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The Tibetan Education System in Exile

Maksymilian Woch, Ph.D.

The first wave of 80,000 Tibetan refugees reached India and the various Himalayan countries after the failed uprising in Lhasa in 1959. The Indian government accepted the refugees with the approval of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nheru, who also welcomed the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (Dalai Lama 1990). One of the most urgent issues to be resolved by the Tibetan Government in Exile was the provision of care and education for refugee children. Interestingly, for the first time in the history of Tibet, its government had to organize secular education designated for all Tibetan children. One has to bear in mind that until the present day, i.e. throughout the history of Tibet certified by historical documents (from the 7th century onwards), the education system was closely related to the functioning of monasteries (Kapstein 2010). Although there was an educational institution in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, established to educate officials for their service in the central administration structure, it was nevertheless, somehow an elite school with a strictly focused program profile. With this exception, and with the exemption of relatively few private schools with limited, mostly very basic curricula, pre-1959 Tibetan education was tantamount to a thorough study of Buddhist doctrine, which in some ways could be compared to the theological studies. Despite of the fact that at the beginning of the 20th century, attempts were made to establish an English school in Tibet with Western elements of the curriculum, this reform was canceled by strong monastic opposition.

The system of monastic education

In practice, in “old Tibet”, education was possible only for 20% of the male population, i.e. monks. Buddhist nuns, who were much less in number, learned only the basics of writing and reading, while access for them to more sophisticated studies was unavailable. Also in the case of monks, it should be remembered that only some of them had the opportunity to engage in more thorough philosophical studies (Goldstein 1968). Such studies were a long and very demanding occupation which, after more than twenty years of hard study, could be successfully completed in the rare event of a geshe degree, the equivalent of a doctorate in the West. The monastic education system consisted of several basic divisions, the most important part of it was knowledge of Buddhist philosophy with a strong focus on epistemology, logic and mastering the knowledge of the rules of the monastic code intended for monks and nuns. Other subjects, such as art, literary studies, medicine, and astrology, were in fact complementary to theological studies and, moreover, were strongly influenced by Buddhist concepts. The second interesting point worth paying attention to is the Buddhist debate. It was also a subject of religious education, understood as a medium of knowledge and a didactic instrument at the same time. The spectacle of debating monks may bring to mind some associations with a quarrel, where several pairs of monks in maroon robes accompanied by children, while clapping at their hands shout over each other, shining their teeth dangerously and waving their hands in front of the victim – calm as a Buddha monk sitting in a lotus position, facing his tormentors (Lempert 2012). This seemingly aggressive spectacle is in fact one of the most interesting features of Tibetan Buddhism, where the intention of such a dispute is to test the participants’ erudition and knowledge in practice, immunizing them against fear, bewilderment or wandering thoughts. Such debates can be observed in the monastic courtyards or during public events, where they are treated by random viewers as tourist attractions. These debates function as a time machine for the public at large, magically transporting you to the now defunct world of Tibetan culture, a period in which Buddhism permeated every aspect of Tibet’s social life.

Buddhist debate (pictured by: Maksimilian Woch)

The Tibetan model of acculturation

In the conditions of exile, the Dalai Lama and the government in exile had to take into account the new reality in which the Tibetans found themselves. Therefore, it was necessary to create an education system for all Tibetan children and youth who came to India with their parents, and often without them. The first step taken by the Tibetans was to run a nursery, a kindergarten for orphans and deprived children, run by one of the Dalai Lama’s sisters. Also, very soon, in the first years after coming to India, a school was established that educated future officials and teachers, but it was a temporary solution, intended for the retraining of adults in the conditions of emigration. However, the issue of creating a universal education system for Tibetan refugees required strategic decisions to be made regarding cultural policy and the shaping of the identity of the generations of young Tibetans who were to be brought up in Indian soil. The main dilemma was what strategy of adaptation to a different cultural environment should be adopted by the Tibetan refugees. Nehru offered the Dalai Lama admission of Tibetan children to Indian schools. The Dalai Lama, however, rejected such a proposal, taking the historic decision to establish an independent system of Tibetan education in the conditions of exile in India. It is worth mentioning that the possibility of making such a decision was courtesy of the Indian government, which approved such a solution. Nevertheless, the mere realization of this vision of an independent Tibetan education system, as it is easy to predict, brought about several seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by the administration in exile. They were related to organizational issues, i.e. creating an appropriate infrastructure, providing properly educated teachers, creating proper curricula that would give Tibetan students the opportunity to continue their education at university level. The following decades of life in exile brought a gradual overcoming of obstacles related to the organization of the education system, which resulted in the emergence of a model of education in exile conditions that is unique in the world.

