26 August 2009

Where The Circle Ends.


I arrived into New Delhi in the bright brisk early morning. I made my way across the main street without hesitation as the oncoming cars, barreling towards me, slowly stopped.
Passing the sleeping dogs and cows that lay guarding many of the closed store fronts, I entered into Paharganj, walking down the empty, yet smelly, Main Bazaar strip, hearing the unique holler of the morning chai wallah echoing from the side alleyways.

For some odd reason it felt like camp, an ironic sensation-association that contradicted what I had declared 4weeks ago in the same area.
The cool morning, the still and quiet-emptiness, the faint yet distinct smell of burning firewood cooking breakfast… These are sensations that I so confidently defined as ‘Camp Only’ sensations; my sense doors triggering my associated defined experiences of the past, and clashing with the present.
I wasn’t camping or at a camp ground, so how could I be experiencing these sensations in India?
An example of conditioned thoughts being ‘reprogrammed’ through direct experience…

I think I’m tired from the train ride… that or I’m just crazy and letting my mind catch up from not talking for 10-days. A little bit of both, perhaps.

I checked into the Cottage Yes Please, and began the conclusion of my trip.

(Where The Circle Ends - Thursday)

22 July 2009

Where Is My Mind?

1Nov2008 – 12Nov2008

Emerging from the main Dhamma Hall with intense pain in both of my knees, I join the rest of the guys as we ‘walk’ like windup toys, only being able to lift a non-bending leg mere inches off the ground, as we shuffle along the short walking path.

This will be one of many flash backs that I have of the Vipassana Meditation retreat, for the rest of my life…

The Timetable:
  • 4.00am: Morning Wake Up Bell.
  • 4.30-6.30: Meditation in Hall or Residence.
  • 6.30-8.00: Breakfast & Break.
  • 8.00-9.00: Group Meditation in Hall.
  • 9.15-11.00: Meditate in Hall or Residence, As Per Instructions of Teacher.
  • 11.00-12.00: Lunch.
  • 12.00-1.00pm :Rest.
  • 1.00-2.15: Meditation in Hall or Residence.
  • 2.30-3.30: Group Meditation in Hall.
  • 3.45-5.00: Meditate in Hall or Residence, As Per Instructions of Teacher.
  • 5.00-6.00: Tea Break.
  • 6.00-7.00: Group Meditation in Hall.
  • 7.15-Until Complete: Goenka Video Discourse/Dhamma Talk.
  • 5min after Completion-9.00: Group Meditation in Hall.
  • 9.00: Questions/Time to Retire.
At first I felt like this course was going to be like ‘meditation boot camp’ rather than the common negative internet comparisons of the course being run like a cult.
I am happy to say that I now disagree with both.
The absolute rules for the code of conduct; following the 5-precepts (8-precepts for returning students); obeying the noble silence; segregation of the sexes; no dinner (snack and chai available for new students, only); no reading or writing; the ceasing of all other meditation techniques and agreeing to practicing only what is taught; and the agreement of staying for the full length of the course, are all set up for a reason…[To remove all potential distractions that could prevent the student from calming the mind].
I’ll admit [though], as I was signing the form of commitment, that I was feeling a little… intimidated.
[Being left alone with my thoughts for 10-days without talking, had me nervous, as I remembered how cruel my mind can be.]

Leaving the grown comfort of Ao Zora and the simple life of Bodh Gaya behind, I rode the auto rickshaw 7km towards the last adventurous leg of my trip, ten-days of observing how my conditioned mind is subject to fear, anger, craving, aversion, and other intense emotions and learning to calm it through Vipassana Meditation; a technique and method taught by Gautama Buddha through the process of seeing things as they really are, impermanent and always changing, bringing self awareness by simply focusing on the natural breath.

I started meditating at Dharma Punx back in 2005; practicing the Buddhist philosophy has had such a profound impact on my life and has motivated me to read so many Dhamma books and to see how it all applies to the busy New York City life.
The Vipassana Meditation technique has intrigued me so much, particularly through my experience, but additionally learning how it has helped so many other people.
[It was the film, The Dhamma Brothers, and then reading the follow up book, Letters From The Dhamma Brothers, that really peaked my interest and inspired me to partake in a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat.]

Upon arrival, I was caught off guard by how many Caucasian people there were, at the registration hall. I suppose I never gave it much thought at all, as to where people would be coming from.

After being assigned to Room 3, I found myself surprisingly eager to talk to the guys that were congregated in the open square of the Male Residential Quarters, particularly since the Noble Silence hadn’t started yet…
We all quickly began going around introducing ourselves, where we were from, where we’ve been on our travels, and how long we’ve been traveling for; most of the guys had been wandering around for about 4-6 months.

Oliver, from Germany, has been driving for 9 months so far [in his trusty Land Rover – Tank], going through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Nepal; after India his plans are to continue through South East Asia and to eventually make his way up north to China and to finish in Hong Kong. [His travel website is http://www.oliabroad.de/]

Damien, [a former civil engineer, from Australia, after working for only 3 years, quit his job and] has been bicycling through Asia for the past 16 months.
Holy crap.

[Alyn, serving for 6 years in the Israeli Army setting up computers, decided he was done and would do what the others before him typically do after their Country’s National service obligation, travel India.]

It was awesome to talk to these people from Australia, Japan, France, Switzerland, Israel, Austria, Germany, and of course India.
It is funny; the local guys were a) impressed that I knew some Hindi b) amazed that it was my second time in India and c) that I was American. [They were so interested in what I thought of India and curious about the US and Obama.]
That’s actually something that has been pretty consistent on my trip; at all of the Buddhist sites and throughout India, most of the ‘Asian’ backpackers and tourists have been from Japan. As I would walk down the streets, the shouts of Konnichiwa in broken Hindi accents would come from smiling local passer biers.
I think this is why I’m not approached as often on this trip, as they assume I’m Japanese and possibly are used to seeing Japanese visitors, or are possibly more interested in talking to people they know they can practice their English with…
[The confused expression on their faces when trying to explain to them that I wasn’t Japanese, but rather Chinese American, always made me laugh.]


