After a brief visit of less than ten days earlier this year (2012) I plan to return to North Lakhimpur in December. The purpose of this trip will be to re-engage with the school run by the Tathagata Trust which has recently gone through some changes, principally re-structuring the teaching staff team and appointing a new head. In addition to my spiritual and pastoral duties at the school - which are ongoing as the relationship develops - I shall also be working with a volunteer English teacher, Amy Rashap, from Singapore who will be providing direct educational support for five months, up to and including May 2013. Amy is originally from Canada and has lived and worked in Singapore for a number of years teaching English and developing educational programmes. What we are hoping is that in addition to teaching English - Siddartha Kendra Vidyalaya is an English medium primary school - Amy will introduce some innovative and creative apporaches to teaching to run alongside the methods local teachers are using. Another key area of need is helping parents to support their childrens education outside school hours. Thus we are planning to support a project developing a homework club in a local village utilising retired teachers living in the area.
As I have written on previous occasions in this blog the school is located just outside the town of North Lakhimpur in the area of Chorai Moria, surrounded by farmland and serving small isolated villages. The population is poor and the fees charged by the school have been kept to a minimum. Consequently resources are limited and many families struggle to meet the very low fees charged by the school or purchase the text books required to meet the Indian national curriculum. Most do manage somehow, but additional books and teaching aids are a luxury that often times the children have to forego.
The school therefore very much appreciates our input even if we can't provide direct financial resources to improve material conditions. Amida Trust - who until recently have funded my travel and so on to enable me to offer help to this project - has this year gone through some changes that, in short, have meant a need to re-consider how resources are used. So whilst we continue to be committed to this project, and certainly hope to meet the promises made for this year, the future is a little less certain unless we can identify some additional sources of financial assitance.
I am a volunteer myself, a full time Dharma practioner with no income, but financially supported in combination by the Instituto Terapia Zen Internacional, the Amida Order, Amida Trust and other local Amida groups, such as those in Belgium. I am grateful for this and also that volunteers like Amy are willing to finance their own travel to a project like the one I have talked about here. There is of course also the project in Delhi which has been doing very significant work for at least the last decade with some of the poorest children in areas around the border with Uttah Pradesh, the suburbs of India's hugely populated capital.
If you are interested in my involvement in India do scroll back through to earlier posts in this blog. The accounts are often abour personal responses of how the experience has been for me and my process lets say, but will also give a flavour of what I have been involved in and the projects Amida Order supports.
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4th September 2012
Saturday March 24th: ZT OPEN FORUM: Exploring themes in Zen and Therapy Dharmavidya David Brazier and Jnanamati Williams
It is just before six p.m. the light is fading and I am writing this now because the power is off and I am getting to the point of not being able to see to read. This reminds me of being in Assam last year accept then through the wonders of technology I was able to stay on line even with no electricity – and it was far more frequent there - since the mobile dongle was powered by the netbook battery. Here we have a wireless connection dependent on the power supply. So writing is one of activities I can do as the light of the screen illuminates the keyboard enough for me to type. This really is a long way of saying I am doing this because I can, whilst scratching around for ideas of what to write. Of course it’s like this sometimes even if the day has been full – which today hasn’t – that it can just be difficult to know what to reflect on.
Tommy the family dog is laying just behind my chair. In the last few days my friendship with him seems to have blossomed, not that he is a dog habituated to affection or particularly demanding of it, but he seems to be just loving the attention I give when I see him. Of course such moments are common place for most of us in the UK who have owned a pet, particularly of the canine variety. I am talking about the moment of recognition that lights up a dogs face when you greet them with an open heart. Most dogs in Delhi I suspect only see duplicity in a human beings approach. You can read this in the suspiscion that somehow becomes a glaze their eyes. On the other hand building such a relationship of trust takes no time with a dog and soon leads to those special moments when you are surprised whilst doing something else to be nudged by a wet nose or a lick on the hand. Often ever so gently and for no other reason than to say ‘I’m still here and grateful for our friendship’. All of this, I have no doubt many would say, is fanciful nonsense but if it is an illusion then I consider it one worth cultivating. If nothing else it does no harm. It certainly has perked Tommy up no end and whilst I don’t imagine there is a direct causal connection the bare patches that previously took up a good quarter of his back is now all but been covered by a new growth of hair.
