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No Mother, Sister, May 2, 2011

This is the tenth anniversary of Bodhisukha School in Kolkata (Calcutta), India . Shortly before Visakha's mother passed away in January, 2001, she made a donation through Buddhist Relief Mission to help the school get started. In April, we visited Kolkata on our return from Bangalore. That was our first opportunity to meet Ven. Dr. Nandobatha, though we had been in correspondence for several years. Four of the first boarding students are still at Bodhisukha, and one of the best things about this year was seeing these boys, who were only about seven years old when first we met them. They aren't really boys anymore, but fine young men, and they, each in his own way, made us welcome, cheered us up, and took excellent care of us for the whole six-week stay.


In December of 2001, we visited Bodhisukha again to begin our pilgrimage with Bruce. It was then that we began laying the groundwork for an intensive course for Burmese monks, which would materialize only in 2006, after we moved to Sri Lanka. The intensive course was supposed to be annual, but after 2008, the conditions were not right. Thus, this was the Fourth Intensive Course, and it was great to be back!

The fun began on our March 6th flight from Colombo to Chennai. Our luggage was, of course, seriously overweight, but wasn't a problem. In fact, we didn't have any trouble until the final security check just before boarding. One of the security personnel asked whether there was any food in our carry-on. "Maybe," Ken answered, as he opened the bag, to find four packs of coffee (flavored with cardamon), Dorset muesli, two jars of peanut butter, and three sealed plastic bags of Lily's special curry powder.

"That's it! You can't board the plane with that powder! It's not allowed!"

"It's only curry powder. It's spice."

"Sorry. You'll have to check this bag."

We took out Ken's CPAP machine, which must not be checked, and a Jet Airways agent managed the bag for us. We were pleased to be so disencumbered, able to board with only the computer case (two laptops and a scanner) and a shoulder bag.

The night at the Mars Hotel was uneventful. At Chennai Airport the next day, Spicejet did not complain about the overweight, but, again, as we passed through the final security, the agent asked Ken to open his bag. The curry powder had been tucked into a checked suitcase, so what was the problem? The agent passed over the muesli but held up the peanut butter. "That's not allowed!" he exalted. "You'll have to check this bag!"


"Take it back to the counter."

Again, we took out the CPAP machine. Ken took his boarding pass and passport and hurried back through security to the check-in counter.

The agent informed him that we were already overweight and asked what the problem was. When Ken explained that it was peanut butter, she laughed heartily and checked it with no charge.

The same thing happened on the return flight from Chennai, but, this time, it was the Neem Toothpaste. "No liquids, oil, or gel!".

Who knew that curry powder could be an explosive or that peanut butter and toothpaste can be (but aren't always) gel? Ah, the joys of contemporary travel!

Our arrival in Kolkata was perfectly timed. Two hours later--just enough time for a little shopping and coffee at the airport outdoor cafe--Shilar arrived. You see, Rajiv's Auntie is suffering from a form of leukemia and was very anxious to see Rajiv settled. She wanted him to be married to a Burmese Buddhist. Rajiv met Shilar, a Nepalese Burmese, online, and they decided to wed. Bengali tradition prohibits weddings during the month before New Year's, so there was some urgency. The ceremony was to be March 11, the last possible day.

Shilar charmed us from the very first, and she seemed to like us, too. During the four days before the wedding, we ran around Barasat with Rajiv, Shilar, and Abhijit, talking about the preparations and shopping for all the things we needed to organize the course. Both the duplex laser printer (bought four years ago) and the DVD player (bought three years ago) had to be replaced. We got notebooks, folders, tea towels, and toilet paper. We ordered partitions to divide the common room into three areas--two for sleeping and one for dining--and a table for each bed. We also bought two dongles for wireless connection instead of the unreliable broadband modem of the past which depended on the undependable electricity.

Our old room was pretty much the same, but the electricity was much steadier and strong enough to run both air conditioners, the hot water heater, and a working refrigerator in the common room. Although there were occasional black-outs (brown-outs?), these were nothing like the sweltering hours of the past. In the shared bathroom, both the walls and the floor had been tiled--no longer slippery! Even the wobbly wooden door had been replaced with a clean, sturdy metal one with a dependable lock.

Rajiv had taken wonderful care of his aunt, putting her into the local cancer hospital in a private, air-conditioned room, which was so comfortable that she had protested at the cost. She had responded well to the treatments and looked quite fit when we first visited to give the couple their wedding gifts we had carried and to present Auntie with the Buddha image from Lily.

About three o'clock on the day of the wedding, there was a sudden squall, and Auntie's house flooded. We heard that all the draperies, canopies, and decorations had been spoiled. Heroic efforts prevailed, however, and by the time we arrived, just before the ceremony, everything was back in place, and there was no trace of damage.