As fortune would have it, I ended up with a single room; this helped so much during the course as I wasn’t tempted to break the Noble Silence and I didn’t have to be distracted by snoring or any other bodily noises.

Every morning the wake up bell would faintly sound off; echoing into my deep sleep.
I quickly became grateful that [my roommate] Claudia, had recommended that I pack my softer hoodie, as its warmth comforted me during the very chilly mornings.
While waiting for the 4.30 [meditation] bell to ring, I came to really enjoy walking up and down the walking path, glancing up at my old trusty autumn friend, the starry constellation – Orion.
The stars were so bright in the morning darkness; I remembered my forgotten appreciation for this, [the dark calm beautiful silence experienced] during my past ‘lives’ as paper boy and as a Soldier in the Army [Basic Training].

The morning meditation was the hardest, at first, as I found myself so tired that my body and mind just wanted to sleep. The slouching back and the bobbing head always snapped me out [of my slow sleep, that is] until torpor would over take me again.
This was my morning meditation; by 5.30 or 6.00 I began feeling [more energized and] ‘awake’ enough to actually practice.

Breakfast was such a Samkara [ref. as self realization of attachment] of pleasurable craving! Hot cereal, warm sweet rice, hot chai, fresh fruit… these are already good as a breakfast, but when one hasn’t eaten dinner, breakfast [becomes the literal term and] turns into a much needed feast.

The break times after the meals were also comforting. Sitting for about 10hours a day, in the beginning, really [hurts and] brings a lot of pain; causing me to wonder what good the cushions do. These breaks not only allowed us to have time to our selves, but to also rest our legs.
Never in my experiences in playing soccer or in Basic Training, have I felt pain like the pain I felt in this course.
My knees, calves, ankles, and lower hip joints all felt as if they had hot knives thrust upon them. Surprisingly, with each nights rest and the 15minute breaks, the leg pains would subside and overtime, almost strengthen the legs… This is important later.

For the first three days we were instructed to, by the old [audio] tape recordings of Goenka, to focus on the breathing, Anapana Sati; the awareness of the [breathing] sensations from the nostrils on upper lip.
This was easy at first since I’ve practiced [meditation of focusing on the breath], but the challenge arose when I realized that wasn’t able to practice other [meditation] techniques as I have become accustomed to doing; 10hours of nothing but the breath. Samkara of aversion arising…

The reason one focuses on the breath, is to learn [and develop an awareness], through direct experience, the changing thoughts that arise, the changing sensations on the nose, and the different ways one naturally breathes.

Changing, always changing; Anicca.

The breath is such a neutral bodily experience, something we have to do to live, something we do [and are often] completely unaware of, and something that is with us, until we die.
Training the mind to focus and to become calm, all by learning from something [that is] so simple and that is always with us, is comforting to me… even now.

By the end of the third day I had become very aware of the arising and passing of [all of the enormous] itches, pulsing twitches, cool inhalations, and warm exhalations [happening around my nose and upper lip].
Vipassana is taught by using the ability to focus on different parts of the body to see what comes and goes, slowly scanning bit by bit.

The sensations that arise, good or bad/pleasurable or painful, get noticed as the mind scans parts of the body; [learning] not to react, judge, or bring craving or aversion into the picture (samkara) is the real practice.
Thoughts are also worked on the same way. I think this area or part of the meditation [practice] is by far the most challenging. All through this trip my mind has developed thoughts of worried doubts which caused stress through angst and fear.

[I laugh as I remember my experiences worrying about the train ticket while in Nepal and Gorakhpur.]

The idea of facing and understanding my thoughts, or just being able to see how the deeply rooted memories of the past can bring up feelings of craving or aversion [is a very challenging thing for me to do].
Generally there are two types of thoughts; thoughts of the future (fantasies), or thoughts of the past (memories, real or exaggerated). The mind doesn’t seem to enjoy being in the present, very much.

My mind seemed to have ordered premium cable as every time my mind wandered, it would be on a new channel of the ‘this is your life’ network.
Whenever a new channel would come on, the idea would be to catch the thought and to compassionately bring the attention back to the breath; often I would be pretty good at bringing it back right away, other times I would have gone through 3 or 4 channels before realizing my monkey mind had swung away.
One channel that kept stubbornly coming back was the relationship channel; the fights, the happiness, the intimate moments, the insecurities… of every girlfriend.

At first, it felt just like all of the other thoughts that would arise, but I began to struggle trying to return my attention to the breath… it was just too much.
I began having dreams… Frustration began developing.
It began to become more and more apparent that I was handling this thought pattern with such aversion.
Admitting a part of it was me not wanting the intimate memories to be played in my mind while I was meditating.
After realizing that I was avoiding the present and fighting the built up overly dramatized memories that were causing me to suffer, I did something different ‘crazy’, I allowed the thoughts to just play out.

What happened next was pretty interesting as I was immediately put into a deep stage of access concentration, a level in meditation of total awareness; I found fear was the root cause behind these memories, fear of the emotional harm caused by clinging to each relationship only to feel abandoned; the guilt that followed due to feeling like I had done something wrong in each [relationship] and feeling that I wasn’t deserving of true happiness.
This channel was showing me something that I’ve buried and avoided for such a long time.

With each breath of calmness, I applied the idea of impermanence of all things, anicca; with compassion, I allowed the fear to arise and to pass.
This channel no longer appeared the remainder of the course and hasn’t since I’ve come to face it, one week ago.

The experience and insight I’ve gone through cannot be put fully into words. The only thing I can say is that when the course was completed, I had gained more of an understanding on how I relate to thoughts and sensations that are both pleasurable and aversive; [this does not mean that I am free of stress, but rather better equipped to handle it].
The leg pains were the steady reminder that physical pain and the aversion that is associated with it, also passes with awareness.

By day 4, the guys’ side of the Dhamma Hall had some of the most creative cushion layouts, as we started to figure out which way to sit that brought the least amount of physical pain, based on each of our direct experience with it, paññā at its best.
When it boils down to it, the direct experience of wisdom is what makes morality and discipline work; these make up sīla, samadhi, and paññā, the three categories of the 8-fold path.

