Monastic Teacher Training


The Sarnath International Nyingma Institute hosted a ten-day teacher-training seminar from October 15-24th , 2015 for over 30 monastic teachers from all major Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and included Tulkus, Khenpos, Geshes, Lopons, and Nuns, from Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Tibet. The origins of this seminar began a year ago during a discussion in Bodh Gaya with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and the director of the Institute, Tsering Gellek over the future of monastic education in modern society. In this discussion the question was raised how to improve the delivery of Dharma content more effectively in a modern context and in turn explore the central role of the teacher and pedagogy for its transmission.


Purpose of the Seminar

This pilot teacher-training workshop was designed to explore broad developments in modern education methods and consider their possible applications within the monastic context. The seminar sought to respond to the growing social pressure for monastic teachers to meet and understand their students’ and communities’ changing needs.  Of special concern is how best to reach a new student demographic; those born outside of Tibet, the majority of whom are in fact non-native Tibetan speakers and raised within the cultural influence of modern, diaspora communities, no longer resembling the environments in which traditional, Tibetan monastic educational methods were developed. It was in this spirit that we gathered for an extended period of time in Sarnath to engage in creative dialogue about the best and most appropriate teaching methods for the 21st century. We explored different teaching methodologies, best-practices; discussed cross-cultural issues; examined the appropriate use of technology in and outside of the classroom; and assessed the benefits of critical-thinking methods.


One of the goals that emerged out of this program was to help further identify traditional teaching methods, present in the scriptures but sometimes overlooked, and refresh or re-appreciate them in ways that more directly address the changing social context of the Himalayan region. Of course, all of these educational issues strike deeply at the core of what remains as the “essence” of the Dharma and what may be distinguished as the “method” of delivering the Dharma. The central question is: “Do we want to adopt modern teaching methods in today’s monastic classrooms to reflect the changing social conditions? Or, do we feel, as some traditional monastic teachers’ have expressed, a great sense of caution and believe that modern teaching methods will ultimately have a negative impact on the qualities of traditional spiritual education and erode the profoundly sacred and revered teacher-student relationship, found at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism?


In today’s climate of rapid social change and transition, our intention in convening this forum to openly discuss these issues has proven to be a very useful exercise. We explored not only the possible benefits of “modern” education methods but some of the critical dilemmas, cautions, and possible harmful impacts that an engagement with modern educational methods might have on the transmission of the Dharma. Our first step, in some way, has already been accomplished by creating a small but committed network of engaged-teachers to discuss these issues and to begin carving out a path to balance these contending issues.


Participants and Organizers

For this program, we gathered a diverse group of international facilitators including: Cathy Swire, of Oxford University, who opened the seminar with a grand overview of the origins of Western education and introduced an innovative Western-stylized debate structure to the monastics. Dr. Ian Faulkner, of Cambridge University, led discussions on the role that technology might play in helping to deliver Dharma content more effectively both within the classroom, and to a wider audience, globally. Professional teacher-trainer, Eliza Hilton, also of Oxford University, and Director of Flow-India, related core modern educational theories covering fundamentals in constructivist education and provided innovative ways in which the beloved text, The Bodhicaryavatara: The Way of the Bodhisattva could be taught using modern teaching methodologies, designed to stimulate both critical and creative thinking.  Dr. Vandana Goswami, an anthropologist and professional teacher trainer, provided a direct introduction into the importance of understanding the impact of culture on teaching in new places. Astronomer, Dr. Lakshmi Saripalli, presented a riveting evening seminar on spectacular images of the universe and our abilities to observe its shape, forms, and changes. Dr. Bryce Johnson, the Director of the Science for Monks Program, and teacher-trainer of California’s  Exploratorium integrated his years of working with monks in science workshops to lead practical discussions on how to stimulate self-reflection in teaching through writing and the value of teacher networks for the exchange of ideas and support. Ngawang Thinley, founding director of Esukhia, and Tibetan language teacher Younten Wangchuk offered a lively discussion on how we learn languages through immersion and the limits, if not dangers, of introducing a grammar-based approach to language acquisition. Catherine Brown, teacher-trainer and international consultant, further demonstrated this approach, with a powerful lesson on communication and importance of developing pedagogical structures that help build on a student’s innate reasoning.


