Bodhisukha University, April 27, 2008
The Third Annual Intensive English Course, sponsored by Buddhist Relief Mission and Young Buddhist Students' Literacy Mission, for Buddhist monks studying in India ended with a flourish just as the seasonal heat settled in, making every move a chore. Kolkata temperatures soared to 107 degrees F (41.7 degrees C) with humidity above 90%. That was warm, and the electricity at the monastery was too weak to support an air conditioner. Even the ceiling fans turned laboriously. When the power failed, if one of the young monks was around, he started the generator if there was any diesel. But, often, both of those conditions were not met. Ironically, the electricity from the generator was so much stronger that the fans sped up to normal, and the CFL bulbs became bright enough to read by.
Susan and Rajiv
The first night after our arrival, Ken tried the new machine, which was really cute, and it ran perfectly, for about two seconds, at which point, it stopped, like Grandfather's clock, never to go again.
Without a machine, Ken could sleep only fitfully, and that kept Visakha awake, as well. It was obvious we had to do something, but what? We considered having his old machine sent from Kandy, but the logistics of that were staggering. We remembered that, several years ago, Ven Nandobatha had had a sleep test, so we contacted the clinic. After a series of phone calls, we found a company in southern Kolkata (Bodhisukha in Barasat is in the far north.), where we could rent a CPAP machine, but, of course, not battery-operated. It took half a day to get to the office and back (The agent had offered to deliver it, but we had no reason to believe that he would be prompt.), but the fee was only $75/month, and the man, happily, agreed to retrieve the machine after we left Kolkata. Susan took the defective machine back to the US, and it has already been replaced. Now we just have to find someone visiting Kandy willing to bring it!
About the time that Ken was starting the treatment for his pinched nerve and Visakha's fever was rising, Rosalie and three European friends came to Bodhisukha for a three-day Vipassana meditation course. Neither Ken nor Visakha was able to join the meditation, but they did attend the Dhamma talks in the evening. The four women were extremely pleased with Ven. AriyaWantha's teaching and returned to Sudder Street in chaotic Kolkata thoroughly refreshed.
Rosalie and her friends, meditating and pouring water,
Rosalie is the founder/director of Empower the Children in Kolkata.
We were delighted that we were able to carry from Sri Lanka a beautiful Burmese antique reclining Buddha that Bruce had brought from Japan. He had hoped it could be offered to Bodhisukha, but our luggage was already extremely overweight. Fortunately, both Rosalie and some Shan pilgrims who had visited us briefly carried Dhamma books to Kolkata for us and freed enough weight for the image. We tucked in an antique Japanese tie-and-dye orange cloth with a stunning rising sun design, also from Bruce. We ourselves donated a large blue batik painting of a standing Buddha, similar to one painted on wood already in the ordination hall. Shortly after we got to Kolkata, the monks held a special "eye-opening" ceremony to consecrate the images.
After last year's intensive ESL course, we put out an appeal for teachers for this year, but received only one serious response, from Denise in Seattle. We first knew Denise in Japan twenty-five years ago, when she joined Students of the Lotus. Then she taught at Seifu for several years, got her MA from Temple University, and took a position at Doshisha. When she returned to the US, she began teaching in Seattle. Last June, she wrote to say that one of her students, who had just completed his ESL certification, was interested in our unique program. After a brief correspondence, we accepted him, but felt a little concerned about working with a teacher with little classroom experience.
|Steve in his room, in our room for the internet, and on the way to class|
So much for ill-founded fears! Steve is an impressive fellow--tall and with a firm handshake. He exudes calm and competence. He settled in immediately, even though this was his first time in Asia, in a monastery, teaching monks. He had done some volunteering as a tutor, but Bodhisukha classes were going to be a major part of his development as a teacher. As part of his training, he had asked Visakha to submit a report on his performance to Antioch University Seattle. After he retires, he may just look for a position somewhere in the world as an ESL teacher. We were impressed that he had taken an unpaid leave of absence from his job at Boeing and traveled all that way to take part in our course. We were extremely pleased to have him. He was easy to live with in our close quarters, and, obviously, his mother brought him up right--he ate everything on his plate, although he sometimes might have wished he'd taken less bitter gourd or green chilli before tasting it.
When we first arrived at the monastery, we were sorry to see that graffiti, such as "Sanjay heart Rani," had been scrawled on the pagoda platform by Indian visitors. Happily, donations had already been made for repainting, The paint was imported, but the work was done by a gang of local painters who rigged up bamboo scaffolding to reach the tip of the spire. The pagoda was done in rich gold; the platform was painted a deep red, and the base, silver.
