Goin' Home (to Sri Lanka), April 23, 2006


Just to be on the safe side, Ken called Sahara Airlines about April 1 to check on the flight schedule. The clerk informed him that his ticket was fine, but that there was a problem with Adisha's.

"No, her name is Christine Kawasaki."

"I have a reservation for Adisha, but it has been cancelled. There is no Christine."

"What?!"

"Your agent didn't send the proper information, so we cancelled the ticket. This ticket was issued in Sri Lanka; you will have to call your agent and tell him to send us the authorization."

"That is impossible. I am in Kolkata; the agent is in Kandy. I have flown here with this ticket. I will not call Sri Lanka."

The woman kept on talking, perhaps enchanted by the sound of her voice. (That seems to be a common malady in these parts!) Several times, she paused and said, "Please be online," and put Ken on hold while she checked something. Finally, Ken demanded to speak to the manager, who at least was able to listen. He explained again that the ticket had been canceled, but his explanation was no clearer. Ken repeated his stance that the ticket had to be accepted because it was a question of only the return portion. "Do you have the ticket in front of you?" asked the manager.

"Of course. It is right here."

"Please send us a fax, and we will see what we can do."

Although it was almost time to go to class, Ken begged Ven. Nandobatha's pardon for interrupting a meeting that he might use his computer to scan the ticket. Copying it to a CD, he hurried back to his own computer to send it by fax to the office in Kolkata. Five minutes later, the manager called back asking for clarification because the ticket was not clear. (Ken knew it wouldn't be, and had called back to the office asking if it were possible to send the copy by email. Of course, it wasn't.) He read as much as he could from the original ticket.

The manager agreed that the ticket was valid, but, because it had been cancelled, it would have to be reissued. "Please come to our office in the city," he suggested.

"That would be very difficult," Ken countered. "Can it be reissued at the airport before the flight?"

"Of course, that would be fine." Then the reservation was confirmed. Unfortunately, Sahara had cancelled one flight, so we accepted the rather remarkable route of Kolkata, New Delhi, Bangalalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Colombo, which required a full, very full day, but at least we could leave India. In the nick of time, too. Whenever we ventured forth from our peaceful haven, even by phone, we found that India was very messy. With Sahara, as with many things Indian, it paid to be firm! (To make a long story only slightly longer, when we checked in at Kolkata airport at 7AM, the clerk and manager wondered why we had been scheduled in that way. "We can put you on a 10:25 flight to Bangalore, and you can catch the same flight to Chennai," they suggested. That meant waiting four hours in Bangalore instead of four hours in Delhi, and fewer ups and downs for Visakha's ear. It was a wise choice, for the cappucino near the lounge, which Air Sahara allowed us to use, is excellent, and only 20 rupees, as opposed to 175 for regular coffee in the restaurant!)

In Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, this is the new year season, and it is celebrated with water. The Water Festival, called Thingyan in Burmese, is a time to wash the Buddha images, and pay respect to the elders. After that serious business, it time to have fun, with boys and girls, young men and women throwing water with gay abandon!

In the Ordination Hall, a Burmese family­the only family in this area from Arakan­a mother and three daughters, joined us in lighting candles and incense, placing garlands on the Buddha statues to show respect, and sprinkling them with perfumed water. The monks chanted special blessings for the new year, and then Ven. Ariyawantha, senior monk, sprinkled all of us with fragrant water. The young folks all bowed to the Burmese mother and to us--we're elders now! Happy New Year! May it be one of sanity and wisdom, peace and well being! No more wars! Certainly no nuclear strikes!

For our last afternoon class, we had prepared an evaluation form. The results were unanimously positive about Bhikkhu Bodhi's book, In the Buddha's Words, and we were pleased about that. Some felt that the grammar was difficult, others that it was very useful. Several were vehement about the value of the evening classes. Because they had studied only Pali and Dhamma, they lacked general knowledge about things such as economics, politics, and ecology. Our discussions about these subjects, social issues, and socially engaged Buddhism were very informative and important. When it came to suggestions for new materials, only Rajiv thought in terms of movies, games, and other activities. We realized that the monks were very traditional learners, but that didn't mean that they couldn't learn to learn in other ways. We're already thinking about materials we'd like to incorporate next year, in addition to what has proved successful in this initial course.

