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Friday February 16, 2024

Through Service, Comes Peace

RPCV Nirav Shah traveled to India to work on English-language programs for monks. He didn’t expect to meet the Dalai Lama.

Nirav Shah’s meeting with the Dalai Lama marked a high point of a life dedicated to peace through volunteerism

Dharamsala is a bustling market town in the western Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Nestled deep in the Himalayan foothills along the northern section of the India-China border, it became the home of the Tibetan government-in-exile when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959. These days, the Tsuglagkhang Complex, in Dharamsala’s McLeod Ganj neighborhood, is like a tiny piece of Tibet—with an active monastery, a museum, and, of course, the Dalai Lama’s residence.

Nirav Shah (Zambia 2013–15) has long been fascinated with the Dalai Lama and the Nobel Prize winner’s philosophy, so when he realized he had 53 days of “use or lose” leave from his job as a public affairs specialist at the Department of Agriculture, he decided to volunteer as an English teacher for monks at the Tsuglagkhang Complex monastery.

Volunteering wasn’t new to Shah. In addition to his work as a Peace Corps Volunteer, he worked on Peace Corps staff and as a public information officer at the Fort Bliss migrant children’s camp. Shah arranged his service through the Louisiana Himalaya Association (LHA), a social work organization aligned with the Lha Charitable Trust in Dharamsala. He packed lightly for the trip, knowing that, like his time in Peace Corps, he’d be living simply among those he worked within this case, Tibetan monks.

Over the past three years, LHA has offered beginner- and intermediate-level English courses for Geshes (monks who hold doctorates in Buddhist philosophy). Shah had a clear objective for his time in Dharam- sala—to find a way for monks to continue learning and teaching conversational English at higher levels. Shah worked closely with LHA to create a scholarship program, the Scholarship for Tibetan Buddhist Monks, to provide Geshes with the opportunity to study English at the highest-level language academy in India—the Cambridge Academy of English in Bengaluru.

As he interacted with members of the Dharamsala community and spent hours teaching and meditating, Shah realized the striking similarities between Tibetan Buddhist beliefs and the Peace Corps’ mission of promoting peace and friendship. The core values of kindness, mutual respect, and the significance of continuing the work by paying it forward became apparent to him.

“While volunteering with LHA and Lha Charitable Trust in Dharamsala, I was fortunate to meet and become friends with many Tibetan

Nirav teaching conversational English

refugees, learning about their culture and hearing their stories. Kindness and compassion seem innate, and the Tibetans radiate joy and optimism despite exile from their home,” Shah says. “They were forced to leave their families and homes, hoping for a safe future in India. In groups, they hiked over the Himalayas, some passing over 19,000 feet, to freedom in India. This journey to freedom, still happening today, takes up to a month, with much of the walking done at night in freezing temperatures to avoid Chinese troops. While some make it over, others do not and are caught by soldiers and put into labor camps, where they are often severely tortured even today.”

Shah’s dedication to the community he was working with paid off in an unexpected way. He received an invitation to sit privately with the Dalai Lama, which was his dream come true. Shah prepared for the meetings by spending hours in meditation and shaving his head, a symbol of the renunciation of worldly ego in Buddhism. “He is the most simple and modest individual I’ve ever met,” Shah says. Inspired by the meeting and the Buddhist tenets embodies, Shah now aims to continue helping others through kindness, love, and compassion.

In a letter to a friend back home, Shah wrote: “It’s an opportunity that I will cherish for the rest of my life on this earth. Through my experiences in the Peace Corps, I built the power of connection by living and working side by side, developing trusting relationships, exchanging and sharing experiences, and inspiring others to succeed. With a pure heart, I could carry on any assignment given to me as it became a fundamental instrument to help the human community. It motivated me to develop the right attitude towards others based on kindness, love, and respect and the clear realization of the oneness of all human beings.”

This article was contributed by Peace Corps

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