Sunday 15th January
Yesterday was a busy day. I am up at 7.00 a.m. a little later than usual and discover a message to say that the meeting in Sonia Vihar planned for the morning – to discuss arrangements for children’s classes - has been re-arranged for five this evening. This changes things since I had not considered going to the temple in Ashok Nagar to join the Sunday morning worship this week because of the said arrangement. I notice a reluctance to make a decision but reflecting on the importance of retaining this connection soon sort out what I need to and make the five minute walk, arriving just before eight thirty when service starts. As in previous weeks the congregation is small to begin with but soon there are about twenty people present. Today I hand out a flyer afterwards about the English class starting. There is no Vipassanna meditation this morning since there is a ‘programme’ starting at 10.00 a.m. (programme is a catch all adjective to describe any sort of organised group activity). Today Buddhist families are attending a march to mark Mayawati’s birthday. Later I notice Mayawati posters on all the lampposts and men on motorbikes on the highway carrying blue BSP flags. Given the upcoming elections in UP no occasion is ruled out as an opportunity for bringing people’s attention to Mayawati’s image.
Mid morning I go to see Suvidya and Sunita in Ashok Nagar. When I arrive Suvidya is in bed. He is soon roused by Sunita and in five minutes has shaken off his waking grogginess. I feel somewhat guilty to have disturbed him since, as I soon learn, not only is he back at work after his period of illness but his working day means leaving at 7.30 in the morning and returning home at 10.30 at night. This is his schedule for six days a week. To say I am effected by this is an understatement, in fact as I write and reflect on my opening statement I do wonder at how our cultural perspective determines the experience of aspects of life such as describes a ‘busy day’. Subjectively I had a tiring day but how much more freedom I had to chose my activity. I find myself feeling grateful that my life has afforded me this.
Despite Suvidya’s fatigue he is brighter and less troubled than I have seen him these last few weeks. I have no doubt that the weight of worrying about providing for his family has lifted. Added to that he is now symptom free after ten days taking the typhoid medication and thus feels physically much stronger.
This morning with Sunita we spend about an hour and a half going through the precepts in preparation for the Gankonin ordination ceremony later in the month. The process is a rich one for me as I really have to enter into the meaning of each precept in order to frame it in a way that Suvidya can understand and so that he can translate it for Sunita. We also need to explore together how these relate to living a committed Buddhist life in a context very different from the one that most people on the ministry track are working in.
Suvidya and I then walk to Saraswati’s for 2.00 p.m. to teach the Buddhist class. Today there are about forty children in total. This afternoon I introduce the Shakyamuni mantra, which is new to the children. They seem to enjoy this enormously. We then dance to chanting the name of Dr Ambedkar, Namo Bhimroa Bosat. In the class I tell the story of Siddhartha’s secretive departure from his family home; leaving behind the sleeping Yasodhara and their son Rahula, and thence to starting a journey to seek the ‘truth’ and the way to end all suffering. This week the story closes with his encounter with Sujata as she gives him the rice milk that revives him. This as the legend tells us comes after months pursuing austerities that have brought him almost to the point of death.
The group has been lively today but nonetheless have listened attentively to the story.
I leave Saraswati’s at 4.30 walking alone towards the main Loni Road. This week I see some children that I encountered on a visit last week. The children recognise me and start asking questions or direct comments in broken English as they accompany me along the road. This is all good natured even if their questions - fired at me one after the other - taken out of context might seem intrusive to a western ear, ‘where you going’ or ‘what is your fathers name’, and so on. I hop on an auto-rickshaw to Golshakar. The road is quite clear of hold ups today and so the journey takes little more than ten minutes. I nip back to Rajaram to drop off the heavier bag with all the teaching equipment in then head back to where I am due to meet Kushaljyoti. He is there waiting at the junction as I arrive. Squeezed into the front of one of the small buses we head down the highway in the direction of Waziabad getting off at the junction close to Sonia Vihar, our destination. The peddle rickshaw driver that takes us from the junction to the edge of the main street of Sonia Vihar says he can take us no further because of the market that is on today. He doesn’t charge us gesturing to our robes and making anjali.
