Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fairy Tales for the Afterlife

"The emotions generated from writing on hard, sad topics are real and need tending to. I have multiple strategies for addressing them—stepping away from the computer, reaching out to friends and family, going for a run, focusing on positive things, reading poetry, finding music that feels right in the moment, turning to a ritual such as making a pot of homemade chai, reminding myself that what I feel is but a tiny fraction of the pain felt by the person who experienced it firsthand." 

The internet brings a world of hurt into our computers and homes: Bombs at the Boston Marathon destroy lives and limbs, an explosion at a West Texas fertilizer factory wreaks havoc, Buddhist nationalists slaughter Muslims in Myanmar, a tall building housing garment workers collapses in Bangladesh, Syrians and Iraqis continue to kill each other in their civil wars, fire destroys a refugee camp on the border of Thailand, Israeli soldiers shoot at Palestinian children throwing stones at them, drones decimate wedding parties in Pakistan and Afghanistan, landmines in Southeast Asia continue to claim victims decades after the wars ended, girls are raped in America and India and some commit suicide because of bullying and shame, disturbed gunmen enter schools and movie theaters to shoot and kill the innocent indiscriminately, prisoners are tortured and held for years without charge or trial, harmful chemicals pollute water and food, immigrants suffer looking for a better life while poverty and economic inequality strangle the future of the young.

What's a Buddha to do but cry?  Is it any wonder that most religions offer consolation only in the afterlife?

Suffering -- the common translation of dukkha in the Pali lexicon -- is nothing new.  The dangerous elements of nature and contagious disease cut short the lifetimes of our ancestors.  Elites have always been blind to the suffering of the poor.  But when a young nobleman in South Asia became aware of the suffering caused by birth, sickness, aging and death, he left his wife and child at home and set out as a pilgrim in search of a solution to the problem of suffering.  According to tradition, he realized the answer, awakened to it and became The Buddha, while meditating overnight under a Bo tree.  His first "noble" truth is that the human situation is characterized by suffering; it's inevitable.  While the three other noble truths of his teaching point toward a "right" way to live in the world, according to the Buddhist tradition, suffering will only cease when one has transcended the cycle of death and rebirth.

Buddhism, like Christianity, is an otherworldly religion which promises salvation or enlightenment in the afterlife.  This can have the effect of encouraging adherents to devalue this particular life that we are living while working towards their reward after death.  The ethical principles that each religion promotes may be beneficial to other humans now, but the real test of their worth comes later. That Buddhism teaches rebirth and Christianity does not, is only a stylistic difference.

The Buddha renounced his birthright, family and fortune to become a wandering monk.  After enlightenment, he settled down to form a sangha of disciples, and for a long time he taught the dhamma on the cessation of suffering.  His example of renunciation has been imitated by countless seekers for 2,500 years. Buddhist monks and nuns reject normal human life in order to devote themselves full-time to achieving the same realization as their founder and thereby transcend the wheel of rebirth.  This life of suffering is only a means to the desired end of all life.   Even lay Buddhists, admitting that their path is insufficient, accept that their goal of devotion is limited to an auspicious rebirth.

Buddhists are undoubtedly moved by the contemporary world of hurt described in the first paragraph. This arises from compassion for the suffering of others that a recognition of our own suffering can bring.  Sickness and death are shared by all.  The development of Engaged Buddhism, a this-worldly movement started by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn and Sulak Siviraksa, seeks to help others through Right Action in the world today.  But Buddhism as a whole finds it difficult to avoid the charge of escapism.  This life, and often this body, is considered an impediment to true knowledge, never to be valued in and for itself.

There are many forms of escapism, and today's social networks can be a means to avoid engagement with life.  They inform, but do they motivate us to help beyond signing an online petition or making a donation to a good cause?  Many of us feel overloaded by the misery that arrives in our inbox or on our Facebook wall.  Democracy was predicated on an informed electorate and it's never been easier to find out what's happening in the world if we can weed out the rumors, lies, conspiracies, half-baked theories and the spam.  I'm not arguing against internet and cell-phone technology for keeping us from face-to-face interactions.  A call, email or message is a connection even if flesh-and-blood are not merged.  The problem is that simply knowing about suffering is not enough for us to engage with the world.  We confuse "knowing" with "doing," just as spiritual pilgrims may confusing "not-doing" with "knowing."

