Mad dogs and Englishmen, April 11, 2006

The heat's on! Every day is hotter than the one before, and we have to be glad that we won't be here in June, which is said to be unbearable. It's hitting 36 degrees Centigrade which is sizzling in Fahrenheit.

Any complaints we might have about the heat must be moderated, however, by the sight out our classroom door. In the hottest part of the afternoon, lean, dark laborers fetch bricks on their heads. Not a few, but a full load of eight large orange bricks, stacked neatly in double rows, slightly forward, balanced carefully on a tightly wrapped squat toque. They do not hurry, but they walk evenly from the brick pile behind the dorms, across the school yard, and then up a full flight of stairs where they will be unloaded on the second (British system: first) floor.

There is a huge load of sand out by the outdoor kitchen now. That was as close to the new building as the dump truck could get. The sand, like the bricks, will have to be transported to the school grounds, at the far end of the campus, by wheelbarrow is one can be found, if not, by panful (something like a wok, but with a diameter of about two feet) by head or on the shoulder.

Men like to work here at Bodhisukha school. The monks are fair employers. In other worksites, laborers may be driven like oxen. Child labor is a common sight and the children are often brutally beaten and cheated of their earnings.

The mangoes on the tree right outside our door are swelling nicely. The trees came from Burma, and many people want cuttings to start their own. Could Burmese mangoes be sweeter than Indian ones? At the moment they are small and green. Those little ones that fall to the ground prematurely are reputed to be tasty with salt and chilies. Bodhisukha school is full of shade trees. It is a lovely campus, with shady walks and strategically placed benches and platforms for sitting.

Young mangoes, 3-4 inches long

A very immature cashew, the nut is inside the shell, hanging down, shaped like a cashew; it is attached to the fruit, which is about four inches long when ripe. The nuts are toxic unless properly processed, which must be carefully, thus professionally done.

Most of our time, however, is being spent in our room (cell) working on materials for classes. We have a very intimate awareness of the electricity fluctuations, our ceiling fan speeds up and slows down, the light for the air conditioner flickers and falters, the florescent bulbs dim and brighten up. It is never steady, but for our laptops, no problem! When there isn't power enough for the air conditioner, we try it on fan setting. When there isn't enough for that, we retreat to the shade of the beautiful padauk tree, which should flower soon, just in time for New Year, which is April 15th.

Even before starting classes, we were warned that April 1st wouldn't be an ordinary day. The children and their guardians would be at the school in the morning to get the results of their final exams, the best scholars would be awarded prizes, and there would be PTA meeting with discussions of matters relevant to the new school year. Imagine our surprise when the occasion turned into a ceremony honoring us!

Our regular classroom was transformed, tastefully decorated with modest amounts of crepe paper forming geometric designs on the walls and lattices on the windows. Flower arrangements were on the head table where we were seated, and, although we didn't realize it at first, a banner over our heads behind us was printed in very bold letters: "FELICITATION CEREMONY TO FOUNDER-DONORS OF BODHISUKHA SCHOOL, KEN AND VISAKHA KAWASAKI, BUDDHIST RELIEF MISSION."

We were called upon to give speeches and then presented with flowers and a brass plaque honoring us – at last we have something appropriate to put in the glass case at home in Kandy!

When we arrived in Barasat, one of the first things we needed was a laundryman. The local dobhi-wallah carefully counts out in English the dirty washing (we pay by the item) and tells us when he will bring our clean clothes back with a proper bill. He's efficient and friendly, and we're grateful. He usually comes about 5 PM, before we go for evening class, but one night, as we returned, he was patiently waiting beside his bicycle in the dark.

In Kolkata Ken bought a printer so we could prepare materials for our classes. To put it nicely, xerox copies can range from the difficult to read to the unrecognizable. We quickly exhausted the new cartridges we had, but a local computer shop refills them quite reasonably and actually sends a delivery man to bring them to our cell. We just learned that he comes to Bodhisukha school by bicycle, and it takes him 40 minutes each way! In this heat, no wonder he asked for water, and drank half a litre, Indian style (one's lips never touch the bottle) in one gulp! (As we are proofreading this, a different man from the same shop has just delivered refilled cartridges. When we asked about his bicycle ride, he clarified that it takes 14 minutes! Would you believe there is a bit of a pronunciation problem here? We take back all our sympathy! On second thought, we'll leave it. In this heat, even 14 minutes could roast a body. As for pronunciation, we covered exactly that problem with our students last week.)

