Two weeks ago, I photographed a group of children who left their homes to join the monastery. They are between six and ten years old.
Over the last few months, I’ve begun building a relationship with a Tamang community that was displaced after the earthquake and one of the nonprofits that is helping them. Their homes and livelihoods were destroyed and there was no hope of rebuilding. The community has been living in tents for over a year and the monsoon season is coming. Their lives are far from easy, which is why I joined a project supporting them in building new houses.
I want to better understand why such young children are joining the monastery. I try to keep my own judgments at bay. I ask a lot of questions and I learn that there are a variety of reasons that children come to the monastery. For some, it means a roof over their head, food on the table, and education. For others, it is truly an honor to their devout families to have a Buddhist monk in the family. I realize that almost every family in the community has sent at least one child. There are also more nefarious reasons that drive children from their communities. In many rural communities, child trafficking has increased since the earthquake and families may feel that the monastery is simply a safer place for their children. One monk tells me that he joined at 14 because he knew it was the right thing for him. I honestly don’t know why these children are joining today, but I am grateful to be present for a small part of their journey.
The boys unload off the bus. They walk into the monastery with khatas tied around their neck, uncertainty on their faces, and their parents by their side. They line up for a group photo and sweetly greet the camera with a namaste. Then they rush over each other to get to lunch.
Afterwards the monks lead them down a set of steps to the water pump. Here they will have their heads shaved for the first time. They rinse and shampoo their hair and wait in line for an free monk, razor in hand. The older monks meticulously shave all but one small bit of hair, leaving this final, holy task to lama Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. He will remove that last bit of hair when the boy Monks take their initial vows.
As I photograph this small part of their ceremony I sense the comradery between them. One boy assists his friend whose arm is in a cast with removing his t-shirt. A mother gently wipes water from her six-year-old’s shoulder. While the boys are leaving the home and the life they know, they are doing it as a part of their community. I gather them together for one last – and this time hairless – group shot.
A few days later I see them in their red monks’ robes – the boys from Dohla, still hanging together.