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Exiled schoolchildren march for Tibet


Young monk in Sera Mey Monastery

It is 8.30pm and outside the young monks are chanting their studies. Tonight there is a swarm of crickets outside my room, attracted by the flourescent light on the balcony. I have mosquito netting on my windows, but unfortunately I did not close the door properly and an increasing number of crickets is sharing the room with me and the colony of ants that inhabits the gaps in the walls. A few weeks ago it was flying termites that plagued the guesthouse and settled all along the balcony after a day’s rain. The ants are, I have discovered, invaluable at clearing away the dead bodies.

I am staying in the guest house of Sera Mey monastery, Southern India. The monastery is located within the Tibetan settlement developed on land given to these refugees by the Indian government after their displacement from Tibet. There are around 5,000 monks here between Sera Mey and its larger cohabiting partner, Sera Jey. I am here teaching English to the monks at Sera Mey Monastic University, which is a rather grand name for what is just a school. Most days are the same here, except for Tuesday’s holiday. ‘Tuesday is the new Sunday’ the school principal told me ‘because it is market day in Kushalnagar.’

Today is Monday and normally a school day, but today the students have a different activity.

This morning we march together from the school to demonstrate against China’s occupation of Tibet, China’s deforestation of Tibet, and the treatment of Tibetan religious people. These Tibetans want human rights and freedom. A young monk set fire to himself in Tibet recently, and the monks celebrate his life and the motivation behind his actions. We leave the school at 8.30am and the young monks carry banners and home-made placards. Pictures of the burnt monk are printed proudly on the largest of the banners. As we walk the half hour in the early morning heat of this India summer the students chant in unision. ‘What are they saying?’ I ask one Geller (teacher). ‘Ah-ha,’ he smiles (he smiles a lot), ‘they are praying to be blessed with Bodhicitta.’

Bodhicitta is the compassionate wish for oneself to attain complete enlightenment (or Buddhahood) in order to be of benefit to all sentient beings trapped in the cyclic existence of samsara who themselves have not yet reached Buddhahood. In basic terms it is the wish for oneself to be filled with compassion and to want this for everyone else.

While we walk in the heat, the monks chant and chat until we reach an open area where they sit down. I find the shade of a tree with some of the teachers and watch from here. There are speeches, and the National Anthem, and through all this the monks sit or stand patiently in the heat. Some take umbrellas and the view becomes a collection of maroon-red robes beneath multicoloured sunshades.

An Indian man with a bicycle carrying bananas approaches our slightly removed vantage point beneath the shade of the tree and we share bananas. The event winds to a close after an hour and a half and we make our way back to the monastery in the rising temperatures of approaching midday. It has been a peaceful demonstration and the media has come to witness it here, and in other Tibetan settlements across India.

Two days later in class, after the Tuesday holiday, we talk about the march. The students, teenagers of 12, 13, 14 and 15, smile as they tell me how they enjoyed the day. These people, dislocated from their home country and their families, bear witness to atrocities that I could not imagine when I was their age, yet they fill themselves with compassion and I am humbled by their actions. It is true what one teacher told me: Sometimes we teachers learn from the students as much as they learn from us.

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