Harmlessness and Patience, February 9, 2006

Our classes at Subodharama are great fun. We’re spending lots of time preparing, but we figure that we’ll be reusing many of the ideas and materials in future, so it’s well worth it. After years of teaching, under very different circumstances, it is the greatest pleasure to have a class of motivated students who really want to learn and whose need for English is not economic. (We remember how our hearts sank years back when a Japanese student described his life’s ambition  to be a bureaucrat. We never did really love working for Kobe Steel either. Preparing students to build steel plants in the Middle East was never our idea of truly right livelihood. This is!) The most amazing aspect of the students is that there is NO discipline problem. No whispering! No goofing off! No running around! 100% listening, writing notes, and answering questions! It boggles the mind.

We found a “parts of the body” (androgynous) diagram on the web, perfect for class use. We saved it, modified it, laid it out beautifully on A4 paper, and then realized it would be good to have a big one for the board. Whatever we might draw would be so laughable as to destroy any sanity in the classroom, even with novices and monks. Ken remembered noticing that there is a “poster printing’ feature on our printer, somewhere in the “preferences.” He figured it must break up a big picture into A4 blocks, so he made an big drawing, clicked “Print,” “Poster,” “3 x 3,” and “OK.” The first few sheets were blank, then a VERY broad black line, then a few more. Suddenly, he realized that the drawing had become nine feet tall. STOP THE PRESS! Ah, so, desu ka? You don’t need to make the image larger! That’s what the printer does! Ah, technology! Fortunately, we printed the final print-out on the backs of the goofs so no paper was wasted. It was perfect.

With the diagram, we spent half a period with the ordinary body parts (it felt strange without singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”--monks and novices don’t sing). Many already knew most of the words, so we don’t say we “taught” anything Our list had 28 numbered items, including “wrist” and “ankle,” which nobody knew. Then we asked how many parts of the body there are. They all answered, “28.” “No,” we told them. “That’s on the outside. How about the inside?” One monk in the back shouted, “32!” Everyone immediately understood. Their attention was never better than when we handed out the second worksheet, “Meditation on 32 parts of the body.” It goes“hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinew, bone, marrow, kidneys; heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs; intestines, mesentery,… urine.” This is intended to help us decrease attachment to our bodies--so it’s a useful meditation. The English is also useful, but seldom do we need to say “My spleen hurts!” Nor do we often talk about synodical fluid or pus in polite conversation.

It was astonishing to see how they took to the 32 parts of the body, matching the English and the Pali in a flash and memorizing it in virtually no time at all. We have to be awed by their capacity to learn by heart--that was discouraged, or at least never much emphasized when we were students, something we now regret. With a few minutes left, several of the youngest novices called out “Bingo,” but another of the students answered, “I don’t like Bingo.” “Why?” we asked. “I like this better,” was his simple answer. How could we ever get upset with students like that?! Definitely not an ordinary class!

Today we put the parts of the body (28, not 32) into our favorite lesson from Junior High–the Doctor’s Office. It’s a simple dialogue“What’s wrong?” “My ___ hurts.” “You need a (color) pill.” (At the drug store)“I need a ...pill.” “Here you are.” (With appropriate greetings and thank yous) We left out the band-aids (cassette labels), but added prescriptions (each with a colored star). This was a check that the patient asked for the prescribed color pill. They were shy at first, but, as soon as they realized that they really were going to receive the M&Ms (Cadbury Gems, here), they flocked to the doctor with all kinds of ailments. A couple of the little ones really wanted the candy, and did not hesitate to come up, but, not being able to read the dialogue, they were completely dependent on hearing it to memorize, and we didn’t spend much time repeating. Of course, we asked the two best students to be doctors, and they performed superbly. We pharmacists were really busy. It was a little difficult to get them to stop.

We had just enough time left to finish the next worksheet we had ready–fill in the blanks in sentences with Buddhist vocabulary. Once they understood the meaning of the sentences, they could easily give us the Pali for each term. Next class we will give them a wordsearch puzzle with all the vocabulary hidden. That, too, will be great fun.

