Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Me... talking politics ... even while in meditation?

The Golden Buddha in Bangkok.... one ton of pure gold!

During one of the reflective compassion meditations during the 19 day retreat, we were asked to show compassion on someone we really did not like. Well.... I thought of a couple of political figures in the USA with whom I could conjure up Zero - Zip - Nada degrees of even the tiniest bit of compassion.

Later I had a chance to talk about this with Rosemary, one of the teachers, during a private interview with her. I was on my high horse of idealism, questioning why these very powerful USA political figures were doing so little, if anything, in my humble opionion, to bring about an end to all the suffering in the world. Of course under my breath what I was also saying was that if I, were in their position.... I indeed would be working tirerlessly to end poverty, cure diseases, care for the orphans, bring clean drinking water to everyone, bring about a changes in Burma and Zimbawe, and so on and so forth!

Rosemary looked at me.... sat back in her chair and said.... "The Buddha, when he was alive, could not end all the suffering in the world. Who am I to think that I can do this, when even the Buddha could not?"

The air went out of my idealist balloon. I was again reminded to look at myself... what I can do to end suffering .... not be the judge of what others I think... should be doing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Your body lives in the moment. You can join it!" Rosemary

"How was the 19 day retreat?" you ask.......

Let me respond to your question like this....

"Every thought is significant. Investigate every thought." noted the late Kristnamurti.

This retreat taught me to do just that. Step-by-step, I learned methods, tools and techniques of mental development to use throughout my meditation practice. It provided me with the time daily to practice the new skills I'd been taught, and it provided me with the one-on-one guidance of a teacher, through a series of interviews, to share my experiences with and to insight from them.

Developing "Wisdom" was a major focus of the retreat, learning to become more compassionate with ourselves as well as with the rest of the beings on this planet.

It was for me, another step towards my becoming much more aware of my own thoughts as they arise in my mind, learing to investigate these thoughts to see if the are beneficial or unbeneficial, and then to act on the beneficial thoughts through my speech and actions so as to create my own personal "Peace of Mind" on a moment-by-moment basis.

Restructuring my conditioned views of the world that lead to my thoughts, speech and actions, will take time. As Rosemary, one of the retreat teachers said to me.... "With Right View and Right Thought, one walks out of suffering (unsatisfactoriness) and onto the Eightfold Path toward Enlightenment."

End of the 19 day retreat..... participants, teachers and nuns.

Retreat schedule....

4:00 a.m. Wake up bell
4:45 a.m. Sitting Meditation
5:30 a.m. Stetching Exercises
6:30 a.m. Sitting Meditation
7:05 a.m. Breakfast
8:15 a.m. Working Meditation
9:00 a.m. Walking Meditation
9:30 a.m. Talk followed by Sitting Meditation
10:25 a.m. Talk
10:30 a.m. Walking Meditation
11:05 a.m. Lunch
1:00 p.m. Walking Meditation
1:45 p.m. Standing Meditation
2:45 p.m. Walking Meditation
3:30 p.m. Sitting Meditation
4:30 p.m. Walking Meditation
5:15 p.m. Light Dinner
6:15 p.m. Sitting Meditation
6:45 p.m. Walking Meditation
7:15 p.m. Talk
8:30 p.m. Optional additional Meditation or sleeping

Experiencing Meditation and Life at the Retreat Center

Three hours in the state of deep, breath-by-breath, concentration....

During the afternoon of the seventh day of the retreat.... at the very beginning of the hour long standing meditation.... I suddenly found myself in very deep state of concentration ... as every breath rose, I followed it in.... as every breath left, I followed it out. If a thought came into my brain, I'd zap it by saying "thinking, thinking, thinking" and the thought would "puff" disappear. As I watched my breathing, it became a blue-green oblongish flow or air moving in and out. My mind was totally fixed on follwing my breath and only my breath. This continued the whole hour!

When the hour ended and we were to move outside of the meditation hall and begin our walking meditation, the deep concentration state continued .... until.... a mosquito came along and began singing in my ear. Had I been mindful enough to have said "hearing, hearing, hearing" instead of allowing the mosquito to bring up all sorts of aversions.... well... the spell broke.... darn mosquito!

