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Reflections on the Five Cs of Monastic Life

Sinead Younge, PhD, Community Science Managing Associate

This summer, I had the privilege of volunteering at the Sera Jey Monastic University as a volunteer with the Emory University Tibet Science Initiative  (ETSI). The Sera Jey Monastery follows a centuries old tradition and culture dating back to its founding in Lhasa, Tibet. During a 1959 revolt against the Chinese occupation, colleges at the original Sera Jey in Lhasa were destroyed. The Indian government generously provided currency in the form of land and grants for many of the surviving Tibetan monks to reestablish some of their monasteries in India under the spiritual guidance of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. Today, the Sera Jey Monastery in Bylakuppe, India, houses over 3,000 monks and nuns and is located within a thriving, protected Tibetan settlement comprised of over 70,000 Tibetan expatriates where individuals and communities work through collective action to strengthen community, maintain Tibetan culture, and promote well-being.

In 2007, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama was named presidential distinguished professor at Emory University. In 2006, a strategic plan to promote the convergence of science and spirituality was implemented. The science faculty at Emory University began work on the development of a science education curriculum that would be appropriate for Tibetan monastics in order to build a connection between two complementary systems of knowledge by educating future scientific collaborators who can contribute to new discoveries in the science of mind and body. ETSI is designed “to give Tibetan monastics new tools for understanding the world, while also providing them with fresh perspectives on how to employ and adapt time-tested, Buddhist, contemplative methodologies for the relief of suffering in the contemporary world.”1 Faculty members from Emory and other distinguished universities teach courses at the monasteries. Students are in class for six hours per day and are tested on the last day of each course. Classes are comprised of lectures, discussion, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments.

As a community psychologist and program evaluator, I thought a lot about the five Cs of community during my stay at Sera Jey.2 There was a strong sense of community within the monastery and surrounding communities. I met monks who were born as exiles in India and others whose desire to have control over their own destinies and fulfill their desires to become monks or nuns was so strong that they made lengthy, treacherous (and for some, fatal) journeys (many on foot) from Tibet and other countries such as Bhutan and Nepal, to name a few. The monastery also employs workers from the local Indian villages, and I had the opportunity to meet a precocious, but sweet, Indian boy of about four, whose mother worked at the guesthouse where I stayed. This little boy spent so much time hanging out with the monks that he has learned Tibetan. At the monastery, community is also experienced with the surrounding Tibetan lay people where the Tibetan language, education, worship practices, and holidays have been maintained, and residing at the monastery and in the surrounding communities, there remain holders of the memories of pre-1959 Tibet to help maintain that shared historical and emotional experience.

The sense of community is universal yet is experienced in many different forms. It is rare that an individual can be introduced to a new community and feel an almost immediate connection and sense of belonging; however, this was exactly my experience while volunteering at Sera Jey. I now miss the sounds of pujas in the evenings, raucous debates, and monks’ laughter filling the evening air. In a 2013 visit to Australia, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama discussed community. He stated, “A sense of community is in fact essential because we have to work together. We need to adopt a more holistic view that takes others into account. What really brings people together is trust, which leads to friendship and cooperation. This is why religious traditions stress the need for love and, to complement it, tolerance and forgiveness. To meet our own interests, we need to be concerned about others. Because we live in a multicultural, multireligious world…”

2 Chavis, D. (n.d.).Strategic factors for building community: The five c’s community, connections, control, cash, & collective action. Campaign Consultation Incorporated.

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