Dealing with the emotions that come with our awareness of suffering is important, as the writer I quote at the beginning points out, but it is not a substitute for dealing with the issues that cause suffering.  We must always see that our own response is "a tiny fraction of the pain felt by the person who experienced it firsthand."  A good cry, listening to music, a pot of tea, deep breaths, and even meditation, are all ways to get a grip, a first step to maintain our equilibrium.  As evidence accumulates that the United States is in the control of banks and corporations more concerned with profits than people, many look for resistance by the underprivileged and excluded that finally comes only in the form of toothless demonstrations and petitions that are ignored by the powerful.  Congress rejects simplified gun control even though an overwhelmingly majority of the electorate supports it.  Why is America, the foremost state terrorist in the world today, still seen as a democratic nation?

I went to the memorial service this week for an American who died of natural causes at the age of 39, leaving his elderly mother alone in Bangkok.  We remembered the good things about his life.  Later, his mother confided in me that she had to pay bribes in order to have him buried, and some of the money went to a church. This is suffering.  I have no solution for it, but I would not counsel the mother to await her reward in heaven, or in a better rebirth.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Whiteboard Jungle

School's out for summer at Mahachularajavidyalaya Buddhist University (these are the hot months in Thailand) and I've been reading final exams and reviewing homework assignments, attendance, and oral and midterm exam marks, to determine what grades my students will receive for the second semester of the 2555-2556 (Buddhist dates) school year.

Teaching monks and the occasional lay woman or man in Thailand is nothing like the terrifying experience Glenn Ford had when he taught juvenile delinquents in the classic 1955 film, "Blackboard Jungle" (with its "Rock Around the Clock" soundtrack by Bill Haley that revolutionize pop music in America).  And the blackboard is now a thing of the past.  The only problem with the whiteboards at the two MCU facilities where I've taught is that they're hard to clean and the marking pens frequently run dry.  I find my students listen better if instructed in the spirit of sanuk (Thai for playfulness), hence my exam instructions above.

This has been a difficult semester.  I'm faced with the prospect of giving F's to six students.  That's five more than I've failed in five years of teaching at MCU.  The problem started when the Foreign Language Department decided last year to give students the option of studying in a bilingual or an English medium class. I have been the only native speaking teacher of English at MCU (another was added this term), but several Thai teachers, and one Filippino, can teach these English majors using English rather than Thai (and Thai is the native language of only a little over half of the English majors; the foreign students come to Bangkok from Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam and China).  I have been asked to teach both classes even though my Thai is rather limited.  Most of the 3rd year students this term choose the English medium class -- 18 this semester compared to 13 in the bilingual medium class.  It soon became apparent last November that the bilingual class was the worst I'd ever taught, and it's not because they are less proficient in English than the other class.

Before I get critical, let me just say that I love my students.  This job that I stumbled into five years ago is the most rewarding work I've done in my life.  I teach mainly undergraduates but I've also taught several different classes in a weekend linguistics MA program, and I've been a visiting lecturer in other graduate majors.  Most of my students are intensely interested in learning English and I'm the first native speaker they've ever studied with.  They're eager to absorb everything about the language and the cultures which sustain it.  All of them come from poor rural families and becoming a monk is the only way they can afford a university education.  And some of them are brilliant and could qualify to enter a top Western university, were it not for the economic barrier both of travel and tuition.  At most they might get a graduate degree in India where linguistics is a popular major for foreign students.

Mahachula is the largest of two Buddhist universities in Thailand (Mahamakut is the other) with campuses throughout the country. The main headquarters now is in Wangnoi, an industrial area near Ayutthaya, with an enormous education plant that grows larger by the day (construction never stops).  I'm not sure how many students there are but easily over 10,000 at this facility alone.  The main faculties are Humanities (mine), Education, Buddhist Studies and Sociology, and there is an International program taught in English. I began my career at Wat Srisudaram in Bangkhunnon across the river from Bangkok and weekend graduate seminars continue to be held there.  Some graduate classes I believe also take place at Wat Mahathat near the Grand Palace, the original location when the school was founded by King Chulalongkorn in the 19th century.