But then... following 45 minutes of walking meditation, we moved back into the meditation hall for sitting meditation, and suddenly, there I was, again deep into following my breath and only my breath.... for another 45 minutes, I thought of nothing and I mean NOTHING, other than observing each breath as it came in and as it went out. It felt so, so, sooooooooooooooooooooo good! I was in total and absolute bliss ....

The bell rang for the evening meal which consisted each day of a fruit salad ... chunks of fresh pineapple, slices of bananas, covered with grated coconut with a few roasted peanuts scattered around on the top. All through my silent evening meal.... I kept thinking... "I was in the Zone. I was in the Zone. Is that what Nirvana is like?"

Follwing dinner, the evening sitting meditation brought me smoothly and easily back into the same deep state of concentration. By now the experience had brought with it a mellowing effect, where I did not struggle in the least to follow my breath.... rising... falling.... rising.... falling.... for another hour!

That night when I went to sleep... I set my alarm to make sure I'd be in the meditation hall early for the 4:45 a.m. sitting! I could not wait to get back into the "Zone!"

Next morning however,.... nothing.... nothing... I could not concentrate... I felt frustrated. Later that day, I met with Rosemary for one of my interviews with her, and told her about my experience from the day before and how I could not recapture the experience again at the morning sitting. She looked at me... sat back and laughed! "Everything is impermanent," Rosemary exclaimed! "You wanted that feeling back so badly this morning, your desire was so strong that it kept it away!

Rosemary went on to explain to me that in Theravadan Buddhism, the objective is not to crave the past or desire the future, but to investigate objects (thoughts) arising in the mind on a moment by moment basis. "Remember everything is impermanent, constantly changing," Rosemary reminded me again. "Try to deal only with the situation you experience at any one moment. Don't let your desire try to re-create a blissful experience from the past." I knew Rosemary was right.... but that blissful experience I'd had... well, it sure was nice!

The laundry area and bathrooms at the meditation center.

On the retreat registration day, I found that I'd been assigned to a small, rustic wooden cabin built on stilts in the jungle. A building with wooden planks for a floor that shifted and groaned when anyone walked across it. It was a really cozy little place, with built-in wooden bunks to accommodate up to six people. Luckily there were only four of us..... but as I was to find out my first night.... that was about three too many!

Everything was peace and calm that first night... until I was jolted out f my sleep by what sounded like a ruff running 747 jet landing right next to my bottom bunk! The guy next to me was snoring so loud, the noise made the floor vibrate! Mentally, I began packing my bags. No way was I going to lay on a hard wooden floor for 19 days and listened to this guy every night! I mean, in my California home, I have two white noise machines to block out any noise while I sleep.

Next day I asked one of the retreat assistants if she had any thoughts on how to deal with snoring. She replied.... that when the snoring started, for me to just keep saying "hearing, hearing, hearing" and NOT "snoring, snoring, snoring" since the word snoring makes the brain all agitated with aversion (why is he so loud! doesn't he have any consideration for me?, etc.) while the word "hearing" just notes, without any aversion, what's going on.

Well... I'd heard of this technique before, and had actually used it.... But only when, during a weekend meditation retreat there was a little bird singing while I was meditating..... NOT when a loud 747 was lumbering down the runway next to my bed!

So that night, as soon as the snoring started, I began repeating "hearing, hearing, hearing" and to my amazement, I did eventually fall asleep! Now that did not mean I was able to stay asleep, for when the snoring came back in full force, I'd wake up and repeat "hearing, hearing, hearing." Funny thing was that when I used that word "hearing" no aversion arose in my mind, so there was not the typical tightening of my muscles and racing of my brain that I had grown so use to in the past.... no none of that.

I was a little shaken to notice one day however, that even this snoring guy wore ear plugs! So every time when the big jumbo jet would begin its lumbering take off, I'd just say to myself... "hearing, hearing, hearing" and I'd fall off to sleep. Of course,, the little blue ear plugs I brought along and the two heavy pillows I placed over my ears... well.... they helped too!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Buddhist Monastery at Wat Kow Tahm

The island of Kha Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand where the Buddhist Monastery of Wat Kow Tahm and the Meditation Center are located....

