Monday, February 16, 2009
Nothing Is Left Undone
The Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
It's 9a.m. I'm sitting by the open window at the Rio. I can faintly hear the tuk-tuks and motorbikes as they pass along nearby Challim Nimit Road but competing with that noise is the sound of rushing water from the waterfall down below. Terra cotta pots of bougainvillea are perched on a small ledge, and one mourning dove sings plaintively in the distance. It is already nearly 95 degrees with little breeze to move the muggy air. Summer approaches rapidly.
Today, class is suspended for my monks because they will spend the day worshipping. This morning while I was sipping my green tea, glad to be able to rest ( yes, another bout of probably a virus this time ) and not rush out into the morning heat, I was thinking about my students.
Almost by accident, I began giving them poetry to read. I was skeptical at first because poetry relies on being able to create word pictures, so to speak, and I wasn't sure that their English skills were going to be ready for that level of comprehension.
The first poem, an Irish Blessing, was an experiment, and I introduced it by telling them that a friend had sent it to me to bless me on my journey to teach them. Painstakingly, we worked through each stanza looking up words like indigo, balance, clay.
The stanzas were manageable, and the students seemed to like the form of poetry versus reading from the Bangkok Post which has far more words to decode just due to its density of format.
I told them I would choose another poem if they wished--and they agreed. So, week two we studied Robert Frost. I told them his story--his boyhood, his discouragement from the Atlantic when he submitted his first poetry, the tragedy of his many family deaths, and his triumphal reading of the poem he had created for John Kennedy's inauguration. Then we read "The Road Not Taken". In a strange way, it was magical. Every time I try to reach across language and cultural barriers, I feel as if I am trying to reach into a deep abyss, tentative about my ability to reach them on a meaning level of understanding. And each time I try, I am rewarded by twelve sets of eyes yearning to understand.
What does "trodden" mean, I ask? KimYi, my oldest student, a Cambodian who experienced the horrors of Pol Pot, is the first to speak. "Trodden", he began in his softspoken way, "it mean...about ...walk on something and make it a little broken." And I knew he had it! When the code is broken and they get it, it is thrilling.
Week three we read Emma Lazarus' The New Collossus because they wanted to know about New York and mentioned the Statue of Liberty as the icon they knew about the city. We read the poem stanza by stanza. And at the end of class, I sang it, my contralto a little throaty, hoping there was no rule that a woman couldn't sing to her students. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.." What are huddled masses, I asked? I showed them a huddle, rounding my shoulders and crouching down beneath the desk. I imagine at least some of the monks from Laos and Cambodia were poor and certainly understand the desire for freedom. Emotionally, almost intuitively, they seem to understand my intentions--or so it seems.
This week, I thought it would be interesting to choose an Eastern poet. I have always liked the existential poetry of Lao Tzu, his emphasis on nothingness, the essence of Taoism. So, with a little hesitation since I had no idea how good the translation was from Chinese much less Thai, I brought two short poems by Lao Tzu. I asked them if they knew Lao Tzu. Suraphet and Kraingsak both knew that he was a Chinese philosopher, and most likely a contemporary of Confucius. They seemed pleased to be able to tell me about his philosophy which emphasizes nature vs. Confucius who was interested in societal norms/ moral order.
What is it, I asked myself this morning in the quiet of the dawn? What is it that is so inspiring about these students? Is it the garments, their bare feet, their shaved heads--all foreign to me? Is it the fact that they are such eager learners unlike many students in the States, who bored with the subject of ethics, would begrudgingly show up for class just because it was part of their grade. Is it a sense of gratitude? Is it because it is a joy to see them get a concept?
Who can use the word "serious" in a sentence, I asked yesterday. Kraingsak replied: " I am...ah...serious about learning to speak good English." And his face lit up as he could see apparently from my face that he had said it perfectly.
There's something about the East that almost makes you WANT to stay in the moment -- especially when I am with these monks who, no matter how long they stay in the monastery, are, for now focusing on the elements that seem most important to me--to try to develop an interior life that can sustain the suffering that life inevitably serves up without devastation but simply as part of the journey.