Tibetan for ‘giving and taking’ (or sending and receiving), and refers to a meditation practice found in Tibetan Buddhism. In the practice, one visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving happiness and success to all sentient beings.
[As such it is a training in altruism.]
Venerable Jamyang-la left Tibet for India in 1999 with little more than an extremely powerful wish. He wished with a genuine heart heavy with altruism to be of benefit to the country that would give him political refuge. He vowed to help any Indian in need in exchange for political refuge. So strong was his intention that he even prayed to be declined entry if he was in the future unable to fulfill his promise. As fate would have it, he indeed made his way to Dharamshala the very same year.
In 2001, he was living in McLeod Ganj, and nearby his room was a garbage dump that he never paid much attention to. One day, while absorbed in a book he noticed some children collecting odd scraps of garbage around lunchtime. They would look through the mountains of refuse and pick out discarded bread, tomatoes and chillies to eat. Astounded by this sight, Jamyang-la became curious about their lives.
A few days later, he chose to forgo his dinner, instead preparing a larger nutritious lunch to which he invited these curious children. They didn’t stand on ceremony and indulged without hesitation and through this simple gesture, the monk and the hungry children quickly became friends. Using hand gestures and broken Hindi Jamyang-la cautiously inquired about their families, and the children invited him to visit their homes. At that moment, Ven. Jamyang-la could not have known that this encounter would dramatically transform the course of his life…
Jamyang-la’s first visit to the Charanghat Slum community came as a shocking revelation. He describes the difference between his garbage collecting friends and the other children there as “the difference between the ground and the sky”. The situation was dire. Without water, clothes and the luxury of sanitation, the area was rife with disease. This community of 800 was receiving no help from the government or any charities. He witnessed an elderly woman and two children barely breathing, left to die, foaming from the mouth nearby. Spontaneously he knew with certainty that this was in fact the opportunity he had been awaiting. His reaction, in his own words was– “How could I leave it? I had to do something!”
As his English and Hindi improved, he was able to inquire about the urgent needs of the community. He initially dedicated himself to easy-to-cure diseases like diarrhea that were claiming several lives. He arranged for monks to distribute food and clothes, but even then he felt he was still lacking some concrete direction. To get involved with a community is to get involved in all their complexities and Jamyang-la wanted to proceed intelligently. Within the same year he launched into an extensive research project to determine some primary priorities.
Jamyang-la was certain that he had to help this community or they would continue to be neglected and remain social victims. It took two years of exhaustive research to finalise a plan of action that consisted for the most part of long-term strategies, mainly in the field of education. The community immediately rejected these ideas. Keeping in mind the extreme poverty and sensitivities of this community, it was clear that they were more concerned with short term, basic survival and education was an entirely alien concept. The slum people had defeatist attitudes and had basically surrendered to what they called ‘destiny’. Little did they know that destiny had arrived in the form of an enthusiastic Tibetan monk, draped in maroon robes.
Having assessed the situation in the slum, the Tong Len team concluded that three main commitments needed to be made in the fields of – 1. Education 2. Health; and 3. Empowerment. With these initial goals, the Tong Len charity was established in 2004 with little funding. At the time, only 3-4 families agreed to send their children to school. Jamyang-la would go to the slum every morning to bathe and get the children ready for school, but only a tiny percentage of children would actually show up. Still reluctant to send their kids to school, the families preferred their children to work and contribute to the household. Admission into schools was very difficult, as no school would accept them.
In a positive turn of events, Jamyang-la became acquainted with Dayanand Model Senior Secondary School, and 10 children were admitted in August of 2004. The school laid down some conditions – the children would have to be trained to behave well, be clean and tidy and learn to interact with the other children. Tong Len rented a little room where they would clean and dress the children, and teach them how to behave in school. Jamyang-la recounts that it took two years for their behaviour to change and for them to feel comfortable being in school with other children.
The children began getting good grades and their health was drastically improving and it was becoming clear that this was a successful project. Slowly more families became interested in sending their children to school. There was however a critical problem, it was difficult to collect children from the slum. Having pondered this dilemma carefully, Jamyang-la conceived of constructing a hostel for the children. This would mean all the children would have a safe environment in which to study, eat, play and grow.
By 2008, 40 kids were enrolled in school and by now the hostel was fully functional. The kids would visit the slum to demonstrate the massive success and fruits of the project. These flowering, well-mannered, clean, healthy and educated children would speak to their community of what they had learned and the importance of education. There were two primary reasons to do this: 1. The students were representatives of their families and now had a sustainable future; 2. They would go on to help their community. However, helping the community need not wait, they were interested in discovering how they could be of benefit in the present tense. Several talks, educational plays and workshops were organized to educate their families in the slum.
Some of these families had been living in slum communities for 120 years in various parts of the country, so naturally shifting their beliefs would not be an overnight process. Several families remained upset, since sending their kids to the hostel meant that they would lose out on significant monthly revenue, approximately Rs. 500 per child. Therefore Tong Len arrived on a compromise and would give each family roughly half of the child’s monthly contribution.. Tong Len additionally made three commitments to these families- 1. Monetary compensation for loss of income, 2. Rations in cases of emergency or tragedy and 3. Free medical care. The families were happy with this deal and the reluctance towards education was greatly diminished.
Each parent has had to sign an agreement with Tong Len before a child goes to live in the Hostel. The terms of the agreement are essential to the proper running of the hostel and the children’s futures. Married children are not allowed in the hostel, although some are engaged as young as 3 years old. Though Tong Len does not support engagements, it is difficult to control the inner workings of the slum community. Another term is that at least one sibling of a hostel child must also go to school. This puts motivational pressure on the child in the hostel in ensuring that a sibling must attend school or else they might lose their spot in the hostel.
