A Lesson in Compassion at the Ross School

‘What about being good human beings?’ Tibetan asks fifth and sixth graders
Lama Tenzin, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, constructed a sand mandala of compassion during a weeklong visit to the Ross School. Judy D’Mello

Tenzin Yignyen, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, head shaven and crimson robe-clad, was telling a story last week at the Ross School’s lower school in Bridgehampton: “I read the other day on Snapchat. . . .”

Wait, what? Snapchat?

“Oh yes,” he said in a lilting Indian accent. “Why not? Just because we’re Buddhist monks doesn’t mean we have to shun technology.”

Science and Buddhism are not opposed or contradictory, and can be combined and mutually compatible, explained the monk, between classes of fifth and sixth graders filing in and out of the school’s art room. Just like the sand mandala of compassion he was busy constructing, it’s simply a matter of balance.

Mr. Yignyen, or Lama Tenzin as he is known, signifying the honorific title bestowed upon him as a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, has been visiting the Ross School for the last 14 years, alternating between the lower campus and the upper campus in East Hampton. He spends a week talking to students and constructing the intricate sand patterns within a mandala, the Sanskrit word for circle. Millions of grains of colored sand are sprinkled carefully on a flat surface over the course of five days, following precise and ancient instructions passed down over thousands of years. The creation of this mandala is intended to help the viewer generate boundless compassion for all beings.

“It’s beautiful because there’s a meaning behind it,” said Alex Froehlich, a fifth grader at Ross. “It’s not just art.” 

Sienna Galesi-Grant, a sixth grader, said she has been taught by Mr. Tenzin since the age of 2. “I find it very inspiring, and it definitely gives me a new outlook each year.”

When Mr. Yignyen was 2 — he does not know the year he was born, as he said Tibetans of his generation don’t consider a birth date important — the Chinese People’s Liberation Army began its invasion of Tibet, promising the mostly poor and unmodernized country social reforms and religious freedom, which it ultimately failed to deliver.

Sometime in the mid-1950s, fearing persecution as Buddhists, Mr. Yignyen’s family fled to Dharamshala, in northern India, where the venerable Dalai Lama also relocated and positioned himself as the head of state and spiritual leader of the Tibetan government in exile.

At age 11, Mr. Yignyen joined the Namgyal Namgyal Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s personal monastery in Dharamshala, where, as part of his education, he learned the art of creating mandalas. In 1995, he was selected to teach at the monastery’s North American seat in Ithaca, N.Y., and he’s now a professor of Tibetan Buddhist studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. He has never returned to Tibet, he said, because, despite trying twice, the Chinese government denied him a visa.

He visits approximately 10 to 12 schools a year, and has been to about 150 of them over the years, as well as various organizations — “The only place I haven’t taught is the White House!” — constructing mandalas, giving talks to parents and children, meditating with students, and generally sharing his belief that the American education system has it all wrong, placing far too much importance on producing smarter human beings.

“But what about good human beings?” he asked. “We have no subjects to teach us how to be better people, so mentally we are all disturbed.”

Indeed, the state of the country’s mental health, especially among its youth, is a timely topic. Educators across America struggle to understand the recent spate of school shootings, all too often at the hands of young people. In Springs, Debra Winter, the school district’s superintendent, is pushing for increased funding from the state to expand mental health programs at the school, for students and teachers. In East Hampton, the high school has instituted a number of classes, from meditation to yoga, in an attempt to get teenagers to connect to their inner selves rather than simply their smartphones.

At Ross, Mr. Yignyen takes every opportunity to demonstrate the relationship of all living things within the environment. Children are encouraged to consider the consequences of their actions and to be aware of the moment. With the construction of the mandala, they are also taught the central tenet of Buddhism, that everything is impermanent. 

“Are you sad when you dismantle the mandala?” asked a fifth grader. 

“At first I was,” Mr. Yignyen replied. “But then I learned the importance of letting go, because nothing lasts forever. So, we have to enjoy the moment.” He gave an example of going to a great restaurant. “You can’t stay there forever because it was so good. But you can go back and enjoy another time.”

The monk shares these basic principles, which he calls “secular ethics,” in simplistic, almost childlike terms. To portray him out of context might make him appear naive and unworldly. But after watching him interact with children and adults, one can recognize that his way of being could be an antidote to our overpoliticized and intellectualized world by offering adults and children the space to investigate happiness, empathy, altruism, and compassion.

“Compassion isn’t like a history subject. You can’t just read about it and become compassionate. You have to practice it over and over again,” he told parents and children during a community talk last Thursday.

“Don’t ask for more than you deserve,” he advised a group of sixth graders. “It will ruin your life.” A lesson that seems worthy, if not a touch incongruous, in the Hamptons.

“You mean like if you win the lottery,” a young boy asked, “you should give away a lot of it to charity?”

Things are less simplistic on the upper campus, where classes are attended by 7th through 12th graders, the vast majority of them Chinese boarding students.

“I should be the one who is angry,” Mr. Yignyen said when asked if he detects resentment from the Chinese students, raised with certain prejudices toward Tibetans. “I was the one who had to leave my country.” And yet, he acknowledged, some students seem less receptive to his presence, though in time they come to embrace him. 

Mostly, though, he is loved. “Having Lama Tenzin come to Ross is a very special thing for me,” said Izzy, an eighth grader who has heard him speak there over the course of the last 12 years. “We all sometimes get so caught up in our petty problems that we forget to enjoy the little things. By having him speak to everyone it really helps us appreciate things more.”

At the mandala-dismantling ceremony on Long Beach in Noyac on Friday, sixth graders sat on the sand as Mr. Yignyen performed a ritual of prayers punctuated occasionally by a soft ringing of bells. The students seemed unusually still and contemplative, pondering, one hopes, those questions about life that aren’t Googleable.

Lama Tenzin with students at a mandala-dismantling ceremony at Long Beach in Noyac on Friday Judy D’Mello