Thursday, March 6, 2014

A journey to Bidung

Bidung community, a photo taken from Bartsam by Brodie.
Bidung is a scattered village opposite Bartsam, in Tashigang Dzongkhag, at about 2400 m elevation. 
The Bidung temple (also ta dzong) sits on the slope, hidden from the other side of the same community by a huge hill covered by pine, oak and other high altitude plants. 
The rising of the early sun was shadowed by the hill until late morning. The temperature we experienced was below 0 degree centigrade in the morning and it rises to maximum of 13-14 degree centigrade at mid-day. 
The typical winter season in the village could be witnessed every morning as puddles of water turned into hard slippery ice, the shedding of the oak tree leaves in the afternoon, and the skeleton deciduous trees standing tall in the garden.
It takes roughly ten hours by bus to make it from Dewathang to Bidung. We travelled in a public mini bus which was quite old and not in good condition. We had to stop several times on the way to fix the bus. These unscheduled stops actually provided nice opportunities for our students to go out and enjoy the outside environment. The worst part, however, was when we got in an accident with a car. Luckily nothing happened to our students or the people in the other car.    
Bidung temple (Ta-dzong), in Tashigang: Photo Brodie
Almost all of our students were traveling for the first time away from the Institute. It has been a good opportunity for them to see the world beyond their restricted zone of the Institute. While there were a few students who felt traveling sickness most of them were normal and active. They were singing together and making fun of each other.
Looking left and right side with their eye brows raised through the transparent window of the mini bus and pointing to villages, birds and plants, I could tell they are really curious about the outside world.
They were curious to see the Melong Brak (Mirror cliff) which is considered a dangerous and very high cliff on the way to Tashigang from Samdrupjonkhar. They had heard from other people that many accidents take place in that area because the road is comparatively narrow and often has foggy weather.
Monks from Dewathang during Baza guru mantra recitation. Photo by Dawa
They also narrated the story that is behind the name of the river Neagra Ama Chu (roughly which means a river of the Indian mother). They said once an Indian lady was digging an hole to get water out of it and suddenly huge volume of water came out of it and the woman drowned. That was the beginning of the present river and hence how it got its name. They also narrated a story about Kholong chu.

We took our classes in a room of a traditional house that was reserved for us to stay during the mantra recitation ceremony. The two story house was filled with monks from our Shedra and lay people from another community. The room was not so convenient for teaching and learning because it was rectangular and the students sitting at the back seem far away and also the light was dim. We didn't have a white board, either, but we made the best of it, having conversation class, and had fun with them. 
We started our classes at 6 pm with Manjushri's prayer and three minutes of meditation. The classes went up to more than an hour every day. They were long and tiring days for all the monks because they have to be up by 5 am to go to the temple to start mantra recitation. They chant mantras until 4 to 5 pm followed by dinner and then class. Most of the young monks from Mustang group would often fall asleep during the class.


Reception of terma
More than one hundred people from Dewathang and Samdrup Jongkhar gathered at Chokyi Gyatsho Institute late afternoon on January 12, 2014 to pay their respect to one of the five terma statues of Great Guru Padhmasambhava. The "increasing" terma will be kept as an important relic at the Institute. The other four types of terma are uncommon, pacifying, magnetising and subjugating. Khenpo Sonam Tashi said ''the increasing terma will bless us with longevity, property, fame, status, wisdom and other benefits.''
When asked about how to pray and wish for these things, Khenpo said ''one should pray to be reborn in the realm of Zangtopelri and become like Guru Rinpoche after we die.'' He continued, ''when we are alive we should wish for good health, property and any other wishes we have.''
People gathered for Marchang ceremony
The terma was taken to Bidung, in Tashigang Dzongkhag, last December during the one million recitations of the Baza Guru mantra, and later to Bartsam during the Peling empowerment ceremony. After that it was received in Dewathang as the main relic for the benefit of the Institute, the monks, the community,  the Bhutanese nation and the world.  
The agent was received in traditional procession by the Khenpos, lamas, lopens, monks of the Institute, and the lay people of Dewathang and Samdrup Jongkhar. The terma was put on display to the public for three days while there was ongoing recitation of one hundred thousand tshok pecha by the monks of the Institute. The three-day recitation of the tshok was concluded with a blessing from the terma on January 15th.  