The structure of the Tibetan system of education

The structure of the Tibetan education system can be presented as a multi-component classification in which different types of schools, administered in a different ways, are subordinated to the education department, which is one of the executive organs of the Tibetan government in exile. However, the system is now reformed as the Central Administration of Tibetan Schools, an educational body operating under the Indian government, has transferred all of the previously administered 28 schools to the Sambhota Tibetan School Society, an autonomous body within the Tibetan Department of Education (Department of Education 2022). In addition, there are other autonomous Tibetan educational institutions, such as Tibetan Children’s Villages, Tibetan Home Schools, Snow Lion Foundation schools in Nepal, and several other individual schools scattered throughout India and Nepal. It includes over sixty schools located in India and Nepal under the supervision of the Tibetan Department of Education. Over 15,000 students are enrolled in it, and more than 2,000 employees, including teachers, take care of running such schools on a daily basis. To not go into the details of each school’s descriptions, suffice it to say that all curricula are closely integrated with Indian curricula. This means that students who have completed grade 12 after successfully passing the national school test can apply to study at one of the Indian universities. Primary school education begins at the age of six and continues through the 12th level, but after the 10th  grade, a nationwide test is carried out, the results of which determine the continuation of education in the next two years for the purpose of enrolling in a university or continuing education in a vocational school. Another important criterion for distinguishing between different types of schools is their ability to offer their students accommodation. Boarding schools, such as those belonging to the Tibetan Children Village Schools, provide education for orphans, deprived children from the Himalaya region, or children who have been sent by their families from the China territory to learn their Tibetan mother tongue.

Tibetan schools have autonomy in the design and implementation of curricula up to the ninth grade. Such a principle is especially apparent if one looks at the ethical desiderata and the values on which they are based. According to the Tibetan Department of Education, the main philosophy that inspires the functioning of the education system in exile is to pursue two goals simultaneously. On the one hand, it is about providing access to modern education that will properly train young Tibetans to live in a global society of the 21st century, and on the other, it is to preserve the Tibetan language and culture. Achieving both of these goals is a key issue for the Tibetan administration, which is not surprising given the realities of life in exile. Today’s politicians admit that the current generation of students will decide the future of the Tibetan diaspora in two or three decades. Therefore, they want to equip students with knowledge and tools that will allow them to keep up with their peers from Asia, the United States and Europe, in the highly competitive conditions of the modern labor market. An equally important task, however, seems to be the issue of preserving the traditional Tibetan culture, which is, of course, the carrier of the emigrant’s identity. Therefore, in the case of the Tibetan education system, we are dealing with an attempt to combine traditionalism with modernity. The question is how such a plan is implemented in practice.

Tibetan school (pictured by: Masymilian Woch)

Education by implementing Buddhist values

In one of the official documents summarizing the educational policy of the Tibetan administration (2004), it can be read that the assumed effect of education is to cultivate certain attitudes in students, such as an internal sense of freedom, altruism, willingness to respect cultural heritage and a tendency to innovate. The first two ideas, freedom and altruism, refer directly to the Buddhist understanding of man, peculiar anthropology whose main assumption is the possibility to fully transform the mind by activating the basic, positive potential hidden in every human being. Ideas relating to the Buddhist worldview are visible, and at the same time clearly exposed, in the educational policy advocated by the Tibetan administration. An especially symptomatic is the record explaining that education is “inner quality” combining a special kind of “discerning wisdom” and techniques for calming the mind. In addition, there are referring to the idea of ahimsa – non-violence – a pan-Indian concept that has been assimilated by Buddhism. Knowledge about “valid cognition” is also mentioned as one of the main school subjects referring in this case to epistemology. As mentioned earlier, this kind of knowledge was of the greatest importance in the monastic curricula. The authors of the educational policy, as a source of their own inspiration, refer to the Buddhist doctrine and the indigenous tradition of Tibet – Bon, or mention the “Universal Responsibility” program run by the Dalai Lama Foundation. As a peculiarity, it should be noted that during physical education lessons it is recommended to practice, inter alia, yoga techniques and practicing pranayana breathing techniques.

