About 10 kilometers outside of Leh, beside the main Tibetan refugee settlement in Ladakh, is the area of Choglamsar. The landscape is stark: rock faced mountains, clouds of dust, and beating sun. In this desolate backdrop is an important center for Buddhist learning, the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies. It has one of the most extensive Bhoti (Tibetan language) libraries of the Himalayas and every year educates hundreds of Himalayan and Tibetan students in the literature, philosophy and arts of the Buddhist Himalayas.
The institute was founded by the most important Ladakhi of the 20th century, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche. Bakula Rinpoche, like many monastics from the Indian Himalayas, was educated at one of Tibet’s great monastic universities prior to the Chinese occupation. He returned to Ladakh from Lhasa in 1941, having been awarded a Geshe degree, the highest degree in the Gelukpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, requiring nearly 20 years of rigorous training in Buddhist philosophy. In 1949, when Ladakhis held their first democratic elections, they elected Rinpoche as their leader. In 1954, he visited Tibet again and witnessed the deteriorating situation under the newly arrived Chinese overlords.
For nearly a thousand years, Tibet served as the spiritual center of Ladakh and the Himalayas, providing indispensible instruction in the Buddhist scriptures and meditation. In his far-sighted wisdom, Rinpoche knew that the Tibet he knew as a student was being irreparably changed under the communist regime; Ladakh and other Himalayan Buddhist regions could no longer rely on their neighbor to the north for teachings. Recognizing the conditions in Tibet would become more repressive, he petitioned Prime Minister Nehru to establish a Buddhist institution in Ladakh. The Prime Minster was reluctant, hoping that the situation between the Tibetans and Chinese would improve. In March 1959, when an exodus of nearly 100,000 Tibetan refugees fled to India, Nehru was forced acknowledge the validity of Bakula Rinpoche’s fears. By October, with support from the central government, the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies was established, with an initial class of only 10 monks.
The Institute has expanded immensely since its humble foundlings. Beginning in the 1970s, CIBS began offering modern subjects such as math, science, and political studies, in addition to their offerings in the traditional topics of Buddhist philosophy, Bhoti language and literature, and Buddhist arts. There are currently 750 students, including more than 300 laypeople. In January of this year, it was gained official Indian university recognition, now offering degrees from B.A. up to PhD. Geshe Konchok Wangdu, a Ladakhi educated in an exiled Tibetan monastery in south India, is the current Director of the Institute and is deeply invested in perpetuating the Buddhist knowledge of the Himalayas. We had a long conversation, switching between our shared languages of Tibetan and English, about the work of the university as well as the state of education in Ladakh more generally.
“Bakula Rinpoche was so very, very important for our Ladakhi people, and so very kind. He cared a lot about our traditional language and Buddhist philosophy and Bhoti literature,” Geshe-la explained. In 1954, Bakula Rinpoche composed and edited a series of Bhoti textbooks for the Ladakhi primary and middle schools, versions of which are still taught in the government schools. However there are major impediments to developing high proficiency in Bhoti. Geshe explained that all government schools use English or Urdu as the medium of instruction; Bhoti is only taught as a single subject. He quoted the UNESCO studies showing the benefits of mother tongue instruction, expressing his frustration none of these facts were taken into account when designing education policy. In addition to greatly improving Bhoti literacy and cultural knowledge, students would perform better in all subjects if they were taught in their mother tongue. He lamented that these findings fell on deaf ears in the J&K Department of Education.
He identified three main problems preventing the development of Bhoti language and literature in the schools. The first is from the students themselves. Many of the younger generation do not see the benefit of Ladakhi language, regarding it as a provincial language with no use outside of their region. Hindi and English, on the other hand, are seen as the languages of opportunity and social mobility. With an increasing desire to move from the villages to Leh, from Leh to Delhi, from Delhi to the west, young people do not see the use of developing high proficiency in their own language.
The next problem comes from the educational policy J&K Educational Department, whose views are similar to those of the students. Urdu and English are regarded as the essential languages of success, while Bhoti is more of an afterthought provided to Ladakhi students. Furthermore, Ladakhi literature, history, religion and culture are only included in the Bhoti class, which is only offered as a single subject. These rich traditional subjects of learning are generally neglected in favor of the general Indian curriculum, based on the colonially inherited Macaulay system, which had expressed goal of creating English minds in Indian bodies.
The final problem comes from the lack of qualified Bhoti teachers. As the current generation of Ladakhi teachers has all gone through the same K-12 education with minimal emphasis on Bhoti language and culture, there is a dearth of teachers with this knowledge. If the teachers do no have high proficiency in Bhoti language, if they are not knowledgeable about the 5 Buddhist sciences of Himalayan culture, how can they teach the students?
In the face of these challenges, Geshe Wangdu is dedicated to providing a traditional Himalayan education. In addition to his directorship of CIBS, he is also the president of the Spituk Kamzang Education Society, responsible fro writing and publishing a complete pre-K through grade 8 Bhoti textbook series. These are the preferred textbooks in the private schools throughout Ladakh that emphasize Bhoti language education and traditional Buddhist learning.
Geshe-la spoke of a moral crisis facing Ladakh that only education could address. Growing up in his village outside of Leh, he said he could drink from any stream; there is now no stream he would risk drinking from after “development” has created unprecedented pollution in the valley. When he was a child, elders were respected as the holders of knowledge and tradition; now, the younger generation thinks of them as ignorant and stupid. As a youth, he never heard people talk about depression; last year alone, 35 Ladakhi students committed suicide. For Geshe-la, these are not anecdotal occurrences; they are deeply interrelated and point to the deterioration of the values that once defined Ladakh. Ultimately, Geshe-la believes education is the only possible solution to rapid transformations that are fundamentally altering Ladakh. The inevitability of change is a core Buddhist belief. The question is how to manage this change while still preserving what is most essential in Ladakhi culture.
At the conclusion of our interview, Geshe-la graciously asked to me stay at the university for 10 days. I expect this will be hugely beneficial for my research, allowing me to study Bhoti curriculum development as well as the traditional courses taught at the school. I also hope that my exchange with students will develop into a helpful dialogue about the nature of education, and how to incorporate the desired modern subjects while also perpetuating traditional Ladakhi ways of knowing.