There were a number of distinguished participants in the seminar including Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Geshe Konchog Gyaltsen of Drepung Loseling, Tulkus, Geshes, Khenpos, Lopons and Loponmas from monasteries and institutes including: Shechen, Namdroling, Tharpaling, Drepung Gomang, Mindroling, Dzogchen, Sherabling, Dzongsar, Shugseb nunnery, Thrangu monastery and nunnery, Drikung, Jonang and Serta Larung Gar.


The following four-person executive team helped to design and implement the entire program: Jennifer Yo, of the Khyentse Foundation, Khenpo Sonam Tsewang, of Namdroling Monastery, Cathy Swire, of the UK, and Tsering Gellek, of SINI. This group helped to select the participants and worked closely to shape the structure of the program with each of the facilitators and translators. The seminar was delivered in both Tibetan and English and required an active and talented group of translators. Khenpo Sonam Tsewang led the translation team which included Do Tulku, Thupten Gelek, and Tenzin Wangmo.


Administration was carried out by volunteers from the US and included Cassy Gleason, Andy Francis, and Renate Marx. Help from our Nyingma Community provided the basis for the program and included seasoned help from Doug and Toni Nurnberg, Susan Cox, and Rick Gliszinski, along with the entire SINI staff.


The seminar took place over ten days, each day divided into three teaching sessions, which were followed on alternating days by tutorials and Tibetan language only discussion groups.  There were a number of extra curricular activities, including a visit to the Dhamekh Stupa, an early morning boat ride on the Ganges, and an opportunity to premier Guna Foundation’s latest film The Great Transmission.


One of the highlights of the program was a Western-style group debate on the issue of Western education and its impact on the transmission of the Dharma.  The importance of debate was raised throughout the seminar as a pedagogical tool, and an impromptu workshop demonstrated Tibetan Monastic debating techniques to the Western participants.


What Was Accomplished

Towards the end of the seminar all participants completed a questionnaire on the purpose, learning outcomes and potential grounds for educational exchange, from Buddhist to secular learning models. The responses were overwhelmingly positive with nearly all participants reporting that they had enjoyed the experience, discovered new approaches and methods that they would apply in their teaching, and would like to participate in further teacher-training activities. Many participants also indicated that it would be of real benefit for other teachers in their monasteries to attend similar teacher training workshops in the future.  More specifically, a number of respondents indicated they were intending to make greater use of visuals in their teaching based on what they saw and learnt at the seminar. It was also felt that integrating group activities, discussion and collaborative work would help with teaching.  The length of lessons in the traditional setting was commented on at several points during the seminar. A theme seen across the collected reflections was that the use of Western techniques such as games and activities, as well as the use of humor, could be particularly helpful for breaking lessons into shorter sections; reenergizing learners.


At the same time, the strengths of the traditional monastic methods were emphasized, particularly with regards the teaching of compassion and ethics. It was also felt that the respect of students for their teachers in the monastic setting was critical and needed to be maintained. Most participants felt that people outside the monasteries, including in the West, could also gain much from the traditional teaching methods, particularly in the areas of meditation, debate and respect.


Ways Forward

It was strongly felt that this seminar should be the catalyst for on-going teacher-training activities and that such trainings could lead to tangible improvements in monastic teaching, as well as promote wider transmission of the Dharma. In summary, the reflections of those who took part in the teaching training seminar demonstrate a clear desire and need for new methods of teaching in the monastic setting as well as training in how to apply them.  The development of a network of concerned teachers presents an opportunity to continue to develop new methods of teaching.