The issue is compounded by an increasing number of novices leaving the monastic life
Culture: The tradition of sending a child for monastic education is waning with monastic schools across the country recording a drop in enrolment every year.
Records with the education ministry show that between 2011 and 2015, the number of novices almost halved in the 388 monastic schools and three nunneries across the country. The annual education statistics 2015, states that the monastic body reported 4,435 monastic novices, a drop from 7,240 in 2011.
However, information on monasteries that are not registered with the central monastic body is not available. It is estimated that an equal number of monks and nuns are enrolled in private monasteries.
Now and then
Zhung Dratshang’s Tsugla Lopen Samten Dorji attributed the drop in enrolment to the growth of modern education, waning interest and inability to adapt to the lifestyle of a monk.
The Tsugla Lopen said the drop in enrolment is worrying.
Citing the example of Dechenphodrang monastery in Thimphu, he said that about 100 monks were enrolled annually a few years ago. However, the enrolment figure now stands at around 40 to 50.
Similarly, Tashichodzong used to teach about 700 to 800 monks while there were only about 300 to 400 monks every year today.
“Parents who enrol their children in monastic schools are those seeking respite from poverty and other social issues,” the Tsugla Lopen said.
Tsugla Lopen Samten Dorji said that although the situation has improved over the years, the society is less accepting of the monk body’s strict discipline system. “But there is still support from the government and the society on the importance of monastic education,” he said, explaining how in the past, people begged to pursue their religion.
Semtokha dzong’s principal Tshering Dorji said the drop in enrolment is more prominent in dratshangs where young monks are enrolled. “Here, we don’t see much difference as only graduates from Dechenphodrang and Tashichodzong are enrolled,” he said.
Tango shedra’s principal Kinzang Thinley said that in the olden days, the “best” child was usually enrolled as a monk. “Today even if parents opt to enrol their child, they prefer to send the ones who don’t perform well in any field.”
Dechenphodrang monastic school enrolled 40 monks this year and is home to about 200 monks today. Principal Rinchen Choezang said there used to be more than 500 monks more than a decade ago.
The drop, he said was not just to do with lack of interest as a majority of people don’t become monks out of choice. “It’s not necessarily to do with someone being religious,” he said. “In the past, joining the monastic school was like an employment opportunity as they are provided food, accommodation and stipend.”
Heads of monastic schools said that today children enrolled in monastic schools are those who come from poor and broken families or are physically challenged as everything is provided free in monastic schools. In the past, one son from every household became a monk. Today, even if parents wish to enrol their sons as a monk, they said the children weren’t interested.
Until the 1960s, monasteries were the only centres of learning in absence of modern education. As of 2015, there are 659 formal schools in the country including extended classrooms and private schools. From about 400 students in the early 1960’s, the total enrolment in formal schools has increased in all levels of formal education and tertiary institutes in Bhutan to 192,707, as of March 2015.
There are two types of monastic institutions, the government supported ones and private monastic body that are established and managed by other religious leaders. Completion of monastic education takes up to 18 years.
Given these reasons, Tsugla Lopen Samten Dorji said that people didn’t have a choice but to enrol their children in the monastic schools.
However, he said it was not compulsory although it was perceived that only children from well off families could pursue religious education. “Like families that support a lam who in turn help enrol a child in monk in return of the favour from the families,” he said.
Besides, the limited number of dratshangs and monasteries then could not accommodate all who were interested to enrol their children, he said.
What’s compounding the drop in enrolment is that an equal number of monks are also quitting monastic education. Some religious personnel said this could lead to religion losing its significance and therefore a threat to the country’s culture and tradition. However, in terms of people’s faith and understanding of religion, they said it was better today.
According to the Tsugla Lopen, about 40 to 50 monks quit annually. There are about 5,700 monks registered with the central monastic body today.
Dechenphodrang’s principal Rinchen Choezang sees the situation differently and explains that it’s like the current employment scenario.
“In Thimphu, there are more monks than the dratshangs can accommodate, which indicates that those who become monks want to stay in better places while there is shortage of monks in the rural places,” he said.
He doesn’t see the drop in enrolment as a threat but he is rather optimistic that a lack of economic and employment opportunities would lead people to opt for monastic life in future.
Now with more monastic institutions, he said, that the monks are spread all over, which is not indicative of a drop in enrolment.
But if numbers are anything to go by, the story is otherwise.