At six PM on Friday, the road leading to Burma Colony was gaily lit. The wedding was held in a golden pavillion behind Auntie's house. It was a lovely affair. Auntie was positively glowing. Abhijit and his wife and Auntie's daughter assisted, and neighbors and friends were in lively humor. We were the only foreigners in attendance, but we felt that we represented lots of people at this joyous wedding. As Auntie had confided to us earlier, because of Rajiv, she had many friends and visitors from far away.

Click any one of the photos to view a slideshow of the wedding ceremony on YouTube.

Low and Looi, the teachers from Malaysia, arrived on Saturday, and Steve on Sunday.

With Steve, we picked up in mid-conversation where we'd left off three years ago. We immediately began arranging the schedule, but we would not know until classes began on Tuesday how many students we would have. Blame it on the annual Indian university muddle. We expected students from both Magadh University and Nalanda Institute, but the latter had not yet announced the exam schedule, and only three of those students could come to Kolkata. There were twenty-seven students, including two nuns, from Magadh University in BuddhaGaya.

Yet another change in Bodhisukha is that the number of kidney-transplant patients has increased. Patients, donors, and family members occupied most of the dormitories and many classrooms. Therefore, the student monks slept in the refectory itself, and a makeshift dining area was created outside by extending a canopy of plastic sheeting, which was supported by bamboo poles. In the afternoon, the tables and benches became a Burmese tea shop, much like those we enjoyed long ago in Rangoon.

Because we had more teachers than ever before, we could arrange a very congenial schedule. The students had six hours of classes a day, but no teacher taught more than four. Low and Looi wanted their weekends free to explore the area, and Steve needed four days to visit Buddhagaya. We spent a good deal of our free time scanning, formatting, and printing materials, both for classes and for the evening activities, which included Buddhist Knowledge Quest (see below) and movies--"To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Miracle Worker," "Twelve Angry Men," "In the Heat of the Night," "The King's Speech," "Strive On With Diligence," and two Japanese animated films by Miyazaki, "Princess Mononoke" and "Spirited Away." Again, students climbed Ten Steps, the controlled composition book which has become a staple of the intensive courses. The students enjoyed the homework which they could do at their own pace.


For the monks and nuns, a big advantage was the variety of materials, skills, teaching methods, accents, and personalities of the teachers. Low integrated communications skills, body language, and general knowledge, including geography, into her sessions. Looi emphasized phonetics and grammar, which complemented Ven. Nandobatha's early morning lessons. Steve gave the students practice reading individually in front of the whole class, which greatly increased their confidence in public speaking. It was, indeed, a rich course--intensive for the students, and not too demanding on the teachers.

We ourselves used exercises and logic puzzles from previous years, but for both classes our central text was Merit, the Buddhist ESL course we are writing. Although we'd taught this material in Sri Lanka, this was the first time to use it a sustained situation. With one class, we were able to complete most of the fourteen lessons we had printed. The monks seemed to enjoy the variety of exercises in the book, and they really threw themselves into acting out the dialogues. Particularly successful were the lessons about the Bharut Stupa carvings, the colorful Burmese paintings of the seven weeks after Enlightenment, meditations on death, and The Wheel of Birth and Death.

Playing Bingo

One day, a student expressed his gratitude for the English classes to Looi but lamented the fact that he might not be able to continue after returning to the university because he had "no mother sister." Puzzled, Looi asked him why he needed a mother or sister to study. He looked at her with equal puzzlement. Finally, another student explained that he was saying that he didn't have a "method-system" for studying English. Looi smiled and assured him that all he needed to do was to continue practicing and reading.

Rajiv and Abhijit are business partners in a travel agency in Barasat. They don't advertise much, but their honesty and integrity have gained them many customers. In their spare time they still ran around fetching everything we needed to keep the program running smoothly.

With the rest of the world, we were stunned at the news of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. We'd spent 30 years in Japan with the sure knowledge that some day the big one would hit. There are no words to express the horrors of the power of the quake itself or the dreadful destruction of the tsunami. On our computers, we saw raw footage that displayed the calm courage of the Japanese people. Later, like so many, we felt chilled to the marrow by the nuclear disaster which has overshadowed the natural devastation. There was certainly no surprise; informed residents of Japan had lived with the certainty that such a catastrophe in one of the country's nuclear reactors was long overdue. We felt relief when we heard from friends that they were safe, but even now the news trickling out from Fukushima is disturbing and is probably not the half of it. As Einstein observed, "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking . . . the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."

Many groups have been collecting money and offering relief to the Japanese victims. One of the most touching efforts has been made by a woman in the UK. She created a poster, using a famous poem by the Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa. Please take a look.

