For years, Lobsang Phuntsok, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, dreamed of creating a safe haven for unwanted children in Arunachal Pradesh, the remote Himalayan region where he was born in 1971. Now Jhamtse Gatsal—Tibetan for Garden of Love and Compassion—is home to 85 children age 5 to 15, rescued from poverty, abuse, and neglect. Under Lobsang’s fatherly care, they are thriving in a family environment that offers love, compassion, and a first-rate education.
Lobsang, who was sent to Sera Je monastery in southern India at age 6 and later studied with the Dalai Lama before teaching in the US, now devotes himself fulltime to the children, determined to undo the damage of their early lives. Helping them, in turn, heals the wounds of his own painful past, Lobsang says.
In the award-winning film Tashi and the Monk, directors Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke focus on five-year-old Tashi, the latest arrival at Jhamtse Gatsal. Very smart and very naughty, she “was taking her time to settle in,” as Hinton euphemistically puts it. Tashi throws tantrums, picks fights, and displays antisocial behavior hinting at the kind of abuse she has suffered. Over three months of filming, Hinton and Burke follow Tashi’s integration into community life—what Hinton calls “a gradual softening. Some of that feral quality, that anger and frustration was going.”
Though Lobsang is unquestionably the moral core of the film, the children sparkle. Most are Monpa, a Tibetan tribe that clearly carries genes for exceptional beauty, along with a rich cultural identity that the community nurtures.
Hinton’s film credits include music videos, indie features, and performance films. So how, I wondered, did he choose Jhamtse Gatsal as a subject?
“I was in India working on another project,” he explained, “and got an email out of the blue from a company that needed a filmmaker to go to a remote school and shoot a film for them. I went to Arunachal Pradesh and did the assignment. As I got to know Lobsang and the kids, I saw what a special community it was and realized there was a more interesting film to make.
“Lobsang’s life story is almost mythical,” Hinton continued. “He was abandoned at the moment of birth by a single mother who was ashamed to have gotten pregnant, and then he went through this journey of transforming from a troubled, angry, difficult child into a monk and an adult who used his negative experiences to help others.
“Jhamtse Gatsal is an amazing place,” Hinton added. “I was struck by the laughter, joy, and peace. Everything’s not perfect, of course; there are conflicts and upsets. But there’s a remarkable baseline energy of contentment.
“The most amazing thing,” Hinton said, “is that what Lobsang does is create and hold a space in which the children actually support and heal each other and show kindness.”
Tashi and the Monk airs on HBO, Monday, August 17, 2015, at 8 pm EDT, 7 pm CDT. http://tashiandthemonk.com.
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