Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Meeting the Monks

Yesterday I got to meet the monks I will be teaching at Wat Sri Sudaram when the next term begins in May. Pandit, my friend the British monk (he reminds me that in Thai the word is pronounced "Bandit" and that in Pali it would be "Bandito"), emailed me late last week about a command performance. Since my formal interview a week and a half before at the satellite campus of Mahachula Buddhist University across the river, I've been waiting for the next step, and hoping that the paperwork for my new visa and work permit is well underway. Pandit had little information about what I was supposed to say to the monks. His advice was to "just wing it. Don't feel nervous - its a bit like wild animals, even though they can eat you alive, for the most part they will be more scared of you than you are of them." Good thing I don't get stage fright.

So I got all dolled up in my teacher's costume, and set off early for Pandit's temple. It was amazingly quick this time. A motorbike taxi ride up to Sukhumvit, two Skytrains to Saphan Taksin, and a ferry across the river. I walked up to the main road, told the taxi driver "Wat Baag Naam" (pronouncing Wat Pak Nam they way Pandit instructed me), and handed him the note written by Pim with directions in Thai. Even the taxi was fast, and Pandit was waiting for me outside his building, forty minutes after I'd left home on the other side of Bangkok. At a small stall down a narrow lane near his temple, I got my morning cappuccino and he had breakfast of tea, toast and jam. We returned to his small technology-cluttered cell to discuss future activities of Little Bang Sangha, which he started last year for English-speaking visitors and residents, and the online availability of various movies and TV shows.

Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen is famous because of a monk named Phramongkolthepmuni who was the abbot for fifty years until his death in 1959. Also know as Luang Phor Sodh, he was the founder of the Thai Dhammakaya meditation school after his enlightenmet in 1914. Dhammakaya is a technique of method that involves both concentration (samatha) and mindfulness (vipassana). (For more information on the current practice of dhammakaya, see the Dhammakaya Foundation website. Another informative site is here.)

Buddhist monks of the Therevada tradition in Thailand eat only one meal a day, and so Pandit and I set off for the dining hall just before 11 (only liquids are permitted the monks after noon). I carried my shoes indoors since Pandit warned me that formal footwear like mine are soon stolen, even outside a temple. Wat Pak Nam is quite large but only about 25 monks processed into the hall (Pandit said the small turnout is because the food is so bad, and many monks cook their own or go outside). While I sat at a table, the other temple guests sat on the floor, and we watched the monks eat for 45 minutes. (At Wat Pah Nanachat, where I was a temporary monk, the monks were served first but we ate concurrently). A large group of servers hustled between the hall and the kitchen, carrying trays and plates. Finally I got my glass of coconut juice and bowl of rice and goodies which included dried squid and some lumps of tofu.

After lunch we checked the internet on the computer in his room to find out the results of the Academy Awards. I saw "There Will Be Blood" the other night and although Daniel Day-Lewis gave a bravura performance, the character he portrayed was despicable and the story lacked the redeeming qualities "Atonement" had in abundance. I would have given the Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones for his powerful portrayal of a grieving father in " The Valley of Elah." And though his philosophic sheriff was the moral center of "No Country for Old Men," the Coen Brothers' tragihorror story about a homicidal manic and a drug deal gone wrong, the Oscar-winning film itself was a real downer. Of the nominated films, only the heart-warming "Juno" (which I loved) lacked any death and mayhem. Is this a reflection of America's dilemma in the world?

From Wat Pak Nam to Wat Si is a half-hour ride in an air-conditioned bus. There, in the English Department office, Ajahn Suriya, the chairman, suggested that I could speak to the monks about my study of American history. I quickly scribbled some notes but felt totally unprepared for what was apparently a large meeting of third and four-year students in the English major at the end of the school term. We gathered in a large room across the hall filled with the usual Buddhist altar and a collection of large busts of famous men. After a chanted prayer, I was introduced by one of the students, the leader of the English club if I understood him correctly, and with the aid of a microphone began to tell my story to the orange-robed young men.

I talked with them about my life, about how I dropped out of the University of California in Berkeley to work in the "real world" and how after more than 20 years I found my way back into academic study in Santa Cruz ("It's never too late," was the clear message). I spoke of my studies in philosophy and religion, and of how, once I'd received a bachelor's degree, I was able to continue in the graduate department of history. At first I focused on European history, France in the 19th century when radical religion and politics went hand in hand. But later, after becoming discouraged by the prospect (and cost) of leaving my family to do research in France, I switched to U.S. environmental history and developed a dissertation topic around the movement to save the redwood trees in central California. I saw environmentalism as this century's club with which to beat global capitalism into submission. It was a little difficult telling them why I retired from teaching a few years after receiving my Ph.D. (the quality of the students I encountered was depressing), but my stated reason was a desire to travel: to Central and South America, to Europe, and now four times to India and Thailand.