Ven. Pannasila used to be General Secretary of the MahaBodhi Temple Management Committee, so he is interested and well informed about matters affecting the temple, Buddhism's most sacred place. The committee, unfortunately, has a Hindu majority, so Buddhists are always being out-maneuvered by their greedy and crafty foes. Frankly, if the temple weren't so lucrative to them, the Hindus involved in "oversight" would be glad to see it disappear. Still, making money is what they do, whenever they play politics. On one occasion a few years ago, one committee member sawed a branch off the Bodhi Tree, under which Buddha was enlightened, and sold it for a million rupees. (It is forbidden even to pick a leaf!)

Ven. Pannasila learned from some of the monks in BuddhaGaya (with whom he is in regular contact) that a secret deal had been reached, involving even more millions of rupees, with a Japanese group wanting to stage a concert in the space adjacent to the Bodhi tree itself. Construction of an elaborate stage and pavilion was already going on, he was told. Huge generators (Exhaust fumes are anathema to the stone buildings and monuments!), to power the lights, speakers, and what-not, were coming from New Delhi.

Totally inappropriate (Remember, this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and should be subject to strict preservation regulations!), the deal had been done with only a couple of committee members, who evidently had already pocketed their commissions. We couldn't find out anything whatsoever about the Japanese involved, even whether they were entertainers or priests. With incomplete knowledge, but with the certainty that this was a travesty in the making, a campaign was quickly begun. Ven. Pannasila wrote a draft appeal, and spent hours making calls and sending faxes and e-mails to the press, to government authorities who had been by-passed in the secret planning, and to his fellow monks all over India. We helped edit his appeal, formatted it with contact info from the internet, and sent it to every Buddhist and Buddhist organization in our e-mail address list, perhaps five hundred in all. We included every newspaper we felt might be interested in the story. There was no time to waste. The concert was scheduled for April 9th, to coincide with the traditional Japanese celebration of Buddha's birthday, which falls on April 8th. It was already March 31st, and rehearsals would begin April 7th.

We have no way to know what effort had the desired impact, but only two days later the word came that the stage was being dismantled! The venue had shifted to a large public space near the Tibetan temple, and the tranquility of the temple and its environs would remain undisturbed.

When they heard the news, all the monks gave a cheer, and one wisely observed, "Anything is possible, if you try!"

Our evening classes have focused on contemporary issues and social activism. We've read articles about bhikkhuni ordination, untouchability, Cambodian monks educating people about HIV/AIDS (particularly relevant given Burma's sky high infection rates, with the only lab in upper Burma unequipped to do even the most basic HIV/AIDS test). We also did a comparison of Theravada Buddhism and Zen, with the 10 Ox-Herding pictures. All of us have learned a lot about Bangladesh, Tripura, and Arakan from readings and the students themselves. Still on the agenda are what to do in case of child abuse (India has the highest rate in the world!), homosexuality and Buddhism, and Indian Buddhists.

Now our students are keen to start an international campaign to urge the Government of India to observe Vesak Day in May as a national holiday. The UN voted in 1999 to make Vesak, the day when Buddha was born, enlightened, and passed away, an international holiday. Bhikkhu Bodhi himself gave a speech at the UN's first Vesak commemoration in 2000. Even Bangladesh, although predominantly Muslim, celebrates Vesak as an official national holiday, and Bangladeshi TV has special programming the whole day. In India, where Buddha taught for 45 years and where millions upon millions of Indians are Buddhist, there is no recognition of the day whatsoever. Let's see what happens from our little campaign!

Load shedding is unpredictable in West Bengal. When lights fail during evening class, it's dark as the inside of a cow! That calls for...ghost stories! Some time ago, in Arakan there was a man who worked very hard for many years tor raise money for the village monastery. He was very ardent in collecting donations. After he died, it seemed that his ghost haunted the area, scaring people in the forest, trying to prevent them from visiting the temple. At one point Burmese soldiers tried to shoot him! It was discovered that, though he had pretended to be very sincere in serving the monastery, he had actually been stealing from donations, a great deal of money. Perhaps the ghost was trying to cover up the crime? At last, a group of monks went to the forest where he usually hung out and recited the Metta Sutta to calm him. After that, he never bothered anyone again.

Having a rare chance to have monks from Bangladesh, India, Arakan, and Tripura together, we asked if they would chant for us to record. The first session was in the Ordination Hall on Sunday night, and we immediately realized that the ceiling fan was too noisy, so we sat in the heat, attracting mosquitoes to a feast. When the monks recited together, it was really hard to follow the Pali. We suspected that although they said that Arakanese, Burmese, and Tripuri pronunciation and chanting were all the same, there were some very different traditions involved. Sure enough, we requested that, the following Sunday, they recite one by one, first giving name and birthplace. (Our friend Eizel, a Pali scholar had asked us to be better about keeping records when we taped.) The mystery was solved. The Arakan monks chanted their Pali in the style prevalent in Burma while those from Tripura pronounced Pali much more closely to international style, similar to Sri Lanka.

