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