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An account of my time as a volunteer teacher in Thailand.
Monks, Mosquitos and Mobiles - A volunteer’s tale
‘Look!’ exclaimed the saffron robed young man, pointing to his hand held camera mobile phone. From where I was sitting in the pick up truck with Maha Suphachai the abbot, I had a good view of the four monks crowded into the back. I thought monks were meant to give up all such worldly things but I smiled as he took my picture and proudly showed it to me.
A GSC volunteer, I was in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, a town some 80 miles west of Bangkok. Built around the river Kwae, Kanchanaburi is set amidst lush vegetation and densely wooded hills. The home of the JEATH War museum, Kanchanaburi attracts tourists eager to view the infamous ‘Death Railway’ built by prisoners of WW2 and immortalised by the film ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’.
Though I paid a visit to the to the railway and War museum, tourism was not the purpose of my visit. I had been engaged as a volunteer to teach English to monks at one of the many Wats (monasteries) dotted all over Thailand.
During my four-week stay I lived with a local Thai family, ensuring total immersion in the culture and customs of Thailand. My host mother Somsung spoke fairly good English since she taught it at the local school so communication was good enough, though her two sons spoke none. However, we got along well and lived harmoniously together with their tiny dog ‘CD’ in a modern (by Thai standards) ramshackle house in a leafy suburb of Kanchanaburi.
My first morning I woke early (7am) and after a cold shower (you get used to that, it’s a welcome relief from the relentless heat) was offered a breakfast of rice and pork dumpling soup (Thais eat rice three times a day at least) which I declined in favour of a fresh mango from the garden and a mug of hot water.
Then it was off to the Wat some 45 minutes away. We piled into the car with me clutching my bag of goodies, teaching aids, water and most importantly my mosquito repellent! Somsung would carry on to the school and I would meet her there at noon after having taught the monks for a couple of hours.
Some afternoons I taught at the school also, a task I found less stimulating than the monk teaching, probably because of the relentless heat, humidity, and the ever-present mosquitoes who defied all repellents in their pursuit of me!
When I arrived, Suphachai was waiting patiently in his study, and after announcing the class on his loudspeaker to the monks spread around the grounds of the Wat and gathering a few dozen copybooks, he led me along to the open-air school (hence the prevalence of mosquitoes who, judging by their numbers seemed to enjoy English!).
Soon about 20 saffron clad monks ranging in age from about ten years to middle age were all seated in front of
me. Not being a teacher and having no curriculum or plan, I found the teaching daunting at first. Then I relaxed and just taught simple things like days of the week, greetings and so on. I gave them all an English name and there was much laughter and amusement as I did the roll call each day.
I found the monks warm, humorous and very willing to learn from the ‘falang’ (foreigner) who had come to teach them. And learn.
I learnt a lot about Thailand, about its people and its customs, and most of all about Buddhism. This is why I had come. To be so close to and made part of the Buddhist rituals and life, was for me, probably the highlight of my trip. And it was not simply the monks from whom I learnt.
Living with the people I learnt how their religion is not just a formality, it is a way of living.
It permeates they way they relate to each other and themselves.
The Buddhist principles are strong here, Karma is something all Thais are not only aware of but live by. The knowledge that every action brings with it an equal reaction perhaps in the next life is something Thais take to heart. ‘If we have sinned, we cannot have these washed away by a priest as in your religion’ explained Suphachai. This means each individual has responsibility for his or her own spiritual health.
I think this is something we Westerners can learn from.
Additionally, there seems to be a community spirit many say we have lost in the West. This community spirit and sense appears to be inherent to Buddhism I noted, as I joined in the many festivals and celebrations during the month of August.
I showed them maps of Ireland and they were amazed that it rarely snowed but nonetheless it could be cold. They asked about religion and wondered if we believed in reincarnation. During my time there I was taken by Suphachai who liked to keep me near him so as to practice his English, to many Buddhist rituals such as ordinations and funerals.
These rituals are steeped in symbolism, which appealed to my Jungian mind. Most rituals involve threes; turning three times around the Buddha, the temple or the funeral pyre whilst unravelling a white thread for example. This symbolised the line of life and three cycles birth, death and karma (rebirth).
One day Suphachai asked me to meet him at a local roadside restaurant of which there are many in Thailand. Thais love to cook and are excellent at it. Of course, not being allowed too much proximity to a woman, he sat as usual, at a different table. Even during class times, since it is forbidden for a monk to touch or be touched by a woman, copy books and such like that passed between myself and my students had to be placed on a nearby table.
This was something I also got used to though I found it rather silly to be so obsequious to a ten-year-old boy even if he was a monk! Especially since I learnt too that almost all Thai males at some stage in their lives enter a monastery, usually for a period of study and Buddhist immersion.
This stay can be brief or extended. It is again, part of the culture and though females I was told also can become nuns for a time, this is not viewed with the same reverence or importance. A hangover from the Lord Buddha’s time?
