Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Who am I?

Learning body parts
Being mindful in different activities
Why you feel that examining who we are is important to our students? If you cannot answer the “why”, then you cannot make the experience relevant to your students’ lives.
Before you start teaching brainstorm the following essential questions that will guide and focus you to understand your students. Who are my  students?  What do they value? Why are values important to them? Are they healthy? What are their goals in life? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
The better we understand ourselves, the better we are able to realize our potential as human beings, citizens, students, and community members. When we know ourselves, we are better able to change what we don't like, celebrate what we like and accept what we cannot change. Self aware people are better able to help others and to make sound life decisions that lead to better health and well being. Self awareness begins with paying attention to our senses, thoughts, feelings, and intuition. Understanding comes from a recognition of our personality traits, our strengths and our weakness, our likes and dislikes, our morals and values, our priorities, our history and culture and a number of external factors that affect our sense of self.
In this unit, students have learned to identify the factors that shape their sense of self. They  also evaluated and catalogued their health and wellbeing with a special emphasis on hygiene. Introduced to local health issues, family trees, learning to identify strengths and weaknesses, carbon footprints and wants versus needs. Focused on traditional medical practices and use of plants. Science focused on the five senses and germ theory. Basic first aid. Microorganisms. Students evaluated their educational, health, and other objectives, and set personal goals. They created a personal portfolio in which they chart their health. They also learned how to speak about their ailments to medical practitioners. This unit further helped create a safe and inviting environment for the students, while allowing the teacher to get to know each student better.
Individual health map
Different groups of food for growth and development
Diseases chart

Fruits for good health

Time chart
Poster showing how typhoid spreads
Five senses meditation

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

My Initial Experience at Chokyi Gyatso Institute, Dewathang, East Bhutan: A Memoir

Those travelling from Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar, Dewathang cannot be missed, so familiar a place, a pleasant reminder for weary travelers that the business hub Samdrup Jongkhar is not too far from this point on. I did know the small monastery that existed above this small market place but never visited before. Those days, the only noticeable objects were white prayer flags. From this same bus stop, now one can see the magnificent temple surrounded by cluster of buildings against the lush green hillock—Chokyi Gyatso Institute (CGI). 
CGI—I came to know about this unfamiliar institute in an unfamiliar curriculum “The Druk 3020 Curriculum” that I came across while Googling for some information on meditation and mind training, one of the pathways for Educating for Gross National Happiness (GNH). Out of curiosity I started reading this curriculum and that was it—it gave me not only the information I was seeking but also some profound thoughts and inspiration about holistic education, the theme I was working on for my doctoral dissertation. In fact, this changed the course of my dissertation proposal. I decided to trace the curriculum to its founding principles and place, where it is being implemented and that is how I landed at CGI.

I arrived at CGI on Sunday June 15, 2013 at around 3:30pm. Dawa my co-teacher received me and ushered to the guest house. After I organized my things and taking a shower, I came out to get a better view of the institute campus. The first thing that captivated my attention was the sight of the main temple construction in its splendid architecture.  The final details are not fully done as yet, still, its unique feature such as the four Victory Banners on the second floor top corners stand prominent and auspicious. As I circumambulated below, it gave me a sense of being blessed. A sense of spiritual energy was around and I experienced peace and tranquil that prevails. As I walked little further down I couldn’t help but stop and admire the panoramic view across overlooking Dewathang market. The aerial view of Dewathang looked much more different than those familiar marketplaces by the highway. After standing spellbound for a while I called it for the day.

Next day I joined Dawa to observe his class.  After he introduced me, the class began by reciting the Heart Sutra.  This was my first time hearing the Heart Sutra being recited in English—quite unusual but impressive. With much stress on some specific words, most read aloud and all seemed excited reciting in English. This was followed by few minutes of meditation.  Meditation is in fact one of the main focuses of my study, so I pay full attention to see how it enhances learning, especially in receiving information and meditating (analyzing) on it to realize its deeper meaning, intent, or implications in  order to carry out the necessary action. To be able to see such outcomes, much more intense interactions will be required which will be carried out in teaching the next unit “Air and Space.” Following are my prior observations over the first ten days or so.Eating with Khenpos and Lams in the commons, I realized after few days that there was not much variation in what they eat—breakfast, lunch, and dinner all rice all the time and the curry would be mostly potatoes. Not that I didn’t like the taste of the food but there was no balanced diet. In my casual conversation with Dawa one evening after dinner I mentioned, it will be nice to have chapatti (Indian flatbread) once in a while for lunch or dinner and that breakfast could be served fried rice mixed with soaked Chana (Chickpea) as it contains high protein. These items just popped up in my mind from my memories of dining in college cafeteria while studying in India where chana prepared in various ways were often served as one of the balanced diets. I didn’t know that couple of students from our class overheard our conversation. They have been waiting next room to clean the kitchen after we were done as it was there turn to cook. To our surprise next day, dinner was served with chapatti and the following breakfast with fried rice mixed with soaked chana. Considering this act from one’s students, I thought it was a significant gesture.  Unless they gave some goods thoughts over what they overheard, they wouldn’t have done what they did. Such kind of transformation is what I wish to see in students from what they hear in classrooms. 

