Chances are any visitor who has made the long trek to Lhasa's Jokhang Monastery in faraway Tibet would have no doubt bumped into a lama guide there who spoke near-perfect English. Impressed deeply with his language skills and vivid explanation of the history and principles of Buddhism and the monastery, the question that escapes the lips of most foreign tourists is "Where did you learn to speak such good English?"
Nyima Cering said he learned English to communicate with visitors and help the monastery's marketing initiatives. Since the opening of Tibet to the outside world in 1980, an increasing number of domestic and foreign tourists have come to visit Jokhang Monastery. In order to offer a better service to foreign visitors, Jokhang Monastery sent Nyima on a one-year English training course in 1986. After coming back to the monastery, he continued his English studies as he often received foreign tourists. "Now all the four lamas at the monastery's reception office can speak English," he said proudly.
It has been almost 20 years since the young man became a lama at Jokhang.
In 1984, as a 17-year-old village boy, Nyima, a native of Lhunzhub County in Tibet, graduated from elementary school. During the summer holidays he paid a visit to Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa and found he resonated with the explanation of Buddhist principles given by lamas at the time, which helped him to make the decision to study at the monastery and eventually become a lama. Nyima began his life at Jokhang sweeping the floor, fetching water and studying Buddhist texts or sutras. He always dreamt of one day becoming a knowledgeable lama. Nyima is the eldest of four brothers, and his parents are extremely proud that one of their sons has entered the monastery, as is the tradition among ethnic Tibetans to which they belong.
In 1990, Nyima passed the entrance exam to study at Senior Tibetan Buddhist College of China in Beijing. "It was one of the most precious learning experiences in my life," he recalled. "The college has very good teachers and a quiet learning environment. Every day I was able to concentrate on studying the sutras and cultivating myself according to the Buddhist way. One year of study there improved my understanding of Buddhism a great deal." He was awarded his junior-college diploma, then continued with his studies on his return to Jokhang Monastery.
Today he is deputy director of the administration committee and the director of the reception office of Jokhang Monastery. In addition, this human dynamo is also a member of the All-China Youth Federation, deputy to the Tibet Autonomous Regional People's Congress, executive council member of the Tibet Branch of the Buddhist Association of China, vice chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region's Youth Federation, member of the China Folklore Photographers' Association, member of the Standing Committee of the Lhasa People's Congress, and vice president and vice secretary general of the Lhasa Buddhist Association.
Jokhang Monastery is one of the most important temples in Tibet, and draws visitors and practicing Buddhists from around the world. For many, no trip to Lhasa is complete without a visit to Jokhang. Managing the reception is really hard work, as Nyima receives six to seven visiting groups on average each day. He said that the reception work has become part of his practice as lama and goes out of his way to answer questions put to him by visitors. In his dormitory, books on history, folklore and traditions of the Tibetan ethnic group line the shelves and for any questions he cannot answer, he looks up later, all the time improving his own knowledge.
Nyima enjoys photography, a hobby he took up 10 years ago. At that time, the monastery was sorting out and registering all its cultural relics, which needed to be photographed and documented for record purposes. This process began his love for photography. His photos of views of Jokhang Monastery, the scenes of people worshipping and Buddhist festival celebrations have been highly praised by many professional photographers. He has also photographed many places of interest and famous temples in other parts of China.
Lamas in Jokhang Monastery receive an average monthly salary of 500 yuan ($60.39), living a relatively poor life. However, whenever tourists tip Nyima for his excellent guide explanations, he tells them to donate the money to the monastery for renovation, informing his visitors that the gesture will earn them merits and virtues in their own lives. He said, "Although we don't enjoy a high salary, we don't need to spend much. Every month everyone would have 50 yuan ($6.04) deducted for lunch and supper. Usually it's rice, steamed bun and stir-fried dishes for lunch and noodles for supper. Except for meals, there are rarely other expenses. One robe, or kasaya, costs about 100 yuan ($12.08), but it can be worn for years," he laughed. "Apart from books I like, I have no other need for money."
The computer has to some extent solved the problem of expensive books. In 1998, a friend of Nyima's gave him a computer, opening a new world of learning for him. Now whenever he needs some information he just surfs the Internet to search and download. Apart from Tibetan Buddhism, he also likes to familiarize himself with other Buddhist sects around the world. "It is all Buddhism, they originated from the same root and a broad learning must be good for my own development."
His daily routine is simple. He gets up at six in the morning, cleans himself and his dormitory, then spends half an hour on morning Buddhist practice. During the day the lamas from the reception office are busy with visitors of selling tickets, doing the explanation and guiding. From seven to eight in the evening, all the lamas in the monastery spend an hour together in evening practice. Nyima usually follows this with his own study and goes to bed at around midnight, before doing his prostrations and reviewing his day.
Do so many daily affairs have a negative impact on his personal development? Nyima looks at it from two sides. On the one hand, more time is needed to learn and understand Buddhist scriptures, but, on the other hand, he thinks the hectic daily schedule he has means he must develop a stronger will and determination to develop himself.
Nyima said that the present world is an open one, and it is very difficult to keep living a completely quiet monastery life, unaffected by what goes on outside-especially in a famous monastery like Jokhang. The opening up of Tibet, he said, has meant that more people know about the region and about Tibetan Buddhism, which helps to protect all traditional Tibetan cultures and the environment.
When people ask Nyima if he would want to return to a "normal" life without Buddhism, he responds saying for 20 years he never thought it was a wrong decision to be a lama. "Some people have a misunderstanding of lamas, believing people take this option because they have lost confidence in the realities of life. In fact, Buddhism is not a denial of present day life. This life we lead is the seed for the future-if you give up the seed, how will you have crops to harvest? We need to cultivate each day and be the best person we can." Nyima said that perhaps he will not achieve the high accomplishments previous lamas have, in terms of research and understanding of Buddhism, but he feels that what he is doing by talking to visitors is also important, as it raises awareness about Tibet and the positive contributions Buddhism can make to every human life.