On the morning of the 10th day, the noble silence was lifted. The camaraderie, having gone through and (seeing everyone else) persistently making the effort and getting by, was silently formed over the course and was well vocalized with the shouts of ‘congratulations!’ to one another, the moment we stepped out of the Dhamma Hall. This was followed by sharing our individual experiences, often discovering and laughing at how similar our challenging mental experiences were.

We all felt different. This, considering most of the guys had little to no experience with meditation or with Buddhist philosophy.
I found myself explaining what the Brahmavihāras are all about, after the very brief closing Metta meditation.

We were later shown the documentary, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, a film I had heard so much about [which was heavily influential to the program developed for the film The Dhamma Brothers], showing how Vipassana was introduced as a way of rehabilitation in a maximum security prison in New Delhi, and the impacts it had on the guards and inmates.
There was something so powerful about seeing the two ‘opposite sides’ [militant guards and hardened inmates] embracing [after the course]; a method of true rehabilitation being applied to a system, which in my opinion, is full of flaws… You cannot heal or expect to reform by using tactics of hatred and enforced fear.

The remaining time was spent sharing where everyone was off to next, rejoicing over the announcement of Obama’s election victory, and trading contact information which got some to continue talking about where they were from and how long they have been on the road.
I particularly enjoyed talking with the guys from Japan, [Aki and Yoshi] as they were so curious about NYC. [We bonded about how we grew up playing rockman (Mega Man) as children, and how we are fans of the indie punk band from Japan, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant].

[After gathering for a quick photo, we all said our farewells.]
I extended the offer to all of the guys that if they are ever in the states and stop in NYC, to look me up.

I shared an auto rickshaw with Alyn, from Israel, and the guy [who I can’t remember his name, sorry!] from Switzerland, back to Bodh Gaya.
I got to practice my Hindi on the driver as I confirmed the price for the ride for the three of us, ‘Bis, Bis, Bis! (20, 20, 20!)’

[The ride back into town was so surreal. Having been isolated from the world for the past 10days, I was back in India. The morning calmness combined with the breeze of speeding down the main road, I had no worries, no anticipation, and no angst of catching the departing train that was to take me back to New Delhi. I felt happy.]

Upon exiting the tuk tuk, I heard the shout of, ‘Hello Brother!’ turning around to see Nikesh; he was heading to the bank.
I told him that I would meet him at the school later. It was good to see him again.

I said my final farewells to my ‘Dhamma Brothers’ as we all went on our separate ways.
I made my way back to the Deep Guest House to drop off my rucksack and decided to go back to the Mahabodhi Temple to pay my final respects; I wanted to try to pick up some fallen Bodhi Tree leaves to give to Sam and Rachel, two people who have been such wise friends to me this past year… as I approached the temple grounds I remembered how expectation does not bring happiness, [if I get them, I get them.
While I was circumambulating around the temple, a large leaf dropped from the towering tree, right in front of me. Bending down I caught from the corner of my eye, several hopeful practitioners suddenly racing towards the leaf, only to stop in their tracks as soon as I picked the leathery brown leaf, from the ground; smiling, I carefully slid the leaf into my saddle bag.
After my walking meditation, I decided to do a brief sitting Metta meditation. When I opened my eye I saw lying in my lap was a much smaller, tiny leaf.]

Walking through Bodh Gaya, I felt different; I can’t really describe it, but I felt un-phased by the quacking horns of motorcycles, the stands selling would-be holy trinkets and Mahabodhi Temple snow globes, the goats, the chickens, and the cows…
It wasn’t that those things bothered me at all before but it was like I was detached from everything around me.
Perhaps I have gotten so used to the life in Bodh Gaya, that it was truly time to leave.

As I walked up the steps to Ao Zora, I was noticed and greeted by the lady landlord who ran the store in front. I walked through the curtains and suddenly the attention of tiny little eyes were fixed on me, and with a loud chorus of piercing off beat shouts, I was welcomed.


Tinku greeted me, smiling, asking me how my meditation course went. Understanding that my presence was causing an excited distraction with the younger classes, I followed Tinku upstairs to say hello to the other classes and settling in on the classes 4 and 5’s math lesson, being taught by Vinod.
The older kid’s attention were much more focused on the word problems being written in Hindi, where as my attention was fixed on observing how different they looked; all the ‘Ao Zora Boys’ had all gotten haircuts!

While my return visit to the school was incredibly short, it was so good to be able to see all the kids, one last time.

A meeting was held between me, Nikesh, and a local lawyer, whom was able to give advice and hear the plans on having a potential project started with EWB.
If Nikesh is able to procure land and set up the bank accounts [while getting Ao Zora approved by the Indian Government as an NGO] I think the project can happen…

The meeting concluded when we were all in agreement on how they would proceed and that they would keep me updated.
The meeting had also run a little longer than planned, as both the lawyer and Nikesh realized that my train departure time was rapidly approaching.

Nikesh quickly gathered all the ‘boys’ and I found myself suddenly surrounded. The ‘boys’ each gave me good-bye cards, orange construction paper covered in googly eyes and crayon writing… the supplies I had brought, that were a gift from me and friends from NYC, were used to make the emotional confessions of each brilliant boy.

Two bright orange flower leis were placed around my neck. Suddenly I found myself in a shower of flower pedals, being pelted by all the children, as cries of ‘Thank you!’ and ‘Good-bye!’ filled the air, followed by hugs and flashes from the camera.

It was a happy moment.
When I left the school to head to the Vipassana Course, I was choked up and had teary eyes as I said good-bye, one by one. This time felt much different, no sadness, only happiness-knowing… seeing how much I had helped, and feeling the energy of love and gratitude.

This truly happy moment will be with me, the rest of my life.

I said good-bye and thanked Tinku, Mukesh, and Vinod, hugging each one, and then climbing into my waiting transport. Picking up my rucksack from the Deep Guest House and placing it into the back of the auto rickshaw, Nikesh and Amid began expressing to the driver and his ‘co-pilot’ how they MUST get me to the Gaya Junction Rail Station on time, as the rickety metal chariot sped off quickly, leaving a dusty Bodh Gaya behind us.

