Thursday, June 22, 2006

Nongkhai.. another day, another picture, another story!

Before heading off to India on a kind of pilgramage to visit where the Buddha was born, gave his first talk, and died, the Abbot sent me out to a small village where his 83 year old sister lives. She's a real kick!

Well.. seemed I arrived at the Abbot's sister's house just in time for lunch... a meal of stickie rice and... buffalo "lop" ... cooked buffalo hamburger, which just before serving... the raw buffalo blood had been poured over! I ate the rice, but there was no way I was even touching that bloody stuff! Haven't been able to enjoy a meals since ...

One day during passing period at school, I stopped to have a chat with one of my students who was listening to music. And what music was he listening to? American Rap!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Early morning food alms walking with the monks...

Getting up off the thin mattress on the hard wood floor, I try to shake the tired feeling from my body in time to meet up with the monks as they head out on their daily alms walk. Most nights, I toss and turn, trying vanely to find a soft spot on the wood floor. The fan does indeed keep the bugs off me... well, most of the time... but all it seems to do is blow hot humid air over my body.

I say usually it keeps the bugs off.... last night, I lay there on the floor, slowly breathing in and out... counting the breaths is a great way to forget about the hard floor and drifting off to la la land. Twice I'd almost fallen into blessed sleep, when I noticed something crawling on my leg. The first time, I just shook it off and began counting by breath again.

When the little critter interrupted my slide into sleep a second time, I bolted straight up into a sitting position and.... there, I could see through the faint light coming through the windows ... crawling on my shin was this huge, dirty, ugly brown cockroach! Now I jumped to my feet as the nasty bug tried to race away by crawling up the wall.

No... I didn't kill it! Since I've been learning from the Abbott not to kill anything... even on the early morning alms walk, the Abbott has frequently stopped, called me up to him and pointed out a worm, slug, thousand legged insect moving along the road and has asked me to help move it to the security of the side of the road. Okay.... but with my sleep interrupted and now my skin crawling because this creature has invaded my space.... I was not feeling that Buddhist...

So .. I wacked it hard enough to knock it unconscious long enough to gather it up and unceremoniously toss it out the window! Goodnight and good riddence bug!

The third time as I drifted off to sleep, I thought to myself... what's up with me and cockroaches? First the breakfast table in Bangkok and now my meager bed in NongKhai!

Okay.. enough about me and back to the early morning monk walk... The monks and novices, (usually 5 to 8 of them) gather in front of the university just before 6 a.m. The Abbott arrives shortly thereafter and like a mother duckling, leads the single file row of monks and novices that fall in behind him. The Abbott follows are set route each day, and it would seem that pretty much the same people are there, waiting along side the road to give their food to the monks.

What food is given? Sticky rice is pretty much the basic staple... hot and fresh, scooped out of the woven grass basket, by hand, and placed into each of the monk's alm bowls as they file past. Other foods include, hard boiled egges, bottles of water, various kinds of sauces which have been packaged in little plastic bags, fruit, pastries, and even sometimes people give money.

When the Abbott's bowl has gotten too full, he usually calls me up to walk beside him and hand carry some of the surplus food. Everytime I've gone out on walks with the monks, their bowls have been overflowing with food by the time we finish our 30 minute walk.

Back at the temple, the food is taken out of the alms bowls and placed in dishes for 7 a.m. breakfast. After the Abbott eats breakfast, I can sit down and have the left overs... which usually still means a lot of food.

Even in orange, these little boys are still little boys!

Teaching at ... you ready for the name of the school where I'm teaching this year?

Here it is.... Balisatitsuksar Mahachulalongornracha Vittayalai School!

These little novices are a kick! Enthusiastic, excited, eager to learn, out of control some of the time... all of the above! But what can I expect with a class of 45 teenagers late in the afternoon!

For the last three weeks, I have been teaching four periods per week of conversational English to the equavalent of squirrely little 9th graders. They are a handfull to keep busy and engaged for 50 minutes! Especially when I get them end of the day on Monday and Friday. Just what every kid wants to do at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday... go to study a foreign language! Starting next week, for the next three weeks, I'll be teaching 10th graders and will have 6 classes per week.

