“Attention. At ease. Hats off,” a teenage girl shouts orders in her school’s courtyard, which until a moment ago was filled with child’s laughter and innocent play. Children from six to sixteen quickly form into neat rows. Silence descends on the courtyard, palpably transforming the energy into that of a military camp. Older students pace back and forth, lightly slapping the heads of those who fall out of sync with the precise order. What were once four hundred individuals have quickly converted into a cohesive unit.
Nestled deep in the Indian Himalayas of Ladakh, Mahabodhi is an expansive spiritual community that includes a residential school, home for the aged, monastery, nunnery, and traveller’s guesthouse. Founded by Buddhist monk Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena, Mahabodhi provides Buddhist spiritual education to more than 400 poor children from surrounding villages who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to much of an education. The organization’s method of engaged schooling produces students who are spiritually connected, disciplined, and eager to learn.
Vimalachitta, a 15-year-old novice monk, is one of the 400 gathered in the courtyard. He has tentatively chosen the path of a monk, but still has five years to decide before fully committing to the monastic path. “There was an application and selection process for obtaining monkhood when I was nine years old. I passed and got to wear the robes,” he proudly exclaims with a big smile when asked why he chose the monastic life. Though he’s still figuring out what life as a monk is all about, his strong will is evident. Given that most of his classmates are not following the monastic path, and as such don’t have as many strict rules to follow, making the choice he did, and sticking to it, isn’t easy.
Konchokdolma, a 10th grade female student spent six years in a military school before transferring to Mahabodhi. When asked if she wants to become a nun, she replies, “Not yet, sir. I believe pureness of heart and happiness is also obtainable without going into nunhood.” She dreams about having her own travel agency to work with the many tourists that visit Ladakh. Though the two have very different backgrounds, they share an eagerness to learn, abundant joy, and gratitude to Mahabodhi for the opportunities that they’ve been given.
A few boys in the Tibetan language class are laughing and acting out. Other students, particularly the monks and nuns, temper the ruckus with their disciplined attention. Tsering, a native Tibetan teaching this class, shows no sign of asserting his authority. Instead, he allows them their moments of glory while converting the energy into his teaching. He walks confidently around the classroom, counting his fingers forcefully in an effort to explain Tibetan grammar. The classroom becomes alive with engaged students following his lead in a spirit of participation that drowns out the troublemakers.
Dharma and discipline come together in a profound way at Mahabodhi. Students maintain strict extra-curricular schedules that start at 5 a.m. and include daily meditation—even for children as young as six—housekeeping chores, homework, and exercise. That disciplined structure helps them to meditate and to form strong, concentrated, and flexible minds.
Behind her, three blankets sit neatly folded in an accordion shape at the head of the bed. Two stacks of notebooks are lined up on the dresser beside her and a string of origami lotus flowers surround a hand-drawn Buddha picture on the wall behind. A volunteer dictates her day’s homework to her as she punches impressions into a sheet of paper from right to left using her 27 row-by-30 column red plastic slate. Neither her textbook for this civics course nor the texts for many of her other courses are in Braille so she, and the other five blind students, rely on others to dictate to them, putting in the extra work necessary to succeed.
The Mahabodhi community gathers on Sundays for their almost weekly puja, a devotional Buddhist service. For some students inthe community, puja is their favorite part of the week. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen as regularly as some would like because the community sometimes loses sight of itself as it gets caught up in the busyness of everyday life.
Rows of monks and nuns as young as six sit cross-legged on the floor at the front of the puja hall. Behind them, students from the boys and girls hostels are neatly lined up, girls on the right, boys on the left. A few elderly residents sit leaned up against the right wall with some travelers scattered throughout the middle. At the front sits Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena, who leads the community through the recitation of the five precepts, the basic moral code for Buddhists that teaches nonviolence, right speech, and advises against stealing, sexual misconduct, and the use of intoxicants. “Only universal love and compassion can bring peace, not bombs and guns,” he says explaining the importance of adhering to the precepts. “If you violate the last one, you will violate all five,” he ends, stressing the need to abstain from intoxicants.
The service proceeds to a short meditation. Even the youngest members of Mahabodhi sit still through the meditation and, more surprisingly, throughout the whole service, which can last as long as four hours. “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu,” the collective chants as they prostrate three times.
Dechen, a teenage girl from the blind hostel takes the stage to sing one of her favorite songs, “Temple of the Holy Buddha.” Like most of the songs sung at puja, the theme is spiritual. The meaningful lyrics and strong aura built in the hall create a climate of reverence.
The song embodies what Mahabodhi and its students stand for. A holy home that lies within each of us. The Mahabodhi community is much more than its various buildings and institutions. With regular meditation, dharma lessons, and pujas, the students at Mahabodhi are not likely to forget the spiritual education they’ve received after graduating. Their disciplined nature has helped them embody the dharma and their eagerness to learn translates to a willingness to try even what is hard, such as adopting a spiritual practice. By creating spiritually engaged, disciplined, and eager students, Mahabodhi is grooming tomorrow’s future spiritual leaders.
written by Kiva Bottero and Are Saltveit