Afterwards, the monks asked us if we would like to record them doing Patthana Conditional Relations) as well. To escape the voracious mosquitoes, we met in the Ordination Hall in the morning on the third Sunday. The altar was covered with flowers, one pot for each factor in the list of conditions, 24 in all. There were supposed to be 24 monks, as well, each one reciting one link, but there weren't enough, so some monks took two parts. We were asked to light incense and the red candles, with their own stands built in. At the beginning, the most senior monk invited the devas, deities, to listen to the recitation. Next, all the monks chanted together, then they recited each section individually, followed by group chanting once more. At the very end, the monks shared merit with all beings, and Ken sounded the gong. The monks must have been a little disappointed at such a short recitation since Patthana is frequently done continuously for twenty-four hours or three days or even a full week. Still, we are grateful for the beautiful experience, which Ken has already edited in the computer. There will be a CD of all the chanting, as well as "Pali Chanting–International," and our reading of "Satipatthana Sutta," "The Four Establishments of Mindfulness, "which we read in class and of which the student requested a recording, for each group of monks.

Early on, we asked our students to write about something that interested them. One wrote a story about the sad end of an HIV/AIDS patient ostracized by his family and opined that no one should have to die alone, abandoned like that. Others essays perhaps showed some homesickness, especially with the New Year Festival coming up soon. In Arakan it is celebrated for three full days. The night before, fragrant water is prepared and taken the next morning to wash the Buddha images in the temple, then to bless the parents, teachers and elders. The actual water throwing sounds decorous and delightful, compared to Thailand and the rest of Burma which tend to be quite raucous.

We're planning our final ceremony for the morning of April 14th, (one day shorter than originally planned) so that the monks can catch the night train back to Bihar and enjoy the water festival with their monk friends. Ken has had great fun designing a certificate fro each student. Those in Students of the Lotus will recognize the lotuses which form a border instead of the traditional curlicues. We're also giving each group a copy of our DVD. They live so simply and frugally in an alien, sometimes hostile, environment, while pursuing their studies, that our hearts go out to them. We will, of course, offer some dana to each monk at the ceremony.

We're having laphet thoke from Burma regularly, for breakfast, lunch and tiffin. No where else could people ask if you want wet or dry tea and make sense! Dry tea is put in hot water and steeped. Wet tea is pickled tea leaves served with peanuts, sesame seeds, dried soy and broad beans and oil. It's a delicious salad of strong tea and too much can keep you awake all night! The other day, we asked the boy who picked up our lunch dishes for some tea. He quickly replied, "You want tea?! I don't know how to make tea!" When he understood that we wanted something to drink, he quickly agreed, and brought a pot of Burmese tea, similar to Chinese and Shan tea, in a white enamel pot.

If we let bugs bug us, other things could keep us awake at night too, but we're working hard trying to see the loveableness of all beings, and these critters give us a lot to work with. In the bathroom we have a huge old cockroach. If he were a person, he'd be arthritic for sure! He has trouble getting out of the sink once he's in. We suspect that he likes our soap--Imperial Leather, which is a little more expensive than some of the local brands and makes a great lather. Be that as it may, we have had to provide friend cockroach with some good footing to get out of the slippery sink (Paper napkins work well.) and go on his way. More alarming is the huge hairy spider who decided to investigate the toilet bowl. He was loitering just under the rim and scared some of us out of a year's growth. Flushing didn't faze him, so Ken herded him out with a stick.

After an evening class, we had started back to our cell when we realized that the monks were showing a video CD of Daw Suu's last trip before she was attacked in Depayin. It was narrated in English and showed awesome, enthusiastic crowds everywhere she went, with people calling "Long live Aung San Suu Kyi!" and paying their respects with offerings of flowers and green leaves. There was also footage of some SPDC organized "counter demonstrations," which were frightening, especially knowing that they stage-managed the brutal attack in which she was injured and a number of her encourage killed. She's been under house arrest for ten years and 166 days (Asian Tribune), with no end in sight. The next night, for our evening session, we read one of her essays on meditation and sacrifice, which the students appreciated very much.

Perhaps the most suitable material available for teaching English to monks is our retelling of the Jatakas, which is, if we don't mind saying so ourselves, in clear modern English. The monks here are already familiar with the stories, so the point of the stories is also familiar to them. What remains to be learned is the language.

In one way, the month here has flown by, but in another way, it seems we've been here teaching forever! The telephone lines were down somewhere, so we had no internet for a few days, which seemed like months without contact with the world, and mail from our friends.

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Buddhist Relief Mission