SOCIAL GOOD SUNDAYS: Learning to give back by teaching English to Thai monks

Today’s Social Good Sunday post is written by David Poppe, Programs Director for ATMA SEVA (  To read more about ATMA SEVA and their work click here

During my sophomore year of college, I took a trip to Italy for six weeks that inspired my curiosity about exploring the world. A year later, I was fortunate to spend six months in Australia which furthered my desire to learn more about other cultures. It was a visit to Thailand that truly rocked my world and changed my way of thinking.  I found that there were many questions I could not answer.

Why do some people not have access to clean drinking water? How is there such a gap between the rich and poor?

In 2009, I found an amazing opportunity to live in Thailand and work with ATMA SEVA, a philanthropic organization dedicated to giving a voice to the needs of indigenous, ethnic, and monastic communities in rural Thailand and Bhutan. The opportunity proved to be a life-changing event that would fulfill my dreams of giving back.

When I arrived in Thailand, ATMA SEVA was involved with grassroots community outreach programs for HIV prevention and education.  During my first week in Thailand those projects came to an end after nine successful years.  ATMA SEVA had been working with a Buddhist temple since 2000 (Wat Doi Saket) and we asked one of the senior monks how we can still help and be involved.  His response was better English for the novice monks.  This was when the Wat Doi Saket project started.

Three novice monks enjoying english class.

I was extremely lucky to find ATMA SEVA at the time I did.  Since 2009 I have set up and continue to run the Wat Doi Saket project with partner and co-founder of ATMA SEVA, Anu Bhardwaj.  The Wat Doi Saket project’s main focus is to improve the conversational English of novice monks.  It is structured as a cultural exchange program where participant’s pay a fee which includes a room at a Buddhist temple, all food, local tours, introductions to Buddhism and meditation, staff support, airport/pickup drop off, etc.  This also ensures the sustainability of the project and enables us to continue to support local communities.

This is Katherine, our current intern, with her students after class.

This is a very serious EFL (English as a Foreign Language) program and we just finished creating our very own custom curriculum.  We record and monitor what each volunteer teaches, so when the next volunteer starts there is a smooth transition, and the novice monks have consistent lessons.  Ultimately, our goal is to be able to track and show the progress of the students and ensure it is an effective language program. The Wat Doi Saket project is working with eighteen Buddhist temples, three government schools, and one hill-tribe village.  We are scaling and building to have volunteers at each of those locations on an annual basis.

Volunteer coordinator Marcia saying goodbye to her students before she went home for a visit.

Why is learning English important?  Why is this program beneficial?

  • The majority of young men who join the monastic community do so because of financial reasons.  If a family cannot pay for their son’s education the two choices are to find work or become a novice monk to finish high school.  Hopefully this program provides new opportunities, perspectives, and the chance to help these young men and their families.
  • With the new ASEAN agreement Thai citizens will be able to travel and work within a network of ten other South East Asian countries.  Having the ability to speak English will increase the chances of finding work or opportunities overseas. (
  • Within Thailand the tourism industry is massive and being fluent in English is a huge advantage when looking for a job.
  • Bringing together people from all over the world is always something positive.  Exposing the novice monks to foreign cultures, foods, and ideas is something beneficial that will hopefully broaden their perspectives and motivate them to continue their studies.
  • Part of the program fee is allocated for ‘special projects’ where we encourage volunteers to do something fun/educational/creative with their students.  In the past volunteers have organized cooking classes, taken the novices on field trips, created scavenger hunts, and more.
  • If a novice monk chooses to remain in the monastic community speaking English is still beneficial.  It is useful when talking about Buddhism to foreigners, creating bi-lingual displays for the temple, easier and more opportunities to travel, and it expands their ability to help others.
  • With each volunteer there is a donation to the temple.
  • This program is also beneficial to the volunteers as they get to experience temple life, Buddhism, and Thai culture.  We strive very hard to expose volunteers to authentic Thai culture and to bring them to a wide variety of locations, which most tourists do not know exist.
  • We have several of the older monks contributing to our blog, which is excellent practice at writing in English.  The monks also love the opportunity to share Buddhist perspectives.
  • We offer video ‘monk chats’ through the power of skype.  It is a fundraising tool for our scholarship program and also gives the monks a chance to interact and meet students from all over the world.

This is me, my girlfriend Nid, and her brother at his farm at the hill-tribe village.

Community Projects

In addition to the Wat Doi Saket project, ATMA SEVA has several community projects we are working hard on.  The three main projects are:

  1. Scholarships for monks 
  2. Monk chats
  3. Construction of a school for underprivileged children.  This will include dormitories and will be for K-12.

If you would like to get involved and help out, take a look at Join Our Community. We want to create a community for everyone involved no matter where you are in the world.

To stay tuned to all our work, ‘like’, ‘subscribe’, and ‘follow’!

This is me with Anu Bhardwaj (partner and co-founder of ATMA SEVA) at Wat Doi Saket.

Final thoughts

It has been just over three years that I have been living in Thailand and developing these projects.  Finding ATMA SEVA and this work has been a blessing.  Learning and being immersed in Buddhism has definitely changed my perspectives and I am looking forward to learning more.  So far the biggest thing I have taken away from Buddhism is that everything is temporary (feelings and life), so why feel distressed?  It has had a profound impact on me.

I am always on the lookout for unique or creative ideas and collaborations. If anyone has any questions you can email  at


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