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Conversations on education and exploration with a Tibetan monk

Good morning class, here's your new teacher

I didn’t recognise Tenzin Tsepak initially. The streets around the main temple complex in McLeod Ganj, North India, were thronging with a crowd welcoming HH the Dalai Lama back on his return from a trip to the USA. Tenzin, of course, looked older, since we first met fifteen years ago. He was also now a layman. A “turbulent” marriage with a American woman had ended a number of years previously, and a diet of pizza and masala chai from the new monastery cafe had replaced the meagre rations of the monastic kitchen.

We caught up on this and that, eventually turning to what we were up to at the moment. Tenzin currently works as a translator for HH the Dalai Lama. I explained the work that I do with Digital Explorer and the problems that I faced trying to create a compassionate response from young people in Britain regarding issues that seem very far away. Why should a teenager care if his trainers are made in a sweatshop or that the ice shelves around the Antarctic and disappearing with their wildlife because of climate change?

How does one increase mindfulness concerning issues and problems that are so distant from our everyday lives? Initially, Tenzin thought that I was asking a direct question about addressing suffering.

“It is there in the teachings, how we should deal with suffering.”

I explained that it was a problem of contemplating the suffering of other people and environments in distant places.

“Aah. This is subtle.”

We both laughed. There are no easy answers.

“They should meditate on this.”

We laughed again.

In my mind’s eye, I imagined a geography teacher stood in front of a class in Derbyshire.

“Right class, we’ve been studying Antarctica for the past few weeks. What I would like you to do now is meditate on the effects your personal habits have on ice shelf degradation. Let’s start with a mantra… Om…”

Ridiculous in so many ways and so right in others. I don’t see this form of education becoming a likely piece of pedagogical innovation any time soon, but it does raise questions about how and why we educate. Empathy exercises were fashionable for a time, role-plays and drama, but these seem more conceptual than compassionate activities designed to enhance understanding.

We talked about the recent expedition to Pakistan, and the importance of direct experience to create a compassionate attitude for others less fortunate and environments under threat. We agreed that those few who do have the opportunity of direct experience had a great responsibility to share and help others understand.

As we hone the expedition and education model for Digital Explorer, I have come up against this barrier of how the journey of a few can become a gateway for understanding for many. We are making great strides in creating transformative journeys for teams of young people, with the Pakistan expedition being our most successful to date.

The next months will be preparing the educational programme. This year’s expedition was the first that hasn’t been live. The security implications of broadcasting live video revealing the team’s identity and location, opened up some exciting new ways of working. We have decided to broadcast each day’s episode with associated blog posts on a weekly basis (starting on 10 November on www.offscreenexpedition.com). This not only allows teachers and pupils time to enjoy and debate the issues surrounding each episode, but also creates a three month window for the expedition participants to talk to schools and youth groups and for the expedition leaders to work with teachers.

And this is the real lesson that I learnt from talking to Tenzin. No amount of digital wizardry can replace the simple impact of one concerned and impassioned human being sharing their experiences directly with another.

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