Sitting in between my two friends, I could tell they were definitely nervous, as each took turns checking their mobiles to see the time.
It was almost humorous to observe how their mission became to worry about my potentially missed train; they began yelling at cyclists who were in the Tuk Tuks way, the passing cows, and eventually at one another, as Amid’s mobile revealed to be 3minutes ahead of Nikesh’s mobile.

The whole ride I gripped tightly to the piped roof frame as we barreled down the tiny and windy village roads. Not once did angst arise, nor did any fear, anger, or panic. Only calmness, attributed to my recent experience, allowed me to see that freaking out, as my friends were doing, wasn’t going to get me to the station any faster.

If I missed the train, I missed the train; one extra day with my friends in Bodh Gaya! Right?

Another part of me had to also laugh at how much I had changed from my experience on this trip. I think I would have been right there with Amid and Nikesh, arguing as to who’s mobile has the correct time, or who can shout at people in our way the loudest.

I also understood that Nikesh, being the gracious host, felt as if it was his responsibility of getting me onto that train. He also felt like it was his fault that the meeting had gone on much longer than expected.

I’ve been in his shoes before.

I leaned over, putting my arm around him, and thanked him for being such a good friend; assuring him that we’d be OK and that it was I who was leaving, not him.
He smiled and calmly said, ‘thank you, Brother.’

We made it to the crowded station with 6minutes left to spare. I strapped on my rucksack and followed Nikesh, who had taken off racing up the long stair overpass and back down to the platform through the sea of travelers, when he suddenly stopped.
The train was an hour late.

India Time! [Oh, how I have forgotten about India Time! Trains never leave or arrive on time!] You have to add time onto any timetable.

[Amid eventually caught up and found us on the crowded platform.] With the pressure off their shoulders, it was really good to hang out and to be able to spend the final moments laughing with my friends; that really meant a lot to me, to be able remember them happy…

As the train slowly approached, the platform became a frenzy of people pushing their way to board the train, all at once.
I embraced Nikesh and Amid, thanking them for being my friends, and said good-bye.

Exhausted, I climbed up onto my bunk and passed out.

(Where Is My Mind? - The Pixies)

02 May 2009

I Stand Corrected.

[The tattered Diwali string that has been on my left wrist, has been removed.]


Today marked the return of regular classes at Ao Zora and my last-full day of volunteering.
Immediately entering the school this morning, a different vibe could be felt; there were new curious eyes on me as walked through the curtains and towards the stairs.
The Boys were all upstairs, dressed in light blue button up shirts and royal blue pants, kind of like uniforms, a more formal ‘changed’ look…
Well not all the Boys; lil’ Suraj was still wearing his favorite “New York” t-shirt, the same one he’s been wearing all week.

I saw Nikesh as I went downstairs; he looked exhausted.
I sympathetically laughed as I too felt exhausted; waking up to the local rooster and looking at the alarm clock and realizing that I had over slept by 15min.

I assisted Mukesh in teaching his class, the youngest group of students.
Having no idea how to teach [an official] class, I decided to take it step by step [using what I had learned from the past week], starting by introducing myself, in Hindi.

‘Good Morning… ummm…Namaskar! Mera Naam Victor Hai.’

‘MERA NAAM…!!!!!!’
The rest was flooded by a sea of little children’s names being shouted at me all at once…

Laughing, I turned to the blank white board.
Cold and blank.

I turned back to the class, all the blinking little eyes locked on me, wondering what I was going to say or do, next.
I was wondering, too…
Then, I remembered the songs I loved when I was their age…
[Writing out the lyrics on the whiteboard, we sang] Twinkle, Twinkle; Mary Had A Little Lamb; and the Alphabet Song.
I think it went over pretty well. I wrapped things up with basic rhyming lessons, [which got all the little girls and boys laughing].

Handing the marker back to Mukesh, I said goodbye to his class and decided to check out Vinod’s class; he was teaching math to a much smaller audience in the highest/most advanced class. Observing the way he was teaching, the way all of the [teachers] taught and spoke to the students, there is much more of a sincere caring and respectful mannerism, present.
[Vinod asked if I would like to have a go at teaching the math class, and while a part of me now wishes that I had, I opted to not interrupt the lesson plan and just observed how quickly each student was able to solve for “x”, hidden within the long division problems written on the whiteboard.]

Nikesh popped his head and asked me come with him.
We walked outside and he told me that he wanted to bring me to another school [located] near the Sujata Village. [We hopped on the motorcycle and off we went.]
The school had a much noticeably different atmosphere. It was quieter and felt less welcoming, compared to Ao Zora. We went into one class and Nikesh ‘handed me the mic’.
I reenacted the first part of my routine from Mukesh’s class.

The next class we went into was a bit more chaotic. I tried repeating my routine but was cut-off by the teacher and Nikesh [when the small crowded classroom gradually became full of soft whispers and side conversations.]
The students were asked to read their work books out loud, [as the two teachers stepped out of the class, leaving me to the chorus of piercing loud, high pitched, inaudible voices.] The problem at hand was due to the fact that the students were not on the same page… literally. Each child was reading [as loud as possible] something completely different.

Nikesh explained to me how Ao Zora has been trying to help this school out, by providing them with spare work books and supplies. His plan is to develop a partnership of sorts, for the future, which lead to his concern of Ao Zora’s current rented location; while being ideally situated near the bridge, the fact that they have to pay a monthly rent does not allow for much growth.
I’ll admit two things:
  1. I did not like how the teachers handled the school, especially when compared to how Ao Zora is run. I understand his desire to want to offer guidance and support to them.
  2. I have not told Nikesh about Engineers Without Borders, yet. He has expressed interest in building a school and re-locating Ao Zora, but without the assistance of a local NGO assisting them, I’m not sure how they would be able to organize both the planning and the teaching at the same time. When I do let him know about EWB, I will need to approach him with Right Speech and Right Action; keeping the intention of helping through the EWB guidelines.
I guess the first part is also contributing to part two. It’s not that I don’t want to encourage Ao Zora to help the other school, rather the opposite.
My concern is more of the feeling that if Ao Zora tries [to assist] too much and the other school isn’t ready for the changes, or worse, that after all the invested effort that the school does not progress or move forward, it could hold Ao Zora back or prevent Nikesh from focusing on his plans for the possible relocation.

