Chinese Students Visit Tibetan Nomad Community in Gānnán

coverBy Yu Ningyuan

The soul remembered, I’m the son of the rain

It began from a small fire

Later, it burned large, like a sea of fire

The rain cannot put out the fire

Just like the ages cannot crush the dream

Classrooms and homework wavering in the wind

A huge burst of wind blew the classroom to the prairie

All the children rode horses

And all the dreams started to run off.

This verse originated from a real dream experienced by one of my student’s in the Ren Chen class at the Spring Valley Waldorf School in Beijing, China. In the dream, the child’s mother and I stood in the school hallway, when suddenly the porch light bulb changed into a ball of fire, and later a gust of wind blew up. The wind blew the fire bigger, waving the classroom seats like swings. Then suddenly it began to rain, but the rain could not put out the fire. Later, the wind was getting stronger, and the giant wind blew the Ren Chen classroom to the plateau. The children got down from the swings, and rode horses and camels, but backward.

When the child’s mother nervously shared her daughter’s dream with me, I was glad for this confirmation, because one week earlier we had made a plan to go to the Gānnán Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture for a study trip. The reason for the trip was wonderful. For a parents’ discussion of children’s picture books, I had been invited to speak about how Waldorf education selects stories for children of different ages. The presenter, Mu Linshan, interviewed me and several other experts; and at the end of the interview, she introduced the idea of taking our students to the nomad community in Xiahe, Gānnán, which is the traditional Tibetan area of HYPERLINK "" Amdo, and creating a temporary tent school. My eyes were shining when I heard “Xiahe” and “tent school,” because when I had been on home leave from the Princeton Waldorf School in the United States in 2005, I had gone to Xiahe with my wife and daughter. At the time I had been impressed by the Buddhist atmosphere of Labrang Monastery and the beautiful Sankoh grasslands. This humane and natural place is the perfect setting for practicing Waldorf education. I said that I would like to be a volunteer for this project, and I was accepted with open arms.

How interesting that when the study tour program and the tent school were still just in the planning stages, they were magically presented in the dream of the child from the Ren Chen class. The dream pictures expressed the desire of the child for the rain and for a faraway place. Perhaps our neighboring scenic area of Beijing Phoenix Ridge is too dry, and our classroom is too crowded, so the imbalance of the etheric body was presented through the child’s dream. Perhaps we really needed a gust of wind to blow our classrooms to the high prairie.

On a July afternoon, a study tour team made up of teachers, students from grades two and three, and parent volunteers, boarded a west-bound train for Lanzhou. After many hours on the train, we arrived in Lanzhou station. We then took a bus to our study tour destination—the high altitude Sankoh grasslands (approximately 8000 ft. in elevation), Xiahe County, Gansu Province. There we met with the team of Mu Linshan, and teachers and students from Sankoh primary school, whose principal, Tashi, is a master of ancient Tibetan culture and history, who gave up his academic career and returned home to be a teacher.

The children marched toward the broad Sankoh grasslands. We put up a tent on the prairie, and welcomed Tibetan friends to form a tent school. Children from the Spring Valley Waldorf School played games with the pure and kind-hearted Tibetan children; and together they painted, modeled beeswax, sang songs, danced, and became good friends. We taught Tibetan children to speak Chinese, while Tibetan teachers taught our children Tibetan; and different ethnic cultures merged in the children’s laughter. Our children went to the homes of their little Tibetan friends, and experienced the real life of Tibetan nomads, whose homes are tents on the prairie, where the flowers are in full bloom, and the yaks and sheep graze leisurely. We tasted Tibetan homemade yogurt and tsampa, and rolled in the grasslands—all new experiences for the Ren Chen children. Through singing, painting, playing games, and other vivid experiences, a seed of peace and love was planted in the hearts of the children to germinate in the future, flowering, and fruiting.

The tent school came to the sweet Sankoh pasture on the afternoon of July 14; it was a paradise with winding water and flowing river, slopes full of cattle, sheep, and galloping horses. I was amazed by the winding and bubbling springs coming from afar, like arteries and blood vessels flowing into the hearts of the prairie, and flowing out from the hearts. When we selected this place for afternoon horseback riding, kite flying, and thangka painting, two rainbows appeared in the sky.

One of our Tibetan hosts, Tsering, had invited the best thangka painting master from Labrang Monastery for scene painting. We sat on the grass surrounded by a creek, watching the master paint on a canvas with a pen. A Buddha appeared in the painting, as if the Buddha himself presented his own face. As the children sat in a circle to see how the master colored the thangka, a large group of white clouds appeared in the sky above, like a statue of Buddha who would bless the children and all of the people who worked for this study tour.

While visiting the United States, I heard the Qinghai Tibetan Opera Troupe and Shangri-La Music Protection Association perform the Tibetan story of how Milarepa* tamed the deer, the dog, and the hunter by overcoming fear and practicing patience and compassion. I was inspired by the performance to write a play entitled Reynard Pilgrimage, letting the western Reynard [the trickster fox from Medieval fables] meet our eastern Holiness of the snowy mountains. With the combination of this drama and the entire Gānnán study tour, our visit became even more exciting for our group of Chinese and Tibetan children.

Drama is a process that brings story pictures to life and spirit into the body. During storytelling in the Ren Chen class in Beijing, I often take the children to the woods of the scenic Beijing Phoenix Ridge and let them self-direct and perform the stories. These are their happiest moments because their higher selves and their bodies are united. Before they came to the Tibetan prairie, the children were given the imaginary pictures of what life is like in Tibetan areas. Now they are here—drinking yak butter tea, speaking Tibetan, singing Tibetan songs, and rehearsing this Chinese-Tibetan drama together with the Tibetan children. When the inner, free imaginary pictures combine with real pictures of the scene and the characters, the dream becomes a true realization.

After the performance, principal Tashi of the Sankoh elementary school said this was the first time that the Sankoh children had been involved in a theater performance. He expressed satisfaction with the children's participation. He believes that Milarepa is a model for Tibetans on the necessity of cultivating a spiritual path that leads to compassion, peace, and enlightenment for the benefit of others, and that the story is very educational for Tibetan children. He pointed out that Milarepa's mother is also very brave and wise, and represents the Tibetan great mother. He believes her story should also be told to the children. Principal Tashi gave me the inspiration to tell this great mother's story in second grade because it is also important for the children’s spiritual growth. I will suggest that we add this content for the future second grade classes.

Yu Ning Yuan is a Waldorf teacher in China, poet, and a founder of Beijing Spring Valley Waldorf School and Chunzhigu College, where he is now a class teacher and faculty chair.

* Milarepa is one of Tibet's most famous saints, yogis, and poets, and a major figure in the history of the Tibetan Buddhism.