Primary, intermediate and complete secondary schools following generally school curriculum but with specialization and focus on non-standard subjects are quite many across Mongolia. Such schools, existing besides the normal public and private secondary schools, have their own standards and also people interested in enrolling their children. One such secondary school in the Mongolian capital is run and managed by the Pethub Buddhist Monastery, also known as the Bakula Rinpoche Temple, named after its founder the late Indian Ambassador to Mongolia.
Your school is not a school of religion only?
It’s not. It is actually a secondary school following the standard education curriculum applied all across the country. The only special thing about our school is that it is under the management of and is run by the Pethub Buddhist Monastery. Our students are lamas of the Pethub Monastery. The school was founded to give secondary education to the school-age lamas of our monastery.
I just saw an advertisement inviting children to join your school. From what age do you enroll children?
We are enrolling children, who have decided to become lamas, only from the fifth grade onward. This means that we do not accept children in our school who have not obtained primary education (class 1 to 4). This is simply because children of this age are unable to decide on their own what they want to do when they grow up. At our school we also have many other subjects related to religion that are taught to our school children, in other words, children of our school have a number of extracurricular activities more than the normal secondary schools. And children of young age, as a rule, are unable to cope with this kind of burden. This is why, we only accept children who are of age 10 and more.
All our students from grade 5 to 12, until their graduation, learn all the subjects that are taught at all the secondary schools in the country.
Would the children coming to you school and monastery already have decided on their own to become lamas or are the parents also influencing on them to take such a decision?
Most importantly, children coming to join our school say they are interested in our school. Interest is of two types, in my view. One, the child’s parents want their son to continue with the traditions. Two, a child, perhaps because of his karma in his previous life, would have decided on his own to become a monk. Basing on these two a child is deciding to take up monkhood.
As I already mentioned, apart from the regular curriculum, students of our school as they start learning in the literature and books of Buddhism, become convinced that they can take up monkhood.
In the final analysis, it’s the individual who decides what he or she wants to pursue.
How many students do you have?
We don’t have that many. Today, we have only 37 children from the 7th to the 12th grades. They come from different parts of the country, and there are also a few children from Ulaanbaatar.
Since your school is a secondary school, the school curriculum is the general one applied and followed in all other secondary schools of the country.
Our school is no different, in terms of school curriculum, from all other public secondary schools. Our students appear for board exams when they pass the intermediate and senior classes just like all other school children. In other words, we follow the school curriculum which is approved and adopted by the government and applied all across the schools in the country.
However, one big difference from normal secondary schools, as I have already mentioned, is that it is a compulsory subject for our school children is theology. This includes, first, subjects in religious faith, practice, and experience, and second, Buddhist philosophy. Both these subjects require from the student memorizing skill as they have to memorize a lot of Buddhist scriptures.
If the students are able to meet these basic requirements of Buddhism then they will be able to complete our school.
Normal secondary school subjects would be in Mongolian. In which language is theology taught?
We teach our students Tibetan as most of our religions books are in Tibetan and also some in Mongolian translation. More than just learning Tibetan, our students must learn to interpret and understand the religious books in Tibetan. For example, this is particular important for Buddhist philosophy and in order to fully understand it, mastering of the Tibetan language is a basic requirement.
As you follow the government approved curriculum, you would also be having classes in say chemistry, physics, biology. These subjects require specially equipped laboratories. Does your school have such facilities? If not, do you have any arrangement with a normal secondary school where your students can go for their physics, chemistry, biology? And is this at all possible also?
At our school we have all the science subjects. But we do not have the laboratories. Up until the recent past our school was called a school of religion and although it was set up some 20 years ago, school certificate was not given for several years. In the meanwhile, we decided that we should turn our school of religion into a special secondary school where general education program is taught alongside theology. And we have trained educators and teachers.
Setting up a laboratory for a school like us is not feasible as they require investment. I have heard that the Ministry of Education receives in grant aid laboratory equipment and instruments from other countries such as India but they are distributed only to public secondary schools.
