Inside the life of P.E.I.'s young Buddhist monks in the making

They may not know who Justin Trudeau is, but students at the Moonlight International Academy are getting what monks call an "education of the heart."

'I think for normal people, they may have doubts because this is not what they're familiar with'

Students, some as young as 11, take classes and live year-round at the Moonlight International Academy on P.E.I. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The budding Buddhist monks, most in their mid-teens, listen intently in the small, sparse classroom as their teacher speaks to them in Mandarin through a microphone.

Their heads are shaved and they are wearing robes, like all the other students and monks at the Moonlight International Academy, a private boarding school in Little Sands, P.E.I.

Not a cellphone or computer is in sight, but books aplenty.

They are quiet and focused, eyes straight ahead. One student speaks up and the class erupts in laughter.

What's so funny?

"The teacher was explaining that all traffic must stop for an ambulance," said Venerable Irvin, a 30-year-old Buddhist monk providing the translation.

"The student asked, 'But would a train stop?'"

It's that kind of critical thinking that is taught to the students at the academy, Irvin said.

Traditional subjects like science, math and geography are not taught in the way they are in public schools on P.E.I., he said, but rather in an "applied" manner. Their courses include Classic Chinese Literature, Buddhist Philosophy and Ethical Disciplines. 

The dorm rooms usually have bunk beds and desks. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Geoffrey Yang, a spokesperson for the school, said some world news and current events are shared with the students. For example, he said they recently learned about teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. 

The students — some as young as 11 — come from as far away as Taiwan and California, and live at the campus year-round under the care of the elder monks from the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society. 

Moonlight has 183 students on P.E.I. from grades 7-12 spread across three campuses.

There are two for boys — in Little Sands and Heatherdale — and one for girls, in Uigg. More than 200 others are enrolled in post-secondary education, a common path to becoming an ordained Buddhist monk or nun.

There is not much need for closet space — just enough to hang robes. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Parents are not required to pay tuition, according to Yang, but often make donations. The school is funded primarily through international donations.

Moonlight came under scrutiny in the legislature last month, when the Official Opposition raised questions about oversight and protecting the rights of children.

They are questions parents have asked themselves.

"We actually appreciate their concerns because we as parents, we share the same concern," said Jasper Yang, whose daughter Annie, 15, and son, Rick, 19, attend Moonlight.

"But because we are parents, we do our due diligence along the way.... For us parents, the one goal that we all share is that we want [our kids] to to be happy, so as long as they are happy then we are willing to support them."

Moonlight International Academy has 183 students spread across three campus on P.E.I. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Yang, a retired businessman, and his wife, Yuhsin Lee, moved from Taiwan to Montague to be closer to their children.

But other parents, such as Mark and Jade Lin of San Jose, Calif., who have an 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter at Moonlight, live thousands of kilometres away. 

A Grade 11 class schedule at Moonlight International Academy shows subjects such as Classic Chinese Literature, Buddhist Philosophy and Ethical Disciplines. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Mark Lin, an engineering consultant, has been staying on P.E.I. since his children started in September, but said he plans to leave them on their own for as long as they want to stay.

The students are not forced to stay, the monks said, and can leave anytime. Two 15-year-old students left last month.

If it works out, great. If not, there's always another path. There's always engineering."​​​​​​— Mark Lin

"If it works out, great," Lin said. "If not, there's always another path. There's always engineering."

Lin said he is not concerned that monks and nuns take a vow of celibacy, which means if his kids stay on this path he won't have any grandchildren.

He said he and Jade encouraged their children to join the academy and to try out a simpler life after seeing friends in California getting richer, but not happier.

Buddhist student Rick Yang, 19, speaks with his parents, Jasper Yang and Yuhsin Lee, who moved from Taiwan to P.E.I. to be closer to their children. (Shane Ross/CBC)

However, Yang's 19-year-old son, Rick, said it was his own decision to join the monastery at age 15. Rick said he was like any kid at the time, watching movies and playing video games.

"I started pondering whether electronics can really bring me happiness. I really wanted happiness, but the happiness I can gain from physical goods are not always as long lasting as spiritual ones. So I decided I wanted to enter the monastery."

Rick, who is in the post-secondary program, lives in the dorms with other students. A typical room has about four bunk beds with desks. They look clean and tidy. Closet space is minimal — enough to hang robes.

There are 15 buildings, including dorms, study halls and a prayer hall, at the campus in Little Sands, P.E.I. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

They wake up at 3:50 a.m., though Yang said the younger students can sleep longer. After morning prayers they have recitation class, when their minds are "clearest."

After breakfast they begin classes, which include 15-minute recesses. At 10:30 a.m., they do chores — cleaning, gardening, shovelling snow — whatever needs to be done. 

Lunch, which could be anything from rice and noodles to pizza and veggie burgers, starts at 11:30 a.m. It's the last meal of the day, though Yang said younger kids are allowed to eat more later in the day.

Rick, grinning, said he eats as much as he can during lunch so he doesn't get hungry at night. 

After lunch there is two hours of free time, when students often play jump rope or Frisbee, Rick said. Then it's more classes, more free time, then prayers before they go to bed, usually no later than 9:30 p.m., earlier if they choose. 

Venerable Irvin discusses Buddhist education with Mark and Jade Lin of California, who sent their son, 11, and daughter, 13, to Moonlight International Academy. (Shane Ross/CBC)

There's no watching TV, surfing the internet or using a cellphone, beyond scheduled chats with family back home. They do get out in the P.E.I. community sometimes. They went trick-or-treating on Halloween.

"I think for normal people, they may have doubts because this is not what they're familiar with," he said. "But I'm here and I want to tell you that I really enjoy this life. So don't be concerned about me."

I really enjoy this life. So don't be concerned about me.— Rick Yang, student at Moonlight International Academy

Rick said he could access the internet if he applied for it, but has no interest. His knowledge of world and current events is limited to what he hears from the older monks or teachers.

For example, he had never heard of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but knows who Terry Fox is. He can't name all the Canadian provinces, but knows Ottawa is the country's capital.

He knows little of U.S. President Donald Trump, other than that he wants to build a "crazy" wall.

"I'm not that interested in politics," he said.

He knows about the current conflict in Hong Kong, however, and said he prays for peace.

Buddhist monks and students eat two meals a day, except for the younger students who are permitted to eat later in the day. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Irvin said even if students lack some of the knowledge learned in public schools, he believes the Moonlight practices of debate, analytical thinking and Buddhist principles — "education of the heart," as he calls it — would prepare students for the outside world should they decide to leave.

"They learn the ability to learn," he said. "One very important part in our education is that we learn how to be more compassionate, we learn how to be more understanding and we learn how to really observe and focus."

More P.E.I. news

About the Author

Shane Ross is a former newspaper and TV journalist in Halifax, Ottawa and Charlottetown. He joined CBC P.E.I.'s web team in 2016.