Working somewhere away from home for no money hasn’t yet proved to be a very appealing holiday option for Russian travelers. However, many people in developed countries admit volunteering to be a wonderful way to travel cheaply, collect impressions and experience, get to know the culture of a country from within, at the same time proudly and feasibly contributing to making our world a better place to live. The international tourism market is riddled with various volunteer programs, from farming to teaching, in all the corners of the world, from the castles of France to third world Africa. And within this variety there can definitely be something for a spiritual practitioner.
The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, not so long ago called ‘Kingdom’, the birthplace of Buddha Gautama and nowadays a refuge and dwelling for many Buddhist monasteries, masters and practitioners, surely has a lot to offer. The hosting organizations welcome everybody who is eager to do something good, regardless of their country of origin, and our compatriots, too.
The organizations and firms dealing with volunteers from all over the world in Nepal are governed rather by the principles of cooperation than competition, even though the fees paid by the volunteers are the only source of funding. As a result of this conscientious approach the structure of these relations represents quite a complicated huddle of different legal entities and natural persons, volunteers from different countries and their different placements. It means that you can look for the best option from many organizations, but don’t try to hard, everything will happen as it will. However, a volunteer can choose the area (the Kathmandu valley or Pokhara Region, Chitwang District (a natural park), Everest or Langtang (highland)), the duration of the programme (flexibly from 2 to 20 weeks) as well as the kind of help. A volunteer can participate in ecological programmes, build, take care of the disabled or the orphaned, provide medical support, teach English, ecology or environmental and sanitation awareness in villages, at schools or at monasteries. It is possible to choose several programmes and let the organization send you where a volunteer is most needed. When I got the desire to go to Nepal, as a teacher of English and a Buddhism practitioner, I chose the option of teaching little Tibetan monks at a monastery.
The fee is about 100 euros per week, depending on the duration and includes transfer from/to the airport and placement, rather informal excursions around Kathmandu, Nepali classes, food and accommodation. Therefore, the plane tickets, visa and insurance (desirable but not obligatory) fees are on you. And so is food and activities beyond your placement. According to the descriptions on the website and the hosting staff, teaching is supposed to take 3-4 hours a day, not counting the preparation and various extra classes that a volunteer can organize. The working hours are usually in the morning or afternoon. Breakfast starts quite early, lunch finishes by noon, and dinner is at 6. Night descends very soon after dinner. Apart from the volunteer’s duties and chores, he or she is welcome to participate in the life of the monastery, to attend pujas (twice a day), hold various extra classes, like drawing, music and games. Though a volunteer is not bound to the monastery and doesn’t have to stay there 24/7, the volunteering labour should be treated as a real job.
The monastery I was assigned to was situated in about a half-an-hour walking distance to the North from Boudha Nath Stupa, the biggest stupa in Nepal, and in about the same distance to the South from Kopan, one of the most famous monasteries in Nepal. I must confess, the feeling of sacred presence was haunting me everywhere in Nepal, but around the Stupa this feeling, floating in the air, seemed to condense. As if the mere being in the place clears the mind and gives peace and bliss. However, I suppose, a reader who has ever been in the vicinity of sacred objects or saint people should be familiar with this feeling, so at this point I should turn to a description of the practical side of my stay.
The monastery timetable is quite alleviated, but strictly abided. People and dogs in the streets switch on at about 5 am, so fans of sweet morning sleep will probably have to do without this pleasure. At 6 am the monks (almost all of them are children or teens) start the morning puja, which you can always attend, at 7 am breakfast begins, and after breakfast you can have lunch at 11.30 am. The time between the two meals can be used as you wish. After lunch, from 12.30 to 15.00 it’s time for English.