The novices begin their day early with a wake up call long before 5 a.m. so they can go to the temple for chanting before they head off on their food alms walk long about 5:30 a.m. They walk bare foot through the community with their bowl, collecting the food they will eat for a 7 a.m. breakfast and 11:00 a.m. lunch. From noon onwards, they are not to eat anything until the next day.

Arriving back at their temple from the alms walk, they usually spend about an hour sweeping the grounds before having breakfast. Between breakfast and lunch, the novice spend their time studying, cleaning their rooms, washing their clothes, bathing ... all the normal day-to-day life activities. Oh, forgot... watching T.V. too! Walked into one of the monk's rooms the other day, and there a whole group of novices sat on the floor watching Buddha cartoons!

School starts for them at 12:30 p.m. with a type of home room general assembly before starting class at 1:00 p.m. Their six periods of classes then continue throughout the afternoon, finishing about 6:30 p.m. when they head back to their temple. B

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Rites of cremation for a village elder in Ban That village...

The week of mourning closed on Saturday morning with the Abbot from Wat Sriskat in Nongkhai traveling to the home of the dead man for the ceremonial chanting followed by lunch. With the villagers following behind, the casket was carried on the back of a truck to the cremation site, a simple raised structure with a single chamber for burning the body.

Upon arrival at the crematorium, with mournfull music playing, the truck circled the building three times, with the family walking slowly behind. Then, the casket was carried up the stairs and placed on a platform leading to the furnace where it would be burned. The top of the simple wooden casket was removed so the body could be symbollically washed by family and community members by their sprinkling coconut water over it. The top was then replaced so the remaining ceremonial activities could be completed over the next three hours. Activities included chanting by the Buddhist monks, community member speeches, honoring the man by placing envelops with money on his casket which would later be distributed to the monks and other charities. The final act involved each member of the community walking up the stairs of the crematorium to lay a small bundle of wood on the casket.

From the book, Buddhism and Society by Melford E. Siro...

"Man is an aggrigate of five material factors and processes which, at death, disinegrate without residue." (the five aggrigates being: the physical body including the five senses; feelings/emotions; perceptions; mental formations; and consciousness)

"For buddhism it is the continuation of life across an almost endless cycle of rebirths which is inevitable, and it is this possibility which is the ultimate tradgedy. The extinction of life, which others might lament as man's automatic and inevitable fate, is viewed by Buddhism as neither inevitable or lamentable. On the contrary, for Buddhism, it is not the extinction but the persistence of life that is automatic and - but for the practice of Buddhist discipline - inevitable."

Monday, June 05, 2006

Startled by two teenage Naga!

A strange, un-naturally cool breeze caressing my sweat beaded brow, instantly alerted me that I was not alone as I stood in deep concentration on the banks of the Mekong River. The sky was nearly cloudless and the noon time sun was oppressively hot as it seemed to melt everything it touched. Before that sweet cooling breeze had surrounded and engulfed me, I'd been totally clueless as to the drama that had begun unfolding in the tall green grass directly behind me.

Two young, teenage Naga must have been playing around in the fields, as the Abbott of Srisaket Temple, Dr. Phrarajwuthimunee had brought me to this site just a few minutes before, where he'd come to release turtles, eel, snails and catfish into the water as part of a "merit" making ceremony.

Once the little critters,snails, eel, etc. had all been released back into the water, I'd stepped away from the Abbott for a few minutes of silent "standing" meditation along the humid banks of the Mekong. I'm not sure how long I'd been standing, baking under the noon time sun, when the cool breeze awakened me to my surroundings.

As if emerging from a thick, dense fog, my mind immediately snapped to attention. All my senses went on high alert. My hearing became so acute, I knew I could have heard a fish swimming by in the water or a butterfly landing on a flower a few feet away. My eyes, though tightly closed, could clearly see them. I knew who they were, but I didn't know why they were there, or more importantly, what they would do next!

As my mind tried, rather vainly, to comprehend what was going on as they raced by me, my mind's eye was transfixed by the rich deep color of these young naga's bodies. Their deep yellow, almost golden scales appeared to glow in the sunlight. The reflection of the sun off their scales, was mind blowing if not immediately blinding with its intensity. Highlights of green and red became a blurr as their powerful sleek bodies slithered silently through the tall waving grass.