A week after the tsunami, we had a memorial service at the pagoda with oil lamps, candles, and incense. After giving five precepts to the teachers and many of the kidney patients, the monks chanted paritta and patthana. Then we all meditated, extending loving-kindness to those suffering in Japan, who remain in our thoughts and prayers. That morning the monks held a ceremony to "open the eyes" of Auntie's Buddha.

Click the gamegoard for a description of the game.
As we left Sri Lanka, ICC Cricket World Cup fever was infecting nine-tenths of the population of both Sri Lanka and India. We noticed that some of the monks were spending a lot of their free time in front of the TV. Taking advantage of that fever, we decided to hold our own "Buddhist Knowledge Quest 2011 Bodhisukha Championship Tournament," surely the first match of its kind. We had explained and demonstrated the game to Ven. Nandobatha as soon as we arrived, and he had became very excited about it. He saw the potential of the game as a learning tool and promised to take part in the tournament as much as possible, despite his busy schedule.

Click the photo for more photos of the tournament.
On the first evening, we gathered in the ordination hall and began with Level One. Most of the students participated. The questions were quite easy for them, and the play was animated. There were six games going simultaneously, each with five players. We recorded the names of the winners of each game, but all students were allowed to advance to the next level. A few nights later, we held the Level Two competition. The number of players decreased, and the students found the questions more challenging. Before playing at Level Three, we printed sheets with the questions and answers, so that the students could study. As we walked around the monastery, we heard students working together, memorizing questions and answers. Level Three was challenging, but participants thoroughly enjoyed it and immediately asked for "cheat-sheets" for Level Four. There were only twenty players at the final level, and the difficulty of the questions meant that the games proceeded at a much slower pace. Of course, the students could easily rattle off the answers in Pali, but the challenge was giving the answers in understandable English.

The next day, we held the prize-giving ceremony in the classroom. Eighteen students had asked for copies of the game, but we had only six with us. The eighteen names were placed in a hat, and we had a drawing to distribute those sets. We offered to send a copy of the game to anyone else for the cost of the postage, and Steve immediately announced that he would pay the postage for anyone who wanted it. Several students came forward and signed up. For prizes, we had bought some books at MahaBodhi Book Agency and included several copies of our DVD. All these were arranged on a table, and the top three winners, those who had won all four levels, got first choice. Runners-up were allowed to choose until all the prizes were gone. The winners were rightly proud, everyone was happy, and we all gave each other a big round of applause.

On our day off, Ven. Nandobatha assigned one of the newer drivers to take us in to Kolkata to meet the Jayawardanas at MahaBodhi Book Agency. Unfortunately, the driver had never ventured beyond Apollo Hospital and was unprepared for driving in that most chaotic of cities. The trip should have taken about an hour, but it took three. At one point, the driver turned right, the wrong way onto a one-way street. Perplexed, he just sat there until a policeman approached the car, directed him to the side of the road, and gave him a ticket. Thank goodness for cell phones. Even asking directions every block, we might never have made it had Mr. Jayawardana not homed us in through regular telephone calls!

The Jayawardanas came out to Bodhisukha one Sunday for lunch. It was supposed to be our dana to all the students, but that was another SNAFU. The agent through whom we had arranged for a professional cook, mistook the day and thought it was Monday. Didi and the boys carried the day and whipped up a feast, nevertheless. Mrs Jayawardana had prepared a large tiffin carrier of a special bean cutlet, which the monks appreciated. She also brought enough succulent milk rice for all of the students to taste the meal which Sujata had offered to the Bodhisatta just before Enlightenment. What a treat!

The next day, the cook did indeed come to prepare vegetarian briyani, potato curry, palak paneer, cucumber and tomato salad, and naan puri as we'd ordered. (Just before the monks came to the table, an audacious crow spotted the bread, swooped down, and flew away with a large piece of the delicious bread.) We also opened ten pomegranates and served the ruby-like arils to the monks, along with a luscious Bengali sweet and digestive biscuits for dessert. Rajiv's auntie joined us in this donation and enjoyed the meal with us after the monks had finished.

Above, we mentioned the Bharut Stupa carvings. In Merit, the pilgrims go to the Indian Museum to see these carvings, which are the oldest examples of Buddhist art. In class, we showed the students photos of nine carvings, gave them the stories (some from the Jatakas and some from the life of the Buddha), and asked them to match them up. To do this, they had to examine carefully the figures in each carving, and to discover what symbol was used to represent the Buddha, who was not shown in human form at that time. At the conclusion of the exercise, we asked if anyone had ever visited the Indian Museum. None had. When we asked whether they would like to go into Kolkata to see the actual carvings, we got an overwhelmingly positive response. Thus, after the course had finished, Ven. Nandobatha arranged vehicles for seventeen students and four of the teachers to go to the museum. (Steve had previously arranged to visit Shanti Niketan, Rabindranath Tagore's center in West Bengal that day.) The students were delighted, and it was a joy for us to watch them study the carvings and point out the elements they had learned about in the exercise. They were also glad of a chance to pay homage to the relics of the Buddha from the stupa at Piprahwa. Ken used our new camera to take photos of as many exhibits as he could and put them all on a disk for the students. On the way back to Bodhisukha, we stopped at a kiosk, and Low and Looi bought juice for everyone. It was such a delightful outing that we agreed that it should be a regular part of the course.