Lhomon Education
Increasing terma on display

Daily Meditation

On Saturday 7th December, 2013,  during the usual exchange of questions the students ask each other, Dema Gempo asked Leki Dorji, ''How do you meditate?''

In return, Leki said ''I sit on the cushion, keep my back straight, place my hands on the lap, touch my tongue to the upper palate, lower my gaze and concentrate on my breath.''

Each day, the twenty students with shaved heads and red robes sit on cushions they’ve made out of repurposed plastics, broken umbrella covers and worn out cloth, facing the small shrine and white board. The person in charge of the bell sits in the front of the room,  and strike it once, producing a sharp and high note to set the students into the world of sitting practice for three minutes.  This moment is cherished for being very silent and aware of each present moment.  The beauty of silent sitting is perceptible when we hear the trickling sound of water, the cheeping of tiny birds from the bushes, the whining of exhalation and inhalation, the slapping of the tree leaves, the tapping of footsteps, etc.

One can hear many common sounds when the class atmosphere is dominated with silence, which we usually fail to spot during most of our daily activities. All our senses become receptive and alert to their respective external stimuli. The very gentle air puffing over our cheeks, the pain in our knees, itching in the various parts of our body, back pain, the sensation of the cushions under our buttocks, and sensing the weight of our hands in our laps are some of the negligible feelings that go unrecognized most of the time, but which are recognized when we sit and practice. These are basic foundation which allow us to climb the ladder of mindful practice, and even to realize them at this small level are positive changes in the right direction.

Contemplative practice has been part of our class since the inception of our program. It is a practice that involves looking inside oneself and focusing one's awareness on the present moment. Our students anchor on their inhalation and exhalation while keeping their spines straight, slightly lowered gazes, hands on the knees, and tongues touching the upper palate. Self-awareness of our students begins with paying attention to their senses and nurturing the present moment.

The art of being mindful can be witnessed from the arrangement of slippers and shoes along the entrance door of the class every morning. It looks very neat and well set up. It also reminds one that the same practice can be done with other activities outside our classroom. The arrangement also portrays an end result of mindfulness as attractiveness, and provides a simple opportunity and platform to practice, thus widening the prospect of practices. Whenever student's are not being mindful out of forgetfulness, as a teacher one can always remind them. 
The practice of mindfulness has changed our students in some ways, compared to when they first began. When we introduced mindfulness to our students the biggest challenge was not being able to control our student's laughter and giggling. Most of them became easily distracted by their friend's little giggles, and I vividly remember having to restart our mindfulness sessions all the way from the beginning several times. Today, this habit is not common anymore with our students. That the students are now maintaining good physical posture is another positive change I have witnessed in our students. Most of them can sit straight and maintain the required posture. I have also seen a few students taking this same practice into their rooms, and finding time to do it privately. Often I hear students teasing each other for not being mindful when they make simple mistakes in their performances. I feel that the students can now sit and practice for longer durations than in the beginning. These are a few measurable observations and changes I have witnessed with my students. 

While the ultimate goals of meditation may remain beyond our imagination, the relative aims that induces us to practice mindfulness are to become aware of daily activities, calm our minds, control our thoughts, develop concentration levels, and to be creative. 

Our practice has been positive and helpful to our students. From time to time, we give further instructions, and have also asked the Khenpos to talk about mindfulness and mediation. These help to guide the students’ practice, so that it is done authentically and in the right way. 
Henceforth, our wish is to practice more and learn more about meditation.

Alice Project Visit

At the invitation of founders Valentino Giacomin and Luigina Di Biasi, I visited The Alice Project School in Sarnath, India for one week in March, 2013 in order to observe their teaching methods and receive training that can be transferred to our classroom here at Chokyi Gyatso Institute in Dewathang. The Alice Project is near the beautiful Buddhist ruin where Buddha first taught. Graced with an environment of green trees and plants, the school provides not only a home for many animals and birds, also a place for young children to discover their inner true self. The following is a brief reflection of my visit. 