The market is heaving, the noise deafening and smells overpowering as we wend our way through the narrow streets to the small temple. The last part of the walk is relatively clear however as we move beyond the hotch potch of stalls. This is an obviously poor area dominated by Muslim families and my attention is taken by the amount of meat being sold here as well as the manner in which it is being offered – cut and handled, wrenched apart with hands and piled up on dirty wooden benches as the customer gazes on.
The meeting with the local temple committee takes a while to get set up, largely because it has been a day of celebration - as indicated above – to mark Mayawati’s birthday, and some of the men are still caught up in activities related to this. We sit for a while in the family home of Veersingh Gautam, who Kushaljyoti and I visited last time we came, and take some tea, chat a little. The family business is in the rag trade, making garments, household items and so on. The scene in front of me is of Veersingh surrounded by patches of white fabric strewn about the floor, working with amazing speed and alacrity around what appears like just a bundle of gathered cloth on the machine table before him.
I discover on arrival that Veersingh’s youngest child and only son, Gurpreet, has just this morning fractured his arm. This accounts then for the padded left arm he is holding to his chest and the wince his face makes as he brushes the door frame entering the room. I find myself wondering what sort of treatment he has received and suspect that someone has just strapped on a homemade splint and wrapped the arm in cloth. Gurpreet is a lovely boy, bright and sociable – about six years old I would say – and we spend a good half an hour interacting playfully despite there only being a few words understood between us. Much of this of course can be enacted through gestures once you have made a connection of this sort.
We then go to the temple to discover that the electricity isn’t working and so there is no light to illuminate the dark interior of the building. I then witness a collection of men standing around and watching one brave individual untangling wires from the mains supply. The main box is at the top of a post just outside the shop that the man owns. I gaze on with the expectation of disaster as the man reaches from a bamboo ladder pulling out wires and twisting the ends of new ones to attach them to the supply. There is much laughter and joking as this goes on, particularly when a bang leads to the streetlights down one side of the road going out. Amazingly after this and only a blown bulb inside the temple the road is illuminated again and one end of the temple is bathed in light.
There are five committee men present for the gathering none of whom speak any English and one young woman who speaks some and thus offers translation. Luckily I have brought a brief introduction about Amida and the Delhi project written in Hindi which aids communication and thus we are soon able to make an initial arrangement to commence an English class on Friday 27th January.
On the walk back to the main road through the market Kushaljyoti and I witness a fight going on involving a number of young men. The altercation takes up the whole thoroughfare which means rickshaws, bikes and people either side of the fracas have come to a halt. Amid shouts and shoving the drama moves on even though it is evident that this is not likely to be the end of the aggression. I am told has come about as a result of someone being caught stealing from one of the stalls.
I arrive back in Ashok Nagar at about nine, a sense of satisfaction with how the day has unfolded, and glad that I have less of an active schedule tomorrow.
This morning I was in Vikaspuri, West Delhi at Pragya vihar with Bhante Dhammalankar where I met Nanda, who is head of the temple and two Burmese monks, one a fellow novice named Nyyana. We ate lunch together and discussed Buddhism in India and England, as well as the northeast regions of Assam, Tripur, Mizoram and bangladesh. The vihar is quite well equiped and the Bhikkhus have a well maintained, good sized communal space for eating and studying. They also have computers and a reliable internet connection. After lunch I showed Nanda the Amida website and talked about the Sangha in the UK, the work we are involved in and so on. In return Nanda played some exerpts from the film Kung fu Panda!