Jeeze my thoughts are full of judgment.
Just the thing I need to think about before entering 10 ½ days of silent meditation.
I know it's not my decision; Nikesh is a very bright and compassionate person. He is so great for hearing me out, and I'm so very grateful for him sharing with me his heart's desires.
I will talk to him tomorrow about EWB...

I was very happy when I returned to Ao Zora; I helped out with the last 10minutes of class before school was officially released for the day.

Having lunch with the boys for the last time today was a bit sad. They’re so incredible, all of them; each with so much spirit and personality.
We spent the late afternoon playing cricket, followed by a brief demonstration of Baseball for Tinku.

Nikesh and I went to Amid’s home, next door to the school, to visit his daughter; her condition is definitely related to a dysfunction in the brain, possibly impacted by the seizures she has suffered, as noted on the medical reports.
[The little girl was lying on the family bed, starring up at the ceiling. She was conscious and present, but as I leaned over to make eye contact, she looked through me as if I were not there. Squirming, ever so slightly, Amid’s Wife lifted her daughter’s head up to feed her crackers.
Amid looked at me and explained how he has brought her to every big city hospital through out India, looking for answers as to what happened to his daughter.]
He does not know what else to do.
I asked Amid to make copies of his daughter’s medical report, explaining that the only thing I can do is to pass it around to generate awareness, perhaps someone else may be able to offer advice.

[I have scanned the report: http://www.slideshare.net/rotciv97/med-report-scan
it is a bit difficult to understand, but if you can offer any advice, please contact me. Thank you.]

I have packed up most of my things and as I look around at my empty room, I can’t help but express how grateful I am to be on this trip.
The fear and concern of the Vipassana Meditation retreat has not really been present, until now. I know it will be full of challenges and I will try to meet each challenge that arises, with a humble compassionate approach, much like I have with every experience I’ve encountered so far on this trip.

The next time I write in here, we will have a new elected President.

Happy Halloween.

(I Stand Corrected - Vampire Weekend)

25 March 2009

The Blankets Were the Stairs.

[The following is an excerpt from an e-mail from my good friend,Val.
Wed, Aug 6, 2008 at 11:17 AM

“Every little girl needs a doll (or two!)

“more like, every KID needs a doll. :P
heh. I remember when my mom called my he-man ACTION figures, the 'D-word', I started crying.”

“It's true---I was going to write, "And every boy needs ACTION FIGURES!" But I was too lazy…

i can't wait to buy the girls dolls...I'm such a Aunt! Ha!”

Thank you, Val. I will always love you for your compassion.]


The rooster that has served as my alarm clock for the past week was out done this morning by the distorted blaring music from the private courtyard, echoing into my room through the bathroom window; I don’t think it would have been possible for me to sleep in, even if accidentally.
My morning routine of eating breakfast at the Pole-Pole, taking my vitamins and malaria pills, returning to my room to brush my teeth, and heading off to the school was slightly modified.

I wasn’t going to the school this morning.

Nikesh and Vinod strolled up to the steps of The Deep Guest House, where I sat waiting for them; we were going to go visit Rajani and Vinod’s younger sister, Baby.
Since receiving news of their injuries, I have been trying, to the best of my abilities, to not be full of grief and sadness.
While not fully understanding how it had happened, I was able to generate awareness back home and send money from Dharma Punx to Nikesh to help where we could. I was kept updated by periodic photos sent to me by Nikesh.


With the two baby dolls that Val had given to me to deliver to the girls, patiently packed away in my saddlebag, Nikesh explained to me in greater detail how the accident had happened, as we walked down the back alleyways of Bodh Gaya… away from the bustling touristy streets.

It was a normal damp humid morning in July when the two little girls, Baby and Rajani, were walking to school; a sagging over hang (unshielded) electrical power line snapped, dropping directly right on top of them.
Rajani suffered electrical burns on her back, right arm and legs while Baby was burned on her hands.
Due to the lack of proper treatment available in Gaya, by the time Nikesh was able to get them to Patna, the capital of Bihar, Baby’s condition had worsened and the Doctors were unable to save several of her fingers.

[Rajani and Baby, being students of the Ao Zora School, have families of their own. Because their families did not have the money needed for their treatment, Nikesh and the Ao Zora staff stepped in and decided they needed to use donated money meant for the school, to help the two girls get the medical attention they desperately needed; Dharma Punx NYC responded immediately, sending donations.]

If it were not for the care and support of their families and the Ao Zora staff, the two girls would have suffered much more.

Arriving at Baby’s house, I met her mother and family and then, Baby, herself. We sat on the family bed, as I presented her with the Blue Doll. Her shy demeanor could not hold back the huge smile that appeared on her face, the unexpected gift had made her very happy.

Her mother brought in small glasses of steaming hot chai and handed Vinod a platter of Diwali treats and biscuits; the tiny room became very crowded as neighboring children had gotten wind of a visitor who had brought a present.
Baby emulated the mannerisms of a loving mother and showed off the proud infant doll that she held carefully in her arms, to all of her friends.

It was Baby’s baby.

I explained to her how happy we all are to know that she was safe and getting better.
She had been out of school since the accident and missed learning so much. She told me that Math was her favorite subject; another smile appeared when I shared with her that I too, love math.
After several photoshots, I hugged Baby and said goodbye.

Nikesh led us back to the alleyway, only to walk through the adjacent door… Rajani and Baby were neighbors.

With the cleaner, more spacious open roofed area of the house, Rajani’s family was noticeably more wealthy than Baby’s. Colorful hand painted flowers covered portions of the walls, reflecting the family’s happiness.

Much like before, Nikesh and I were greeted with Diwali treats and waiting cups of hot chai.