Likewise, another immediate transformation I have seen in students was after they had a session on Zero Waste management from one of The Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative staffs. To reduce waste, reuse and recycle was the message. That session was specifically on how to reuse waste, for which various examples such as how to make a T-Shirt Bag, Umbrella Cushion, and Plastic Broom were demonstrated. The very next day I saw at least half a dozen of them carrying the t-shirt bag they made out of their old t-shirts. They found this idea handy as many of them had old t-shirts not used. I saw many of them use their t-shirt bags for carrying plates and cups and other play items during the breaks. Few of them used their t-shirt bags for carrying classroom materials as well.
For one boy he didn’t just want to reuse the reuse ideas demonstrated in the class, instead, he demonstrated his own innovation. When rest were working on the reuse ideas just demonstrated, he had walked to a heap of broken electrical appliances and picked part of a broken fan. I saw only when he was nailing it hard with a piece of plank. He had no proper tool whatsoever. Next moment he walked into the classroom using it as an       Incense Burner. He purified our classroom few times by burning Sang (incene). Later when I didn’t see him use it, I asked where it is. He said one of the Khenpos liked it so he gave it to him.

The overall impression of CGI for the first ten days or so of my stay is impressive. Of course as an educator, my interest or concern lie in the learning environment—inclusive and student friendly conducive for creativity and self-expression abided by mutual respect and harmony, students and teachers alike, a learning community—a Sangha. Despite advocacy for such ideals, learning is often dominated by fear, wariness, and concern for certain end result as opposed to learning as a process, fun, and wonder. For such ideals to take root in a learning community, the foremost prerequisite I believe is the mutual harmony—trust, care, and concern for each other, for nothing works out without certain trust. I think CGI has established this aspect of community development. The young monks are as comfortable with any other senior monk. They respect each other and I see that common harmony amongst them. For example, it is fun to watch the little monks amongst the seniors play football. There is no age bar amongst them and all seem to enjoy each other’s company. This sort of cordial atmosphere is good especially for the young ones. Unless they have personal problems, the learning environment at CGI is quite conducive and I hope to see them perform well in their studies.

Yang Gyeltshen

Monday, May 13, 2013

Dawa's Visit to The Alice Project School

Dawa is the full-time teacher hired by Lhomon Education to teach the monks at CGI and to develop integrated curricula based on the LME Framework. A large part of this initiative will be providing training opportunities for Dawa. His first training was at the Alice Project School in Sartnath India. Here is his detailed and very interesting report.

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, April 19, 2013

Hello Everyone! We have been quiet for several months but only because of our internet issues. So much has been happening and we will start updating again regularly now that the wonderful Lopon Sonam Tenzin helped us get a much sought after broadband connection. The implications for our classroom are endless.

We are looking forward to sharing information about the mindfulness retreat, our experiments in the shedra classroom, the completion of our first unit, our vegetable garden, Lopon Dawa's visit to The Alice Project in Varanasi, and much more.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mindfulness Camp for Bhutanese Teachers

The 2013 Lhomon Education Mindfulness Camp for Bhutanese Educators took place at Jigme Namgyal Polytechnic, January 5-12, 2013, in Dewathang, southeastern Bhutan. Forty people from across Bhutan participated in the retreat, which was lead by Paravi Wongchirachai of Thailand and Jamyang Choden of Berlin and Bartsham.
Lhomon Education is dedicated to providing opportunities for Bhutanese teachers to become more well-rounded, self-aware, creative, inspired "influencers" (to use our founder Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche's word) in the classroom. As Krishnamurti said, "The true teacher is not he who has built up an impressive educational organization, nor he who is an instrument of the politicians, nor he who is bound to an ideal, a belief or a country. The true teacher is inwardly rich…"

In a video launching Lhomon Education, Khyentse Rinpoche encouraged teachers to "be brave" and think with a "birds eye view" about their work as influencers. Bhutan was built on a foundation of guru disciple relationships where the qualities of the teacher are passed on in a very personal exchange by people who embody the truths they have studied. The camp was designed to help each person deepen their own practice of mindfulness and explore the inner workings of their minds so that they may benefit their students through such example. "Our goal was simply to give everyone a chance to experiment with integrating mindfulness in daily life," said Paravi.