For the last evening class, we set up our computers in the dining hall and began showing the monks how to navigate the CD we had given each of them. It contained all of our webpages, including the Sri Lanka reports with all their photos, Pali Chanting International, their own chanting, and our reading of the "The Four Establishments of Mindfulness," (Satipatthana Sutta), which we had read together in class. We could get all those sound files on one disk, thanks to MP3. Three times during the course, we devoted the evening session to watching Strive on with Diligence. We also read it together in the afternoon class, explaining new vocabulary, so we also gave a copy to the DVD to each group(Bodhisuka, Nalanda, Varanasi, and Magadh University in BuddhaGaya).

For the closing ceremony, Visakha got dressed up in the Thai silk outfit she'd worn to the wedding. Ken assumed his usual pundit persona. We were immediately presented with beautiful handwoven scarves from Assam, which complemented our garb nicely. Ven. Nandobatha had arranged the entire program, scheduling our speeches, a keynote address, and speeches by the students. He had expected about three students to speak, but twelve asked to be included. Their speeches were not the usual platitudes. They offered truly heartfelt expressions of gratitude for the class. One explained that, since the Burmese military forbids monks to learn foreign languages, this was the first opportunity for them to study English. Another said that he had been asked Dhamma questions by foreigners in Buddhagaya, but had been unable to reply. Now he felt much more confident in discussing questions about Buddhism because he had learned the proper English for important Buddhist concepts. In all their words, there was the wonderful feeling that we had embarked together on a missionary journey­to propagate the Teaching that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, for the welfare and happiness of beings.

We assured them that we had learned from them as much as they from us.

We received some thoughtful gifts, including a book entitled Visakha (about the Buddha's disciple) for ... and a diary entitled Memoirs from Students of Intensive English Proficiency Training Course for Respected Teachers. Inside, each student (including the laymen) had given his name, origin, place of study, address, telephone number, e-mail address, age, number of rains retreats (monks only), and a photo, followed by personal comments in a letter form. It is a beautiful book, which we shall always treasure.

While Rajiv busily snapped photos, we solemnly presented each monk with the "Certificate of Achievement" and an envelope of dana. The boarding students each received an envelope as well, but not a certificate, since they had attended only the afternoon sessions.

Early on, only a few days after we had gotten to the monastery Visakha's right ear began to feel odd, heavy, uncomfortable. Her hearing was impaired, but she carried on. Only Ken aware of the problem. She'd had a miserable cold in Kolkata City itself (which has a climate unfit for man or beast), and she assumed that that was the problem. After another week of drinking lots of water, her cough was still "productive," so she decided, to take antibiotics. Careful not to get water in that ear when showering, she tried yawning a lot in the evening, but nothing helped. The antibiotic cleared up the chest infection, residual cough, and phlegm, but did nothing for the ear. Finally, worried about flying with an ear problem, as we were leaving the ceremony, she mentioned it to Rajiv, who promised to arrange a visit to a doctor as soon as possible. Right after our wonderful Thingyan ceremony, the electricity went out amidst a great lightning and thunder show. Rajiv called his friends to reconfirm that they were coming, but there seemed to be a small problem. The driver's brother had borrowed the car and had had an accident. The car was running, but the windshield was broken out. It was a little difficult to drive in the rain. There was a question as to whether or not they would be able to come. We sat on Ven. Nandobatha's porch, enjoying the pyrotechnic display. Rain was falling, but the drops do not seem to reach the ground here. Rather, they evaporate in mid-air. We were surrounded by candles, so we did not mind the lack of electricity, which intermittently flickered on and off. Suddenly, the friends appeared in their car, a tiny van with doors opening on both sides, and two bench seats facing each other for passengers. These young fellows make their living by offering this car as a taxi to ply the little highways and byways around Barasat. Rajiv and his friends live in the "Burma Colony," land granted by Indira Gandhi to the Indians thrown out of Burma by Ne Win in 1962. The grandparents and parents of most of the young folks there were refugees from Burma, but they themselves know nothing of the country, except through family legends. Nevertheless, many in the colony have some affection for the monastery and the monks, because they are Burmese. Rajiv, recently come from Thailand, has an auntie here who dotes on him. He has made a network of good friends, who helped us a lot.