The students are doing exceptionally well. Mr. Puri, pricncipal of Dayanand Model Senior Secondary School says that academically the Tong Len children are doing even better than the regular students and are remarkably regular with homework assignments and grades. Two students have ranked in the top-five out of roughly a million in their fifth class exams.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama became involved with this project shortly after it’s conception. The Dalai Lama Trust has donated towards building a hostel for the children, child education and nutrition project, housing, clothing, supplies like books and toys, medical relief, clean drinking water, and the commitment to giving these children a safe environment and an education. His Holiness inaugurated the new hostel in 2011 and has suggested that the project is a good model and could be replicated in other states.
The Himachal Pradesh Government has named Tong Len an inspiring model in social development. The community agrees that there has been a remarkable improvement in their health and quality of life since Tong Len initiated this gargantuan project. The Trust is very pleased with the exceptional results and fruits borne from the efforts of Tong Len. Lama Jamyang- la has realized and continues to work towards his goal of ensuring that this community will flourish in the generations to come and plans to leave its future in the capable and hard working hands of the children he has guided.
A class 12 medical student, Nisha dreams of becoming a doctor. She explains that she wants to be a doctor to help poor people, and make a difference in their lives. She has been inspired by Lama
Jamyang who she affectionately refers to as ‘guruji’. She wants to earn a name for herself and build a house for her family after college. She says that although she was homesick her first few years in the hostel, she now regards it as ‘home’.
In the 10th class she came 3rd in her school and 17th in the State. “I study from 6.30 am to 7.30 am in the morning, before breakfast and then after school from 6-8 and after dinner from 9-10.30. Another student called Rinku from my class and I study together sometimes, if we can’t understand some concepts in maths or science.”
“I consider myself very lucky to be given this opportunity, I want to be like Guru Ji. If I wasn’t here I would be collecting garbage. When I meet my parents I think about the day I will be able to take them out of their current circumstance and help other people of the community. I want to say thank you to Tong Len and Guruji.”
A class 11 commerce student, Sunny studies English, accounts, business and economics. He wants to study Tourism Management in college. Sunny explains “tourism in India is not good, I want to do it professionally. I want to be able to help tourists with all facilities, and maybe even travel a bit.” He continues, “I’ve been here for 9 years now, I am lucky to be here. I would have been collecting garbage and married. Tong Len has been great. I used to pick garbage, and beg and am free from that now. Guru ji picked me up from hell and brought me to heaven.”
“People look down on slum-dwellers as thieves and idle people, but it is not their fault. I don’t want to go back to the slum, I want to stay out. When I was 5, my mother died, when I was 12, my father died due to alcoholism. My sister passed away when I was young. My two brothers are married, one collects garbage and one begs. My grandmother brought me up. Guruji picked me in the first batch of children sent to school and gave me my life’s greatest opportunity.”
A class 11 student, Nisha left Dayanand School and is now in Kangra valley school. She has chosen the humanities stream, which is not available at her previous school. Nisha wants to be a journalist to help the poor communities. “Journalists don’t really talk about this subject”, she says, “I want to bring it to light. I want to tell people slum communities have nobody to give them advice, no health care.”
Her family wanted her be a doctor or lawyer but have all now agreed to her path in journalism. She has 5 brothers and sisters. She doesn’t feel bad for her family, a little sad, but mainly she wants to become someone important and help them while leaving a mark in journalism. “The outside world thinks little of us, busses don’t pick us up. There’s a lot of discrimination against our community.”
The Charanghat slum has changed a lot since she was little, she says. “Tong Len has helped a lot in the health area. We eat well, go to school. Since they have helped us, we want to do the same.”
“I felt strange when I first went to school and met other kids. I thought there would be some discrimination, there was some, but then it slowly changed. The teachers are very good. I met my best friend there in the 8th grade, now she’s gone to Punjab.”
She is studying English, Economics, Sociology and Political Science. She has been in tong for 9 years. In these 9 years she says she has learned a lot and is very grateful for the opportunity Jamyang-la gave her.
Tong Len Health
Tong Len has been running monthly health clinics in the slum for several years now, complete with personal records of each individual. Monsoon and winter in particular, bring all kinds of seasonal diseases to the community in the form of scabies, diarrhea and common cold. The Dalai Lama Trust from 2013 has supported the health clinic and donated a vehicle for a mobile clinic, which is able to provide emergency help and reach more such communities in the region.
Family planning has been quite a successful endeavour in the slum, and the number of births has significantly diminished. Several men and women have undergone operations for sterilization after having had four children or so.
I went to see a health clinic in May conducted by volunteer doctors from the Delek hospital. Several children were treated for fever, colds, coughs and the inflammation of sinuses. Free medicine was distributed and those who needed to go to the hospital for blood tests were treated free of cost.
It seems that men in the slum have very short life spans, mainly due to alcoholism. This leads to domestic violence and often child abuse. There have been cases of mothers pouring hot tea on their children and burning them to garner more sympathy while begging. Issues like mental health and in-breeding are also prevalent in the community. Educational talks are held regularly in an effort to inform the community of various solutions that will be essential in the future of the community’s collective health.
At 17 months, Sangeeta weighed only 2.5 kilograms. A newborn child when delivered weighs between 3-4 kilos. Her family was against using medicine. Soon after, her mother gave birth to another baby, and then carried her two babies with her when she went begging. Sangeeta was so frail and ill that she was barely breathing, when her mother abandoned her at a stream and practically left her for dead. Tong Len Health reported her to the office and they took her in, they would pick her up every morning and drop her off to her family in the evenings. In the meanwhile, they would treat her, feed her, and nurse her back to health. Today Sangeeta is three years old, enrolled in the hostel, healthy, happy, and about to begin school.