I still sort of regret having eaten breakfast at the Pole Pole this morning…

Hanging out with Rajani was a completely different experience. She seemed much more timid, but it also felt somewhat coy; the vibe of the conversation felt forced. Perhaps she just didn’t know what to say…

[I mean, what do you say?

“oh golly gee willikers, thanks for the doll! You know, I almost died.”
My self-judgmental thoughts began playing its own alternate scenario of how things were playing out by filling in for the narrative of Rajani.]

I pulled out the lone Doll, which I imagined was waiting eagerly in my bag, and handed it to Rajani as Nikesh translated and explained who I was.
She turned and smiled, thanking me but then handed it to her two younger sisters, who both seemed more interested in my visit to their home.

[Rajani didn’t owe me anything.]

Heading back to Ao Zora, I began to feel like I had some form of closure…
Even now, as I sit here reflecting back on the day, I feel extremely grateful that I was given the opportunity to be able to meet the both of them and see first hand, their proud reclamation of their lives.

On with the rest of the day…

We played Cricket and some more Baseball again. The boys were still in awe of the Homerun I hit last night and were asking if I could show them how to hit Homeruns, every time.

Hilarious, especially since I too was still in awe of how ‘perfectly’ it had connected.

I’m definitely starting to get the hang of Cricket. I’m hoping that they understand my explanations of Baseball; they at least physically know the difference of the two games.

I brought my Journal with me to the school and had asked Santosh and Lakshman to help me write down all the Hindi they had taught me.

“Brother! Ap ka naam kya hai?” [What is your name?]
“Mera naam Victor hai.” [My Name is Victor.]

“Brother, Ap ka kitna sal ho raha hai?” [How old are you?]
“Mera untis sal ho rahha hai.” [My age is 29 years old.]

It was so easy to learn from them; their patience and persistence gave me the confidence to continue trying until I got it right.
I asked the two of them if they could help me out with the proper spelling of everyone’s name, insuring me that I will always remember them.

In the evening, I helped Santosh and Arvind with their Math homework. The electricity was still on which meant it was early, but dark enough that the mosquitoes were now out and about.
Nikesh’s brother, Mukesh, came over and asked for me to meet him outside to bring lil’ Suraj with me. Rather confused and uncertain of what was going on, I found Suraj upstairs, already wearing his pink-corduroy jacket, and told him that Mukesh wanted to see us outside.
We walked out and saw Mukesh sitting on Tinku’s HondaHero Motorcycle, motioning to me with a cool head nod, to hop on…
Carefully maneuvering through the windy Sujatta Village streets, we arrived to a brightly lit intersection – a crowded area with music blaring through the insect flying night sky… so many large grasshoppers clinging and fluttering around all the fluorescent lights.

Nikesh and Mukesh’s parents were having everyone from the school come over to celebrate the quieter family night of Diwali.
I met Nikesh’s father last night, but tonight I was introduced to the rest of his family - his mother, and two older sisters.
Suraj and I climbed off the motorcycle and were welcomed into the dimly lit house; it was an honor to eat dinner at their home.

The rest of the boys from the school began trickling in waves, via the motorcycle school bus.
Amit showed up and handed me a much needed bottle of water.

[Suraj and I thanked Nikesh’s family and stepped outside to make room for the next group of dinner guests; across the way stood a large tent, housing a large statue of Lakshmi.
Pulling my hand, Suraj led me through the crowd to see what was going on.
Next to the tent stood a TV that looked like it was wheeled out from a High School AV room, hooked up to several large PA Speaker sets.
Without blinking or looking away, lil’ Suraj managed to explain to me that the high pitched musical we were all watching was about the story of Diwali. Needless to say, I was thoroughly confused.]

Tinku came over and told us that Amit would take Suraj and I back to Ao Zora.

Amit, the neighbor to the Ao Zora School and friend to Nikesh has given me the kindest welcome of all the non-Ao Zora staff; he’s a very down to earth guy.
Giving Nikesh and I a breezy motorcycle ride back to the Deep Guest House, he shared with me the unfortunate condition that his daughter has developed and how all the Doctors do not think there is anything that can be done.
Nikesh asked if it would be possible to ask any U.S. Doctors what they would recommend; I agreed.

Tomorrow, the classes of the Ao Zora School start back up; the kids are eagerly awaiting the return to learning.

(The Blankets Were the Stairs - Sunny Day Real Estate)

16 February 2009

My Willow Tree.


It’s funny as I sit in my room with my rucksack completely emptied, all my clothes either spread out on the extra bed or hanging up to dry on the clothes line, I recall a concern that I had months ago where I envisioned myself being trapped in my room at night with nothing to do.

The doors of the Deep Guest House lock at 9:30, and despite not being able to really wander around alone at night, I don’t feel that I am a prisoner in my room at all.
Of course there have been times on this trip where the mini waiting game would play out, the reality of the combination of writing in the journal every night with managing to squeeze in time for reading, playing Sudoku, and meditating, the few moments really of down time that I have are very much welcomed.

In all honesty, I’m just exhausted from the amazing events from each day… even writing in this journal has become very challenging at times as all I want to do is just crash.

I bumped into Mukesh again on the Sujata Bridge, this morning. Biking into Ao Zora, the boys appear to have become used to my morning arrivals, shouting from the balcony ‘Good morning, Brother!’ as soon as they see me approach.

Today was sports day.
Vinod and I got most of the boys out to play a game of soccer, while some of the others just watched on the side lines, tossing around a beat up nerf football-rocket.
The games were abruptly halted, when out of the brush, a small kitten came marching through the dusty field and began rolling around in the sandy dust bowl.
Immediately all the younger boys rushed over and crowded around the tiny skinny animal.
They all lovingly took turns petting the billi while attempting to communicate with it through their chorus of high pitched-squeaking ‘meows!’
Naturally the billi wasn’t interested in making friends and decided it was time to leave, almost as if it were late for an appointment.

With all the stray dogs in India, it’s a wonder that there are cats at all… Vinod and I quickly noticed that the commotion from the children had alerted and gained the attention of several dogs, each with their heads low, fixated on the cat.