This really is a tropical paradise!

The Pink Temple at Watt Kow Tahm

Within the first few days of the retreat, I began noticing my mind's aversion toward judging other people at the retreat.... "Why does she do walking meditation so exaggerated like that?" or... "Why does he always take so much food?" or... "Why don't the teachers realize that everyone is very tired from meditating all day and yet the evening talks go on for so long?" and on and on and on went my mind non stop it seemed!

During one of my individual interviews with Rosemary, one of the teachers, I asked her about my "judgemental" mind. She commented that judging is linked to prejudice which has as its origin ignorance. Rosemary suggested I do a mindfulness meditation on my judgemental mind, using the Law of Cause and Effect to reflect on all the suffering that has been created in the world due to judging, prejudice and ignorance. To reflect on the lives of those people who appear a little different and how they have been hurt because of prejudice. Then in my reflection, to try and develop compassion for myself and these people.

Later that day, I did just that. In silent meditation, I went through a series of reflections on various groups of people who have been hurt by prejudice. With this kind of reflection, it is easy to spiral downward and see one's self as totally worthless. So I guided my reflective meditation session with an image Steve, the other teacher, had given us, wherein he'd noted we're not all totally bad... in fact, we've created a beautiful houses for ourselves in our minds, with many, many beautiful rooms!

Reflecting, I looked at my life and my mind's home... with the vast variety of rooms I'd created. Many very exotic! Fun places for me to go to in my mind! Other rooms were bright, cheery and places where I'd often meet friends. Some rooms needed to be cleaned a little, while others... well, needed a whole lot of cleaning.... someday, I told myself... someday. But not now. As I went through the home my mind had created, I noticed that some doors were slightly ajar, others were closed.... I knew what or who was behind those doors and I just did not want to go there very often!

Then... I found doors that were locked solid. I knew exactly who waited for me behind those locked doors, and in mind, I knew that keeping the doors locked was causing me suffering.... but I just did not what to deal with the history behind those doors .... I just wanted to keep the doors lock. As I continued in this reflection.... I came upon just one of those doors I'd locked a couple years ago. Someone had been, what I felt at the time, very judgemental towards me, so in return, I became very judgemental toward that person, cut off all communication without explanation, and locked the door.

Frequently, some thought would pop into my mind, and I'd find myself walking by that locked door, knowing very well who I'd locked inside and hence out of my life. It made me feel sad about what had happened, but the door remained locked, just the same. Every time I catch a glimpse of that locked door, I'd feel some guilt, remembering the good times I'd had with this person before I locked the door. And there were many, many good times, starting so long ago, I can not even remember. But my desire to show this person's judging of me was wrong, and my counter judging was good, I kept the door locked... My reflection continued as I stood next to that locked door, suddenly realizing all the suffering I'd brought on myself over the last years for what was in essence, my wrong view. My judgemental mind had caused me to lock the door, cut off all communication with this person, with ongoing suffering for me the end result.

The whole purpose of this 19 day meditation retreat I was on in the Gulf of Thailand, was to learn how to develop internal "Peace of Mind." A "Peace of Mind" that could come from letting go of unbeneficial thoughts and cultivating beneficial thoughts. "Did I want to continue to suffer?" I asked myself.... "Did I want to have Peace of Mind?"

Concluding my silent meditation, now very much aware of all the suffering my judgemental mind had caused, I resolved to unlock the door after the retreat was over, re-establish communication with this person, ask for their forgiveness, therein letting go of the suffering and finding, in at least this one situation, my own "Peace of Mind."

The Shrine at the top of the mountain, overlooking the beautiful blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

The grounds and a few of the statues located within the Monastery grounds.

The name of this temple comes from the fact that it is located on a mountain (Kow) and that there is a cave (Tahm)where some monks have spent considerable time meditating....

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Brainstorming.... basis for a 5 paragraph essay..

Over the last two weeks, I've been working with the students at the University in That Phanom, teaching them how to write a five paragraph essay. Using the Four Square Writing Method, students brainstorm and organize their thoughts, using a graphic organizer, before they write. In the Four Square Method, students are encouraged to come up with a topic sentence which contains three sub-topics which in turn form the body or 2nd, 3rd, and 4th paragraphs of their essay. After teaching and re-teaching the basic structure, here Phra Von verbally brainstorms the beginnings of his essay....