We’ve gotten our Indian visas and our air tickets. We had expected that we’d have to go to Colombo, but a look in the Kandy phone book revealed that there is an Indian High Commissioner right here. It is set on the hill overlooking the lake in the middle of the city--a beautiful old residence, now used for official purposes. We knew we had to make the application in the morning, so we hurried there right after class on Tuesday, arriving about 1125. We showed the guard at the gate our passports and photos. “You’re too late,” he announced, and then asked, “Do you have a copy of your passport?” “No, we didn’t know we needed that.” “You need that, and you have to come before 11.” We turned around and started to get back into the tuk-tuks. He called us back, gave us applications, and told us to go ahead downstairs. The stairs are garden steps to a roofed lobby attached to an office you get to peek into through a grilled window. The waiting room was full and at least 15 people were still lined up. Ken rapidly filled out the papers and got in line. (If you’ve seen Visakha’s handwriting, you’ll know why!) The clerk immediately took the applications, explained that we had to bring the Xerox copies next time, and told us to wait. Visakha was offered a chair by a Hadji and gratefully sat down. The main difference between this and other Indian queues was that this was quiet. No gesticulating, no pontificating, just silence. Ken was called back and asked where Flint, MI (permanent address) was, what was the nearest Indian Consulate. He guessed Chicago, and that was accepted. Seems they will be sending a fax to get a police record report. (That why the first fee of $2.75.) After waiting together for a few minutes, but having no idea how long it was going to be, Visakha decided to tackle some of the other errands on the to-do list. After all, the three-wheeler was waiting above. She got in and headed back down to the town. Just as she was underway, Ken called. He was finished (at least for that day)! The clerk had informed him to come back at 9 AM on Friday with passports and the rest of the fees. Our Indian visas are expensive ($65 apiece), but, considering how difficult it is for Indians to get US visas, how would we dare complain!

As for tickets to India, we had been counting on free tickets from Northwest. We had confirmed in the US that Colombo - Madras - Calcutta - Madras - Colombo was an acceptable route on Jet Airways, a partner of NWA. Jet flies to Hyderabad, so we assumed that we would be able to insert that stop with no problem. We had made sure before we left that each of us had the required 25,000 WorldPerks Miles. It took about a month of phone calls and emails, but we finally learned, “Not possible.” Even if seats were available anywhere near the dates we wanted, the tickets would have to be delivered to our registered address in the US, and forwarded to us. Even if ... but no! There just isn’t time. Snail mail takes two weeks at best; one month is not unreasonable. Deep sigh!) Many more hours of searching the web, calling airlines and agents, and comparing prices revealed that Sri Lankan airlines is twice as much as Sahara. Guess which we chose, even though it means leaving at 4 AM and spending 12 hours hanging about in Chennai (Madras) Airport? Ah, what we do for the sake of economy. Still, we’re looking forward to going to DJ’s wedding March 2nd near Hyderabad. We’ll also visit some of the local sights there, and then fly to Kolkata, and start classes. We are primed for the teaching, even though the temperatures are going to be very high. We have gotten so spoiled in Kandy, where the climate is always pleasant. Ven. Nandobatha just sent us photos of the school, with new construction going on. We can hardly recognize the place! Who will our students be? We have no idea, except that they will be Burmese, Cambodian, Bangladeshi, and other foreign monks studying in Nalanda Institute and Magadh University. We’ve decided to use Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s new book “In the Buddha’s Words” as our text. These are beautiful translations. We’ll find some grammar patterns in selected suttas, and discuss the content as well. Except for the season, it can’t get any better than that!

We’ve known Ajahn Wisanu, the Shan monk, for some years now. First in Thailand, and then in Sri Lanka. He was invited last year to go to London to help set up a Shan/Thai temple, but he is back in Sri Lanka to study for a certificate in English from the British Council, necessary for a proper working visa. He showed us photos of the London temple’s kathina ceremony, and it looks wonderful.

