped and destitute children to benefit from this amazing place