Congratulations Phra Von! Good job!

True Confession of a Thai Temple Addict!

Okay... I confess... I'm a temple junkie! I love to visit Thai temples, walk around them, meditate in them, take pictures of them, and so on and so forth. I'm fascinated with them... well one in particular. The temple at Wat Phra That Phanom captured my imagination two years ago when I visited here, and has been calling out my name ever since.

For me, experiencing this temple is somewhat like experiencing the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Both are overwhelmingly massive. Both spectacularly beautiful. Both exude the mystery of life! If one allows oneself, these spiritual sites can radiate an incredible power and attraction!

But no matter how powerful the illusive draw, no matter how strong the allure, I had to remind myself on this trip that these spiritual sites are made by the hands of people.

So this morning, as I sat cross legged on the cool marble tiles near the base of the gigantic pagoda of Wat Phra That Phanom, and in the quiet of the morning, with not a single solitary soul around me as the bright golden sun rose and illuminated against the deep blue sky, the pure gold umbrella that sits on the very top of the structure, I reflected on my latest stay in That Phanom and penned the following....

Pilgrim's Pagoda
Buddha's Bone
It's impermanent

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Outer and Inner walls of Wat Phra That Phanom Temple

The inside wall of the outer wall of the temple, is lined with large golden Buddha statues, all of which are facing toward the enormous sacred pagoda, housing the collar bone of the Buddha.... which makes this temple the spiritual center of NE Thailand.

The third, or inner wall of the temple complex, opens directly to the gigantic five story high stone pagoda. The inner courtyard that surrounds the pagoda is relatively narrow and simple. A metal gold colored stairway leads directly to the single wood doors, located some ten feet or more up from the base of the pagoda, that when opened would give access into the actual pagoda.

Beyond the very outer wall of the temple, are located many colorful shrines, many of which have statues of the Buddha located within them. Directly behind this large golden Buddha, is a large Boddhi tree... which was planted near the temple in the 1950s. A branch of the Boddhi tree in India, was taken from there and planted here in That Phanom. Now some 50 plus years later, the Boddhi tree is huge!

Students of the famous meditation master...Ajaan Mun

While I was in Nongkhai, the Director of a primary school gave me this very old photograph of ten Thai monks.... There is no date anywhere on the photo, but a good guess would have it to be at least 50 to 60 years old.

The photo is of ten young Thai monks, who studied under the famous meditation master, Ajahn Mun. Ajahn Mun became a monk in the late 1800 and was known for his strict and solitary meditation practice. He died in the 1949.

Luang Ta Maha Boowa, the monk in the far right of this close up section of the larger photo, was a student of Ajahn Mun. Luang Ta Maha Boowa is still alive and has a large temple called Wat Pa Bahm Tahd in Udon Thani Province in NE Thailand. Two years ago, I was able to visit Luang Ta Maha Boowa's temple, where on the day of my visit, he spoke to a crowd of several thousand people.

Ajahn Tate, seated on the far left side of this photo, was also a student of Ajahn Mun. Wat Hin Maak Peng, on the banks of the Mekong River in Nongkhai Province is perhaps the most famous temple established by the late, Ajahan Tate. I was fortunate to be able to stay and meditate at Wat Hin Maak Peng for a week, two years ago when I visited Thailand. Following in the Forest Monk tradition, these monks eat only one meal a day, spending the remainder of their time in solitude and meditation.

Ajahn Mun became famous throughout Thailand, Lao and the then Burma for his meditation practice. Many students came to study under Ajahn Mun and learn from him. Other than Luang Ta Maha Boowa and Ajahn Tate, I have not been able to find someone here in Thailand who can identify the remaining eight students in this photo. However, I will continue my research.....

One-on-one English tutoring

One of the assignments given to the 4th year English major students at the University here in That Phanom, was to read and understand what makes a good public relations plan, based on an internet report from a Midwest Dairy Counsel in the USA.