He came up to spend the weekend here in Kandy with Ven. Khemasara, another Shan monk we traveled with here in Sri Lanka, on the big tour of the Cultural Triangle in 2001. We were happy to make them comfortable, to meditate with them morning and evening, and to offer them good meals, but unfortunately Ajahn got sick right away. After suffering all night and half a day with congestion, stuffiness, and a runny nose, he commented that he thought it was dust in the bedroom. When he went in to lie down, he immediately had trouble breathing. “Aha!” Visakha realized, “An allergy to wool!” He had been using one of the Nepalese blankets. She immediately reached for the cell phone and called Ken, who was out shopping for antihistamine and blank CDs and DVDs. “Get a cotton or synthetic blanket.” He did, and Ajahn immediately improved. By the next morning, he felt fine. While we worked and helped Lily prepare lunch, the two monks took a tuk-tuks up the hill to see the large white Buddha and to the city to visit the Temple of the Tooth.


On Sunday we had arranged (or rather thought we’d arranged) for a three-wheeler to pick up Ven. Nyanatusita from the Forest Hermitage. Our usual driver was in Colombo getting his vehicle customized, but he’d promised that his friend would do the honors. Half an hour past time, we got a call from Ven. Nyanatusita that there was no vehicle yet. We called Colombo. Our usual driver promised to call his friend and find out what had happened. He was supposed to call us back. He didn’t. We called hin and learned that the other driver had forgotten, but that he was on his way. Finally (We had asked before and had been put off.), we got the other driver’s telephone number. We called Ven. Nyanatusita and told him that the vehicle was on its way. We prepared water for washing feet and continued waiting. All the food was ready, of course. We’d made a special tomato sauce with Italian spices from Australia, zucchinis, green peppers, eggplant, and celery (the only time we’ve been able to find celery) to go with mushroom tortellini. Yum! Lily fixed yellow rice, bamboo shoot curry, tofu curry, and a whole battery of other delicious dishes. Savithri brought over red rice. Half an hour later, another call from the waiting monk. No vehicle. “No problem; we’ll arrange our own ride.” We called the number for the errant driver. No answer. Never heard from him that day and never will. At eleven-thirty, the tuk-tuks finally pulled in with Ven. Nyanatusita, Ven. Upatissa, who is visiting from Colombo and staying at the BPS Office while he works on computers, and a Swedish layman who is staying at the Forest Hermitage. As they were dismounting, Ken said, “Sorry about the mix-up.” Ven. Nyanatusita calmly asked, “What mix-up?” In any other culture, this could have been a disaster, but here in Sri Lanka, the noon limit for lunch is often stretched a little (though never broken!), perhaps because the time difference between here and India, the birthplace of Buddhism, which is, by definition, the standard, is a half-hour.

We had time for a brief ceremony, including taking precepts, before offering lunch. The meal was splendid, and the American monk, Ven. Upatissa, praised the pasta. He told us that he hadn’t had any in five years and that it was well worth waiting for. All the monks seemed to enjoy the fruit salad and banana splits (with chocolate sauce and cashews). We have armed ourselves with maraschino cherries for next time!

For our Dhamma talk after lunch, Ven. Nyanatusita talked about what makes a good person. He referred to an article he’d just read about an American gangster who had killed many people. After he was cornered and wounded in a rented room he wrote his last testimony, averring that in his heart of hearts he had thought of himself as a good person. Ven. Nyanatusita pointed out that we aren’t good because we think we are. Our actions make us good. A good person does not harm others. A good person also practices patience with others, especially when things don’t go the way we expect and want. He didn’t say it, but we definitely thought about our growing impatience with the errant tuk-tuk driver. If we had gotten angry we would have gained a pile of demerit, and also caused ourselves a lot of mental grief!

