Vasudha Wanchoo is the Managing Director of Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community. She was born and raised in India and moved to the U.S. in 2002, where she met Gen Lobsang Phuntsok la, the Founder and Director of Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community. At the time, Gen Lobsang la taught Buddhist Philosophy at Jhamtse Buddhist Centers in the Greater Boston Area. The teachings and personal interactions with him were very transformative for Vasudha and inspired her to visit Jhamtse Gatsal in 2011, which has become her purposeful life work ever since.
Zoe: Vasu, meeting you in California at Service Space in September, and then spending time together at IHE when you were in Maine in October, was like connecting with a long lost friend. We grew up on either side of the globe, yet our vision for education, its power, purpose, and promise, is so similar, as is our dedication to building a more compassionate world. I wanted our readers to learn about your work. Can you describe Jhamtse Gatsal and your philosophy of education?
Vasu: Zoe, thank you for this opportunity to contribute to your blog and share about our work. Indeed meeting you at the Service Space event last September was like reconnecting with an old friend. It is my pleasure to tell you and your readers the story of Jhamtse Gatsal, Tibetan for Garden of Love and Compassion. I believe the language of love knows no boundaries or borders. This is the essence of the work that we do at Jhamtse Gatsal. We are located in the remote foothills of the Himalayas in northeastern India near the Bhutan and Tibet borders. Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community was started in 2006 by Gen Lobsang Phuntsok la, a former Buddhist monk who gave up his life in the United States to return to his native region of the Monpa tribe in Arunachal Pradesh to start a community for children whose traumatic childhood journey is similar to his own. In his words from the Emmy award-winning documentary Tashi and the Monk, “I cannot undo my life and go back to my childhood […] but I can give these children their childhood. We have 85 children and I am lucky that I missed only one childhood; I get the opportunity to live 85 childhoods.”
Today, the Children’s Community supports 107 children ranging in age from 4 to 24, who come from backgrounds of severe trauma and adversity, and nurtures them to blossom their inner seeds of compassion, to not just heal themselves but also the world at large. At Jhamtse Gatsal, we believe that just as every seed has within it the potential to grow into a magnificent shade-providing tree, a fruit-bearing tree, a beautiful flowering plant, or a nutritious vegetable, so do all of us have within us the immense capabilities to be our best selves. What we need is the right and appropriate nurturance for the potential to blossom. Our model of raising and educating the children in our care derives from organic gardening where the focus is on providing the right environment, support, and guidance to help the children follow their unique paths instead of trying to model or shape them into uniformly manufactured products.
The children’s well being is fundamental at Jhamtse Gatsal, and we enable that by making them active participants in change from the day they become members of the Community. The young ones are supported by the older children and adults as they learn to make their own beds, keep their cubbies clean, as well as participate in every aspect of family and community life. Every child and adult at Jhamtse Gatsal bears the responsibility of the well being of the whole Community. This sense of ownership and responsibility towards oneself and each other creates a sense of belonging, which allows the children to heal from their past traumas. The balance of high expectations with unconditional love and acceptance allows children to thrive instead of fearing failure. Most of the children who are at Jhamtse Gatsal would probably need some form of mental wellbeing support in another setting; however, we learned through experience that this balance of responsibility and love allows children to heal themselves. By saying this, I do not mean to undermine the hard work or care provided by mental health professionals around the world; my intent is to simply share another model of care for children. Our remote location does not allow for access to such resources, and, through our Founder’s personal experiences, we developed our way of helping children reach their true potential.
The three pillars of Jhamtse Gatsal are Awakening Mind, Kind Heart, Healthy and Skilled Body. These principles guide every aspect of community life and are the basis for our learning model. All adults at Jhamtse Gatsal help prepare children for their lives as contributing members of society. Our responsibility is not only to prepare them for a career but also to teach them how to live compassionately and purposefully to rebuild our human society and rekindle the human spirit. Thus, besides the usual academic subjects of English, Hindi, Math, Science, and Social Studies, children at Jhamtse Gatsal also study Tibetan language in the elementary and middle school years to be able to engage in the Mind Training texts and Heart Sutras from the Buddhist canon in high school. Every morning and evening they engage in reflection and prayers to stay connected with and understand their cultural roots. Cultural preservation is a big part of the Jhamtse way of life. As active members of the Community, our children participate in diverse experiential learning programs like organic farming, vermicomposting, carpentry, masonry, cob (mud and straw) construction, waste management as well as installation of rainwater harvesting, solar backup, and bio-septic systems – all in addition to the everyday chores and responsibilities of community life to create a sustainable model of living. We are blessed to live in a beautiful Himalayan setting, and we owe it to our younger generation to preserve and safeguard it.
Zoe: Your first students have graduated and many of them have gone to college. Can you tell us some of their stories?
Vasu: One day before our first children graduated from Jhamtse Gatsal, a teacher asked Gen Lobsang la, what is your vision for our children when they graduate? He responded: I hope that they will not go out and tackle the world, but will make it a little kinder and gentler for all. This is the vision and way of life that our graduates spread in the respective microcosms that they are creating around their colleges and learning communities. When I compare them to myself or many others at their age, I am in awe of the resilience, poise, and groundedness with which they carry themselves. I believe this is a result of the unique upbringing that they received at Jhamtse Gatsal. Taking care of someone or helping is not a chore or a burden to them; they engage in these activities with joy and an unassuming sense of gratitude to have an opportunity to be of service to another. Seeing them in healthy relationships with those around them reminds me of the lesson in generosity that Gen la endeavors to instill in all of us:
When we see generosity as helping, we see life as weak.