We bought 108 clay oil lamps, wicks, and sesame oil for the dedication ceremony. In the evening breeze, it was difficult to keep the lamps lit, but, as the chanting began, the wind died down, and the pagoda glowed, encircled with the tiny flames.
The dedication ceremony was really for more than just the re-gilding. The old, locally-made images in the four niches were replaced by elegant marble statues sent by a generous donor from Burma. Rajiv's brother had brought a small Buddha image, which his father had sent from Rangoon, and Rajiv had it dedicated that night too. At the same time, we made a presentation of a complete set of all the Dhamma books Mahabodhi Book Agency had available in Bengali. We thought that, since Bodhisukha is located in Bengal, even though it is an Arakanese monastery, there should be Dhamma books in Bengali language installed here too. The books were very useful to our students from Bangladesh, who could neither speak nor read Burmese and Sayadaw assured us that Bengali monks often came to discuss matters of vinaya or Dhamma.
After the chanting, we served juice to all the monks and guests. Bodhisukha pagoda was resplendent in the moonlight!
This year the flights from Rangoon to Gaya were stopped, so Bodhisukha was inundated by pilgrims, indeed by multiple busloads. One big group was Thai, but the others were from Burma. Burmese pilgrims have been coming to the sacred sites in India for centuries. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Burmese kings even sent ministers with generous funds to repair the great Mahabodhi Vihara in BuddhaGaya. Nowadays, of course, the Burmese government tightly controls passports, and travel, even to India, is extremely expensive, but, for many pilgrims, this is the trip of a lifetime. Many were elderly, and merely climbing up into the huge buses was daunting. While most of the pilgrims were obviously poor and pious, some well-to-do individuals stuck out in the crowd, with jewelry and fashionable clothing. We recalled the old rule of thumb that one in five Burmese is working for the SPDC. For the most part, the pilgrims were reverent and generally quiet, but the Indian drivers and conductors were a rough and noisy lot.
At one point, there were four huge tour buses jockeying for space in the tiny area in front of our lodge. They were all four in motion. The drivers were honking, which may be the only kind of communication Indian drivers know. Conductors were pounding on the back of each bus and frantically shouting to go forward, to go back, or to stop. It was absolute bedlam. It was bad enough in the afternoon, but, when they began a repeat performance at five in the morning to go to the airport, our equanimity was sorely tried. How many conductors does it take to maneuver a bus? How many decibels are needed to park it? How long do you have to let the engine idle to fill our rooms with poisonous exhaust? How many times can we listen to "It's a small world, after all,"as buses back up before we go stark-raving mad?
Some groups came from the airport as they began their pilgrimage; others stopped at the end before returning home. Some did both. The young monks and boys of Bodhisukha worked incredibly hard to accommodate the guests. The largest group was 140 and we had to reschedule Saturday classes to Sunday, for all the classrooms were commandeered as dormitories for the pilgrims. The kitchen seemed to be buzzing all day, and the meals were served in shifts because the dining hall was too small. One group complained that the accommodations were rather Spartan, without the facilities and privacy they had expected. The young monk in charge calmly relied that he would be happy to escort them to a hotel near the airport, but that the room charge would be considerably more than the token donation the monastery received. On the other hand, no one complained about the food. Bodhisukha is justly famous for its rice, cooked in a unique rice-steamer. Actually, it was an act of charity to take care of all those pilgrims.
One small group of pilgrims, however, was special. Dr. Nandobatha's father and sister flew to Kolkata to see Bodhisukha as it has developed. His father and several other men in the group were ordained as monks because they wanted to go on pilgrimage in robes. At the same time the five boys, the working students who take such good care of us and whom we have watched grow up, ordained as novices in the wonderful ceremony.
For most of the month of classes we had very peculiar weather. Some of our veteran students observed that this might be a result of global warming. (We studied An Inconvenient Truth in some detail last year.). In any event, we were hit by a number of cyclonic storms, with strong winds, dazzling lightning and thunder shows, and torrential rains. We certainly hadn't expected a cold snap, but nighttime temperatures stayed in the 60s and low 70s (wonderful for sleeping), and most days were surprisingly pleasant, too. Leaves in this part of the world fall because trees can't afford to lose moisture during the hot season, but this year they blew away in the mighty gusts of wind and heavy rain. Although we were used to hearing mangoes falling on the roof at night, we were startled one night by golf-ball-sized hail stones!