Vinod caught up with the small animal, scooping the billi up in one hand, rescuing it from marching into unseen danger. He crossed the field, towards a neighboring fenced property, and placed the cat down.

Game on.

Apparently the kitten had an adventurous death wish, it came crossing out into our field again; it was determined to continue its initial trajectory as each time we carried it away, it would walk back out, often getting the attention of a few more dogs in the process.

Dinesh came running out with a piece of left over Roti and shoved it in the kitten’s face. The tiny animal quickly began gnawing on the flat bread.
Huh… never would have thought of that…

The boys decided that the cat was more fun and interesting than the games as they all rushed back into the school carrying their new friend, thus ending sports day.

I asked Mukesh if they had anything special lined up for the day; I figured I could duck out for a few hours and run some errands.

The electricity was running so I decided to go to the internet center across from the Deep Guest House.
Nikesh has allowed me to borrow his Digital Camera; my first task was to transfer all the pictures from the past two days onto my flash drive. Since I was there, I decided to write an e-mail to everyone, wishing them all a Happy Diwali’ and give them all an update on how I’ve been doing. I attached a photo of me setting off some firecrackers and another one of me with some of the boys. It felt really good to say hello to friends and to read new replies still arriving from my first e-mail.

The second task was to cash some Traveler's cheques; it seemed like a perfect time as any to get the money to pay for my week long stay at the Deep Guest House. I found a nice book store near the Mahabodhi Temple that cashed cheques.

This was convenient, as it was the first time during this trip to Bodh Gaya where I have been close enough to the Mahabodhi Temple… and that’s where I wanted to go to next.

Entering the grounds was just as I had remembered it; there is a still calmness that can be felt in the air, combined with the cold step of the marble ground from walking in your socks.
While it was important and satisfying that I was there, I find it rather interesting that I did not experience the nostalgic energetic rush that I felt in Sarnath.
Maybe it’s because my stop in Sarnath was so last minute and unexpected, or that the shock value of being in a returned setting has started to wear off.

I don’t know.

I paid my respects; bowing three times to the large golden encased statue of the Buddha, housed in the temple, circumambulating the pyramid temple three times, as well as sitting beneath the shade of the Bodhi Tree where Sid had sat.
I felt so far from Brooklyn…
More so, I felt so far away from the noisy horns, the loudness of people, and the smell of cows… I felt so far from India.

After eating lunch, I headed back to Ao Zora.

Prior to leaving, I noticed that ‘Tiger’, the unofficial school-mascot/guard-dog, had taken an interest in the new animal friend that the kids were protecting; I wondered what type of chaos that might have ensued during my absence, as I walked across the long sandy Sujata Bridge.

When I got back, I was asked if I could give a lesson on English and Grammar.
It was odd; never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I’d be teaching English. It was a very different experience from yesterday’s botched-Reading class-attempt, partially due to the fact that I had everyone’s attention, even that of Tinku, Mukesh, and Vinod.

Standing at the blank white board, I had no idea what to talk about…

One of my biggest pet peeves has always been how so many Americans screw up the proper spellings of “your/you’re” and “there/their/they’re”… and I’m not being a snob, it’s just annoying.
So I decided to teach them about contractions, punctuation, and the importance understanding homophones.

Laughter erupted as I explained,
You’re Kids… this is very different from YOUR Kids! Dinesh, do you have kids?”

After the lesson was over, Tinku congratulated me for a job well done. The two of us some how got talking about the game Cricket, and how in the US, we don’t play it, but rather Baseball.
He asked me if I could explain to him how Baseball was played; picking up the dry erase marker, I began drawing the diamond, explaining the positions and how the game is played, who the Redsox and who the Yankees are, and how the ‘world series’ doesn’t actually involve the world… obviously he was confused.
I asked him if he could explain Cricket to me.
Tinku made me promise that he would teach me how to play Cricket in exchange for a game of Baseball. Agreeing to him, as some of the boys began tugging on me to follow them; the boys swooped up the cat and brought it upstairs.
I walked up onto the roof just in time to see them offering the scrawny animal, rice.

Suddenly Dinesh came running out of one of the classrooms, giggling, throwing to the floor, a mouse. The small cat was no longer hungry for Roti or Rice, as its eyes widened and it immediately went into hunting mode.
The cat pounced on the scurrying mouse, caught it, and ran off in to a classroom to eat it.
Watching the kids cheering on the cat and laugh at the death of the mouse was a bit disturbing.

They noticed I didn’t share in their joy.

Almost as if to break the uncomfortable silence, tiny shouts from Santosh, downstairs echoed up, “Brother? Brother? Let’s play Cricket! Brother?”
Sports Day was continued, as they taught me how to play Cricket.
Oh, what a fun game!

After the game, I decided to show them how to hit the ball, “Baseball style”, but instead of using the Cricket Bat, I yanked up out of the ground, one of the wooden stumps. They all laughed at the way I held it over my shoulder.
I instructed Santosh to throw the beat up tennis ball towards me, without running or bouncing it on the ground. Miraculously, on the first pitch, I hit the ball out of the dirt field, all the laughing suddenly ceased and quickly turned into astonished gasps.

“Home Run!”

I dropped the stump and began trotting through the dust bowl, around my imaginary diamond, returning to ‘home plate’ as the coolest kid in town.

(My Willow Tree - Alton Ellis)

02 February 2009

What a Little Moonlight Can Do.


Holy Crap. Diwali is freaking awesome.

I’m kind of struggling at the moment to remember what else I did today… other than set off fire crackers and eat sweets…
The ringing in my ears from all the loud pops and bangs is going to be with me for a few days.

Last night I started washing some laundry by hand. I’ve strung up a little clothes line with the twine I brought.

The kids were very happy to see me this morning, as I rode up peddling on the rickety school bicycle with Mukesh on the back; trying to steer and keep balance with someone riding on the ‘backseat’ is a lot harder than all the locals make it out to look.

