My parents went to Nepal in 1959 – they fled Tibet. I became a monk in one monastery there and then I came here to study.” This is the story of Jampa Gyaltsen, a Tibetan monk who lives with 3,500 others in the Sera Jey monastery in the Indian state of Karnataka. There is, perhaps, an assumption that Buddhist monks are so composed as to seem otherworldly, but Jampa, with his constant smile, is positively affable.
From the nearby lay community, Sera Jey is some 30 minutes’ walk down a strip of cement through tidy fields. There is just one clue that you have arrived at the monastery: a wide arch over the entire road coloured in bright oranges, yellows and the touch of gold that is typical of Tibetan architecture. The monastery cannot be compared to any single religious building such as a cathedral or a temple. It is more like a small village – a web of different streets crowded with figures swathed in maroon fabric. To Jampa the entire monastery is his home. Many of the buildings are vast, decorated with elaborate patterns and colourful pillars. But behind these striking façades the ascetic lifestyle of the monk is revealed.
Jampa shares a small whitewashed room: two simple beds are surrounded by books and other useful items. The way of life is highly disciplined and centres on faith and learning. “We have to get up at 5.30am every morning,” Jampa says. “It is compulsory and if you don’t you will be fined. In my house, we have to serve in the kitchens as a penalty.” The rest of the day goes into learning and debating, punctuated by breaks for food and sleep. “At Sera Jey and other large Tibetan monastic institutes the monks focus on educational and philosophical study. Elsewhere, they would spend their whole time doing rituals, performing poojas and so on,” Jampa says. “What makes our way of study unique is that we spend most of our time debating.”
What Jampa calls “debating” must be both seen and heard to be believed. At 9am and 6pm, thousands of monks flood the main courtyard arranged in pairs of young and old, red-robed and orange-vested (a rare mark of seniority). One of each duo chants his day’s learning, ending every few sentences with a clap, while the other sits on a mat before him, listening and questioning. Throughout their studies, there is a sense of egalitarianism and a reverence for learning and for the learned. “The monastery doesn’t organise the teaching. We choose our own teachers,” says Jampa. “It’s about how people react to you and who asks you to help them.”
Sera Jey is one of the three main monastic institutes of Gelug tradition founded in the early 15th century in Tibet. It was re-established at Bylakuppe in south India in 1970, following the occupation of Tibet by communist China and destruction of the monasteries, and is now recognised as one of the largest monastic institutes and learning centres of traditional Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism.
At Sera Jey there is a respect for Tibetan traditions but also an interest in western modernity that is typical of developing India. Down one lane lies a large building decorated in traditional gold and red patterns. Just across the street is an internet café, a nondescript white building of perpendicular lines, where a robed figure is perched on the front step with a bulky mobile phone glued to his ear.
The resident population of 3,500 is divided into a number of accommodation buildings within which the monks sleep, eat and study. The houses are named after the different regions in Tibet and the monks are assigned according to their place of origin. Jampa explains the reason for this: “In the different provinces in Tibet, people use the same script but we have different ways of speaking and different ways of pronouncing certain words, so sometimes we can hardly understand each other at the beginning,” he says. “The reason for having different houses is to make sure that the newcomers enjoy the company of the monks from their native village in Tibet and do not feel any difficulties starting a new life in new place.”
The kitchen is a building in itself; enormous metal rice cookers are lined up ready for the team on duty to begin preparing dinner for hundreds of others. The Assembly Hall is probably the only building that conforms to an outsider’s idea of a monastery. One of the grander structures in Sera Jey, it is preceded by a lengthy flight of stairs and a courtyard the size of a football pitch. The peach-pink façade is decorated with green, red and orange trimmings and a dash of gold in the decorations perched on top of the roof. Inside, it is one vast hall lit by streams of sunlight that enter through the tall windows. The space is divided into a grid by long orange mats and countless rows of pillars.
“There are two sections to the monastery,” says Jampa. “Although most Tibetan monasteries in India have schools of modern education for young monks these days, Sera Jey Secondary School is only the one affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education, New Delhi. Monks in the school are taught social studies, mathematics, Hindi, science, Tibetan literature and English grammar etc. Monks who join the monastic college hardly get time to learn any subjects other than Buddhist philosophy.”
The community is aware that they must keep up with developments in modern knowledge. There are signs for a “Science and Buddhism” exhibition and several monks express an interest in learning English in order to access modern textbooks and communicate the Tibetan plight.
The tale of Jampa’s home, the Sera Jey monastery, encapsulates the history of the Tibetan people. “The Sera monastery in Tibet is historically one of the greatest and largest. But in 1959 the Chinese invaded and destroyed the monastery. Many Tibetans and the Dalai Lama fled and came into exile in India,” he says. The refugees were given land by the Indian government. “They tried to re-establish a lot of the monasteries that were destroyed in Tibet. At the beginning, this area was covered with thick jungle and the Tibetan people struggled. They cut down lots of trees and they started to farm. Since then, it has been developing to the state you have seen it in.”
Although some of the monks have never even visited Tibet, a connection with the nation permeates all their lives. Many of those who fled Tibet for India left behind family and friends who they haven’t seen since. It is now extremely difficult to go back. Jampa tells me how some “secretly cross borders by hiring someone, paying him a lot of money to show them breakthroughs … Some of the monks, they go to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. They say they want to go to see their family and lucky people could get a visa for a few days.”
In a tone of reassurance, Jampa says: “We feel very safe here. I am very grateful to the Indian government.” The words are oddly unsettling but there is a sense of calm in Jampa’s manner and his simple contented lifestyle that makes these political troubles feel distant.
Asking a Buddhist monk to select a favourite thing in his stark room is akin to asking a vegetarian how he likes his steak. Yet Jampa is neither baffled nor offended by the question. The choice is easy.
“My favourite thing in my room would be my books because they ensure I never feel lonely. I have them for company at all times.”