But back to the roadside restaurant. After lunch, Suphachai took me to the monks College (the seminary) in Kanchanaburi where he taught.
Standing in front of a large room with fifty odd monks of all ages, he introduced me, gave me a microphone and asked me to talk about my country, my religious and moral views, and myself.
There followed a most interesting question and answer session between these learned monks and myself: about
reincarnation, about karma, about life and about love. They asked questions about my work (psychotherapy) and wondered what I thought were the reasons for human suffering.
I told them I had lost two babies in pregnancy and asked them where they thought these little souls were and why a baby chooses to come for such a short time.
They asked me if I believed in the principles of karma and decided after one hour of discussion that I had many Buddhist ideas.
Their warm invitation for me to return and join them ended with a ten-minute blessing in the form of chanting which I found very moving. I sat quietly with my hands together in a ‘Wai’ (traditional Thai greeting) and received their blessing. I left the college and later Thailand, full of gratitude, love and felt truly blessed. I also felt I had made a contribution, whatever that was.
Looks at the importance the father has on the psychological life of his children, especially boys.
Boys need their Father
Life seems to be tough for boys at the moment. Girls outstrip them in schoolwork, exams and the ability to relate and have close friends. According to one source, 80% of children with behavioural difficulty are boys. (Humphries, Examiner April 02).
Emotionally speaking, boys lag behind girls in their development, and are more likely to retain lasting psychological damage from early life events such as the breakdown of their parents marriage than girls. They are more likely to commit suicide or become criminals.
These facts alone indicate that emotional isolation and terrible loneliness forms part of a great many boys and young men s lives.
What is the reason for this imbalance? In my view, one major factor is absent fathers, something which is on the increase. All children need their fathers, as they do their mothers.
Boys, however, need their fathers in a very specific way. It is from his father that a boy learns to become a man. Quite simply, boys in order to be boys, take their cues from their fathers. A father is a boy s role model.
Although the role of the father has never received as much attention as that of the mother in the life of the child, it has increasingly become apparent that the absence of father in our modern world has given rise to all sorts of problems. Everyone is concerned with the increasing crime rate, the vast majority of which are perpetrated by males.
Perhaps it is not commonly known that one of the major things a father brings to his child psychologically speaking is a sense of order. Unfathered men have been shown to have greater difficulty in ordering their lives and working towards a goal than those who were adequately fathered.
Boys look to their fathers for direction, and many unfathered boys find this in sports and other male dominated activities that can act as a form of male bonding.
Studies show that children who are adequately fathered do better, have a higher selfesteem and are more confident that youngsters who have no father present. Fathers may be physically present but unless he is also emotionally available to his child, the child will experience him as absent. Fathers also help their sons find a purposeful outlet for their natural aggression.
Unfathered boys are found to be reactive rather than proactive and have more difficulty asserting themselves and making decisions. Or, feeling weak internally, they may turn to violent behaviour as a way of self expression. A strong father son relationship will help the boy develop into a strong, confident man; this is because father
brings a sense of strength and structure.
Difficulties in relating intimately mean that many fathers do not have a close emotional relationship with their children. This is a pity because it is from his father that a boy will learn about love and relationships from a male perspective and how to be a father himself one day.
When a boy does not have a close emotional relationship with his father he is likely to have difficulties in intimate relationships later on. He may have a fear of commitment due to an unconscious but powerful emotional bond with his mother, which he will take with him into adult life.
This is because psychologically, it is the father who helps the boy separate from his mother in order to grow into a man able in time, to choose his own partner. If father is absent, then the boy remains not only emotionally tied to his mother, but also father hungry. This hunger will drive many of his relationships with other men.
I believe that changing ideas about masculinity and the erosion of traditional male roles has confused boys. It is common knowledge that men now appear to have become the more vulnerable sex. They die younger, are more prone to stress related illnesses, and suffer more from a depression that is likely to end in suicide, than their female counterparts.
Studies indicate that men do less well psychologically than women after a separation or divorce. Many fail to move on and develop new long lasting intimate relationships that fulfil them emotionally, or enrich their lives in other ways. Hurt by their pasts, men are more likely than women to close the door on their hearts. They may have many ‘friends; but nonetheless remain emotionally isolated.
The problem from the start is that men have more difficulty expressing their feelings than women do. Such difficulties are compounded by society, where men by and large are expected to be tough and where any display of emotion particularly around love, is seen as a weakness.
Quite simply, there is no place to go when it hurts. Women are better at dealing with emotional pain; they talk to each other and are more likely to go to a therapist or counsellor. As a therapist with many years of clinical practice behind me, I can say that the number of women seeking help far outweighs men, and in work with couples, it is usually the woman who brings the often recalcitrant man along.
This is nothing new, but in today's fast-paced society, where awareness of our growing hunger for spiritual guidance is driving many to explore their inner souls, men are being challenged as never before to open their hearts. And boys need their fathers to help them become good fathers themselves some day.
(Article first published in the Irish Examiner, Sept.6th 02 ‘Daddy s Boy )
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