How a secular mindfulness in school project was integrated in a Tibetan Buddhist school for young nuns.
I wish to tell about my recent trip to the beautiful village of Chobar in the Kathmandu valley, where I lived and taught a secular mindfulness in school program at Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s school for young nuns. After returning to my home country Denmark many new reflections arise which may also meet the interest of other readers in our dharma community as well as people who are occupied with bringing mindfulness into schools.
The Tsoknyi Gechak School
In brief, the history of this school dates back to autumn 2010 when Tsoknyi Gechak Ling Nunnery was founded in Chobar to maintain the precious Tsoknyi lineage as practiced at Gechak Nunnery in Nangchen, Tibet. In the spring of 2011, 82 little girls arrived at Tsoknyi Gechak Ling. Since then the school has been growing from strength to strength incorporating modern teaching methods while keeping Buddhist ethics at the core. Tsoknyi Gechak School runs classes LKG, UKG and Classes 1 to 7 and follows Nepal’s Government curriculum. Tibetan, English, Nepali, Maths, Social Studies and Science are taught. The school’s vision is that education has the power to cultivate our basic goodness, the human potential for compassion and wisdom. Tsoknyi Gechak School combines modern education with Buddhist spiritual training, harnessing their power of both to enhance students’ basic goodness in a very practical way. This combination helps the students to live happily and serve humanity effectively.
By invitation from a modern visionary master
The joy of being invited by Tsoknyi Rinpoche to his school to teach his young nuns was immense for me on a spiritual, personal and professional level. I truly felt I had picked the lucky straw, even despite the fact that I didn’t earn a penny for the two months I was abroad. I was deeply grateful and humble, as he could have picked any other mindfulness teacher, but he gave me the chance, as I incidentally asked him during a retreat in England if I could go and visit the school some day. Looking back I am quite sure that Rinpoche already knew what he wanted, when he answered me: “You can come to the nuns’ school and teach secular mindfulness.” Not only was I delighted, but I was puzzled too: “Why on earth does he want me to teach mindfulness in a nunnery?” It should be obvious that nuns already are practicing mindfulness, considering that he is the most qualified meditation teacher.
It took some time before the puzzle was clear to me, and the more I understood the more I found Rinpoche’s vision and the prospect admirable. First of all, he does not have the time and opportunity to offer the same teachings to the nuns, since he travels around the whole world teaching us Westerners how to open our minds and hearts and to meet ourselves with loving kindness and compassion. Rinpoche is one of the most renowned Tibetan teachers, and he is committed to bringing the Buddhist teaching to everyone who reaches out for it. Bringing secular mindfulness to the students had not been an option before I came to Chobar.
Secondly, Rinpoche knew that the young nuns would some day need training in both the traditional monastic approach and a modern approach. His ambitions are to help these young women to get a high educational degree and prepare them to some day be able to travel around the world teaching the Buddha’s words to large audiences. He has very high ambitions for his nuns and the decision to bring mindfulness in as a school program, together with an effort to let the students be taught by native English teachers, shows his vision. These nuns have the potential to become highly realized female practitioners and teachers. It is most ironic that I, as a common therapist and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) teacher from the other part of the planet, should be the one to help him proceed in this vision of bringing mindfulness back to its Buddhist roots, so to speak, as he expressed it himself during one of our meetings.
The Buddhist roots in mindfulness
Mindfulness has its origins in the Buddhist tradition and was passed on from teacher to student since over 2500 years when the North Indian man Siddhartha left his father’s palace and walked as a homeless monk for about 50 years. The practice we today know as mindfulness is described in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta of the Theravada tradition. It was also part of his first teachings on the Four Noble Truths in which the Buddha explained how one follows the Eightfold Noble Path to reach nirvana, which emphasizes the cultivation of right mindfulness. In the old sources mindfulness is described as the cultivation of four foundations which a monk or nun should practice during meditation, contemplating the body, the feelings, the mind and any phenomena arising in this human existence. When the monk is sitting, eating, walking, lying down, moving, working, in all aspects of life, the monk should be mindful and make conscious wholesome choices instead of unwholesome choices. The monk should not only bring awareness to these four foundations for mindfulness, he should transcend them by letting go of any attachment to a worldly life and thereby reach the ultimate stage called nirvana. Siddhartha reached the state of realization, which is the meaning of his name Buddha.