Today, Phra Samphone asked me to help him understand this document... both for vocabulary as well as concepts. So we had fun talking about "stakeholders" and "snowmobiling" and "dairy farms" and "waste disposal plans!" He caught onto these terms quickly, but let me tell you, explaining to someone from Lao, who has never seen snow, about "snowmobiling" was a real challenge!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sunset view of Wat Phra That Phanom Temple

Entering the Spiritual Center of NE Thailand and Lao at sunset is very special, since in addition to being in awe of the massive stupa that dominates the whole complex, the monks at Wat Phra That Temple are conducting their evening chanting.

Three walls surround the sacred pagoda at Wat Phra That Phanom. Upon entering the second wall, everyone takes off their shoes. People enter the second wall, bow down and show their respect to the Buddha. Frequently people will then do a walking meditation of circling the stupa three times.... first to show their respect to the Buddha, second to the Dhamma or the Buddha's teachings and third, to the sanga, or the community.

The third or last wall can not be entered. Walking up to the brightly painted red door in the third wall is as close as one can get to the actual pagoda.

Entering the spectacular Wat Phra That Phanom Temple at sunrise

The massive, elaborately painted five story tall stupa at Wat Phra That Phamom is an artistically and architecturally impressive structure that is not only beautiful to look at, fantastic to do walking meditation around..... but it also the the scacrid site in which the collar bone of the Buddha is enshrined.

Friday, June 27, 2008

My surprise "Lecture" at Sakonnakhon Rajabhat University!

What I thought would be my first day of teaching English to the monks at the University in That Phanom, turned into a trip to another University to discuss Special Education! Phramaha Wanachi, the Director of the Buddhist University in That Phanom, is a good friend with an Assistant Professor at a university in Sakonnakhom (about an hour's drive away from That Phanom) who has just begun a new program to train Thai teachers in Special Education. That afternoon, I met with five faculty members for over three hours discussing everything from IEPs, classroom management, assessment to mainstreaming special education students.

Following this Monday afternoon meeting with the University Special Education faculty, I was invited back the following Friday to meet with, what I thought would be, the 15 Thai teachers who are in their second year of a five year program to be trained in Special Education.

When Phramaha Wanachi and I arrived at the Sakonnakhon Rajabhat University for what I thought was going to be my little "chat" with a few students.... I found the University's 100 seat amphitheatre was set up for me to give a lecture!

Walking into the large lecture amphitheatre, I was overwhelmed as I looked out, not just at a few Special Education university students..... but also at sophomore students in the math and science teacher training program. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 pairs of eyes looking at me .... about five minutes before I was to begin... my lecture!

Most spoke little or no English so my whole talk needed to be translated. The just of my talk centered on helping the university students understand the need for for them as teachers, to assess their students' skill levels, and then using this information to construct "power lessons" with multiple activities each class period .... activities that actively engaged the students and where the teacher and students could interact and learn together. I shared with these young teachers in training, some possible student grouping strategies they could use in their classroom.

Thank you from New Sp.Ed. Teachers at Rajabhat SakonnakonUniversity following my presentation to them.

Following my "lecture" to the math and science students in the teacher training progrma, I then spent another hour or so talking with the university students in the Special Education teacher training program. At the end of our talk, one of the students gave me a "thank you" talk in English.

Can't waite until I can wear this yellow shirt back in California! The bright yellow is in honnor of Thailand's King's birthday. I was given this shirt as a gift from the faculty staff at the Sakonnakon University.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

English 5 paragraph essay writing lesson

The senior class of English majors is relatively small at the University. I teach this class twice a week. Earlier in the week, I began showing them how to use a Graphic Organizer, using the Four Square Writing Technique, to organize their thoughts around three major religions in the world... Buddhism, Christianity and Island.

Today, I showed the students how to use the Graphic Organizer they'd used to brainstorm their thoughts and ideas on about each religion and how to take these ideas and draft a five paragraph essay. First I modeled for them how to begin.

After modeling for the students how to write the Introduction and first paragraph (I gave them the basic structure to follow), students worked together in a guided practice activity to draft the third and fourth paragraphs.

Each student then copied from the white board the five paragraph essay we developed together to use as their own model for future essay writings.

Here's my room at the Buddhist University

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What to do... what to do!