Nikesh suggested last night that I try teaching or helping the boys with their English, today.
Not knowing how to teach an English class, I asked them to open their work books for a lesson on reading comprehension; I remembered how much I hated these classes as a kid.
I noticed right away that most of them began expressing similar feelings; they weren’t interested at all as they quickly got up and left with all but 3-kids remaining…

Talk about utter failure!
To make things worse, I began feeling like the three that did stay, just wanted to hear me read to them a story.

The three boys began shouting out the answers to the questions before I was even finished with the question… while I was happy that the boys were answering the questions correctly something seemed off.
It quickly became apparent that the reason the others had left was because they had heard and read the same stories over and over again, doing these lessons so many times that they had even memorized the answers to their workbook questions.

They were bored.

Catching on to their ‘game’, I decided to mix it up a little bit and started asking new comprehension questions; their confused little faces all looking up at me, ‘what did the Piped Piper do when the Villagers refused to pay him?’


‘he got made fun of… and was mad!’
‘they didn’t pay him!’
‘he played his flute and stole the babies and kids’

A crowd started to gather again as tiny arms started to rise with questions and eager answers. After running out of new comprehension questions for them, I decided to interject a vocabulary lesson by asking them if they knew what some of the key words, from the story, meant.
I think every English teacher that I have ever had, would have been proud of me at that moment.

After lunch, two boys, Santosh and Lakshaman taught me how to count to 10, and then to 100 by tens, in Hindi:

One = Ick
Two = Doe
Three = Tin
Four = Char
Five = Panch
Six = Chhao
Seven = Saat
Eight = Aat
Nine = Now
Ten = Deese

Twenty = Beese
Thirty = Teese
Fourty = Chaleese
Fifty = Pachas
Sixty = Sadh
Seventy = Sattar
Eighty = Assi
Ninety = Nabbe
Hundred = Sau

After an hour, I was proudly counting forward and backwards, and answering absurd questions…

‘brother, how many sweets will you eat tonight?’
‘Saat Sau! YUM, YUM!’

The three of us laughed hysterically with each silly response.

I am remembering what Nikesh had shared with me last night; I have to agree that after just two days with the boys, I’ve learned so much from them and am so very touched by the genuine happiness these kids have in life.

I’m very happy that I have been able to spend time with them while the school is on holiday; it’s giving me a chance to see what the Ao Zora School is really about.

Diwali tonight was much more formal than last night; tiny oil lamps were lit and placed along the edge of the building. The festivities started off on the roof with lots of fire crackers and sparklers, with everyone having so much fun.
It was later moved downstairs to where the Landlords held a small ceremony. All the kids and adults were singing songs as the Lady Landlord lit more oil lamps.
I had read last night, that the sisters are honored on one of the nights of Diwali. The Lady Landlord went around with a saffron powdered dye, marking each brother’s forehead.

I was a part of the family.
Vinod tied on my wrist, a red and white string. [I still have it on my wrist]

After the ceremonies, the sparklers and fire crackers were busted out again. Nikesh and Vinod brought out the humongous finale, which they insisted I light it.
It was beautiful… All of it.

I’m exhausted.
I don’t know how Nikesh and the rest of the staff do it… especially during the regular school year, 6day schedule.

(What a Little Moonlight Can Do - Billie Holiday)

21 January 2009

Colors And The Kids.


With the sounds of lingering fire crackers echoing through the streets of Bodh Gaya, I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be celebrating Diwali with Nikesh and boys, while volunteering at the Ao Zora School.

Today was truly an awesome day.

Because of Diwali, the students are on holiday until Friday. The orphans living at the school are all boys, ranging from ages 5-14.
When I arrived this morning, I was asked if I could teach an arts and crafts class with the supplies I brought.

[Thank you to everyone who donated money for me to bring the supplies!]

Those kids are incredible… they’re all so talented at drawing and came up with the most creative ways to use the googly eyes!
Oh, and bringing pipe cleaners was such a good move, they love them!

After the morning of coloring and bending shaped bicycles/hearts/eye spectacles, I was asked to join them for lunch.

The kids gathered into a long room and sat on the floor in an elongated oval shape as food was brought in by a few of the boys. A plate of rice and dal, with aloo gobi, and poppodums, was placed in front of me. It smelled so good.


The boys began eating, mixing their food together with their tiny right hands, giggling at me and my fork. Throughout lunch, the kids continued to open up to me with their outgoing, yet curious, personalities.
While it was only the first day, I have started remembering their names based on their humorous personas… I’m horrible with names and I have 10 of them to learn.

We attempted to play a game of dust bowl soccer, but it naturally turned into a game of keep away when my tiny teammates found it funnier to try to take the ball away from me. I held my own for a good couple of minutes, as my former skills resurfaced long enough to show off some intense foot maneuvers, but I was quickly reminded how much energy kids have; my endurance eventually failed, I was no match for their little legs.

It was pretty hilarious…

The Fire Crackers were brought back from town by Tinku and Nikesh. Tonight signified the start of the Diwali festivities.
There is something truly hilarious about watching the teachers setting off fire crackers with the boys. The idea of the authority figures having fun, blowing things up with rascally boys, is just unheard of…

I definitely could not resist in partaking in the festivities, as we all began setting off bottle rockets, sparklers, m-80s, and what ever loud explosive that was pulled out of the bag. It was like being a kid again, without having to worry about getting busted by the cops.

Later in the evening, the kids started working on their math homework.
Holy crap, are these kids smart; most of them were doing multiplication, division, and square roots.
Arvind, the 14year old, was working on his algebra and geometry, in addition to his physics and biology… That kid is sharp as a tack.

Nikesh joined me in dinner tonight. His friend Amit, drove us to his friend’s new restaurant, via his sleek Hero Honda Motorcycle.
It was really good to be able to just talk and hang out with Nikesh.
I asked him questions on how it feels to be a teacher, he shared that he feels the students don’t learn half as much from him as he does from them. Working with children, he admits that it isn’t easy; he sees the impact he and his staff have made and feels the amount of joy and purpose they give to him, makes it all worth while…
He’s such a good guy and I am so very honored to call him my friend.

(Colors And The Kids - Cat Power)