Article by Robin Van Auken on Volunteer Forever

Learn first-hand the spiritual beliefs, traditions, and practices of Buddhism when you volunteer to teach English to young children and monks in Asia.

Travel to mystical Nepal and join other adventurous pilgrims at ancient temples with breathtaking views of the Himalayas, including majestic Mount Everest. Choose Chiang Mai, Thailand’s “Rose of the North” and a land that’s rich in cultural diversity, tranquil villages and other natural wonders. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, an ancient and charming city in Laos: it’s the best example of traditional architecture in the country, with 34 preserved Buddhist temples set against a backdrop of lush green mountains.

When you sign up for an English teaching program in Asia, you’ll do more than sightsee in spectacular countries. You’ll learn about the Buddhist philosophy, which is adhered to by the monks and novices in their daily lives.

You’ll also learn that there are many reasons for young boys to be ordained, but the primary one is to acquire an education. Poorer families cannot afford to send their children to school, so they become temporary Buddhist novice monks at temples where their material needs are met. Young boys join a temple as a rite of passage or to alleviate financial stress at home. While they’re at the temples, it’s critical that they receive an education that includes learning to speak and read English.


Buddhism originated between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE in India, then spread through much of Asia. It’s the fourth largest religion with more than 530 million followers worldwide.

There are two major branches of Buddhism. Theravada has the goal of eliminating “kleshas” (destructive attitudes such as ignorance, attachment, and aversion) and attaining Nirvana, which ends the cycle of suffering and rebirth. Theravada is practiced mainly in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

Mahayana is found primarily in East Asia, and instead of Nirvana, its followers aspire to Buddhahood via the bodhisattva path, remaining in the cycle of rebirth to help other beings reach awakening. Vajrayana, which the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan followers practice, is a part of Mahayana, and they also aspire to Buddhahood.

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, encourages all people – and in particular Buddhist monks – to continue their education and to learn English. His wish is that ancient Buddhist texts and scripture be translated into English for all to read and appreciate.

“One of the main ways of being diligent is to pay particular attention to the pursuit of knowledge. The world is undergoing an enormous transformation today. In order to achieve both internal and external progresses appropriate for modern times, having modern education is extremely important, “ he said during a speech in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama, who referred to himself as “a simple monk from Tibet” in 1989 when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global human rights, was born Tenzin Gyatso in 1935. Since the age of 2, he has been considered the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and he lives in Dharamsala, India. He, as well as many other Tibetans, have lived in exile after the 1950 invasion by China.

Buddhism is flourishing, with an estimated 1.5 million followers in the United States. According to the Dalai Lama, this is because of the U.S. education system, one he would like to see replicated for all Buddhists. “I feel that Americans are interested because they are open-minded. They have an education system that teaches them to find out for themselves why things are the way they are. Open-minded people tend to be interested in Buddhism because Buddha urged people to investigate things — he didn’t just command them to believe.”

If you’re interested in learning about Buddhism from its practitioners, and in return teaching them about your culture and language, consider a volunteer opportunity that places you in a class, sharing your knowledge with eager, respectful students. Keep reading to explore the opportunities waiting for you in Nepal, Thailand, and Laos.


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