At this point, it is worth considering for a moment the reason for such “soaking” of educational programs with elements of the Buddhist worldview. The matter is certainly complex and can be understood as an effect of the overall situation of the Tibetan exile society in India. As mentioned earlier, the driving force, in this case, is the identity policy supported by the Tibetan administration. Some of the researchers even conceptualized it as a “refugee identity regime” (Bloch 2011, Brox 2012, Le Houérou 2020) which should be understood as shaping attitudes, values, including a specific attitude towards religion, and above all, presenting the images of a “true Tibetan” through the purposeful policy pursued by the Tibetan administration. This “regime of identity” is most felt in the places of direct influence of the institutions of the government in exile, i.e. in Dharamsala. When visiting Dharamsala in northern India, the home of the Dalai Lama and the residence of the Tibetan government, we will inevitably encounter officials dressed in traditional Tibetan attire, thus adhering to a formal dress code. This is just one element of a broad cultural policy that aims to maintain “Tibetanness” among refugees. Education is a very important element of such a policy.

The politics of protection of the Tibetan language

Simplifying and sketchily presenting issues of the Tibetan system of education, however, one has to mention the role of the Tibetan language. This issue is another interesting aspect of the studied subject of Tibetan education, as it should be realized that Tibetan graduates speak communicatively in three languages, i.e. standardized Tibetan, English and Hindi, which is the result of the application of the “Formula of Three Languages” education policy introduced by the Indian Ministry of Education throughout the territory of India. In the case of the Tibetan schools, those three languages are taught in schools (in the rest of Indian schools different three languages are taught), but the proportion of lessons for Tibetan and English classes reversed after the education reform implemented at the end of the 20th century. Currently, in response to the previously noted trend of gradual decline in the knowledge of the mother tongue of Tibetan students, all subjects are taught in Tibetan, except English and Hindi, up to the eighth grade” (Namgyal Dolma 2020), in contrast to the previous model of teaching in English from the beginning of the first grade. For many children, especially those who have come from China, learning Tibetan is like learning a foreign language. It should be borne in mind that the Tibetan language is diverse and varies considerably in its everyday form due to the multitude of dialects and varieties that exist. On the other hand, the emphasis placed by the Tibetan administration on the importance of the Tibetan language in school curricula is double-edged. National 10th  and 12th grade exams organized by the Central Council of Secondary Education, an Indian education body controlled by the Government of India, must be taken in English. For Tibetan students, therefore, the Tibetization of school curricula, given that all up to the fifth-grade textbooks are in Tibetan, can be a serious obstacle to achieving better results in these examinations.

Therefore, it would be a bit of a misleading impression to think that the Tibetan education system is problem-free. Despite the efforts of the Tibetan government to organize an education system in exile, it suffers from obvious infrastructure shortages and underfunding. The central administration, which coordinates the network of various types of schools, covers the costs of their functioning based on donations from sponsors, or multi-level assistance from various non-governmental organizations, or from refugee taxes. One aspect of management is teacher education, but in practice, individual schools bind their selected students to teach at that school in the future (Bloch 2011). Another thing is the level of professional preparation of teachers who mainly obtain bachelor’s degrees at various Indian universities, supplementing their knowledge by attending short pedagogical courses. The lack of professional pedagogical studies manifests itself in the way teachers understand their role in school. According to the results of research carried out in Tibetan schools, the dominant model is the teacher-centric approach, which leads to the emergence of specific attitudes of students’ sense of dependence on teachers (Tsewang Ringzin 2016). These types of attitudes then evolve into attitudes of dependency and helplessness in adulthood, the author concludes. Also, the learning outcomes are not always satisfactory. Tibetan graduates often struggle to meet the quota of college admissions allocated to them by the Indian government due to poor entrance examination results. Likewise, the results of examinations carried out by international educational organizations, which are to identify more gifted students eligible for the individual scholarship programs, show lower results than expected. On the other hand, the result of a survey in which Tibetan students were asked about the main reasons for their decision to continue their education can be considered a failure of the ideological assumptions of the Tibetan administration with regard to the vision of education they promote. As it turned out, this was not the officially promoted idea of caring for society, the environment, or one’s own spiritual development, but the need to secure one’s own financial independence (which is somewhat contradictory to the previously expressed concerns about the attitude of possible dependence). Nevertheless, the young Tibetans made it clear that in this way they would be able to contribute as much as possible to the improvement of the Tibetan nation.


On the basis of the presented outline of the issues of Tibetan education in exile, I would like to present a few personal thoughts related to this topic. The presented conclusions should be treated more as a comment of an observer involved in the affairs of the Tibetan refugee community than as a result of scientific research. Such research is to be undertaken as a logical implication of the research carried out to date by the various researchers. To some extent, my own reflections are based on those research, but also through my personal contacts with Tibetans in India, as well as volunteering at LHA, one of the educational NGOs operating in Dharamsala.

