Serving with a Smile: Bhutanese Youth Bring Delight to Kagyu Monlam
Many people have commented this year on the young people in Bhutanese dress who weave their way politely between the irregular rows of laypeople, carefully pouring tea and rice soup or distributing bread and soft drinks during the Monlam sessions. Always smiling and ready to help, they are there when somebody needs a chair or finds it difficult to climb up or down the steps.
Easily identifiable by the lime green tabards that they wear, these ten young women and ten young men, from different schools and colleges across Bhutan, have come to the International Kagyu Monlam specifically in order to serve. They are staying in tents, have only basic facilities, and share meals with the monks and nuns. Their working day starts at 6.00am and doesn’t finish until 5.00pm, but they maintain their cheerfulness and kind consideration of others throughout, and, even though the heat is rising here daily on the plains of India, they continue to wear their national dress with pride.
They represent the Young Volunteers in Action or Y-VIA for short, a division of the Bhutan Youth Development Fund, an NGO which works in partnership with the Bhutanese Government, UNICEF, NCWC, RENEW, DYS and other youth-related organisations. Its Chief Patron and President is Her Majesty the Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck, who founded the BYDF in 2003 at the request of her husband His Majesty the Fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. BYDF Director Aum Dorji Ohm heard about the Kagyu Monlam through vet Catherine Schuetze, organiser of the annual Kagyu Monlam Animal Medical Camp in Bodhgaya. Aum Dorji Ohm approached Her Majesty for special permission to run a volunteer programme at the Monlam and the Queen Mother was very enthusiastic and supportive of the project.
The Young Volunteers in Action programme is designed to develop the citizenship skills which are essential for the flourishing of any country and culture. The programme aims to inculcate a spirit of volunteerism and respect for cultural diversity, encourage active participation in the community and civics, empower the youth, promote spiritual and moral values, and create a network of communication between all young people in Bhutan. Y-VIA projects focus on service to the community. The projects include camps to clean the environment, adopting temples, voluntary service in old people’s homes, and taking care of those in hospital. Young volunteers also work as advocates in international programmes such as World Aids Day.
In charge of the BYDF Monlam programme are two teachers, Ms Joytshna Gurung from Thimphu and Mr Phuntsho Namgay from Phuntsholing. Both are BYDF-Y-VIA regional co-ordinators and were responsible for choosing the students who have come. The youngest student is a girl of 15 and the oldest is a young man of 21. The group includes undergraduates and trainee teachers as well as school students, and two of the young people were specially chosen because of their experience as trained peer counsellors from drop-in centres.
“I feel so proud that we are able to help all these people. We are very privileged to come here,” enthused one of the students 17year old Yoezer Lhamo Dorje fromThimphu. “We have been able to meet people from all over the world and make many new friends. I am especially grateful for the chance to serve the elderly, and I would like to thank Her Majesty the Queen Mother for giving me this opportunity.” Her fellow volunteer, Tshering Dendup, an 18 year old from Phuntsholing, agreed and spoke of his delight at the opportunity “to come to Bodhgaya, one of the most sacred places on earth. We have been able to serve so many people, and learn new languages; Tibetan and Chinese, Hindi…and we even got the chance for an audience with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. He was so happy that we came all this way to help him, and at the beginning he was quite concerned that we had to stay in tents. “
It then emerged that Ms Gurung had been stung by a scorpion, and His Holiness the 17th Karmapa had visited in the evening to check on how she was.
“Actually,” she admitted, “I’m usually terrified of snakes and scorpions but I knew that this is a sacred place because of His Holiness’ presence and I had full faith that I was in protective hands, so I knew that nothing bad was going to happen. I counted getting stung as a blessing, because His Holiness came to visit us in the camp. He came at 10.00pm at night after his heavy day.”
The volunteers reported that everyone felt very much at home at the Monlam, though they were surprised at how little people generally knew about Bhutan and Bhutanese culture. As they were all Buddhists, they were able to participate in the prayers and teachings when they were not on duty and some evenings they went as a group to circumambulate the Mahabodhi Stupa.
A week after they had arrived in Bodhgaya, they went on pilgrimage to Varanasi and Sarnath, and they will visit the ruins of the great Nalanda University on their way back to Bhutan.
They were unanimous in declaring that if the opportunity arises, they would love to come again next year.