"Ciao Aunty!" children in a corridor call out to Luigina. Ciao is Italian, for good morning/evening. Ciao! she replies immediately. She is like a mother, gently holding the hands of students, tugging their uniforms, hugging and kissing. She spends a couple of minutes talking with each student despite her busy schedule. She has an inspiring quality as a teacher, while she interacts with the children. Personally I feel, that teachers should have these values as a part and parcel of their intimacy. Her love and kindness to all the children with no discrimination has gained the children's love equally in turn and they have in fact strong familial relationships rather than mere teacher/students relationships. During own my schooling, teachers were teachers and students were students. There was a big gap between us, which created fear, confusion, hostility and lot more. Teachers were viewed as fearsome. I vividly remember jumping off a wall to escape their view. I learned some very important skills from Luigina about how to establish good relationships with children. Yet, I admit there is always a room to grow and learn more.

The Alice Project is a non-governmental organization that was formally authorized by the Indian government in 1994. Its purpose is to develop an integrated education through experiences and research. Luigina and Valention founded these schools one in Sarnath and another in Bodhgaya. Today these schools offer education to more the one thousand students. Recently another school had been opened for Chakma children in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Alice Project methodology is based on the concept of unity. There are no divisions by different nationalities, traditions, religions in an ideal multicultural and pluralistic society. Lack of unity is not only a social concern but it is also a personal concern in relation to ourselves. It's here that research for psychological unity starts, a unity that goes beyond division created by confusing mind.  
They schools are following the Indian state government syllabus for the traditional disciplines, which are taught according to western methodologies, plus an additional curriculum of their special educational programme- Yoga, concentration, art, mythology, comparative religion, moral science and ecology.

"Like Alice who embarked on a great adventure and did not lose herself in Wonderland (in the book by Lewis Carroll) but found an inner guide in the form of the White Rabbit. In a same way we should guide our students to discover their true self," says Luigina. "Our students need to be able to find their way in the world around them through understanding their internal world" she added. "Understanding the internal world needs experiences and we are providing those to our children," she added.

When asked about the inner world Luigina said, ''What is going on in yourself? What can we see? what are our thoughts? our feelings? Our emotions? What is our reality? We call all this our internal world, which cannot be separated from external reality.''

Today's education system is built on separation and on classification. In school we tell the children to look at a tree. The tree is divided into three parts - roots, trunks, leaves. Is it really that the trees are divided into three parts or they were long ago, some botanist took a pen and wrote down that the trees are divided into three parts-and the idea came to an existence. Now we tell students, this is a truth, go memorise it, if you don't, you will fail in your exam.

According to Luigina, this kind of knowledge is poison. It is not truth that the trees are divided into three parts. What is true is that we project what is in our mind. Everything we perceive outside comes from our filter, our thoughts, believes, cultures, religion, principles and an environment we are raised.
The first clang of a bell calls students' attention to take their seats on the carpet. They take out their shoes and slippers around the edge and sit in their respective lines. At once, hundreds of students begin their morning  prayes. They are dressed in sky blue shirts, dark purple pants or skirts, dangling purple ties from the middle of their chests for junior grades.  The girls wear long blue knee length skirts. The morning breeze through the green tall trees, plants and flowers fills the gathering. A pigeon on a 'Y' shaped branch listens to the melodies prayer and often in between a sparrow adds to the chorus with their chirps but it is dominated by a tune of hundreds below. 

After the prayer the students sit on the carpets cross legged. A teacher stands on the floor in front of the gathering with a small bell in his right hand. He shakes it vigorously so that the sound is audible at the rear. He speaks in Hindi through a microphone held in his left hand. ''Students, sit straight, close your eyes, think about an enemy whom you have hurt. Ask yourself why did you hurt him or her. Dissolve their harsh words and pay attention to your breath. Know that you are inhaling when you inhale and exhaling when you exhale. Visualise 'OM' in your mind.'' Then in an ascending tone they chant OM...OM...OM... three times. Thus, a day begins with looking into the Internal world of self.

Being a Buddhist myself, born and raised in a society where Gross National Happiness concept was created, exploring the nature of mind and discovering its inner most quality has become a basic reliable foundation. Meditation can be a universal path of internalizing into one's own unexplored working of a mind. I realized that simple daily contemplative practices in school are very important from an early age. The education we give to our children must bring benefit throughout the individual's life and even in their next life, which I think is possible through training our mind-meditation or whatever we call it. If taken into consideration meditation would provide a unique platform for our young and unspoiled minds to discover the mind system at earliest possible. At times meditation becomes investigational lab for our children to become mind scientists. The production of hundreds and hundreds of mind scientists could begin from schools and one example could be Alice Project.