In my opinion, the most important and, at the same time, more down-to-earth malady affecting the Tibetan education system is the question of money. Education in the Tibetan school is commonly available and free of charge. I have mentioned boarding schools earlier and it can rightly be assumed that the maintenance of these types of schools is quite expensive given that the Tibetan administration is only able to allocate limited financial resources. Please note here that the Tibetan Government is not officially recognized by the Government of India. The political weakness of the government in exile inevitably affects its ability to generate and allocate funds. As a consequence, requests for financial assistance directed at international sponsors appear on the official website of the department of education. Moreover, the ministry declares its willingness to employ teachers from all over the world as volunteers. Candidates are expected to engage at least one year of classes. Undoubtedly, the lack of properly educated teachers is a serious obstacle to the proper functioning of the education system in exile.

From the point of view of Tibetan students, the biggest problem is the lack of prospects for a satisfying career that would be consistent with the level of education they receive. Apart from the fact that gifted Tibetan youth after reaching 12th grade have limited access to university-level education, which can be explained in part by their economic situation, even if they do, they still have a scarce range of positions available for them to be employed, including limited structures of the refugee administration. Even the possibility of being an entrepreneur is not easy to achieve due to the restrictions of Indian law. This is due to the fact that Tibetans in India generally live in a liminal state of having no rights to full citizenship, and therefore cannot be employed in the Indian administration. Also in practice, doing business is hampered by the legal prohibition of real estate acquisition.

At the end of this article, I would like to share some thoughts on the “ideological” issues. I think that the case of the Tibetan education system based on Buddhist values should be treated as a separate category and should not be compared with other existing education systems based on the values and concepts of a particular religion. In this case, the most compelling argument is that we are dealing with a refugee community that particularly needs a strong set of values to support the process of creating both group and individual identity. For Tibetans, Tibetan Buddhism is such a reservoir of values, which is not surprising given the fact that religion has been an inseparable, constitutional element of Tibetan culture throughout the 1,000-year history of Tibet. It is also worth admitting that we are studying the culture of a society undergoing transformation in exile conditions, a community that was driven out of a thousand years of isolation in the Himalayas to undergo a shocking clash with Indian modernity or the chaos of postmodern culture brought by the Western spiritual adventurers. Besides, which in itself is another interesting aspect of this topic, it is easy to overlook the fact that the propagated Buddhist values are in fact philosophical assumptions and not religious dogmas. The Dalai Lama, in almost every public speech, emphasizes that Buddhism has a common ground with modern science in many respects because it underlines the individual pursuit for knowledge and the constant examination of the validity of claims made by others as truth.

However, among the values derived from the Buddhist tradition propagated in schools is also the Tibetan understanding of compassion. Here I am not going to go too deep into how the concept of compassion is explained in Tibetan Buddhism. Suffice it to say that this is the logical result of a special attitude to the world as a global, holistic network of interdependence. The essence of this is the recognition that the only rational approach to people and the environment is an empathetic one. On this basis, the Dalai Lama spreads the idea of secular ethics as the main value of the education of the next generations.


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DALAI LAMA XIV, Wolność na wygnaniu [Freedom in Exile (1990)], tł. Kozieł A., PIW, Warszawa 2021.

GOLDSTEIN M. C., An Anthropological Study of the Tibetan Political System, University of Washington 1968.

KAPSTEIN M. T., Tybetańczycy, tł. Hunia J., WUJ, Kraków 2010.

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NAMGYAL DOLMA, Exclusive interview: Education Minister Dr Pema Yangchen highlights achievements and challenges, The Tibet Post, 2020

PEMA YANGCHEN, Teacher learning in a Tibetan school in exile: A community of practice perspective, Dissertations and Theses @ UNI. 519, 2009.

TSEWANG RIGZIN, The Exile Tibetan Community: Problems and Prospects, LTWA, Dhramsala 2016.

About the author
Maksymilian Woch, Ph.D.
Maksymilian holds a doctorate in antropology. His interests relate to the study of various aspects of human culture, mainly those related to changes in the area of spirituality and religiosity, both in its individual and social dimensions. He collaborates with KPSC JU (Cracow, Poland), where he conducts academic classes in various subjects. Maksymilian admits: "I think the key to a more meaningful life is a greater openness to mutual understanding, which is intercultural and goes beyond individual worldviews. This way, there is a chance to find what binds us together in one global community".
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