Many come from broken families or a humble economic background

Tashi Dema 

It is the yarney break.  There are not many monks at the monastery. In the courtyard of the main temple, a senior monk is persuading two boys to leave a candy packet alone. Putting the packet under the weight of his right thigh, he is unyielding to the continuous pestering.

The boys, four and five years old, call the monk Asha (uncle). They have recently joined the monastery (shedra) and will soon become novices. The boys were left there. One is from a nearby village. The younger one, a four-year-old, was dropped off at the monastery by his mother.

Nalanda Buddhist Institute Principal Pema Tenzin with the two boys who would soon join the institute

The Nalanda Buddhist Institute got two new members and, for the principal, there are new responsibilities.

There are more than 150 monks at the institute.  Principal Pema Tenzin said many bring young boys to the institute, as they send them to a formal school nearby. There are 38 monks who study at a primary school and Thinleygang School. In the morning and evening, they study Buddhist texts.

He said the institute had to adopt some children, as they don’t know who their parents are. It was later learnt that a woman from Thimphu dropped the four-year-old boy off at the monastery. The mother previously worked in a drayang.

Receiving young boys at monastic institutions is not new to principals of these institutes. The Nalanda experience is only one in the kaleidoscope of experiences many institute officials share.

Many young monks are from broken families or economically disadvantaged groups, who feel becoming a monk is the best choice.

Lopon Namgay of the Nalanda Institute said the cost of schooling or feeding children is another factor. “A monk these days has better opportunities in life than a university graduate,” he said, adding that if they cannot complete their studies, performing rituals is enough to see them through.

In the villages, many say becoming a monk is “eating from the lap”, meaning that they need not experience the drudgery of a farm to eke out a living. “In today’s context, it means not having to find a job,” said one.

Lopon Namgay and his brother both became monks. “My parents worked in others’ fields to raise us. They wanted us to become monks,” said Lopon, who is also the store master at the institute.

In Kabisa, Thimphu, little monks as young as seven years old have come from Dagana. A nine-year-old monk said he chose to become a monk as his brother, 12, decided to be a monk. His friend, an eight-year-old monk, said his neighbour suggested it to him because his single mother was struggling to feed him and his two siblings.

A senior monk from the Central Monastic Body, Tshering Penjor, 43, said 99 percent of children who become monks come from remote and economically disadvantaged or broken families, including from the lhotsham community.

In Bumthang, when two single mothers enrolled their sons as monks, the teacher had to take care of them like his sons. “The children, aged eight, cry every time they talk about their village, but their mothers cannot take care of them,” a senior monk said.

The case is the same with nuns. While some become nuns because of their own interest, many are forced by parents and relatives, as there is a place to stay and a secure future for them.

The assumption that there is a shortage of monks is not true. Enrolment is increasing as many young boys join Buddhist institutions.

Many said there are more monks today than in the past in the Central Monastic Body and the Commission of Religious Organisation.

A senior monk, who joined monkhood after completing Class 12 and is now a teacher, Sacha Singye, said there are more monks in the country today. He said that in his 15 years of experience as a monk, he conducted research and found out that the number of young children joining monkhood is increasing. “In the earlier days, families had to send their sons to become monks as a tax. That is not the case today.”

Khenpo Sacha Singye, however, said well-to-do families do not send their children to become monks or nuns. “This must have resulted in the common belief that people are not interested in becoming monks.”

He also said the number of children becoming monks in the villages has decreased and lhakhangs are also becoming empty. Children are joining monastic institutions near the towns.

He said that without proper infrastructure, amenities and services, monks refuse to stay in village monasteries. “There are many monks in Dechenphodrang, more than 300 to 400 monks in Tango and Cheri. There weren’t as many monks in the monastic institutions before.”

He said that without monks in the village monasteries, people have problems finding monks to conduct rituals. “Providing basic amenities and improving conditions for monks in remote areas is necessary. Monks today need mobile phones and network connections, laptops, and proper place to stay.”

The downside of recruiting young monks, the Khenpo said, is resulting in more lay monks.

“Only those who become monks because of their interest to practice Buddhism study well,” Khenpo Sacha Singye said. “Those who are forced and are enrolled at a young age do not do well. They cannot even lead an ordinary life well.”

However, there are also young boys genuinely interested in becoming monks.

Kinley Namgay, 13, joined the Gasa shedra earlier this year.  The Class III student persuaded his parents. “I think it is his fate,” said the father, Kinley. “He would sit in the choesham (altar room), with the monks the whole day whenever we had rituals at home,” he said.

There are more than 7,000 registered monks under Zhung Dratshang and 4,091 monks and 899 nuns registered under the Commission of Religious Organisations.