Little monks at the prayer wall, Dechen Phodrang 2002

Modernization has also changed the monastic system. Before the third King introduced secular education, Buddhist monastic training provided Bhutan’s only formal learning system — usually restricted to the sons of privilege. At this time, monks held great status and power as teachers, landlords and government officials. Now the urban Bhutanese want their children educated in English, not the monastic languages of Dzongkha and classical Tibetan; and their children attend secular schools, a prerequisite for prestigious government positions. These days, most monks come from poor villages and many of the urban youth, educated in English with civil service expectations, fail to make the cut and end up hanging around town, unemployed.

Imagine hundreds of village boys freely roaming wild mountains and forested valleys, herding yak or cows, working in the fields, throwing stones, splashing in streams and teasing the country girls. At seven or eight, their families decide that their destinies lie in the monastery. Suddenly, they find themselves in robes, cloistered with other boys from all over rural Bhutan, speaking different languages and dialects, spending most of their time praying and studying scripture, Dzongkha, Tibetan, mathematics and the teachings of Buddha. Young and wild, they overflow with exuberance and mischief. Yet the monastic system, with its subtle psychology and stern disciplinarians, turns this energy inward, to prayer, devotion and service.

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