The monastic education offered to the nuns at Tsoknyi Gechak School is similar to that at all traditional Tibetan monasteries. The young nuns train in all aspects of Tibetan Buddhist rituals: they learn to play the traditional instruments, make tormas, and chant the scriptures with the correct melodies. They also memorize texts and prayers. The older nuns engage in daily ritual practices. Since the core of Mahayana Buddhism is to benefit others, from a young age the school nuns are encouraged to be kind to each other, to care for each other and share. They are taught to respect their robes and to wear them correctly. When they are about fourteen they take the vows of a novice nun and learn about these precepts, the correct conduct and the ten virtues and ten non-virtues. To me the nuns at Tsoknyi Gechak School seemed to have already cultivated a lot of loving kindness. I saw it in their behavior, and their generosity.
Mindfulness classes for students and teachers
The young nuns at all ages from five to seventeen were offered a four week basic training in mindfulness, inspired by the adult MBSR and a Mindful School program developed in the USA. I adapted a curriculum presented to all the classes from kindergarten to grade seven which comprises training in:
- Mindful body – sitting still with straight and relaxed back
- Mindful listening to bells and sounds
- Mindful eating
- Mindful breathing
- Awareness of body with scan
- Awareness of body in movement during yoga
- Mindfulness in daily activities
- Awareness of thoughts
- Mindful walk
- Use of STOP and mindful moments in everyday life
The nuns had not been presented to this kind of awareness training before, although their normal practice of daily prayers was a natural habit, which was immediately visible in their beautiful way of sitting with diligence in meditation posture. The first thing introduced in the Mindful School program is exactly how to sit with a straight and relaxed back, hands in the laps, and with a sense of dignity, discipline and diligence. Almost all students benefit from this program.
In the Mindful School program, to ensure that mindfulness becomes a daily practice among the students, their teachers are initially trained in mindfulness as well through five weeks of structured teacher training classes and by means of cultivating their own practice by listening to recordings of bodyscan, exercises in breathing meditation, mindful movement during yoga and sitting meditation. The teacher team engage fully in the training and are very motivated both to practice it for their own benefit and bring it into the classroom.
At Tsoknyi Gechak School, none of the teachers had a meditation background and not all were Buddhist, so the project was presented with a secular and scientific approach and in an open way in which the teachers had a chance to discover for themselves if and how they liked the training regardless of their religious background. They reported on the benefits of learning mindfulness both for themselves and for their classes through an assessment questionnaire before and after the five weeks training and final evaluation. These testimonials proved that they found the practice beneficial both for themselves privately and professionally as teachers. Here are some samples from the teachers:
In the morning and before going to bed, and sometimes before eating, or when going into stress, I manage to take some time and just be aware of my thinking and feeling and getting comfortable with myself. Almost all my students benefit from this program. Now they become more attentive in the classroom.
While I am teaching, whenever students get bored or not concentrating, I use mindful sitting. That time they are more aware and attentive than before. For me mindfulness practice is more useful to control the class and create a wonderful environment.
Before I start a new chapter, I let the students do a mindful listening. After that I start the new topic. They get the ideas very quickly. I really like to do mindful sitting and listening before I start every new class which make my students concentrate and it helps my teaching.
Among the students’ evaluations, their many letters and testimonials prove that the mindfulness sessions were very beneficial and enjoyable for them. They were especially fond of mindful movement and yoga, mindful eating, bodyscan and mindful walk. The older classes put their experiences in a written letter and the youngest in very expressive drawings. They reported the positive outcomes of the teaching program and expressed their wish to continue the practice, both by themselves and in the classroom.
I want to thank you from the core of my heart for giving us your time and for giving us the precious mindfulness classes. We all know mindfulness in our class is very important for our life. Before you came I was not aware of what I’m doing or I couldn’t concentrate on my study in the classroom and I’ was always in stress, but after you came and taught us mindfulness, I was suddenly changed. I feel more concentrated in my study, it makes me happy, peaceful and focused on my aim. (A student in seventh grade.)
I have enjoyed the mindfulness exercises very much. It has helped me to focus on my studies. Now I can calm down when I am upset and I can make my decisions. My favorite thing is mindful yoga. By doing yoga I felt very light in my body. (A student in sixth grade.)
Mindfulness as both cultural, subcultural and universal
The five weeks Mindful School project at Tsoknyi Gechak School proved successful both for teachers and students as seen in the evaluations and descriptions. Their experience with mindfulness brought them helpful tools both for their personal well-being, their professional and educational development, and also for their group and school dynamics. This shows it’s possible to integrate mindfulness in a whole school culture both among teachers and students in only five weeks, if the entire school with leaders and teachers are truly motivated and give the project one hundred percent commitment.
It fascinated me to see the outcome of the mindfulness teaching program for students and teachers in a cultural perspective. The Nepali culture is collectivistic and its tradition is to adhere to the majority rather than an individual focus; it is not at all normal to be asked about one’s own personal experience. In the school culture, students are used to learn from the teacher dictating, rather than learning how to produce own opinions, which is the opposite of a Western school environment, not the least in a North-European democratic and student-oriented tradition. In a Nepali classroom the students stand up when the teacher enters, they say goodbye and thank you after each lesson. In that way it was both easy and pleasurable to teach. This is the very opposite to the Scandinavian school culture, in which the student is in the center and sometimes almost dictates the teacher. This cultural difference may be an important factor for the easy adaption of mindfulness into this Nepali school as the students were more likely to accept and appreciate the instructions.
Introducing the mindfulness classes in this particular collectivistic culture and specific school culture may have opened a whole new personal experience to the students and their teachers since they were invited to bring awareness to how they sense, feel, think and experience themselves on an individual level. As mindfulness is about our whole fundamental experience of sensing body, breath, emotions, mental constructions and behavior, it opens up to a world of inner awareness which all people, across cultures and languages, can benefit from. It may be that the students and teachers at Tsoknyi Gechak School benefited from this new experience, and this is also a reason why the transmittance of the teachings has been so successful.
Reflections on traditional religious versus modern secular mindfulness
The positive and sustainable results of this project made me reflect on how the traditional and secular meditation training can be integrated in a new way, as it has potential to build bridges between the old Buddhist tradition and a modern Western mindfulness-based approach. Does the success of this project indicate that bringing a secular modern mindfulness approach into traditional settings could be beneficial for today’s monastics in training? When this is said, it is extremely important not to water down the deep wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings.
Now one can discuss: what is the difference between traditional monastic training and the secular mindfulness training? It is correct that this mindfulness school program is secular and science based, but in terms of the techniques I used, these are the exact same methods traditionally taught, with the exception that in a Buddhist context one would always open with refuge and bodhichitta and close with a dedication which puts the practice firmly in a Buddhist context rather than a secular one.
This difference is obvious, but what I see as the main difference is that in a traditional nunnery young children, young monks and nuns are not taught mindfulness. Meditation training which starts with mindfulness usually happens when the monks and nuns are much older. Meditation training is considered unsuitable for young children. The Mindful School approach has taken something from the heart of Buddhism and can give it back to Buddhist monasteries and schools in a form that has been specifically adapted to be suitable and digestible for young children.
Young childrens’ learning styles and capacities are similar regardless of their culture or religion, so young children in a Danish secular school and young children in the Tibetan monastery can learn these very simple techniques in a form that can be used in their classroom on a daily basis.
Bringing mindfulness into the future for the next generation of monastics
For this new generation of young nuns, it seems that the tool mindfulness gave them is something sustainable for their future, as students, as monastics and just for being who they are. In other words, it is possible to create a spiritual path which draws on both the old wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings and the modern scientific-based interventions used in the Mindful School program, to support the new generation of young monastics living in the 21st Century. Being one of the most skillful and wise spiritual masters in our time, Tsoknyi Rinpoche is in many ways taking the lead in bringing the Buddha’s teachings into the future, which his vision concerning this mindful school project proves.
First of all, I wish to applaud the students and teachers at Tsoknyi Gechak School for their commitment and support to the project. My deep thanks to the founder Tsoknyi Rinpoche for giving me the opportunity and experience of teaching at his school, and to the school director Fionnuala Shenpen for her positive backup and engagement. I thank everyone for our shared experience and for great joy of training in mindfulness together. Our children belong to the next generation and they deserve all the beneficial tools from mindfulness for their personal, interpersonal and educational integrity. It is my wish that the Mindful School project will flourish as a daily practice on an ongoing basis at Tsoknyi Gechak School and in many other schools around the world.
I look forward to coming back to Gechak School and witness how the students and teachers practice silent mindful walking in the new beautiful temple garden under construction on Chobar hill, as I know this is Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s wish. I pray that the practice of mindfulness may give rise to much happiness, peace and love to all people.
This article is based on my two months residence at the Tsoknyi Gechak School, Chobar, Nepal, October to November 2016. The full project report with more photos can be read here.
Share this Post