Time appeared to stand still for an instant, as I saw the two young naga briefly come of a jarring halt on either side of me. Their cold, black eyes, staring deep into my very being, sent a shiver throughout my body.

As those four incredibly deep black penetrating eyes bore into my soul, my mind flashed back to two years ago and my unearthly encounter with the Phra Naga... or King of the Naga, also on the banks of the Mekong. For a very brief moment, that same ungodly fear that had so completely gripped me on that fateful day two years ago, flashed back through my mind, causing my body to freeze. For a second time, I found myself unable to move even one muscle, scared literally to death, and uncertain of what might happen next.

"T" came the faint call of the Abbott. A few moments passed.... "T" the Abbott called for a second time....

Slowly I opened my eyes. The brilliant sun blinded me for an instant... I squinted my eyes to try and see the two young naga. From the corners of my eyes, all I could see was the movement of the tall green grass, waving slightly in the wind. Rapidly blinking my eyes, I strained to clear the blur and focus on the Mekong instead.

All was quiet. Nothing out of the ordinary could I see, as my eyes now took in the whole panoramic view of the river front. Just in front of me, two slight ripples in the water's edge were all I could see. Fast fading ripples, as if something had just slipped silently back into the muddly waters.

"T... are coming?" called the Abbott. "I'm on my way" I answered ... as my eye briefly caught a greenish yellow reflection moving quickly, just a few inches under the water...

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Golden illumination of the Naga!

I knew I'd arrived back in NongKhai.... when I was able to stand in the bright golden glow of the King of the Naga!

Living quarters at the temple....

The general conference room with the smaller screened room in the far left, is my sleeping area. The prominent figure in my sleeping area is .... the Buddha. A few extra blankets on the floor have made sleeping a little easier, but the hard wood floor is still..., well.. hard. I use the upturned chair legs in the conference room as hangers for my clothes.

The screens keep most of the bugs out, plus the fan keeps the room cool at night. Pretty basic, and it is, in reality .... all I really need. After having been rather disappointed with my room, I went back to basic Buddhist teachings that suffering is something I create for myself. I can also "un-create" suffering, or bring an end to my own suffering .... with the use of mindfullness. Or as old Abe Lincoln once said... "Folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Life in an Ocean of Orange....

Monks and novices at the temple in Nongkhai where I'm staying.

Phra Soonthorndhammathada, Abbott of the temple in Nongkhai where I am living. The Abbott is also the Director of the Buddhist University and Chair of the Education Committee for 15 of Thailand's 76 provences. Phra Soonthorndhammathada is a 74 year old, grandfatherly type figure. He received in PhD from a University in India and speaks good English. He has taken me under his wing and is helping me to understand Buddhism. Each night after chanting, which goes from 7:30 p.m. to about 10:00 p.m. the Abbott has me come to his upstairs room where he reads me the English version of his doctorate paper, which we then discuss. He has been giving me books to read on Buddhism and talking with me about them. The learning curve is straight up for me... but I'm learning a lot. And the more I learn... the more I learn I need to learn.

Trip to a vipassana or insight meditation center....

On Saturday, June 3rd, Phra Soonthorndhammathada, the Abbott, took me to an vispanna insight meditation center located about 50 kilometers from Nongkhai. The Abbott's teacher, Ajaan Pa Yoon, now dead, had his body enshrined in a glass casket inside the mediation hall. A little, dwarf type looking monk met us upon arrival, and after paying respects of the dead Ajaan and the Buddha, I was given a lesson in how to meditate using vispanna techniques. The Abbott informed me that insight meditation and concentration meditation are two different things. Where as in concentration meditation one sits in the lotus position, back straight, with hands held in one's lap, ...... in insight medidation, the legs are bent at the knees, one leg to the right (or left) side of the body and the other foot of the left leg touching the uppper leg. Then... a series of graceful and precise handmovements are made in the seated, standing and laying down positions. I was enthralled as I watched the monk go through the series of movements... and before long, he had me following along. Fascinating meditation practice!

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