At the time of writing I have just finished a three week project at the Pema T’sal Monastery near Pokhara. The journey to get there is rather grueling. Seven hours to cross a distance little more than 200 km snaking across mountain roads jammed with vehicles of all varieties. While you do get to take the tourist bus which is somewhat luxurious compared to the ‘rawer’ experience of the local buses it is still by no means a comfortable journey. However the experience of a Tibetan monastery not 30 km from the foothills of the notorious Annapurna mountains makes these somewhat minor trials more than worth it.
While at the monastery I took part in several classes, all of which involved teaching English in some way to young Buddhists. Most of the students come from a region in the Himalayas called Mustang, an impoverished region of Nepal where Tibetan refugees scrape a minimal existence from a harsh arid land that borders China to the north. While the students (particularly the smallest ones) can often be a challenge the teaching is immensely rewarding. In particular the one on one sessions where you get to witness the progression of your student from a much more personal perspective. Alongside the organized teaching that was done I was also involved in helping to set up a optional class for the more disadvantaged students. Something which I urge future volunteers to carry on. The majority of the monks show an eagerness to learn that far surpasses that seen in developed nations and they delight in talking about their homeland (although it is a given that you must also tell them about yours). There is something invigorating about watching these students, who come from such desolate backgrounds live a somewhat normal and fulfilling youth in relative comfort and safety.
Teaching however was not the only thing that one gains from volunteering at the monastery. Aside from the chance to meet a wide range of international volunteers you also get a perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture and spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. You experience a wide range of colorful and mystical rituals that bring you further to the heart of this fascinating religion. You even begin to appreciate the unearthly instruments that herald the call to mourning Puja (although at first its six in the mourning timing can be grating). Also, potentially most rewarding of all you get to speak with the senior monks (none of who are over 30) who not only help you understand the more esoteric sides of Buddhist philosophy but also raise your awareness of the plight of the Tibetan people and the continuing destruction of this unique culture. In order to really appreciate the problem however it is vital that you visit the Tibetan refugee camps that are scattered around in the surrounding area.
In spite of the monastery’s myriad appeals it is only healthy that one takes time off to visit the nearby Annapurna region. This region includes many awe inspiring sights, in particular the mountains. The most obvious of these is the one known by many as Fishtail with its sharp somewhat beautiful form and prominence above the surrounding area. However the most prized sight is probably that of Annapurna I. The 10th highest mountains in the world and (if Wikipedia is anything to go by) statistically the most lethal with 38% of summit attempts leading to catastrophe. All of this can be viewed from the safety of the monastery (if you get up early) but it is far better to actually get into the Annapurna Conservation Area and go on the five day Poon Hill trek where you can view these leviathans from the more modest height of 3210 m (still capable of inducing debilitating altitude sickness for the unprepared).
All in all the three weeks that I spend at the Pema T’sal Monastery passed very quickly, almost too quickly. The monastery starts to feel like a home away from home and as soon as you get fully settled the days start to melt away. For anyone who wants to help a threatened community and aid in the preservation of its future while at the same time experiencing a mysterious yet welcoming part of the world then volunteering in the monastery is definitely something that should be considered. I for one hope to return to the monastery at some point and I only hope that others will be inspired to participate in the experience as well.