In the afternoon we visit another temple - the Samatha Buddha vihar in Paschimpuri a walk away from Paschim Vihar East Metro station - and the Burmese monk there Venerable Agga.
Rajaram, D-719, Street No. 13, Ashok Nagar Delhi-93, Northeast Delhi
This afternoon I take a walk down to the Sangharam Budh Vihar on the main Loni Road, not five minutes walk from LIG flats where Amida has been based for the last few years. I paid a visit a couple of days ago only to find that the Bhikkhu’s were away. Today they are present and I am shown upstairs to their living space. The building is quite run down even by Indian standards, though not quite bad enough to warrant being referred to as squalid.
It is a young woman who shows me upstairs, the same woman I met two days ago. I am struck by her presentation, a mixture of genuine desire to help alongside a manner that appears to me like she is obeying a voice to check herself.
What I discover, after becoming conscious that there are quite a few children milling around, and through talking to the two monks I then meet is that these are single mothers. The senior monk, Ashughosh, describes this slightly differently, by saying that the children have no fathers. After being invited into the monks sleeping space - a large high ceiling room with a large double sized bed to one corner - we make an attempt at conversation, but it soon becomes clear that language is a barrier. That said some meaningful words are passed between us and I can establish that the temple is part of the All India Bhikkhu MahaSangha under the spiritual directorship of Ven.Bhadant Mahathera, and that there are usually six monks dwelling there. Ashughosh and his colleague are both warm and friendly as well as in good humour. From what I understand they both originate from Maharastra, but I’m not entirely sure of this. Both seem very comfortable with each other and chat away jovially attempting to offer information to me, I surmise. I have some tea and meet some of the children, one very young boy, about three, playing with my fingers and eventually pulling up a chair and sitting next to me, others bundling in, one with a couple of ‘learn English’ style books another with a lime green plastic cricket bat. All, under the directions of an older disabled boy, make prostrations at my feet as is the custom here.
I am quite taken by these two Bhikkhu’s their evident humour and lightness which seems incongruent with the dingy, noisy and grimy circumstances in which they live. They obviously have found in each other a companionship that allows them the means to transcend what others might regard as a spare existence. In addition I think the project in itself has much value and I am left with a feeling that probably this vihar is something of a jewel buried in the dust.
Ashughosh and his companion bring to mind the line from a Paul Simon song, ‘old friends, sat on a park bench like bookends’ and I imagine these two growing old together in this mutually caring association. You will notice I am someone who tends to sentiment.
11th Jan 2012
It’s been just over a week since I have posted anything on this blog. This is not by way of saying that I have been too busy to write; in fact there has been ample time. Rather it seems as though my world for the moment has become somewhat routine and I have lacked inspiration to put anything into words. In actual fact what tends to visit me during such times is a spirit of critical self questioning. This seems to constellate around the bigger questions: ‘what is it that I am doing here’ as much as it does the smaller everyday ones that face me: ‘shall I visit this person, and how will that help what Amida is doing here’. Of course both ends are connected and influenced by my thinking about what constitutes living a Buddhist life. Encountering a culture that for the large part doesn’t understand me linguistically, culturally or spiritually – by which I mean where I fit into the religious jigsaw puzzle – is a daily challenge. If I can get a handle on at least one of these three dimensions then it immediately provides the satisfaction that comes from the sense of being engaged. Yet I find that such moments are just that, fragments that nourish me for sure but not in a way that stops me from, first feeling hungry and then, sometimes empty.
Today the carpenter is here doing the window frames both those on the outside north facing walls to the front of the property, and the ones that sit above the internal doors. Prakash – this being his one day off from work this week - is just to my right engrossed in what he is doing on the computer, chatting to people around the world, from what I can make out.
Yesterday I was in Shanti Nagar, visiting Sunita and Suvidya, although as it turned out the latter left before I arrived. Suvidya has been off sick from work for over a month due to a re-emergence of typhoid symptoms, as I have mentioned elsewhere during the course of this blog. The purpose for my visit was to begin to go through the Order Rule or precepts for ordination with them both. The trouble is that Sunita has very little English so this is impossible without Suvidya present. Nonetheless I end up spending about an hour and a half there, pleased that we are able to manage some conversation and make a connection that we haven’t been able to do until now. I also cement my friendship with Jacky, the family dog.
