Tuesday, March 03, 2009


[Ed. note: I tried to publish this two days ago but the site was censored by the government. So, I couldn't access Rounding 60 at all. I have moved locations, although I am still in the south, and now am able to transmit via this http. That's a first! ]

March 1, 2009
Krabi Province, Thailand

My last day teaching the monks was Friday, February 27. We had class like any other day. Viby, his voice loud and clear, read about the Pol Pot commandant, Duch, who is standing trial right now in a courtroom just outside Phnom Phen before five Cambodian justices. Duch was the man who was in charge of the political prisoners in S21 which sits not far from the center of Phnom Penh, and, today, is a shrine to the thousands of intellectuals, educators and professionals who were tortured there, and eventually taken to the Killing Fields ( made popular by the movie of the same name ) to face certain death. It was his nod that started each prisoners’ interrogation which was conducted under the ruse of obtaining a confession from them about their supposed involvement in anything that might threaten Pol Pot’s dream of an agrarian Utopia in Cambodia.

It turned out that on the last day, most of my students were Cambodian men who had come to Thailand to join a monastery, and ended up at Wat Warachanyawas. Viby, Sa, Chieng, Veravong ( Cambodians ) and Suraphet ( Thai ) are all under 30, so they know about the carnage only second hand. Only Kim Yi remembers. He opened up a bit more, telling the others and me about a going to S21 when he returned to Cambodia to see family.
He began, his voice almost a whisper. “ I go to S21 and see the pictures of the faces on the prison wall. They are now all dead. I look at their eyes and they look at only me. Only me. It give me goose flesh even now.” And yet, there are many Cambodians of that age who do not know about the Khmer Rouge’s murders in the late 70s. These monks tell me that it is not being taught in school, and many of the older people don’t talk about it. It is as if Cambodia is shell shocked.

Then, I gave them my last day surprise, a new poem. I chose this one the night before when I was looking for just the right poem, just the right thought to leave with them as our time together came to an end. I wanted a poem that was East meets West. I found “In Silence” by Thomas Merton, an American monk who came to be very well known in the U.S. in the 1960s in some circles because of his interest and then real embracing of Buddhism in an attempt to recapture some of the ascetism of the early Christians like the Essenes; and because he was very outspoken in his writing from his strict Carmelite monastery outside of Louisville, Kentucky about the Vietnam War.

Just like every other week, I did a brief biography of the poet so they could get some context. When I told them that Merton died suddenly at age 50 something only about 45 minutes away from our temple classroom, I had their attention. Especially when I told them it was an accidental electrocution because of a faulty fan he was using after bathing.
Everyone in Bangkok appreciates the importance of a good fan on a hot day.

In Silence
By Thomas Merton
Be still,
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try to speak your name.
Listen to the living walls.

Who are you?
Who are you?
Whose silence are you?

Who ( be quiet )
Are you ( as these stones are quiet).
Do not think of what yu are
Still less of what you may one day be.
Rather be what you are ( but who?)
Be the unthinkable one
You do not know.

O be still, while
You are still alive,
And all things live around you
Speaking ( I do no hear )
To your own being,
Speaking by the unknown
That is in you and in themselves.

“I will try, like them
to be my own silence:
and this is difficult.
The whole
World is secretly on fire
The stones
Even the stones they burn me.

How can a man be still or
Listen to all things burning?
How can he dare to sit with them
When all their silence is on fire?”

When class was over, we ate pizza from Pizza Hut that I had bought for our last day. It was a seafood pizza with a think crust, lots of tomato sauce, and, of course ( it’s Thailand ) a bit of spice. The monks slathered the pie slices with ketchup.

Suraphet, one of the assistant abbots who is extremely proficient in English, and currently has a BA in philosophy, disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a bag. “Teach- ah,” he began in his very deep tenor voice, his jaw set, his eyes looking down as he emphasized the second half of the word for what seemed like 30 seconds, his voice resonant. “Teach-ah, we wish to give you this special iron statue of Lord Buddha that is made in this temple. We will miss you very much. Thank you, Teach-ah.”

I said a few words, trying to express my gratitude for the statue for their attentiveness, for their hard work, for their willingness to try new things like reading aloud from some very difficult texts. And then I told them the truth. That I would remember them always.

Suraphet looked at the other five monks who were sitting at the table, the pizza devoured, their 10 ounce water bottles empty, lying on their sides, like a lazy dog.

“We chant a blessing for Teach-ah for her long jour-nee back to New Yawk.”

The chant lasted about three minutes. Each monk chanted on the same set of tones that monks have been using for centuries. Chanting is one of the things I’ve found that resonates most with me. I have, on several occasions done short videos of some of my monks, and others from the wat chanting the prayers for the dead ( a source of income for them ), or chanting for 50ish woman whose husband had treated her to a session to bless her on her special day, or in the large open space near the temple proper where, on occasion I will see monks chanting, a reclining Lord Buddha dressed elaborately in silver robe draped over the statue.

But to have them chant a blessing for me? Secretly, I had wanted to ask them to do it, but decided against it—not sure if it would be too pushy.

Each monk, my students, these men who are now meditating daily, living an austere life, sang for me, their heads bowed, their hands waiing. It was perfect unison from the first tone. I was overwhelmed. Tears welled up as their sound filled that little classroom 10,000 miles from home.

, I thought, where will they be next year? In five years? Will Kraingsak be a scholar which is his goal? Will Sa learn English will enough to study in Southern India which is his dream? Will Chieng be accepted to work with Mon monks in Toronto? Will Viby , a muscular and very bright young man from Cambodia keep studying? Will he stay in the monastery or leave to pursue a different life. Will KimYi come to terms with the horror he experienced as a boy under the Khmer? Will Suraphet stay in the monastery? Will he complete the MA he has begun in western philosophy?

I don’t know. Maybe I never will. A year is a long time, and some of these monks will surely be gone.

The other day, a couple from Washington state visited my class to get some feel for this project while they were in Asia for a wedding. Bill, an accountant asked me point blank: "Why did you want to teach monks English? What about working with refugees?" I answered something a little oblique like it's what they wanted. And that is true. The same question came the next day from a long time colleague. My answer was a sidestep. I wasn't sure what the question was about.

But in the meantime, I have thought alot about this past six weeks. I came here thinking I would learn a little about Buddhism not really having any idea how educated my monks would be, how eager they would be to learn English.

Well, they were very bright and very eager, willing to be challenged. I did learn about Buddhism.

But what I really learned was that people are people the world around. The monks were pretty typical students like other students I had taught. We connected. I had something to give them, and, as always happens with students, their progress was my reward.

I like happy endings. I admit it. And last Friday was a happy ending.

One that I'll remember forever.

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