I overheard someone in the street saying that Dharamsala has the highest annual rainfall of India. I believe it. The downpour hasn’t stopped for four days and four nights. The monsoon rules without pity, soaking everything and everyone to the bone. The fog is so thick it hovers in-doors and seeps into clothes, sheets, notebooks…I cannot remember what the warmth of sunshine feels like! The closest thing I have found to sun is the candlelight I have been basking in since the power went out hours ago. 600 million people sunk into the dark. Now that’s a significant portion of the world population! With this power shortage, it’s going to be an early night in India.
I start the next day sliding my feet into my ever-damp flip flops and waddling down the slippery hill to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. I still have not figured out the ideal footwear for the monsoon…I walk down with my friend Nick, a philosophy and neuroscience major. On our way down, we pass by the Department of Education where our editor Konga is working on the SLSI translations.
We meet up with another friend, Jack, who recently completed a masters degree in philosophy and has been attending a Tibetan Buddhist philosophy class at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives’ Centre for Tibetan Studies. The class is taught in Tibetan with an English translator. We are currently looking at the “Benefits and Detriments of Understanding the Existence of Past and Future Lives” from Geshe Lam Rim’s A Necklace of Good Fortune. As students of Western philosophy, all three of us are thrilled to have the opportunity to delve into the logic of the Eastern mind. Needless to say, Nick and I will be joining Jack for class every morning.
After class, I take my newfound personal photographer Nick along with me to meet Geshe Lhakdor, the director of the Library. Documenting my adventures just got way easier. Like Konga explained last week, Lhakdor tells us that there is a dire need for imaginative and beautiful illustrations for the books for children that they are publishing. He explains that the art that is taught is strictly traditional and does not stimulate the children’s imagination as it should. “The children read the pictures,” he says, “but these illustrations do not have magic.” The Tibetan illustrations are more conventional, so they have less power to develop the faculties of imagination and creative intelligence that the art in the books SLSI is publishing have to trigger wonder. Lhakdor is excited to hear about the five titles that Tibetan kids will soon get to explore. He generously offers his assistance. We thank him for his insights and time.
It warms my heart to hear about how the Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative will serve the Tibetan community. Originally, I thought of the project as strictly a literacy initiative. I saw the simple yet poetic prose of the stories as the best tools for Tibetan children to learn how to read in their native language. The idea for this project came from teaching English at Lha Charitable Trust two summers ago. After spending hours with my thirty-year-old learning partner Sonam, I realized that she had never learned how to write or read her native language, Tibetan. I traced the problem to the dearth in literature accessible to Tibetan children. From my own experience growing up in a bilingual family in France, I am well aware that accessible and interesting literature is essential to whet a child’s appetite for reading, especially reading in a second language learned at home. Without entrancing books, a child is far less likely to get hooked on reading and risks missing the window for easy, organic learning. In fact, three of the five books that we are translating for the SLSI were my favorites as a child. Reading books like Stellaluna, Mama Do You Love Me? or The Mountain That Loved A Bird was the catalyst for me learning English in a country where the language spoken at school and outside the home was French. After getting to know the Director of Lha’s two daughters, Yangchen and Norzin, I learned that Tibetan children living in exile in India do not have the tools that most children across the globe have to learn to read and write in their native language. The discipline that Tibetan children and parents must exercise in India – or in Chinese-occupied Tibet for that matter — in order to learn their language in a foreign country reminded me of my experience as a kid. I recalled how helpful and fun creative literature made the learning process for me. But it is only recently that I have been able to begin to articulate how important the art in these books were for this learning.
Listening to members of the Tibetan community like Konga and Lhakdor deepens my conviction that wonder in the form of art plays a foundational role in the development of human creativity and intelligence. The art in these kids’ books does not simply complement the stories. The illustrations are essential in opening children’s minds to the possibilities of the world. By planting the seeds of wonder, children’s illustrations — like art in general — challenge stale assumptions and expand the mind of an individual in his or her most developmentally critical years. I am thrown back to when I was a child. It’s hard to quantify the huge impact that these magical illustrations and stories had on my own development, truly taking on a life of their own in my young mind and stretching my imagination and faculties of thought in the richest way. Thinking about the Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative and the role of wonder reminds me of my mission to continue to cultivate wonder in my adult life. Hence my interest in philosophy. As Thomas Aquinas put it: “Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.”