Saturday, June 25, 2005

allowing a critical spirit to develop and thrive

I was asked recently to describe the underlying philosophy or "mission statement" of Moo Baan Dek and I found that I couldn't quite explain. The style is based upon .S. Neill's Summerhill school in England. Neill believed that there were no "bad" children, only children who had been negatively affected by an adult imposition of social codes and morals which they believed to be benificaial in the development of the child. Neill asked: "What is education for if not the child?" Often, we overlook the needs of the child in our pedagogical techniques. Or rather, we emphasize one facet, academic acheivement, over all others. We attempt to raise the next genereation generation to meet the standards and norms of our own generation, but what does this do ultimately? and what does it say about us?It may say that we are deniers of difference.
We are apalled at the behavior of the younger generation because their behavior is unlike our own. But where would we be if the younger generation did not challenge the previous one? What if every generation actually succeeded in churning out a new one just like itself? We would have become stagnant, unchanging, and dull. In a way, it seems lucky for us that we have not succeeded. Who would desire stagnation?
Change is inevitable. It defines ourn lives. Who could say that he or she has experienced anything unchanging? Our environment changes, our bodies change, our ideas change, and our relationships change... every single second. Everything changes in some way or another, in every passing moment... yet for some reason, we cling to the idea that something might stay the same. This clinging only causes us to suffer because our wishes, in this capacity, are never fulfilled.
I want my mother to love me as she did when I was a toddler, full of life, full of questions. I want my father to cherish me as he did when I was five years old... to fix my hair every morning,buy me strawberry milk on the way to school, and push me on the swing every night when we arrive home. But I'm not a toddler anymore and I'm far from five years old. Clinging and wishng to retain this relationship in this particular way causes me to suffer. Realizing that I have changed, my parents have changed, and our relationship has change and that this change is inevitable allows me to be free, happy, and at peace with the truth of change.
So, as a teacher, when I punish a child for rebelling against me by talking out, not paying attention, throwing spitballs... whatever minor disturbance... am I essentially denying change? Life is change. am I denying life?
Understanding that all of life is change and that my wanting things to remain the same only causes me to suffer is one task of Buddhist thought. Embracing change and refraining from denying the right of children to rebel against those who attempt to fit them into the mould established by those who have come before is the task of Summerhillian education. The two seem to go hand in hand.

Friday, June 17, 2005

wun song (day two)

The language barrier is tough. I learned proper Thai from our teacher in Bangkok, Kun Oiy, but the kids at Moo Baan Dek don't really adhere to what is proper. So I speak what I can, I ask the same limited questions over and over and never really undestand the response that I recieve. But a lot can be conveyed through body language and the drawing of pictures. Play doesn't really require language. It feels good to make the kids laugh and they can make me laugh too, without words. My group left today... Chris and Erica are off to Nakom Pathom and the Asok community, John and Tarn are off to Bangkok to pick up Allison. I'm left at Moo Baan Dek to fend for myself.
O.K., not really. I don't have to fend for myself. The Moo Baan Dek community has accepted me most graciously and they include me every meal and activity that I wish to be included in. Danny is an incredible English-speaking resource for me. He's someone I can talk to not just about the particular happenings of the day, but also about his theory on the success and or failure of the school's method. I also am intrigued by his incredible amount of patience and compassion for every member of the community, even in the most stressful of times. Oh yeah, I almost forgot... today I ate some red ant eggs. The ladies in the village go and gather them every day from high in the trees. It's really quite difficult to do. A bunch were hanging out in the kitchen of the house that I stay in at lunch and they offered some to me. Cooked up with some Thai spices they were pretty good... that is until that aversion to eating insects popped up in the back of my mind. Needless to say, I only ate one spoonful. Still, I might have to try a cicada before I leave the country!
I've successfully overcome quite a few aversions in my short time in Thailand and especially at Moo Baan Dek. I always have ants crawling on myself and everything I own. There really is never a time in which I'm not dirty, especially my feet, which are gradually becoming more and more blackened. I sleep under a mosquito net at night, which is a bit comforting seeing as there are lizards of all sizes everywhere, very strange looking insects, and poisonous snakes living all around me. I've come to accept it and not really care anymore, which is a feeling that is quite liberating.
I want to write a few words about the philosophy behind Moo Baan Dek before I begin to share my experiences there because I think that it is important in understanding the goings on of the school. Moo Baan Dek is an alternative Buddhist school for orphans and for children whose families live under the UN poverty line. It is Buddhist in that the students and teachers of the school accept the five precepts of Buddhism. It is alternative in that it does not conduct in the same way that the Thai government-funded public schools do. That is, Moo Baan Dek stresses the idea of teacher not as authority, but as a friend along the path of personal and spiritual growth. In Pali, the word for this type of spiritual friend is "kalayanamit." Teachers at Moo Baan Dek do not discipline children, if a wrong is done it is brought up in the school council and the conviction and punishment is decided by popular vote. Each person, whether he or she be teacher, student, or staff, is allowed one vote. If a student has a problem or if a teacher has a problem, each has to present it to the council. Students are also not forced to come to class. Any student on any given day can choose to either come to class or to play all day. Interestingly enough, nearly every child comes to class every day. Just because they want to. I like that.
I have to say that though some of these children are the wildest tree climbing, rolling in the dirt, lack of manners kids I think I've ever encountered, they also display the most genius and ingenuity I have ever experienced from childred. In the morning at around six-thirty I have been going to the organic garden in the village to help with the day's work. It's very humbling to have a five or six year-old child show me what to do and how to do it! These kids are masters of gardening, weaving, and carpentry. Yesterday I took a walk to the herb garden and found about five kids brandishing a long bamboo pole, sharpened at the end, and speared into a smoldering and smoking coconut rind. One of them then proceeded to climb high in a tree and prod at a bee's nest, tryung to knock it down for its honey. My first instinct was to say "Stop, don't do that!" because it was super dangerous. I didn't say that however, because the truth of the matter is, I don't have authority over my fellow people here. I learn and they learn from experience and if that experience entails falling from a tree and being attacked by a swarm of bees, then so be it. We either learn to not do it again, or to do it in a more tactful, different way. But we never learn not to try.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Day One Moo Baan Dek