At the school, there is always some time reserved during the assembly hour to sing together in unison. Most of the songs are praises to god, value embedded and peace related. One of the songs was sung in many different languages (Hindi, English, Italian, African, Bhutanese et al). ''We will be in peace...'' followed by rhythmic claps. ''Bless the lord my Soul...''. I learned that singing songs together gives an opportunity for students to join as one, respect each other, learn and visualize the value images, work with tunes and compose their own songs.

I learned, that to cultivate the seed of a pure and good mind one should have an inspiring  environment as a fertile land and that must be constantly encouraged in our children's daily practices. At Alice Project there was a Tara temple which was dedicated to an universal peace; the long life of H.H. the Dalai Lama; Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshey, the gurus who inspired the Alice Project. There, the students from the Alice Project recite the prayer to Tara taking turns. The cosmic female energy is generated constantly by 24 hours uninterrupted recitation of her prayer. Many lamas have blessed the temple.

Yoga is a science of a body and a mind. I learned that there is an important relationship between yoga and meditation. Both the practices basically help in the development of children's concentration, calming the mind, and right growth of the body. To provide an opportunities for students to practice and learn yoga, the school has a separate yoga room and makes schedule for all the classes.

I observed several yoga classes and every time they begin with motivational prayer and meditation for few minutes. They dedicate their learning and again mediate for few minutes to end the session.

I am very impressed with the wonderful learning environment- training in tolerance and respect for all the religions, stress on interdependence, all so peaceful, friendly and happy. I feel very strongly that meditation would help our students to become better person in their life. As a part of pilgrimage I also went to see Alice school in Bodhgaya it was an inspiring school. I met with Valentino and he shared about the concern of western education system. He said  Bhutan has rich indigenous culture and tradition and it must be preserved and catered through education. If our education system goes wrong the story would be same as the crisis of ladhak and Nepal. So be careful with your education system he warns.

With this I would like to thank Valentino and Luigina for warm reception and great learning experiences you provided for me. Thank you so much for everything and my warm regards goes to you, your teachers, and to the students. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Journey Along The River

Burbling river of Khoma flowing down swiftly
Through the wide bank of the valley
Splashing as it moves over the rock
Curves gently through the forest and
Swerves along the base of mighty mountains
Sometime it murmurs as we move little away from it
Ripples its sound as we come closer to  
A journey along the river

As if to big mission of tracking the sources
Climbing up the rugged steeps and down the valleys
Moving at snail's pace through the trails crafted on the cliff
Sliding down the slippery track
hopping over the rocks and logs on the marshy path
harmonizing body gravity over the bridges
A journey along the river

Babbling brooks from one distance to another   
On the way are arteries to the river
Well set up on timely location
Was divine miraculous to benefit beings
To quench the burning thirst of the voyage
One bends down to sip up refreshing water
Which cools and reenergize ones boat like body
To sail its every step closer to the destination
A journey along the river 

Birds tweeting from the tops of the tall tress
Bees buzzing among the wild flowers
Butterflies fluttering around the natural flowers
Wind whispering gently through the grasses
Cicada screaming its shrill droning noise
Deer barking its sharp explosive cry
Gentle breeze whistling over the mount
Stamping pattern of the feet against the ground
A journey along the river   

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Faintness in sunset

twilight over the gigantic mount of Himalayas
facing directly to the great temple of Chokyi
with last veneration until, same time
it glows in faint rosiness, that rang a bell
'A day near to graveyard'
down to the base of mighty mount
the unbroken cries of Himalayan river
descending, steadily through the vales
of beautiful laden branches and fragrance
disappears with the melodic rhythm, nothing is everlasting
Over the ascending peak of mighty mount
the dark dense clustered clouds
transform the blue vast sky into a gloomy
that drizzle down over the hamlet of Dewathang
this altering natural phenomenon, reminds of  uncertainty
A recent news of a woman's death, is an example
to our last entrance through which
no one shall prove supremacy
it was you and me who talked about her death
sooner or later they shall talk about my graveyard.