The path LME presented was straightforward. It involved practice, practice, and more practice. Mindful sitting and walking began at 7:30 every morning and continued throughout the day with breaks for talks, recorded teachings, guided contemplations, stretching, informative and relevant group discussions, and journaling. Discourse ranged from the most practical discussion of cushion preference to deep philosophical explorations of belief. A selection of videos helped the teachers connect mindfulness to the classroom by showing how it has been used successfully in inner city schools and prisons.

Day one was difficult—knees ached, minds unused to the attention became even more unruly, people checked their watches and dreamed of tea time. "My late meditation teacher, Khunmae Siri, called it the 'roll-up my mat' stage of insight. Because all you can see are your aches and pains, and you just want to roll up your mat and go home," said Paravi. But by the end of the seven days, even when the bell rang after a 30 minute sit, participants sat immovable, ready to continue.

"I could keep going!" said Jambay, a teacher from Paro said of an extended guided meditation. "When they told us we'd been sitting for so long, I couldn't believe it." 

The intense sitting sessions were augmented by exercises designed to encourage the incorporation of mindfulness into every day life. Paravi had participants imagine moving through their morning rituals, from waking up to saying prayers, but with a new attention on their minds "undeceived" by distraction. Many said this was the first time they felt a genuine connection to their prayers and rituals. One day the entire group took a field trip to nearby Chokyi Gyatso Institute, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche's shedra, to visit the lhakang and discuss the links between mindfulness and Buddhism.

"It's been a tightening of the screw for me," said Lhundup Dukpa of the Royal Education Council who brought five teachers from Paro. "Sometimes we need community to build or repair a few things."

It is customary for Bhutanese to receive DSA stipend payments to attend workshops but LME did not offer DSAs, not because of lack of funds but because we only wanted to invite those who were genuinely interested in deepening their mindfulness practice. So it was a dedicated and highly motivated group that turned up. "I gave up my holiday to be here and I am so happy that I did that," said one teacher from Paro and many echoed this sentiment. 

Dr. Andu Dukpa, Director of JNP took time out of his busy schedule to attend the entire workshop, not missing a single day. "This programme has benefited me professionally as well as personally and if possible, we should have a similar programme in future. This would benefit people from all walks of life. Thank you for choosing JNP to host the LME camp." 

We could not have done this retreat without Dr. Andu's kindness and generosity. He was consistently engaged and enthusiastic about the program from initial planning stages and in addition to being a great collaborator, he generously provided all the facilities. Thanks also to his wonderful staff and faculty, many of whom even voluntarily participated. As a token of our thanks, LME has committed to providing meditation cushions for JNPs new meditation club.

Mindfulness is an anchor that we can come back to at any time of the day. It gives people a basis for more sane and harmonious behaviour. On a relative level, there are immediate and tangible benefits. This is what Khyentse Rinpoche called "common shamatha." Many participants said that the mindfulness presented at the camp could and should be adopted by people from all walks of life and at all times of the day. "I am thinking about adding mindfulness to all of our meetings moving forward, so that it will become part of the culture of REC" said Mr. Lhundup. And he added, "I think this will spread very fast." 

By the end of the retreat, the group was more than just a random collection of workshop participants. "I feel like we are all now dharma brothers and sisters," said Pema from the Royal University of Bhutan. The camp ended with a screening of the entertaining German film Enlightenment Guaranteed and a simple dinner. 

We are deeply grateful to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, our teacher and founder, who suggested we invite Paravi and who guided us on the framework through which to make the camp a success. An enormous thanks to Paravi for taking so much time out of his busy schedule to be here and guide us so skillfully. Not only did he refuse payment for his hard work, he insisted on covering his own travel expenses and even made a financial contribution to LME. Many thanks to Yin-wah Ma and Leo Katsaitis for being our primary sponsors of the camp, and to Pema Nadik and Ana Rinzi and the monks of Chokyi Gyatso Institute for their contribution. Khyentse Foundation's annual grant covers all of our administrative costs, the backbone of our work. And to all the participants, the best thanks you can offer is to continue your practice.

“It is my hope that we can help children develop a broader understanding of the world around them as well as their internal world and how the two are so closely related. I feel certain that this new model of school education will be of great benefit not just for the children and families involved but can have a far-reaching effect on the world at large.”
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche