Tommy Vermeir with his students at the Drikung Kagyu Institute (DKI) in Dekyling, a Tibetan settlement in northern India.
Tommy Vermeir with his students at the Drikung Kagyu Institute (DKI) in Dekyling, a Tibetan settlement in northern India.

In the shadow of the Himalayan Mountains lies the Drikung Kagyu Institute. Known as DKI, the school operates as a monastery and education centre that seeks to provide its pupils with both spiritual and modern knowledge. Two St Andrews students recently had the opportunity not only to visit the institute but to volunteer as teachers of English and maths to the monks and nuns. In turn, they themselves were able to obtain empirical experience in the Buddhist lifestyle and to participate in the dayto-day operations of the monastery.

Perhaps the most integral aspect of Buddhism lies in its status not as a religion but as a way of life. It doesn’t have a God; instead, Buddhists simply seek to ameliorate the suffering that constantly accompanies man’s existence. According to Buddha himself, humanity is the belief system’s number one priority.

This sentiment was uttered by Shanta, a monk at DKI and companion to his two St Andrean guests. Ogyen Verhagen, who made the initial peregrination to the institute, did so with the animus of educating himself about Buddhism, an oft-misunderstood concept in the West. Both he and Tommy Vermeir describe their heuristic conversations with the monks as one of the most significant takeaways from their experience at DKI.

Mr Verhagen’s expedition was initiated by his guardians, who first arranged for him to stay at the monastery as a visitor. At the monks’ suggestion, he agreed to take on the role of an English and maths teacher and his first day of class took place on Christmas last year. As the first St Andrean to undertake such a project, Mr Verhagen had been given the opportunity to shape the future of what could potentially become a permanent relationship between our university and DKI. His temerity proved to be efficacious, as he was followed six months later by fellow student Tommy Vermeir.

The journey itself is not for the faint of heart: a flight from Heathrow to Delhi will run just over eight hours. Upon arriving in Delhi, visitors have the choice of taking a bus, a train or a plane to their penultimate destination, Dekyling, a Tibetan settlement near the northern city Dehradun. Both Mr Verhagen and Mr Vermeir elected to take the bus, giving them the chance to witness the environs of the Indian countryside first-hand as they drove through the night.

When Mr Verhagen disembarked in Dekyling, he found himself alone beneath the foreign firmament, his 5 am phone calls to his contacts at the monastery going unanswered. By the end of an hour, fortunately, he had successfully gotten in touch with Shanta, who set off to escort Mr Verhagen to his final destination.

The Drikung Kagyu Institute is housed within Dekyling, itself a place of refuge for Tibetans seeking freedom from persecution by the People’s Republic of China. By learning English, the refugees at DKI will have access to more extensive life opportunities, such as higher education, that would otherwise be out of their reach. The optimistic nature of Buddhism is evident in the fact that even in the face of such hardship, the residents of DKI continue to channel their energy towards peaceful self-improvement. Mr Vermeir recounted afternoons spent meditating, following a meagre meal of bread and soup.

The modesty of the monks’ and nuns’ lifestyle was visible in all aspects of the monastery. Mr Verhagen, as their first guest in many years, was assigned to sparse living quarters that, in his words, opened his eyes to the massive disparity between the classes in India. A single light bulb illuminated the basic stone room that contained no more than a thin mattress, a desk and a plastic chair. This simple space differed greatly from the homes of his wealthy hosts in Delhi and bring to mind the teachings of Buddha – that a wise man will take pleasure in the elimination of craving, rather than in material wealth.

Such a gracious phrase defies the stereotype of Eastern beliefs as being overly ascetic; rather, Buddhism relies on a certain mental calmness, an acceptance of our own helplessness. The monks reject the idea of wanting, focusing instead on living in the moment and embracing life in every form, refusing to give in to luxuries or self-indulgence. In the wake of his visit, Mr Verhagen noted that the monks saw their own bodies as temporary, mere vessels, as they sought to spread compassion throughout the world. Even their school lessons had the ultimate goal of personal growth, as they hoped to achieve an education that would bring them closer to bettering themselves and others.

This welcoming environment offered support to Mr Verhagen and Mr Vermeir as they embarked on their teaching programmes. Mr Verhagen, the institute’s inaugural St Andrean teacher, was essentially the programme’s test subject. He suggested a move to more comfortable living quarters (where Mr Vermeir would later stay) after finding his headphones chewed through by rats, and he established communication between himself and the monks with the intention of allowing future students the chance to teach at DKI.

Although the programme is open to anyone, it would particularly benefit those who hope to pursue a career in teaching, as it places the attendee in a classroom setting from the get go. Mr Verhagen was assigned to his class of young monks with little instruction, using his mobile phone and the school office’s wireless network to aid him as he planned his lessons. His pupils, ranging in age from sixteen to twenty, could have been his peers. Despite this, the basic material that he taught was previously unknown to them. For two hours a day (with the exception of Monday, a holiday), Mr Verhagen covered introductory-level maths and basic English, allowing his class to progress gradually over the course of his four week teaching stint.

When not teaching, Mr Verhagen was able to offer the monks accounts of his life in the UK, in between games of football and discussions on Buddhism. Mr Vermeir also infused his own background into his curriculum. Walt Whitman factored heavily in his lessons on idioms, also giving him the opportunity to teach his pupils about non-Buddhist belief systems. He identifies this as the principal reason for his agreeing to take on the position; although volunteering as a teacher, his focus during his time spent in India was on studying his surroundings and finding fulfilment from entering such a novel environment.

In addition to this exchange of philosophies, Mr Vermeir sought to explore the metropolitan side of India, not only the agrestic. Cheap bus rides allowed him to venture to cities near the monastery, visiting local friends and monuments. Mr Verhagen, too, stepped from beneath the patulous trees of Dekyling to see the Taj Mahal and India Gate in person. Considering that teaching only occupied two hours of his day and three hours of Mr Vermeir’s day, they were given ample time to stretch their legs and make the most of their month-long stays.

Having returned safely from DKI, both Mr Vermeir and Mr Verhagen speak of the experience with fondness. Their pupils’ eagerness to learn and to educate, the beauty of the institute (particularly the Songsten Library) and the warm nature of the residents all helped to quell the culture shock that both of them took in their stride. To embrace such foreign environs, such a conglomeration of ideas, and to fit in with such ease shows a willingness to get stuck in and embrace life shared by many at our university. We plunge into the North Sea every May, we blind ourselves with shaving foam, we navigate cobblestone streets in high heels. A partnership between St Andrews and the Drikung Kaygu Institute would be fostered well by our bold student body.

Buddha said: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” To draw from this, we may say that as more students participate in the mutual education at DKI, more candles can be lit. We are lucky to live in comfort, with food and water never more than a bicycle ride away, as we skip lectures to nurse hangovers sprung from balls or dinners or nights out that occur with such frequency that they blend together. Perspective is unquestionably the essence of this expedition; we would all do well to see how fortunate we are in our daily lives.

With this experience behind them, both DKI and St Andrews hope to encourage more students to take on temporary teaching positions at the institute. Humanities students would likely find themselves the most comfortable in the role of a teacher, as learning English is the primary aim of the Institute’s pupils; however, all degree subjects are welcome to the programme. The intention of the project is not necessarily to train aspiring teachers, but to allow any and all students the opportunity to become a part of the community of the monastery.

This budding relationship with DKI is something to be cherished and the project’s aims – to teach and to be taught by our contemporaries across the world – perfectly exemplifies Buddha’s beliefs. For further information on becoming involved in DKI, contact either Mr Vermeir (tv20@st-andrews.ac.uk) or Mr Verhagen (osev@st-andrews.ac.uk).

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