Well, after a twisty and turny ride--Visakha's first venture outside the monastery­they came to the main intersection and stopped in front of a doctor's office, or, rather, a signboard. Downstairs was a chemist's shop, dispensing western-style medicine. Up two flights of shallow stairs, and they came to a bright blue door, marked with a white cross in a red circle, indicating ... a doctor? Rajiv opened the door and checked. The doctor was in, but busy with another patient. Visakha sat on a bench and waited, patiently, of course. When the patient and her husband left, Visakha was ushered into the tiniest office imaginable. A Lilliput table and chair served as the doctor's desk. There were also two plastic stools for patients and a sawed off examining table, covered with a faded green cloth. The doctor, who had dark curly black hair, was dressed in white­so are most Bengalis. On his table was a canvas bag with a logo and "World Vision Bangladesh." Hmmmm. We'd always referred to that organization as "Blurred Vision" because of their myopic, fundamentalist Christian views, but let us practice tolerance! The doctor made a little joke at the name Kawasaki and asked what the problem was. Visakha explained. The doctor looked in her right ear and said that everything was normal. He took her blood pressure. Normal range. Listened to her heart. Normal. Then he wrote a prescription, one pill once a day for a week. Pick up the medicine and pay downstairs. Fifty rupees. Cheap for the experience, she supposed. She passed on the medicine (Wasn't everything normal?), figuring she'd take her chances with the plane back home. What an examination!

Several of the monks stopped by our room just before they left to catch their bus or train back to their campus. One offered us two beautiful cloths, handloomed in the traditional designs of his region. Two days after the ceremony, we discovered a message on the classroom blackboard (real slate) "Bye! See You Next Year! Strive on with Diligence!" writ large.

At Dr. Nandobatha's request, we wrote an email letter to the director of Sangha Metta in Chaing Mai, the director of which Pippa had introduced us several years ago, inquiring about the possibility of HIV/AIDS training for the monks here in India. In no time at all, we got an answer, and the prospects look good. It will probably be a five-day course(perhaps two, one in Kolkata and one in Maharashtra), but funding for travel will have to be found. Still, it is very encouraging to see something concrete developing from our social issues discussions, and so quickly.

We hadn't realized how intensively we had been working until it was all over. Without classes to prepare for, we felt like we were really on vacation. Wow! Freedom ­ with full, free days stretching before us.

We had an invitation for lunch from Rajiv's auntie, whom we really like. Before going to his house, however, we wanted to do some shopping--for cotton saris, salwar suits, and Punjabi shirts for friends in Sri Lanka. Rajiv and his friends picked us up in the cute little car, and we were off to the market. It so happened that this was the beginning of Bengali New Year (celebrated with little hoopla for only one day, compared to Burmese which lasts for three days minimum). There was little traffic to downtown Barasat. Some shopkeepers were putting up the ubiquitous marigold garlands that Hindus love, and there were traditional good luck symbols--coconuts with symbols painted in red and small banana plants standing outside the shop in a corner by the door. We quickly discovered that New Year was the best time to shop. We were early, so there was no mad rush, but to mark the auspicious day, we were given presents at each shop--boxes and boxes of delicious Bengali sweets, bright orange ladoo, and Visakha's favorite, a delicious diamond-shaped milky sweet with a thin layer of real silver on the back. Yum!

After shopping for sari fabric, ready-made shirts, and material for some cool salwar suits for Visakha (Rajiv's friends know all the best shops!), we went to Rajiv's auntie's tidy little house for lunch. We were made very welcome, and seated in Rajiv's room. He showed us a scrapbook he had compiled as a gift for a friend who had helped him tremendously in Thailand. It was full of very interesting drawings and collages, showing his artistic and philosophical nature. Of course, we have worked for years with the 1988 generation of Burmese student activists; he is of the 1998 generation. Just steps ahead of the police (thirty minutes away from fifty years in prison!), he fled to the border and worked with his peers in Thailand after the 1998 uprising. It has been remarkable how many friends we have in common in Mae Sot and Chiang Mai. The former political prisoner who was recently beaten to death in Burma was his mentor. Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.

Lunch was a delight--all vegetarian, of course--with lots of paneer (Indian cheese), our favorite! Auntie is very calm, sweet, and quiet in contrast to the very voluble Bengalis we observed elsewhere, who seem to be raging and debating, even when they are merely talking about the weather. People hereabouts seem to us to be fond of histrionics, but even Rajiv was amazed when we pulled up to an ATM for Ken to get out some money. A couple stood by our car and the man told his girlfriend, "If you don't do as I say, I will kill myself right here in front of this car!" Rajiv's reaction was, "Commit suicide if you wish, but leave us out of it!" Funny!

For the last day of our holiday, we went with Rajiv into Kolkata to see our dear friends, the Jayawardanas. We were invited for lunch, we wanted Rajiv to see the bookshop, and we needed some books both for ourselves and for the students. Even on Sunday, the ride was hair raising. "One fifth of humanity" was the refrain that kept running through our minds. "One fifth of humanity, and they were all out on the streets, trying to kill themselves crossing haphazardly, racing to catch a bus, pushing a bicycle, or gesticulating madly, having just been grazed by a fender. Horns honking, people pushing, traffic jostling for space­it was a typical Sunday afternoon.

After a lovely meal with our old friends, we shopped at the bookstore which they opened especially for us (normally closed on a Sunday). As always, they recommended some can't-do-without books, which, of course, we bought. We also bought several packs of beautiful Bodhi leaves from BuddhaGaya, as gifts for monks and friends in Sri Lanka. Rajiv found some good books in Bengali for some of his friends who are interested in Buddhism. We left with far more than we'd intended to buy, but, of course, everything was really good and definitely necessary!

The telephone line at Bodhisukha School was down yet again, so we had the driver take us to the Park Hotel. We had two wireless internet cards left, so we could download with a fast connection. Ken even enjoyed some clips from the Daily Show. After all, it was our vacation!

As soon as we had finished our classes, it was time for Bodhisukha School to reopen classes. The first day was a simple morning ceremony. The children gathered in the ground outside the classroom. The littlest ones are cute as bugs' ears in their uniforms; the older ones look serious and poised. It was only half a day, but school had started again, even though the books had not yet arrived.

Before we left we had time for a rousing game of bingo with the boarding students and the few monks still there. It was great fun, and we gave away bookmarks as prizes. Of course, they had trouble with 13/30, 14/40, but that was the whole point--to give them practice. The Bingo game and the bookmarks were the last jobs for our faithful printer, which we left with Ven. Nandobatha.

While Ken was packing, one of the boys brought a sealed box with our names on it. Inside we found clothes we had left last year because they were too heavy to carry back to Thailand. When we put them, our Thai mosquito net, the gifts we had bought, and all the books in the suitcases, they were as heavy as they were when we came with the thirty-five copies of Bhikkhu Bodhi's book. How is that possible? (Air Sahara didn't complain about the weight, but, this time, they asked us to keep one as carry-on, which was not a problem, for, being of the four-wheel push type, it was very convenient for transporting the thirty-pound computer case around airports, saving Ken's shoulder.)

Ven. Pannasila receiving the Vesak campaign letters the students wrote. (see earlier report)

Collecting grass for cattle

The night before we left, we spotted the biggest of our resident spiders (three inches in diameter, including the legs) in the bathroom. He was on the wall, pretending to be a crack. He later moved behind the broom, and kept still. Later, Ken reported that he was back on the wall, eating something. Closer examination showed that he was devouring our old granddaddy cockroach. Part of the exoskeleton was stuck to the wall, but everything else was consumed.

Bodhisukha is only a half hour from the airport, and given Kolkata traffic jams, that's really a plus. We saw a notice in the paper that there had been an accident on Howrah Bridge very near the train station, with a resulting gridlock that lasted for four hours! Ouch!

Emails from our students are trickling in and we're delighted to hear from them. We are hoping to be able to have another course next year, but we really would like another teacher or two to join us. It's a wonderful situation, with the most eager and disciplined of students. Any volunteers?

Now we're back in Sri Lanka, which is so orderly and uncrowded compared to Kolkata. Not a fair comparison, of course, but it does seem so good to be home, where all is green.

While in Colombo, we met two monks: Ven. Wisanu, and Ven. Shi Xingpu, the Chinese monk for whom we are correcting the Jataka stories (see earlier report)

It sounds like the civil war is heating up again, but that belongs in another report.


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