Even as we held our opening ceremony on March 14th, we did not know how many students we were going to have. Last year, many students were unable to attend the program because Magadh University kept postponing their exams week by week, keeping them on campus. This year, both Magadh and Nalanda pulled the same trick. Some students, determined to study English, gambled that the authorities were bluffing and came anyway. Others were afraid of missing the exams.(Even as this was being written, the exams had not yet begun!) We were pleasantly surprised that five monks showed up at the last minute from Bangladesh. They had received one-month visas to join our course. Our final enrollment was 40, which was perfect for two classes. We had been warned there might be as many as 100, which could have been a bit of a strain.
Constantly in the back of everyone's mind during our course, was the Saffron Revolution, the protests against the Burmese junta from last September. Some of the monks had happened to be in Burma during the protests, and all, without exception, had followed developments with great hopes and grim apprehensions, knowing how desperate the people were after the cost of petrol skyrocketed, and commodity prices followed. Everyone was keenly aware of the junta's ruthlessness, but nobody had really expected the military to blatantly beat and kill monks as they did!
It seemed truly appropriate to have three days of human rights workshops offered by experienced trainers at the beginning of our program. There were also several evening sessions on public health, and HIV/Aids awareness presented by Burmese doctors. These too were relevant given the horrific Aids rates in Burma, where the public health system broke down decades ago. For an interesting view of the Asian Aids crisis and insight into the reasons for the special tragedy in Burma, read "War in the Blood" by Dr. Chris Beyrer, a researcher from Johns Hopkins.
Once our English classes got underway, our schedule was straight-forward: 8:30-10:30 and 2-4. Each morning, Ven. Nandobatha taught English grammar in Burmese to beginners from 7-8. Between the afternoon class and evening chanting, Steve held optional guided conversation sessions, which proved very popular. In the evening, if the dining hall was free, we joined the monks to watch videos, usually the BBC series, Planet Earth. We used subtitles "for the hearing impaired," but didn't try to translate. The better students surprised themselves by following the narration. Everyone was impressed by the stunning photography, and the humor of the short "Diaries" section was unmistakable. What a treat!
One evening session was devoted to the powerful documentary "India Untouched" about the real impact of caste in India. Although the monks are living in India, they are rather sheltered at the university, so the film was certainly eye-opening. The lively discussion afterwards showed how much the monks had bee reflecting about human rights issues. (Watch a segment on YouTube.)
When news of the protests inside Tibet got out, all the monks felt great empathy and quickly decided to have a vigil to send metta to the Tibetan monks and lay people, as well as to the Chinese officials, to soften their hearts. They also wrote a petition and statement of solidarity which was picked up and broadcast by BBC.
Shortly after we got to Bodhisukha, our Man Friday, Rajiv, was promoted to Office Manager, with a business card to prove it. It was a reasonable arrangement since he worked so hard on behalf of the program. As always, we depended on him for everything, and he never let us down.
Dushy, one of last year's teachers, had suggested a vocabulary-based textbook, and it was perfect for Steve to use in his classes, along with the various discussion topics he prepared.
Another component, which proved successful, was 10 Steps, a controlled-composition book, which Ken and Visakha had used years back at Kobe Steel. The students were able to work on the lessons at their own speed, in their free time, and they did. Once they understood that we were being real sticklers for accuracy and that they could only progress to the next step only when they completed a text perfectly, they became very careful and began showing great improvement. One student managed to reach Step 9! We offered to continue accepting their work by e-mail, and several student have already taken us up on it. Such earnestness!
Cam, the other teacher in last year's program, had laid a lot of stress on pronunciation, and, in this vein, he offered to record some of the Jatakas, which we have used extensively, suggesting that the students listen to them and act them out. We accepted his offer, and sent him some of the texts from our forthcoming book (to be published this year by BPS!). Being a real pro, he had no trouble recording them beautifully, but, since he is a MAC user and we are PC, the formats were incompatible. Then, he had a problem sending such big files. Finally, he figured it all out and posted them on a website, and we downloaded them with ease. (Fortunately, the broadband stayed on just long enough.) We burned two of them onto CDs, bought CD Walkmen and speakers (which at the end of the course were donated to the monks), and gave them to the students to listen to on their own.
In class, we read the stories and completed some comprehension exercises. Then we asked each student to draw a folded slip of paper from a bowl, which indicated whether he would be a character, a narrator, or both. Using this lottery system meant that we were not even tempted to assign parts according to language ability.
As we practiced, the students gained a much greater understand of the stories. There's nothing like acting to make situations, characters, and dialogue come alive. Accepting the challenge, many of the monks committed their lines to memory. The CD players were in use every night. We knew that everything was going to be all right when they started correcting each other and making useful suggestions.
Dress rehearsals were very lively and good natured, and the monks kept right on working, even after class was over and we had called it a day.
The night of the performance, the audience included some English-speaking Burmese pilgrims who thoroughly enjoyed the presentations. Of course, the inevitable happened, and our electricity failed, but the monks rose to the occasion and delivered their lines with such volume and clarity that we could understand them over the din of the generator! They gave it all they had and surprised themselves with their fine performances!
Here are the stories and photos from the performances
Another project was to have each student write a letter about an issue of the day. The only stipulations were a limit of 300 words and that the Dhamma be applied to the matter chosen. We had hoped to turn them into a booklet which we'd print up for the students, but there just wasn't time. We were able, however, to type and edit all the letters we received and return them with our comments. Most were over 300 words, but all assignments were all heartfelt and inspiring, and we awarded prizes to the best.
Ven. Pannasila wrote his letter, naturally enough, on the demand for the return of the Mahabodhi Vihara, which he's been campaigning for, for many years. Immediately after submitting the letter to us, he was contacted by a reporter from CNN, who wanted to meet him in BuddhaGaya and to hear his opinion on this issue. He asked us to edit his letter for presentation to the President of India, which we were very happy to do. We also framed it into a petition, which all the monks at Bodhisukha signed, and then we reworked it once more into a flyer with photos, which he could distribute to pilgrims in BuddhaGaya. In order to meet with CNN, he had to miss the closing ceremony but we are all eager to hear the interview when it is broadcast!
One day, while Ken was in the middle of one of his physical therapy sessions, we were visited by a Chakma monk that we had met in BuddhaGaya and who had donated quite a few books for the Chakma novices we teach in Peradeniya. After a brief chat, he went to speak with Ven. Nandobatha. A few days later, two other Chakma monks arrived, and we hoped that they would be joining our class. We learned, however, that they had brought two young boys, about 6 and 10, who would be studying at Bodhisukha when it opened after vacation. The older one already spoke a little English, but the little one spoke not a word. In fact he knew no Hindi, Bengali, or Burmese either. The next morning, we noticed that the older one had begun working around the monastery, sweeping and serving in the dining hall, just the same as the other boarding students. The little one was never given any work, but we found some books for him, and he took to them like a duck to water. After a few days, he was recognizing letters and was able to parrot full sentences with remarkable pronunciation. Steve bought him a ball, and everyone enjoyed playing with him.
We mentioned Ken's pinched nerve problem and discussed his physical therapy in the last report. The treatments continued for a month. Apparently, the greater the pain one is experiencing, the greater intensity of interferential therapy (IFT) one can tolerate. The therapist said that he had tried the treatment himself for a knee injury and could tolerate about 60. He was amazed when Ken said that 90 felt comfortable. The doctor was concerned that the high intensity might cause an immunity which would render the therapy ineffective but Ken insisted that 95 was fine. After 10 days of treatment, Ken's pain was almost gone. The therapist concluded that the higher intensity had actually been effective, and that perhaps many patients were simply afraid of the idea of electric shock. Ken explained that, although the shock felt as if his back was being bruised, as soon as the current stopped the pain completely disappeared. Because he was not afraid of being injured by the treatment, his lack of fear might actually dissipate what is taken to be pain. Ken treated the sessions as meditation on impermanence and insubstantiality. The therapist found it hard to understand, but he was impressed by the results.
One day, early on, Visakha bit down wrong on something hard and broke a molar, leaving an unpleasant hole, which, fortunately, didn't hurt at all. With all the other health problems being dealt with at the time, the broken tooth didn't seem very urgent, and she considered waiting until after returning to Sri Lanka to get it attended to. She was really careful when eating and brushing, but, when Rajiv started complaining about a toothache, she decided that going to the dentist herself would be a good way to get him to one, as well. Several people suggested a clinic called SMILE, and Rajiv checked it out. He reported that the office and waiting room were very brightly lit and colorful. The brochure he brought back was also slick and fancy. The dentist there told him that he needed several crowns and that the total cost would be 16,000 rupees (about $400). Considering that he had never in his life been to a dentist, we were not surprised at this figure, but he was aghast. (Burmese Relief Center--Japan had tried for several years to set up a dental project on the Thai/Burma border for the students were all in the same situation, but there were always more immediate needs, and nothing ever came of it.) Ken asked his therapist about a good dentist in Barasat and was told that there was indeed one who was "a professional, not a businessman." Both Visakha and Rajiv were able to schedule appointments for the next morning.