I may be wrong but I feel that children who have decided to become lamas would not require chemistry, physics, biology when they continue with their monkhood.
That’s not really the case though. Our school believes that in the modern times a boy monk should also learn all the subjects that are taught at regular schools and be knowledgeable about these subjects too. Students of our school have different interests, some are interested in chemistry, while some are interested in language and culture, and still others have an inclination towards history. There are young monks, who have graduated from our school, have joined the teacher’s training school, medical university, economic, cultural and art schools.
We must create the environment for our students to choose what they want to pursue when they finish our school and this is what we think is very important.
I know of lama doctors, lama historians, lama research associates. Do you know how many graduates from your school have taken up specialized profession?
We have a medical doctor, who was our student, there are graduates of our school who are philologists, and even in politics. There are many lamas from our school who are practicing religion in different monasteries around the country. More than 360 students have graduated from our school since its foundation.
Do your graduates, mostly continue to remain lamas or have some of them given up monkhood?
We do not think that a graduate of our school must remain a lama. The choice belongs to that individual. As they have been trained, educated and brought up at our school under the monastery, then they, in the first place, have a definite knowledge about Buddhism, its traditions and culture, and in the second place, a person who has been trained as a monk who has learned to distinguish between virtue and sin, when that person enters mainstream society he would not, at the least, take any action that may harm other persons around him and they will never lag behind others. We feel happy and proud that our school has and will continue to train and educate such righteous people, whether they remain true to monkhood, or give it up to become a lay person.
Is your school paid, if not how is it funded?
We don’t have any tuition fee. WE receive some funding from the Government. It’s called variable expense, which schools like us, is entitled to. The majority of our students are from the rural areas, belonging to common people, and we do not have children from families who can afford to send their children to expensive schools within and outside the country.
As the school director, my own desire is to get the best of the teachers for our students, and to create the best possible learning environment for them. This would serve our vision and mission.
We know that there are girls who want to pursue religion and become nuns. Can girls join your school?
So far, we have not received any such request. A primary objective of our school, since its foundation, has been to train monks for our monastery. We are managing our school in such a way that we accomplish our vision and mission to have lamas true to their monkhood since they have been trained to be a monk from an early age. For the time being, we do not have any plan to accept children at our school who do not want to become a lama.
This means that lamas obedient and true to their monkhood vows are being trained at your school for which you have a good reputation?
I don’t want to flatter myself, but this summer when I was traveling in the rural countryside, I met many lamas who had passed through our school and monastery. In this sense, I feel proud that our school and monastery is making their contribution, small though they may be, to training from the very beginning ‘human resources’ so important for the continuation and flourishing of Buddhism in the country.
Ambassador Lama (Bakula Rinpoche, the former lama Indian Ambassador in Mongolia. TMO) when he founded the monastery and the school, wanted to see lamas who are true to their monkhood and monastic vows and who would make their own contribution to Buddhism. Today we are trying our level best to live up to that expectation and dream of our guru Ambassador Lama.
In other words, if I may, you are training and educating lamas who would develop in the correct direction Buddhism in Mongolia?
Yes, that is right. It is very easy to undermine and destroy a religion but many years of genuine effort is required to revive it again. When I became a lama in the 1990s, I was hoping that with so many lamas and Buddhist monasteries, Buddhism in our country would develop and flourish back to its old previous course. But that did not happen. Last 20 odd years could be defined as the years of ground work for the development of Buddhism back to its old glory.
Buddhism is quite special as compared to other religions and faiths. Unlike some other religions where believers come and meet once a week or once in a while, sign a hymn together and praise their God and believe that they are blessed. Buddhism teaches the correct path to life and when we reflect on Buddha’s teachings, I have doubts we are following His teachings in a proper manner. However, we did not sit arms folded either in the last more than 20 years. Our religion has been making progress, step by step, and this is evident from our school and monastery as we feel proud that we have been able to train and educate monks who are working to revive the glory of Buddhism in the real sense of the word. We shall continue to be persistent in our effort.