Spiritual Riches

nick-and-jackie1Volunteer jobs at Lha: Tutoring, teaching English, conversation class, Tibet Fair Trade shop
It is late on Good Friday when we arrive in a cool, damp McLeod Ganj. The mountain light is fading as we climb the steep, twisting road to our home for the next six weeks, living and working with the Tibetan refugee community.
The weather may have been cold and wet but the welcome from our hosts couldn’t have been warmer. We soon met our colleagues from Lha and Rabsel, the Volunteer Co-ordinator, shows us around and begins to introduce us to Tibetan culture and issues.
Each afternoon we join the conversation class, a drop-in session where anyone can come to practice their English – and they do! Up to 50 students and eight coaches cram into two small rooms and, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and speak English for an hour. It can be exhilarating but it is pretty taxing too!
nick-and-thinleyWe also do one-to-one tutoring and from our students we learn something of their stories.
Nick’s student is a 29-year-old Buddhist monk called Thinley and we become firm friends over the next few, precious weeks. The claret robes of the Tibetan monks are an important feature of life in McLeod. To those of us from secular, generally “non-practising” Western countries the way of life of a monk is a source of fascination. I seem to be materially well-off but Thinley appears to be spiritually richer than I am! I regarded it as a great privilege to have the opportunity to get to know him and to learn something of Tibetan traditions and Buddhist values. As a monk, Thinley has few worldly possessions and little money: he is supported by a family benefactor.
Jackie’s student is a young mother, called Youdon. Her flight from her homeland is a similar tale to Thinley’s but once in McLeod she met her future husband. In order to try and better provide for his family, he continued his journey to Belgium where he works to send money home.
Jackie, a teacher by profession took some full classes in Lha and both of us tutored other student monks in English language. I used to work for the BBC in Glasgow as a Business Manager so I spent some time with Sherab Tenzin in the Lha Shop, looking at ways to try and develop its business. This work continues and we hope to secure orders for Tibetan handicrafts from NGOs in the UK, Australia or the US.
jackie-and-her-studentWe learned that the Tibetans in McLeod Ganj are a caring, compassionate people. When the devastating earthquake struck Nepal in April this year, the whole community offered spiritual support. McLeod businesses, cafes and restaurants closed their doors for an afternoon and more than 2,000 people gathered at the Dalai Lama’s temple to offer prayers. Although we are not Buddhist, we were honoured to join this demonstration of sorrow and solidarity: it was one of the most moving experiences ever.
On another remarkable occasion, we joined several hundred Tibetans watching His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, when he made a presentation at the Tibetan Children’s Village. As this coincided with Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s visit to his old friend, we witnessed these two great statesmen of our age – live, onstage together! Desmond Tutu dancing as we sang “Happy Birthday” to His Holiness was a sight to behold – and we felt most fortunate to be there.
These were just two of the highlights of our stay in McLeod Ganj: the most lasting and fond memory of our time with Lha is the friendships we made: the humanity, the generosity and the camaraderie – with our students, with fellow volunteers from many different countries and with the committed and dedicated staff of Lha.
Lha and the Tibetan refugee community expressed huge appreciation for the support and time we gave as volunteers – but the truth is we gained at least as much as we gave: sharing time with these lovely people, and learning something of their precious cultural traditions and their compelling Buddhist values.