Vens. Upatissa, Nyanatusita, Visanu, and Khemasara
Vens. Visanu, and Khemasara

We have learned that people here seem always to say yes, even when they know the answer is no. Perhaps they don’t want to disappoint? Ajahn Wisanu chuckled because he has had many such experiences. He confessed that the van he had arranged for meeting us at the airport last year never showed up and that he had had to scramble to find another at the last minute. He also related his experiences with getting directions. Ask somebody here if the destination is this way, and they will say, “Certainly. Go so far, turn left, continue on, and turn right.” Of course, it is nowhere near there. It isn’t in that direction at all! His description of getting directions had us laughing; we had forgotten that we had exactly the same experience with bus routes and schedules here in Sri Lanka in 1979. After getting hopelessly lost and missing innumerable buses because we had believed the answers to our questions, we made it a rule to ask at least three people and go with the majority. If there wasn’t clear agreement, make it five! Surprise! When we instituted that rule we stopped getting lost!

We just learned about a game of “Musical Chairs” that was being played as we settled here. We knew that our landlady was living in this house while she was working at BPS. We knew that she had moved to the annex in back so that we could move in here. We knew that her sister and brother-in-law, delightful folk who visit us often, had come recently from Colombo and were living in a small house up the hill. We knew that this couple owned the house next to ours (within the compound) and that they were renting it to a young Tamil couple, both pharmacists, who were looking for something cheaper because they had to spend a lot for a sister’s wedding. (Tamil weddings can bankrupt the bride’s family.) We also knew that at sometime in the past, sister and brother-in-law had lived in that house. Now we have found out that when they came from Colombo, they had moved into the annex in back. When we said we were coming to Kandy, Savithri wanted to move into the annex, so sister and brother-in-law had to find another place because they couldn’t kick out the couple. Now that the Tamil couple has moved, sister and brother-in-law are going to expand the annex behind their house next door. Until it is ready, however, they will move into the main house so that they can supervise the construction, and we will have cheerful, friendly neighbors!

The Munasinghes, Savithri's sister and brother-in-law

Visakha is doing a lot of walking meditation these days. The walking is for exercise and the meditation takes advantage of the good opportunity! The patio/parking area in front of the house is lovely in the morning and in the evening, but at midday it is too sunny. The afternoons are great for the driveway leading out of the compound. It isn’t a very steep incline, but it is good exercise, going up and down. It is paved with widely spaced stones and tree shaded. Nobody notices her from the road--both drivers and pedestrians are paying attention to the road because there is a bend just above our drive--so it feels very private. Fifteen or twenty minutes is a good session when it is hot. There are some very lovely flowers lining the drive. They burst like fireworks from abundant purple foliage, and they bloom, we just learned, only at this season, from December through February. The other day, Visakha noticed something large, black, and shiny, moving across the driveway. Without going too close, she realized that it was a scorpion. She gave him a good bit of leeway but appreciated the chance to watch him making his way to cover. It pays to watch where you step around here!

Valentine Plant - We just learned that it is from the Philippines and that, if it escapes into the wild, it is a threat to native flora
Our living room Our dining room

While our local news is full of peace talks in Switzerland coming later this month, web news is all about the Danish cartoonists and the riots they have unleashed. Although the cartoons seemed pretty tame, the results also seem quite predictable. Muslims are so used to being put down, discriminated against, and bombed that the cartoons might be seen as just the proverbial straw. We can hardly applaud the paper that ran them since it refused some cartoons about Jesus Christ earlier, saying that the caricatures might upset their readers! Ah ha! Robert Fisk, of the Independent, had an interesting take on the whole issue, remarking that Europeans, being now a godless lot, could hardly imagine the reaction because Muslims still live their faith. True! But then our next thought was that when Europeans lived their faith, they burned each other at the stake. Should we praise “living one’s faith,” or are we making progress? We remember Bhante’s Dhamma talk“A good person practices harmlessness and patience.” So rare in this world!

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