After many failed attempts, as we were leaving the museum, we had arranged to connect with Maura, a friend we had known in Japan. She gave us the small wooden Buddha image which mutual friend Rosalie had carried as a gift to us from a Burmese friend three years before. Although we regularly encounter Maura on Facebook, where we share so many views, it was good to see her in the flesh and to have a few minutes to reminisce! And, at last, the image is on our altar at home.

One day, Ven. Nandobatha brought us a little package which had been delivered for us. (We NEVER get mail at Bodhisukha!) It was Valerie's documentary about Daisy, "A-Pwa." It is delightful. We all enjoyed watching it, and it brought back so many memories of Sangkhlaburi. She has done a marvelous job of editing! During the twenty-three years since 1988, there have been documentaries about Mae Tao Clinic, ABSDF, the KNU, the Shan and other groups, but this is the first to focus on Daisy, who has been working tirelessly for so many years. Congratulations to her and to Valerie. Steve immediately suggested that the film be shown at his wife's restaurant in New York, and we hope that it appears in many more venues.

Manish, a Chakma we supported for several years also visited us. He and his sister are now studying in New Delhi.
Ven. Ariyawantha is no longer staying at Bodhisukha, but he came several times to meet us. We were pleased to offer him relics from Burma for the monastery in Guwahati.

On the penultimate day of our course, we cancelled classes for one period to allow Bodhisukha School to hold their Felicitation Ceremony, which was a grand cultural program of Bengali dance dramas by Tagore as well as a recitation in English of one of Tagore's poems. (This is the 150th anniversary of his birth.) One of the highlights was a group of children singing "We Shall Overcome" in English and Bengali which we joined.

On the final day, we held our closing ceremony. Ven. Nandobatha invited students to say a few words. It was gratifying to hear how much they had improved during the course. Those who spoke were quite articulate in expressing their appreciation to the teachers and to Ven. Nandobatha for organizing the program. For all of them, this was the first opportunity to study in such a course. They promised to continue to practice the skills they had acquired during the short month. We presented each student with a Certificate of Achievement, signed by all of us, and Low and Looi gave each a copy of a grammar reference book which they had brought from Malaysia.

Since all the teachers were seated at a table in front during the ceremony, it was impossible for any of us to take photos. We entrusted our cameras to some in the "audience." Unfortunately, the photographers were not so mindful. In every photo, from all three cameras, the lovely vase of flowers was in front of Visakha's face! Fortunately, she stood up to give her speech and someone caught her smile.

The day before, the same problem
Cleaning the pagoda for New Year's

We arrived back in Kandy about midnight. The house was quiet and serene. It was obvious that the devas were happy, since, even in our absence, Charles had continued evening meditation. Lal joined him on weekends, when he came up for his classes at Peradeniya, and one evening, Charles' son's family from Colombo meditated with him. Sadhu!

We found two touching letters waiting for us. One was from the chaplain of a prison in Washingon, thanking us for donating a copy of "Strive On With Diligence" to the Buddhist group. The other was from Calvin Malone, author of Razorwire Dharma, whom we have known for at least fifteen years. His letter is a testimony to the power of Dhamma and its transformative power. We would like to share it with you.

Bodhisukha Monastery has become a major distributor of Jataka Tales of the Buddha: An Anthology. Ven. Nandobatha has sold more than 150 copies of our book to monks in India and pilgrims from Burma. It seems that almost every Burmese monk in Sri Lanka and India now has a copy. We are delighted that we have received two more reviews--one in Thailand (After clicking, please scroll down on that page.) and one in the US. It is also available now on several websites, but the only place to obtain a signed copy is here.

It was three years ago that we established our YouTube channel. Our first video was "Jayamangala Gatha, The Eight Great Victories of the Buddha." This has been viewed more than 58,000 times. At least once a month, we receive a message of thanks for posting it. The latest was from a man in New Zealand who wants to use the song in his wedding ceremony. This makes us very happy. Our slideshows of Ban Vinai have also elicited many comments from Hmong in the United States, so many, in fact, that we have made all the presentations and photos available on one DVD.

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