Former Buddhist Monk Establishes School for Needy Children
Spurred by the shadow of his own troubled childhood, former Tibetan Buddhist monk Lobsang Phuntsok decided that his mission in this life was to create a haven for neglected children near his home in Tawang, a remote corner of Arunachal Pradesh in the northern Indian Himalayas. Phuntsok envisioned an educational community for at-risk children founded on the principles of love, compassion, and wisdom, which form the core of his own Buddhist background.
Born in 1971 to an unwed, teenaged mother, Phuntsok was abandoned by his parents. His grandparents raised him until the age of seven, when his bad behavior forced them to send him away to a monastery. Phuntsok attended Sera Je near Mysore in the southern state of Karnataka, where he studied Buddhist philosophy and practice; social and political science; Hindi, Sanskrit, and Tibetan; and Tibetan culture. In 1997, he was one of 10 people selected by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile to undertake intensive English translation training in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.
In 2000, Phuntsok accompanied Tsona Gontse Rinpoche of the Bomdila monastery in Arunachal Pradesh to attend the Millennium Peace Conference in the US. During the visit, he was invited to teach Buddhism in Boston, and went on to spend several years teaching and giving talks at educational institutions around the country.
Whenever Phuntsok returned home from his life in the US, however, he was saddened by the difficulties facing children growing up there. “Everywhere I looked, I saw children living in abject poverty and neglect. I wanted to do something for them, so I decided that I would teach in the US, make money and start a school . . .” (The Hindu)
In 2003, Phuntsok set up a non-profit organization, and began fundraising in 2005. By the following year, enough money had been collected and he returned home to establish Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community. Funded by donations, the school now provides a home and an education for about 85 children aged 5–15. Most of the children are Monpa, an ethnic group closely related to Tibetans, and live in the region on the Indo-Tibetan border.
Phuntsok’s story carries such an objective level of practical idealism in a largely cynical world that his work became the subject of an inspiring 2014 documentary called Tashi and the Monk, directed by British film-maker Andrew Hinton and German film-maker Johnny Burke. The film, which aired on HBO on 17 August, focuses on Phuntsok’s relationship with the newest and youngest member of his school, a troubled five-year-old girl named Tashi.
Recollecting Tashi’s circumstances, Phuntsok says: “She lost her mother at an early age and her father was an alcoholic unable to take care of her. She was wild and didn’t listen to anybody. She would pick up glass and eat it. It convinced me that she needed a home, a family, somebody to look after her. Helping children like her is one of the main reasons for the community.” (The Boston Globe)
Tashi’s plight highlights the depths of desperation found in some of the communities with which Phuntsok works, where often the only livelihood available is breaking roadside rocks. However, due to finite resources Phuntsok is regularly forced to confront impossible decisions; he cannot accept every child he is asked to take in.
“I think this is one of the most difficult decision[s] that I face,” he says. “Because no matter how hard we try really to make a right decision, it’s not possible. And I know a boy [we did not take in] who committed suicide.” (npr.org)
While filming the documentary, co-director Hinton witnessed the dilemma that Phuntsok faces. “One of the extraordinary things for us was going with Lobsang to the local villages and having an expectation that he would be greeted as some kind of hero because of this wonderful thing happening in the school and the community, and it was extraordinary to us to discover that he is known as the man who says no,” he says. “Because as he says in the film he’s said yes to 85 children but he’s received over 1,000 requests. And we realized the weight of the burden that Lobsang has to carry. He explained to us that when he gets back to the community after visiting these villages, he’s so emotionally drained by the experience because he’s so conscious of the need.” (npr.org)
Yet Phuntsok remains optimistic in the face of tragedy: “Our older kids that have been here for nine years . . . become one of the most amazing agent[s] of change. So I know that these kids will go out someday, and they will do much better than what I am doing right now,” he says. (npr.org)
Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community
Former Buddhist monk creates home for 85 abandoned children (Deseret News National)
The Former Monk Who Is A Father Figure To 85 Children (npr.org)
Their smile keeps him going (The Hindu)
The new documentary ‘Tashi and the Monk’ is a sweet surprise from HBO (The Washington Post)
‘Tashi and the Monk,’ on the power of transformation (The Boston Globe)