When we see generosity as fixing, we see life as broken.
When we see generosity as service, we see life as whole.
Our graduates have certainly learned to see life as whole. Today, they are neither weak nor broken, nor do they see others as such. They have transformed their past traumas into a source of inspiration to be of service to others. They work hard at their studies because they are purpose-driven and see their careers and life choices as a way to pay it forward for the kindness that is bestowed upon them.
Like any parents, we were concerned about sending our children into the world, but they give us hope daily in the way they take on the new opportunities that life offers them. What they may lack in experience and exposure, they make up for with effort. They never shy away from hard work and take their failures as valuable lessons to seek help or course-correct. For instance, when some of them didn’t perform well in their first semester exams, they didn’t just give up and feel bad about themselves. They allowed themselves to feel their disappointment and then sought peers to help them bridge the gaps in their learning and skills.
Be it college or other learning environments, the purposefulness which drives their desire to learn is commendable. Knowing why they are pursuing what they are studying focuses their attention and strengthens their resolve. Many have chosen education, healthcare, or entrepreneurial career choices in order to return to their remote region and lead its right development. Rather than focusing on their right to education, livelihood, speech, or action, these young adults are driven by right education, livelihood, speech, and action to enable not only personal right growth and development but also that of those around them and future generations.
Interestingly, an odd choice that we face as parent figures to these thoughtful young adults is to remind them to have some fun in life, too. Often, they are so focused and purpose-driven that we have to remind them that even excess of that is not healthy. I tell them what I tell many of our community members: that because we are doing such serious work, we must remember to have some fun doing it, too, or we could burn ourselves out. But all things considered, I can’t say it’s a tough dilemma to have!
Zoe: You spend much of the year in the U.S. What have you learned from being the managing director at Jhamtse Gatsal that you think would be helpful to schools and schooling in the U.S.? If you could change anything about U.S. public schools, what would you change?
Vasu: While this is an interesting question to ponder, and I thank you for asking me to share my thoughts, it is not an easy one to answer. Each environment is so steeped within its own cultural context that making a suggestion without being sensitive to this understanding would be a misstep. While some features of Jhamtse Gatsal are singular to the community and difficult to emulate, like its remote location, its unique leadership, and the centrality of Buddhist practices within the daily routine, there are some universal values that Jhamtse Gatsal and many school communities across the world share. For example, regardless of life circumstances all students can thrive, overcome challenges, become more resilient, and be transformed into agents of change when seeds of love and compassion are nurtured within them. I believe what is important is for school communities to make time to come together and engage in regular dialogues about what is important to them to instill and nurture in their students. The idea is not to replicate any one environment, but to reflect on and foment qualities that we would like to see more of in our younger generations.
For any kind of learning to happen, three key players interact with each other—the learner, the facilitator/teacher, and the content. While a good amount of time and energy has been spent on content refinement and also on building learner capabilities, I feel that the facilitator or mediator between the learner and the content has been left a little on the wayside. I believe that focusing on, supporting, and empowering our facilitators would go a long way in making learning a more engaging and exciting process for all. This is one area where we focus a lot of time and energy at Jhamtse Gatsal. While we are far from perfect in our efforts, we have experienced that when our adults are accepted and taken care of, our children thrive.
I believe that everyone who chooses a career in education is driven by a deep sense of purpose and motivation to inspire and shape growth mindsets. However, I also feel that sometimes our fears and challenges as adults stand in the way of letting our students explore. Sometimes we become so bound by the curriculum that we forget that we are not there to teach a curriculum or syllabus, we are here to teach students. Curriculum is our means or vehicle to inspire learning, it is not the end goal. Our focus must be on taking the time to understand the potential of each student and support them in fulfilling it. We live in a world of dynamic and endless possibilities and allowing our children to explore and consider these wide-ranging opportunities is just as important as acquiring curricular knowledge. Believing in the potential of each student, creating a loving and compassionate learning environment, as well as allowing diverse means for students to explore and express their learning, are some humble suggestions that I could offer.
In closing, I would like to share one reflection from Gen Lobsang la that I often return to when I am feeling stuck or limited in my ability to support our children. It reorients me to my limitations as a caregiver and facilitator of learning as well as to the children’s responsibility in the learning process:
“We cannot transplant or transfer our knowledge and wisdom into our students/children. We can only show them through our experiences the way we did it. That is all we can do. What they [the students/children] have to do is to figure it out.”
Thank you again, dear Zoe, for this opportunity to share my thoughts with you and your readers. I hope they are received in the spirit of exploration and reflection, and any errors in communication are forgiven as lack of expression or understanding on my part and not as an intent to hurt anyone’s sentiments. I offer these thoughts with gratitude and in service of the amazing people all across the world who believe in the potential of our young and strive to support them daily in shaping their lives.
Zoe: Thank you, Vasu! I am so grateful for the work you are doing and the beautiful role model you are for both children and adults.
Some links to learn more about Jhamtse Gatsal: