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The Former Monk Who Is A Father Figure To 85 Children

A man in his early 40s with a kind, weathered face is talking to a room full of children.

"In some ways, all of us are basically abandoned or not really a wanted person," he says. "Everybody kind of give up the hope on us. But in this place, you are welcome and you have opportunity to change, and we will be with you, no matter what. This is a community of love and compassion."

Former monk Lobsang Phuntsok is the father figure for the 85 children who live at his school.
/ HBO/"Tashi and the Monk"
Former monk Lobsang Phuntsok is the father figure for the 85 children who live at his school.

That's Lobsang Phuntsok. As a young boy, born to an unwed mother, he was "very naughty" and was sent to a monastery, where he still misbehaved but slowly began to change. After studying with the Dalai Lama and teaching about Buddhism in the United States, he decided to move back to the Indian Himalayas to help kids who struggle as he once did. Today, the former monk runs a residential community for children called Jhamtse Gatsal — a Tibetan term that means "love and compassion." It's funded by donations.

There are 85 children who live in the community, surrounded by mountains so beautiful that Phuntsok calls the place "heaven on earth." Some of the youngsters are orphans, some were abandoned by parents, some come from families too poor to care for them. They call Phuntsok their "daddy." He says that he feels he lost his own childhood when he was sent to the monastery but now, teaching and hugging and roughhousing with the children, "I feel I'm living my childhood."

Phuntsok's community is the subject of a new documentary called Tashi and the Monk, directed by Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke, airing on HBO on Aug. 17 at 8 p.m. ET. Tashi is a girl of about 5, the newest and youngest member of the community. She puts everyone there, teachers and children alike, to the test with her tantrums and her disturbing behavior.

NPR's Rachel Martin spoke to Andrew Hinton and Lobsang Phuntsok.

I understand making this film was an adventure from the start.

Hinton: It's a very difficult place to reach involving internal flights in India and taxi rides, and the final leg of the journey is an 18-hour ride in a four-wheel drive bouncing around on these very, very rough roads. But as soon as I arrived at the community, it was dark. And I got out of this jeep feeling a little dizzy and dazed and received this most incredible welcome, and I thought, "My goodness I've come to a special place."

Tashi shares a tender moment with Lobsang Phunstok.
/ HBO/"Tashi and The Monk"
Tashi shares a tender moment with Lobsang Phunstok.

Tell us about Tashi. What is her background?

Phuntsok: I made more than two-hour car drive to her village, and I learned that her mom was actually ill for long time and she finally passed away. And her dad is alcoholic, and he's not capable of giving any support to Tashi. One of the first thing[s] that I found out about her was that she would basically pick a broken piece of glass from the road and she would chew it and swallow it. And there were so many strange things that she was doing. So I felt that she's definitely someone that needs a family and that was the reason that I felt that we need to take Tashi to the community.

Lobsang, we see you travel to villages to meet families who desperately want you to take one or more of their children. And you just can't take all of them.

Phuntsok: I think this is one of the most difficult decision[s] that I face. Because no matter how hard we try really to make a right decision, it's not possible. And I know a boy [we did not take in] who committed suicide.

Hinton: Can I just add something? One of the extraordinary things for us was going with Lobsang to the local villages and having an expectation that he would be greeted as some kind of hero because of this wonderful thing happening in the school and the community and it was extraordinary to us to discover that he is known as the man who says no. Because as he says in the film he's said yes to 85 children but he's received over 1,000 requests. And we realized the weight of the burden that Lobsang has to carry. He explained to us that when he gets back to the community after visiting these villages, he's so emotionally drained by the experience because he's so conscious of the need.

Is it possible to take in more children, to keep growing the school?

Phuntsok: Our older kids that have been here for nine years — we started in 2006 — and these kids become one of the most amazing agent of change. So I know that these kids will go out someday, and they will do much better than what I am doing right now.

Andrew, you watched Tashi change as you made the film. What was it like to watch her open up?

Hinton: One of the amazing things was that Tashi was so unselfconscious and so accepting of my presence. One morning very early out I was out filming with her and another young girl, and it was just the three of us on a road leading to the community. And I had access to this amazing dynamic of play between these two girls who were picking tomatoes from the side of the road and just chatting with each other. And at a certain point Tashi reaches into her pocket and pulls out a walnut. And she breaks the walnut and her hand reaches out and she offers this piece of walnut to her friend. And I just couldn't believe it because this was the first moment that I'd seen her share with another human being. I remember going back to talk to my co-director who was still in bed and said, "I've just seen something very special: Tashi shared a walnut." And we were very excited because this felt like a huge breakthrough both for Tashi and for us filming.

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Tashi says she'd tell newcomers to the school to "listen to your elders."
/ HBO/"Tashi and the Monk"
Tashi says she'd tell newcomers to the school to "listen to your elders."