With only a smattering of Thai, there is much that I miss and more that I probably misunderstand.  I can carry on a conversation with only a couple of my fellow teachers.  I've learned that in the Thai educational culture, students are almost never failed.  Allowances are made, repeatedly.  Most of the monks live at temples around the city and have duties to perform there.  Their class load is heavy, up to seven a week during the 16-week term.  Even in a single class the range of proficiency is enormous.  Most students know the alphabet, basic grammar rules and have a decent vocabulary, but they've had little opportunity to speak, lack confidence and are extremely shy.  I saw my task as getting them to speak and write every week, making the experience enjoyable (sanuk) and increasing their self-confidence.

I fell into the job during my first year as an expat when Phra Pandit, the British monk, asked what I planned to do in my retirement.  Don't know, I dumbly answered.  He set up a talk for me to the student English Club at Wat Sri (when this photo was taken) and afterwards I was asked to teach "Listening and Speaking English," an offer that included a work permit and visa.  Who could say no? Having never taught English before, I bought a Headways textbook, published by Oxford, and used it as a guide for my lesson plans.  The facilities were primitive, the sound lab of tapes was not functioning, overhead fans rather than air conditioning, but snacks and lunch were provided by my students.  I wore a dress shirt and tie, never my favorite attire, to give me some legitimacy, and plunged in.

Thailand spends more of its budget for education than it does on the military, rare among nations.  As a member of ASEAN, where English is the lingua franca among members, Thailand has the distinction of having the lowest English proficiency of the ten nations.  Even Cambodians and Vietnamese speak more and better English, according to studies.  Yet, Bangkok is full of international schools, private English schools and the government declared 2012 as the year of speaking English when all schools were asked to conduct at least one day in English.  Many believe the money for education is syphoned off by corruption; I don't know.  I do know that MCU Wangnoi has a marvelous sound lab for language study, but it has been "broken" since it was installed and the door locked.  No one can explain why.  Someone said that all universities are required to have a sound lab in order to be accredited, but they don't have to work after the inspectors leave.  The biggest problem my students have with English is poor pronunciation, and this is because they don't get enough practice (with correction) speaking.  The sound lab would be an enormous help.

Which brings me to my current dilemma: Should I fail a half dozen students?  Although three Thai teachers agreed with me that the bilingual media class was the worst ever, one of them has already capitulated and given passing grades of D or I for incomplete work.  I'll meet tomorrow with the teacher who alternated classes with me on Thursdays and we'll make some decisions.  She even failed a few students last semester.  Why shouldn't they pass?  Most of the six were frequently absent from class, turned in homework late or not at all, copied from the internet (despite my lecture on plagiarism and ease of discovering their crimes), did poorly on the exams, and scored less than half of the 100 points I give for the semester.  None of the six showed the slightest interest to me in learning English.  I'm not sure what happens if I fail them.  Will they return like a bad penny next term?

I don't know how long I'll continue to teach.  The retirement age for permanent teachers in Thailand is 60, and I'm way over that.  I've been given a contract yearly as a special lecturer which apparently sneaks me in under the wire.  My renewal date is May 31 and it's always a bit of a hassle to gather the appropriate documents and signatures.  As far as I know, only three other teachers get them from MCU.  For reasons I don't quite understand, I will no longer be teaching graduate students in linguistics next term, probably because there are only seven in the program and it's supposed to be self-supporting.  Most of the students transferred to an MA program in English and I was not asked to teach for it.  The other farang, hired last year, a Canadian I believe, took what I thought was my place.  Once the work ends I'll be disappointed.  But, as Buddhists know, nothing lasts forever.  And I'll be forever grateful that I got to teach and to know all the many wonderful students I've had here in Thailand.