Decision time! I really like teaching the monks here at the University. My tentative plans are to teach this week and all of next..... and then I'm scheduled to attend the 19 day silent "Mental Development" retreat on the island of Koh Phangan. Decisions, decisions, decisions.... should I keep teaching at the University until I return to California...? Or..... should I attend the retreat?

I'm still searching......

Teaching to the Orange Robes

This week, June 23rd, I started teaching the monks and novices at the Nakornphanom Branch of Machachulalongkornrajaviddhalaya Buddhist University. I'm teaching about four hours each day, from freshmen to seniors.

This freshmen class has 58 students, all with very different levels of English. I feel as though I'm looking out at an ocean of orange robes as I try to differentiate the instruction as much as I can. With a two hour block to teach basic English... even my bag of instructional strategies is often not deep enough to get me through the whole period! Using the computer, which then projects onto a screen, I type a conversation between a foreigner and a monk.

All the monks want to learn conversational English, so this lesson responds specifically to their need. I tailor the lesson to a foreigner asking about a monk's daily life, so that even those with limited English soon understand the basic lesson. With the sentences projected on the screen, the monks write the conversational script in their notebook. With so many students, I teach the whole class how to pronounce the words in each sentence and help them understand the meaning as well.

Once the whole class has learned the basic sentences, I then move around the classroom, checking for understand and pronunciation, by calling on individual monks to respond to one of the questions they've just learned when the foreigner, in the script, asks them a question.

After checking for understand and reteaching, I pair up the monks to practice the conversation. One monk plays the part of the foreigner and the other, the monk. After they've practiced the conversation this way for 5 to 10 minutes, I have them reverse their positions and practice the conversation again.

House hunting in Nongkhai

I am not sure what I said to Mr. Elvis one day that made him think I was ready to buy either land in Thailand to build a house, or to buy an already constructed house. But either way.... house hunting we went!

This house in Mr. Elvis' neighborhood (a small sub-division of about 25 houses in Nongkhai) might sell for about $40,000. House and land!

This house in the same sub-division could go for about $25,000 to $30,000. A steal by California standards!

Just as in the USA, bank repos in Thailand have become common place. Mr. Elvis' wife, Lad, showed me the bank repo listing book and together, based on the description, thought this house close to the Mekong River could be ideal for me. A three bedroom, two bath home for under $20,000. Mr. Elvis and I went off one afternoon to find the house. In the process, we got lost... had to ask for directions. When he asked about the house, the people commented... "That house has ghosts!" The whole house was lost in the jungle of over grown trees! After looking around the sub-division and seeing all the empty houses, I told Mr. Elvis that I thought the whole area was haunted!

Right next to Mr. Elvis' house was a plot of land which both he and his wife thought would be ideal on which I could build a house. The land was only about $8,000 and would have provided enough space for a very large house as well as a huge lawn, or garden or orchard. Only draw back for me.... a foreigner can not own land in Thailand. The title deed must be held by a Thai. Bottom line to this house hunting story..... I did not buy.... yet anyway!

Teacher Training in Nongkhai

One day while visiting the Education Office (equivalent of our District Office in California) in Nongkhai with Mr. Elvis, I met Mr. Ampone, the Director of the English Language Teacher Training Program. His department is responsible for training and providing follow-up to Thai English teachers in some 180 schools. And I thought working with 30 teachers at ten schools last year was a lot!

A couple days later, I met with Mr. Ampone and his Project Coordinator to discuss potential student grouping instructional strategies they could incorporate into their training activities.

Just prior to my meeting with Mr. Ampone, I had an opportunity to hold a "mini" training activity with the Thai English teachers at the large Pathumthep High School in Nongkhai. This high school has close to 4000 students and includes a special English Program where student take all of their classes in English (the parents pay extra for this program) as well as English within the normal Thai curriculum. During this training, we discussed classroom management techniques as well as instructional strategies. Part of my training included the "Pair-Share" concept where the teacher does a short visual and auditory lesson, followed by the two students in turn teaching each other the same lesson. This is a powerful technique which has the teacher teaching (talking) one third of the time and the students teaching (talking to) each other two thirds of the time.