Most of the students appeared engaged with what I was saying. I looked into their eyes and tried to speak slowly and distinctly, wanting them to understand my English. I explained words which I thought might be unfamiliar. Teaching English to non-native speakers will be a new experience and I'm not yet sure how best to go about it. Finally my presentation rolled to a stop and the questioning began. I was amazed and pleased by their curiosity. We talked about Iraq, global warming, the Vietnam/American war and the American presidential campaign. They wanted to know the best way to learn English and I told them about the abridged books with limited vocabularies that Pim is reading. I also suggested they watch movies in English and read internet news in English, at least for the headlines if not the full stories (this is my own advice to myself for learning Thai). They were curious about about expressions like "what's up?" or "wha sup?" I encouraged them to learn the rules first before they tried to break them with hip-hop English. The same goes for email, chat room and SMS abbreviated English, like "u" for "you." One asked me to explain the difference between "slang, idiom and dialect," and I did my best. I asked about their homes, and quite a few had come from Laos and Cambodia. One Cambodian student asked me how he might get in to an American university, and I told him I would look into it for him.

Afterwards, cameras came out and photos were taken Ajahn Suriya presented me with two books on Buddhism in English. Later he gave me 1,000 baht "for carfare," far more than I would need for a taxi across the city and back. It's my first earned money in Thailand, even if it is only an honorarium. I think I'm going to like teaching English to the young monks, if most of my students are like the ones I met yesterday. One student told me of his fear of trying to speak English. I told him that it was like jumping off a diving board; at some point, you have to take the plunge. I should have told him about my fear that I would be unable to understand them. Not because of their English, but because of my poor hearing. We have to conquer both fears. Afterwards, Pandit and I took a taxi to the ferry, and on the other side of the river he took me to a coffee shop in Thammasat University where Pim met us after getting off work. Before we went back home, he took us down into the basement library, which reminded me of Berkeley's underground library, and he said that one of the perks of being a teacher is that I will be able to use other university libraries to check out books. I'm looking forward now very much to the beginning of my teaching career here in May.

For those of you concerned about the blue line on my computer screen, I keep putting off the inevitable, taking it in for repair, because it's really not all that much bother. But I do know that something is wrong and it could possibly get worse. And so one of these days, I'll face my fears and let go. But not today.

And finally, for something completely different. One night, while walking by the Nana Entertainment Center on my way home, I happened upon a group of preachers intent on driving the devil out of the bars and the hearts of the prostitutes who work there. They were quite the object of amusement. I found the reverend Bible-thumper to be quite scarey.


littlebang said...

the wild animals comment sounds hilarious reading it back to myself.
One note - the food is not that bad. Sometimes it is fabulous. But it can be a bit hit and miss. The monks do not cook their own food, but may buy in from shops, or have their own donors (family usually). 20 or so go on almsround and feed themselves and another 20 or so.
Bhikkhus can reheat food, but not cook it.

Unknown said...

I find your predicament very intriguing, probably because I see myself in your shoes 40 years from now. I'm recently graduated from college, and I've just started my second year as a teacher. Like you, I enjoy traveling quite a bit. Last summer I spent a week in Thailand and was completely blown away. Minus the debilitating, head-ache causing smog monster in Bangkok, the place is fantastic.

Blessings in your spiritual journey.

Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

And congratulations on the new teaching position - it sounds like it'll be a lot of fun. And what a great report and photo. Well done and thank you so much for sharing.

I can't say I agree with you about Juno. It seemed shallow and pointless to me and distasteful too, and as for the preachers outside the red-light area....well, I think it's a pity that such work is left to the Christians.

I wonder what Buddhists are doing to counter the sex trade in Nana Plaza, to inject a little conscience and compassion into the customers and help provide alternatives for the women who work there?

But, those aside, thank you again for some great writing and well done Will!


Anonymous said...

I was sitting at the corner bar at Nana Plaza called Big Dog when the 3 "priest" where starting to shout, but more fun is that 1 week later on of the girls said to me that there is one of the guys from last week, I turned and this time no bible, no tie, but he did go into a go go at Nana! :-)

He probably did see something intresting the week before....