Chushi Gangdru! Having a little trouble with your pronunciation? The folks at this remarkable little grassroots school will understand your struggle! Chushi Gangdru is a non-profit organization and English language school for the many Tibetan Refugees living in Dharamsala, India. It’s a tiny operation run out of a basement below one of the many nondescript tea stalls lining the quaint streets of Mcleod Ganj- a tiny Tibetan community almost literally perched on the peaks of the Himalayan foothills of Himachel Pradesh.
Home to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, currently in his fifty-fifth year in exile from his Tibetan homeland, Mcleod Ganj is a Tibetan microcosm high in the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley in North Eastern India. Surrounded by dense forests, the green hills conceal the majestic ridges of the Himalayas, offering occasional and selected glimpses of the magnificent white capped peaks of the monsters to the North. The air is light and crisp, offering a refreshing oasis from the heavy air and high temperatures of the plains and deserts to the south. Perhaps it is the lack of oxygen, but more likely it is something less tangible that is held in the air of this spiritual haven, that offers visitors to Dharamsala a warm, humbling, and authentic taste of the beauty of Tibetan culture.
A Chinese scholor recently observed there are “more Chinese than Tibetans, more police than monks, more surveillance cameras than windows” in the capital of Tibet, Lhasa- the entire region is under undeclared martial law. Foreigners and international media are banned from Tibetan areas and recently permitted "tours" give a postured and fabricated reality that would be reminiscent to Dennis Rodman's visit to North Korea. Ironically, due to the deep and systematic repression of Tibetan culture in Tibet, Dharamashala actually offers a truer taste of “real” Tibet than the nation itself. There is an optimistic spirit and faith the Tibetan people hold in both their leader and fifty-five year fight for freedom; a pride and vitality that seems to defy odds as well as determined repression. Prayer flags bless their surroundings, lining the temples and streets. The traditional blue, red, white, green and yellow rectangles are strung in homes, through the pine and rhododendron forests, and along the ridges below snow capped peaks high in the surrounding mountains.
My friend Galek is the truest testament I know to the resilient and caring spirit that holds the exiled Tibetan community together. He is the founder of Chushi Gangdru School and one of the most selfless and genuinely good humans I have ever encountered. He began and runs the organization on his own time, with completely his own resources and the noble satisfaction of his important role in his community as his only incentive. He would never say this himself, for he is also one of the most humble and modest people I have had the pleasure of calling a friend. Each morning and evening the school offers free classes to anyone who cares to join. The classes mostly consist of Monks and young Tibetan students wanting to improve their English and subsequently their opportunities for work. There are some students from Assam, Sikkim, and other politically turbulent areas of India as well, all eager to share their stories of exile and love for their homelands. Most of the students made the difficult decision to leave their families and homes and walked through the heart of the Himalayas to India, knowing they would probably never return. It was a choice between freedom and the land and people they love. It reminds me how easy it is to take the freedom we have for granted.
I volunteered to teach a few weeks of English classes during my time off and when I returned with the Soul Seed crew we joined the afternoon conversation classes. Though technically we were the “teachers”, I can confidently say that I’ve learned more from Galek and his students than I could ever hope to match. Their lessons go beyond politics, language, and philosophy; it's a knowledge of ancient wisdom, of perspective and humility, of compassion, and of what is truly important in life. Its taught me the beginnings of a compassionate optimism that I can only hope that someday I will come close to embody. I will sign off with a saying that I was taught by a monk and a friend over momos one rainy afternoon during monsson, a quote that beautifully puts this philosophy of resilience and communal strength into words:
‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength. No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster’.