This is unusual in India where contact between the genders in these sorts of circumstances is rare. Siddharth, Sunita’s son is present but outside when we are in the one room house and inside when we sit out in the sun. Of course I wouldn’t think twice about such things in England with someone I know but in India this is quite different and runs counter to what is culturally acceptable.
Interestingly what is in my mind is the host of injunctions contained in the pratimoksha the traditional Buddhist rules for monastic life still followed by Theravadin monks. Whilst the pratimoksha is a code of moral discipline a loose translation of the term can be rendered in English as ‘personal liberation’. I have been looking at these recently out of an interest piqued by contact with the Bhikkhu’s here and in particular a discussion we had which related to engagement with the community of Buddhist families living in the Delhi area. Notable is the difference we identify between us which centres on my need to be doing, and actively reaching out, in contradistinction to a principle they follow to essentially remain separate from the community unless expressly invited, usually to perform fairly proscribed ceremonial functions.
It was clear to me in the discussion I had with two young monks, Mangaljyoti and Dhammalankar, one evening last week that there was a considerable disjuncture dividing our frames of reference that could not easily be bridged. We were simply just coming from a completely different position.
Outwardly this manifested in a range of quizzical facial expressions when I suggested amongst other things various ways in which we might work together to offer Dharma teaching to the children of Ambedkarite Buddhist families locally.
So as I sat there with Sunita I was thinking how, in light of the pratimoksha rules, the Bhikkhu’s, at least theoretically, would most certainly be restricted from entertaining being in such a situation as this. As I reflect now I also begin to question then how this can be thought of as ‘liberating’.
Of course one does need to see this within the context of how Buddhism is unique as a religion. One key aspect of this is that, as Ambedkar points out (to cite one commentator), that Buddhism is founded on morality. This is not to say that other religions are not moral or don’t have moral rules, but rather that whatever morality there is it is a separate force sustained by social necessity and not by the injunctions of the religion. Buddhism approaches the question of morality the other way around, and thus the religion of Shakyamuni is morality. Ambedkar might say morality is Dharma.
Furthermore as Sangharakshita says in his book about Ambedkar and Buddhism (1986) ‘God is subordinated to morality, not morality to God. It means that actions are to be performed or not performed, not according to whether they are, or are not, commanded by God, but according to whether they are, or are not, right or wrong or, in Buddhist terms, skilful or unskilful’.
So whilst the written rules of the pratimoksha may seem archaic and largely irrelevant to our times, with the above in mind one can see how in the context of the era, and perhaps particularly the renunciant ideals of the Bhikkhu’s and Bhikkhuni’s, the rules become an expression of living a morally wholesome spiritual life. The problem is that the spirit in which the Buddha approached morality has sometimes been lost in reaction to the details contained in such texts that have come down to us. This is perhaps why we are left with the sense that ‘the rules’ applying to monks and nuns is restrictive rather than liberating. However this is important I think to recognise, as my teacher Dharmavidya points out, namely that morality in Buddhism is an expression of living a life in the spirit of the Dharma not a framework to follow on the basis that it will lead us to a spiritually realised life. However there is also a sense in which we have lost touch with the value of living within the influence of ethics – summarised as the codification of morals that describe the collective responsibility that we take for the benefit of others – overshadowed by the drive for personal achievement and individual liberation.
What am I saying then? Perhaps that the pratimoksha and other rules governing the spiritual life should be open to challenge – after all this is how the Buddha approached the challenges of making moral decisions throughout the forty or so years of his ministry – but not to the extent that the spirit that they express, the spirit of the liberating potential they hold is lost, since this after all is the very ground upon which Buddhism rests.
Sangharakshita, Y 'Ambedkar and Buddhism Windhorse' 1986