The office was upstairs in an old building, and every inch of space was used, with a tiny closet for developing X-rays. The waiting room was full of people, and Visakha had forgotten to take anything to read, so she meditated with eyes wide open, while Rajiv was examined. This dentist took a complete set of X-rays and told Rajiv that, in addition to a root canal for that painful tooth, his teeth needed to be thoroughly cleaned and five cavities had to be filled. The treatment would require several visits and would cost about 5000 rupees. Rajiv was delighted. It was Visakha's turn, and she was told to come back the next morning for a permanent filling for the broken tooth. When she explained that that would be difficult because she was teaching every day, the dentist stuffed her mouth full of cotton and set to work. A few minutes later, he announced, "No need to come tomorrow. I've finished." The cost was 350 rupees, less than $10!
When Rajiv returned to Bodhisukha after having his teeth cleaned, he beamed the brightest, happiest smile ever. This was money well spent on our office manager, who gives us devoted service in three languages for no salary at all.
Thingyan, or Burmese new year, is called "Water Festival." Images of the Buddha are solemnly washed, and devotees ceremoniously pour water over the hands of the monks. Traditionally, young people ask the elders for forgiveness for any mistakes, and request permission to pour water down their backs. After the formalities, the young enjoy a free for all, splashing everyone in the open with gay abandon! Given that this is celebrated at the height of the hot season, for many, getting wet is really a treat. Ven. Nandobatha, the other senior monks, Ken, and Visakha quietly retired, but Steve and the others enjoyed themselves immensely. Unfortunately, Steve's mobile phone (with international roaming) got doused and hadn't recovered by the time he left India.
As soon as we were free, we took the car into Kolkata to have lunch with the Jayawardanas. We carried our laptops and our new scanner with us so that Jayadeva could use them to scan book covers for the newly-created website of Mahabodhi Book Agency <www.mahabodhibooks.com>. We had vowed not to buy any more books for ourselves, but we discovered one on the Ambedkar community, based on the December 2004 celebration in Mumbai that we attended. How could we refuse? We also found a translation of the Jatakas in Bengali for Rajiv's Auntie, who loved to read and would surely enjoy those wonderful tales of the Buddha's previous births.
We tried. We really tried. Mailing packages from Indian post offices can be very hard. First of all, you have to get your parcel sewed up, literally, in a cotton cloth wrapper. The addresses are written in indelible ink on the cloth. On our last Friday, we went into Barasat, got our packages to Thailand and Japan stitched, and took them to the P.O. Closed for the Jain holiday. Every religion's holidays are celebrated, so that it is a stroke of luck to find a day that isn't special to somebody. It was open Saturday morning, but the man in charge of international airmail had taken the day off and nobody else could do it. We left everything in Rajiv's capable hands, trusting that our parcels will reach their destinations someday.
Because of the pilgrims, the storms, and other distractions, this year's course seemed short, and we were afraid that the students might be a little disappointed that it was less intensive than in the past. We were pleasantly surprised by their comments at the closing ceremony. They were eager to tell us how much they appreciated all the material. "Before we couldn't understand you," one student said, "but this year, we could!" They were so happy at their progress that the enthusiasm was palpable. The intensive course is taking hold and making a difference. Ven. Nandobatha referred to the Intensive Course as "Bodhisukha University" because what the monks learn is so much more than just English. They are exposed to human rights, public health, science, geography, politics, and the environment. "In Burma," another student said, "we are allowed to study only Pali, and we have no way of gaining so much 'General Knowledge.'" As they watched the news of the Saffron Revolution being broadcast all over the world via blogs, the internet, and cell phones, they more fully realized the importance of English and familiarity with the modern world. They expressed their keenness to continue learning. They praised Steve for challenging them to speak in front of other people in his afternoon sessions. "Now that we have found our courage," another student said, "we will never be afraid of a little thing like a grammar error again!" Another student reminded everyone that Cam had told them, "If you never speak up, you will never make a mistake, but neither will you learn anything!" "In Burma," another student said, "we would never be allowed to act in a play, but when we acted, we really understood the story!" "We have had many different teachers," another student said, "but you are different. You always ask, 'Do you have any questions?' You listen to our questions and our ideas. You ask us what we want to talk about and what we want to learn, and you listen to us. We never had teachers like you!" If the Third Annual Intensive English Course was this enjoyable, in spite of the interruptions, what will the Fourth be like? And who will be joining the faculty?!