I'm not really writing this on day one, actually I've been at Moo Baan Dek four days now... but since I must walk a kilometer and ride the bus for an hour to get to an internet cafe, I'v had to write my journal longhand. So let's just pretend it's day one...
Today was my first full day at Moo Baan Dek. We arrived here yesterday just in time four the daily swim/bath/laundry session. Our contact at the school, Danny Aguilar-Ortiz, a Maryknoll missionary who has been here for six years, quickly ushered us down to a small pier on the river Kwae that was crawling with dozens of absolutely wild children. The kids were leaping into the river in every direction we turned. I suppose this was as good an introduction as any to the jungle that is Moo Baan Dek. Little naked bodies were running, leaping, thrashing around, and climing to the highest hieghts possible in order to drop into the drink below. We all looked at each other with bit of unease... except for John, who was in the river before we knew it! "What the hell!" we decided, and we all jumped in. The river was quite refreshing!
Once we had finished our swim, we took a quick stroll around the campus before going out to dinner with Danny and Chas, a student from Notre Dame, who is doing volunteer work at the school for the summer. We returned from dinner just in time for the weekly student-run council meeting at 8:30 that night. At first, when we arrived at the council room, we thought that maybe we had missed the meeting because there was nobody around, but within a minute a bell rang and kids (and dogs)began to flood in... through the doors, the windows, leaping in, flipping in, crawling in... really, they were entering the room in every way possible and literally swinging from the rafters. Many of the kids swarmed on us "farang" immediatley and very affectionately as soon as they saw our new faces. We all exchanged glances of disbelief as the pandemonium ensued.
Pandemonium it was, until a group of stdents took their place at the front of the council room to begin the meeting. At that point in time, nearly all the energy was focused toward these six students. You see, with the exception of the five precepts of Buddhism that are always in effect as rules, all other school rules are created, tweaked, and destroyed in this very room each week by a vote in which each student and teacher has equal weight. This makes this meeting very important to the children at Moo Baan Dek.
The student-directors of each meeting do not hold these positions for an extended period of time, but rather they are chosen each week to be responsible for directing the proceedings of the next week. So tonight, this weeks leader rang a bell to begin...
The first order of the meeting was to review the rules already in place. Two of which included:
1) The use of a particular type of popular student-made slingshot was permitted providing that it was not shot at people.
2) If a child is within his or her first three months of living at Moo Baan Dek, then he or she is not subject to be punished for breaking the rules except for rules that apply to physical violence.

After the reading of rules, the council then proceeded to take complaints or accusations. One small girl, whom I've now come to know as "Bpoo," stood up and accused some other people of throwing "twenty pieces of trash." However, Bpoo herself, was part of the group that threw the trash. The cooncil, by popular vote, decided that this trash-throwing group would recieve twenty days without snack, but thet Bpoo would only recieve half that sentence because she had told on herself. She was quite excited to figure out half of twenty once she was sentenced! Later, another young boy accused a kindergartener of throwing away her shirt, but when he had to find a witness he discovered that his only witness had curled up and fallen asleep next to me! His case was thrown out.
This acusation session lasted a while longer and the meeting was adjourned. Most of the kids jumped up and bolted out except for a few who stayed to appeal their sentences to a different appeal board who sat and listened to their stories.

Before the night was over we met as a group to discuss our plans. Mine was what I knew it was going to be all along, Moo Baan Dek was the place for me, it's fascinating to interact with such free children. Chris and Erica, with a bit of hesitation, decided to leave and go back to the Asok community that we had visited before, which is also a fantastic place and right up their "sustainable living alley." So I'm left here solo, but I know that it's going to be an incredible experience! More to come...later today.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

On to Moo Baan Dek

Hello again. Tomorrow we leave Hua Hin to begin our projects. Claudia is going to NorthEastern Thailand to live and work with a family on an organic farm. Chris, Erica, and I will be traveling to Moo Baan Dek (Children's Village School) which is located in the Kanchanaburi Province Northeast of Bangkok.
Yesterday we got somewhat of a preview of the type of community in which we will live when we visited the Asok community just north of the Webster Campus. The Asok are a Buddhist sect that live in a few different communal villages in Thailand. We arrived at the Asok village at about nine a.m. that morning... just in time to share breakfast with the community. We sat on the floor of their main gathering house in two lines, men on one side, women on the other, as rolling carts of vegetarian food were passed between us. We were encouraged to take only what we could eat to avoid the waste of food. The community seemed delighted to share their meal with us... and they even passed the microphone over to us in hope that we might say a few words. One of the monks said to us in Thai...which Ted translated... "Tell your students they won't be eating any chickens or ducks here!" The vegetarians in our group were delighted! The rest of us were not disappointed in the wonderful feast before us, either.
We toured the Asok community to see their tofu factory, sesame, mushroom, and vegetable gardens, and also a plant in which one of the community members, who told us he only had a second-grade education, had constructed a machine to convert plastic into gasoline. WE also spoke with an Asok monk about the community and the life there. The Asok live by the philosophy of take little and give back much. No person in the community is paid any salary, they simply all work together to live self-sustainably. They do make money for the community's needs, however, by selling vegetables, fruits, and herbal medicines to the community outside.
Also,yesterday we visited the temple of Dhammananda Bhikkuni, one of the very few ordained Thai nuns. We had a wonderful and surprisingly lighthearted talk with her about the obstacles she faces, and all women seeking to become nuns face in being recognized by the Therevada tradition of Buddhism. Actually, we spoke less about the obstacles than about the movements that were happening and the work being done by Dhammananda and the nuns around her to make progress. I felt so honored just to be in the presence of a woman with such courage. I had read the writing of Dhammanada in my Bhuddism class last semester and, in some way, I felt like she was a celebrity. I was in awe.
That said, I'd like to bring up something that both Ted, our guide, and the monk that we spoke with at the Asok community stressed. This sense of amazement and enchantment within the prescence of these engaged Buddhists has come over me in the past week. I'm sure that it would overtake anyone in my situation. However, it's not all peaches and cream. There are problems within these systems that I need to discover in order for me to maintain a scholarly, critical, practical and ultimately meaningful experience. The picture of freedom and "utopia-esque" atmosphere that I am about to encounter at Moo Baan Dek deserves both my appreciation and my critical analysis. I hope to be mindful of both.
Signing off with much love to you all. Sawutdee ka! (goodbye) and Chokdee! (good luck)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Day Five in The Land of Smiles

Yes, family and friends, I'm still alive. I apologize for the tardiness of my first blog, but this place takes some getting used to! After twenty-six hours of travel, we reached Bangkok late Monday night, were whisked away from the airport in a taxi through a sea of neon and concrete, broken only by the occasional massive glittering wat (temple), and dropped in a plush Marriot oasis in the middle of this bustling foreign city. Oh yeah, when I say "the middle" of the city I'm probably being facetious because when I went on the sky train the next day I realized that when one looks down on Bangkok from a high elevation, all one can see is more and more Bangkok. The city is huge and seemingly neverending.
Our tour of Bangkok is a little fuzzy in my memory... the jet lag, the poor quality of air, the thousands of people on the street everywhere, the spicy Thai curries... I was on overload. I can say that I experienced many faces of Bangkok, however. Our hotel was situated in a red light district which, to my surprise, was a great place to hang out, day and night. We spent days roaming the streets by foot, taxi, and skytrain and went to markets geared at farangs (tourists) as well as those where the Thai people shopped, we ate delicious hot food, fruits, and shakes from street vendors, and we visited Wat Pho, where the Royal Family is buried and where rests the massive Golden Reclining Buddha that some of you may have seen or heard about. The days were fast paced, disgustingly hot and humid, and overall quite a shock to my system. Very fun, in its special way.

That said I'm rather relieved to have left Bangkok. I'm not really the city type. Yesterday we took a two and a half hour bus ride from Bangkok to Hua Hin, a beautiful fishing town with just enough action. We are boarded in a student housing facility twenty-odd stories tall oceanfront on the Gulf of Thailand with a pristine swimming pool and balcony with an ocean view in every room. I'm thinking maybe I chose the wrong college... just kidding St.Mary's! The landscape of Hua Hin is absolutely gorgeous, huge limestone mountains flow into the Gulf and the surf is quite intense. We met Ted, who is coordinating our stay here and our Engaged Buddhism Workshop and he took us to some amazing sites. One was the top of a huge boulder that provided us with an incredible view of Hua Hin and the other was a wat that was situated on a limestone formation that jutted out into the sea that was the home of probably one hundred monkeys and a few dogs. It was scary, amazing, and absolutely gorgeous all rolled into one. We had dinner at an outside seafood place that Ted knew. I'm sorry Maryland... but this is the best seafood I've ever had, here in Thailand.

I'm currently at Webster University at Hua Hin on a break from our Buddhism workshop with Ted. He is a great resource on Buddhism and Thailand whom we are very lucky to have found. My next blog will be with you shortly, I promise, and until then... much love to you all.