While a group of around thirty followers swarmed into the Buddhist teachings class of Pema Dorjee, a senior Tibetan monk at the Nechung Foundation temple on 1st Avenue in the East Village of Manhattan, the Tibetan youth of the neighborhood gave it a mass miss.
“The Tibetan youth has already attained enlightenment,” joked Pema Dorjee, switching now and then between Tibetan and English, “so, they don’t have the need to come around here,”
Pema, (most Tibetans do not have a surname or a family name, so their given names are treated like family names), who has been holding Buddhism classes for the last fifteen years, says it is common not to have any young Tibetan faces in his class, filled with Americans, older Tibetans, and Asians. “It would have been unusual the other way around,” said he.
However, despite his sarcasm, Pema is concerned over the lack of young Tibetans at the only Tibetan Buddhist Temple in New York City. Tibetan Buddhism is fairly different from other forms of Buddhism in that it puts more emphasis on both the founder and the teacher rather than just one.
“It is highly important for the Tibetan youngsters to learn Buddhism as it is the basic foundation of our culture, tradition and language,” he said. “And young Tibetans fail to understand that.”
Pema believes that a free Tibet will not hold any meaning if the Tibetan youth, who he calls ‘the future seeds of Tibet’, is not aware of the rich Buddhist religion, culture, language and tradition of Tibet.
Despite Pema’s concern, Tenzin Norbu Nangsal, a lecturer of Modern Tibetan and Language at Columbia University, has observed a slight rise in the number of Tibetan youths enrolling in his class over the last two years.
“We can not weigh the importance of the Tibetan Buddhism over the Tibetan culture as both are deeply intertwined,” said Tenzin. “All the rituals and cultural activities that Tibetans follow have glimpses of Buddhism and vice versa.”
Tenzin, who has been teaching at the University for the past eleven years, is of the opinion that the increase in the enrollment of young Tibetans in his class is indicative of a rising interest, but the interested percentage he says is still very small. Over the past two years there has been only 3 Tibetan students, he said.
Both Tenzin and Pema agreed, however, that one of the primary obstacles that is preventing the Tibetan youth from practicing Buddhism is the language factor.
“Tibetan Buddhism can be best understood in Tibetan, but most of these young Tibetans, growing up in America can not speak, read or write Tibetan, making it all the more difficult for them to follow the religion,” said Pema.
Pema founded a Tibetan community school on 32nd street in 1996 to help young Tibetans learn Tibetan language. The school, which Pema started with just 7 students, now has over two hundred students aged 6 to 15, pouring in from across New York and New Jersey.
In his classes, Pema says he always works toward incorporating Buddhism teachings with the Tibetan Language lessons. But he is disheartened that these children do not practice any of these teachings after graduating from the school.
“They are good Buddhists as long as they are in the school, but right after they graduate, they forget everything,” said a disdainful Pema.
Sonam Choekyi, 44, mother of two high school aged children who also attend the Community School on Sundays, began to value the Tibetan culture and tradition more than ever after coming to the US.
“With my kids growing up in America, I am really scared of them forgetting their language and culture. So, this school offers a good space to remain in touch with the roots,” said Sonam.
Sonam thinks it is important to know Tibetan Buddhism, but even more important to be a good human being.
“I want both my children to become nice people and because the Tibetan Buddhism preaches that I am happy about them learning the religion at the school,” added Sonam.