The small monks are arranged in groups according to their language level rather precisely, and aged from 5 to 19. And actually, quite an adult-looking youth can be found sitting in one class with a five-year old. The discipline is not the strongest point of the students, the monk boys behave in the classroom rather as boys than as monks. When any group of children, whether it is a remedial class or a Buddhist monastery, gets a new person to teach them, first thing they do is test this person. The test is usually tacit, but quite well orchestrated. As the Nepali discipline methods are quite strict and don’t neglect quite severe corporal punishment, one should expect that words, pledges and suasion are taken only as an addition to the usual penal procedures. In order to avoid accumulating negative karma by using a special educatory stick on rowdies in monk garments, a volunteer should find an ingenious and humane method to establish authority and eliminate misunderstanding. It is a common mistake to consider that a benevolent native speaker can effortlessly teach his language, probably, merely by spreading some miraculous waves of having spoken it from the cradle. This can be a frustrating deception. In some cases apart from the lack of methodological base, theoretical knowledge and teaching experience, a native speaker doesn’t usually think of grammar as of something that can be structured and taught to the students, since to them it has always come without any theory or practice. Therefore, from this point of view, voluntary teaching is likely to come easier to a non-native, who probably wouldn’t have a brilliant command of English, but can claim some experience of teaching or working with kids, f.e. as a youth camp counselor, than to a native speaker, who would claim neither experience nor method. This bold generalization is in no case meant to anyhow derogate the capabilities and importance of native-speaking volunteer teachers, but is to encourage potentially hesitating non-native ones.
My test was on the second day, because on the first one, I managed to bribe up the monks with the novelty and Russian sweets. After they got out of control, my attempt to regain order was to refuse to conduct the class, which was way too loud, before they held 10 seconds of silence. I had to sit on the table steadily counting to ten, persistently starting again when somebody uttered something. When they realized that the new miss was quite obstinate, the customary sabotage stopped. Minor frolics didn’t bother me much, and gradually they almost came to naught, maybe because the realization of the relevance of education ascended upon the classroom. In addition to steady nervous system, another teacher’s refuge is drawing and copying, as the love to these activities is implanted deeply in the minds of the monks. Thorough copying from the board and zappy repeating after the teacher can distract from mischief even the most defiant little hellions. In fact, Tibetan and Nepali students have quite a different mentality and therefore, a different approach to learning and memorizing. They are much better at reproductive forms of work and they are evidently more effective for them. They would repeat after you with real vigor and enthusiasm, and would copy what is written on the board very meticulously and full-heartedly in spite of their snivel menacingly hanging over their copybooks. Apart from this, they get a lot of pleasure from drawing and painting, so felt pens and colour pencils can literary save the teacher. On the other hand, active games, on which I anchored so much hope, turned out to be quite a venture in the monastery. Only after they have run enough metres and feel sedated enough to sit cross-legged on the ground, you can throw a ball to them asking something, and some of them would even respond with cheery interest. In what concerns the language, the boys can claim an extensive vocabulary and good spelling. It is the grammar and pronunciation that arouse problems. The sound [p] in their mind is approximately identical to [f] with a strong personal preference towards one or the other in all cases. Sibilant sounds, not typical for Nepali or, seemingly, Tibetan, don’t always sibilate, so after finishing a task, some of the boys vibrantly yell something like [pinis]!
At three o’clock the classes do finish and the monastery gong invites everybody to enjoy Nepali milk tea. The after-school tea feels like nectar symbolizing the cessation of the classroom mental struggle. But teaching kids is only one half challenge, and one half satisfaction. The mere working with small and pure open-minded creatures is very rewarding. These boys are separated with their poor but tightly-knit families, love and care of their mothers. They are deprived of the pleasures and opportunities of lay life for a chance to work hard to maintain and preserve the spiritual tradition that so inspires you. When this realization comes to you your heart fills with warmth and light. Being a ‘miss’ (they call volunteers just ‘sir’ or ‘miss’, probably, not to get mixed up with the constantly changing foreign names) at a monastery is another interesting point. On the one hand some boys are already quite adult-looking teens that regardless of recommendations don’t seem to see people of both sexes as skeletons, but on the other hand, if a ‘miss’-volunteer manages to maintain impartial impeccability instead of her possible apprehensive presumptions, she will only face timid affection and reverence to her ‘missness’. Thus, if you want to overcome the possible difficulties, keeping in mind that your students are actually monks really helps.
After tea the monks hold a puja, then it’s free time, dinner, free time again and some Bollywood before bedtime. Actually, Kathmandu and Kathmandu area can offer a lot of leisure activities to a volunteer, so he or she is never confined to the monastery. The only thing you need to do is warn that you are going to skip the breakfast/lunch/dinner and it doesn’t have to be served. First, the Boudha Nath Stupa itself, with the neighbouring streets is a wonderful place both for practice and for worldly pleasures and necessities, like shopping, wandering, eating out etc. Everyday from the very early morning you can see a stream of Tibetans, Nepali and pilgrims from other countries walking around it, doing prostrations on special boards and other practices, as well as buying tankas, singing bowls, statues and other ritual objects, as well as jewelry, food and clothing. In many restaurants and cafés, particularly in marvelous Tibetan ones, you can inexpensively enjoy delicious Nepali, Tibetan, Indian and European cuisine. Among all the monasteries surrounding the Stupa, I have only visited one, the Kopan Monastery. It is located on the highest hilltop, opening a breathtaking view over the Kathmandu valley. This famous Gelugpa monastery has a wide range of offers to the demanding taste of the practitioners, who come there mostly from developed countries, starting from an ATM at the entrance to three-month Vajrasattva retreats. But even without participating in retreats or withdrawing cash, you can visit pujas, do your practice, prostrate and circumabulate in this powerful place. The atmosphere on the hill, among flowers, monks, statues is so blissful, that my first intention at the gates was to take off my flip-flops and walk barefoot, feeling the sanctity with the soles of my feet. During the weekends or taking a ‘day off’, you can travel around Kathmandu and beyond it on the local buses, minibuses and tuk-tuks, which might not be too comfortable, but are almost free compared to fares in Moscow or other European cities. In this area places like Pashupatinath, Swayambudnath, Patan, Durbar Square and Thamel will welcome you to ramble around, take photos, and exchange your rupees for something from the large variety of stuff from their shops and stalls.
Yoga, however, does not seem to be among the main issues. For some reason it is not customary to practice yoga in Kathmandu. There are few yoga schools, which hardly ever work, and absolutely no yoga shops. When I was leaving I decided not to bring my mat with me, hoping to buy one of those, sold in Moscow with a sign ‘Made in Nepal’ in the country of origin. But as it turned out, the manufacturer itself doesn’t have anything left for the internal market. After a long struggle of searching, calling and visiting yoga schools, it was proved that the locals do it on sleeping mats. I desperately bought a pathetic pink one and proved my apprehension that doing yoga on a sleeping mat is not too easy. Thus, if a yogi who would like to combine karma yoga with some other kind of yoga a wise thing to do would be to obtain all the necessary equipment and information about it in advance.
To those who may have developed a strong desire to fulfill a labour mission in Nepal, teaching English is not the sole option. You can volunteer by building, treating people, taking care of children and animals, improving the ecological conditions and even providing some feasible assistance in the office, and for all these things even a basic skill of spoken English can be enough. Nepali people are very simple and hearty, they welcome everybody who is willing to improve their life with real gratitude. Foreigners and, especially volunteers, are treated with respect and reverence, almost with admiration, and instead of making demands on you, they would give you any suitable task with an opportunity to change the programme, the placement or even the sort of help. This kind of practice, even taking some part of your stay will help you really witness the culture from within, save money and simplify practical arrangements, add language lessons and excursions, and above all, will bring substantial benefit both to the country and to the visitor.
Masha Sharapan is practicing yoga and Tibetan buddhism. Now she is student of Intercultural Communication at University of Jyväskylä (Finland)