Until recently, Bounthan, who hails from Luang Prabang, Laos and is 20 years old, had never been on a plane. Or an escalator. Or an elevator, or seen a microwave oven.
But last Wednesday found Than, as he is called for short, at the Swampscott Senior Center, speaking to the writing class, in English. Accompanying him was Michael Sebastian, son of class member Nancy Diaz and the founder of SMILE, Supporting Monks In Learning English.
The youngest boy of a farming family, Than was born in the countryside. Than’s parents could not afford the school fees required by every school in this tiny Southeast Asian country, which borders Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, and is called Lao by its people, not Laos, a name given by the French colonists.
So Than’s older brother did what many do in this underdeveloped country. He brought his younger brother to join him at the monastery and become a monk, so that Than could get an education. In the monastery, Than learned meditation, or, as he puts it, “how to be in my body.” He had 2 meals a day, at 7am and at 11am, of food donated by the villagers; monks are only allowed to eat what has been offered. In addition, Than learned some English, but his lessons were all about grammar, and very little to do with speaking.
Enter Michael Sebastian. Although raised on the North Shore, he lived in San Francisco for many years. There, a consultant to medical and dental practices by day, he also seriously studied Buddhism and meditation, learning from masters and gurus until he in turn taught the spiritual practice. Of this transformation he says, “What I feel in my being most closely relates to what Buddhists talk about.”
Sebastian began to travel to the east, and visited Luang Prabang in 2008 on the invitation of a friend. He taught some English and was asked to come back teach some more. Sebastian explains: Many groups come and go, but there is no stability — students get attached and people leave. The Lao are a shy culture and if someone makes a bond and then stays there, this allows people to open up and be able to learn.
Why the need to learn English in Laos? It turns out Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage town, and the entire economy depends on tourism. A job in tourism depends on knowing the international language, English. In short, the better your English, the better your job.
Unlike the others who came and left, Sebastian returned, again and again. While still working full time, he earned a teaching certificate from UC Berkeley. And, in 2010, he sold all he owned and moved to Laos.
In addition to teaching monks, Sebastian has an organized class, which he teaches for 4-6 hours a day. Students, some orphans, male and female, ages 10-56 are all too poor to pay for school. He creates his own materials with a donated Xerox machine, since available materials have European, references, like the Eiffel Tower, things students in Lao cannot relate to or understand.
Although better English gives the Lao a chance to break the cycle of poverty, Sebastian says, “I don’t want to tell people that their life isn’t good. It is.” He adds, “I don’t want it to change, but it will” as the economy develops. “As the Buddha says, everything changes.”
SMILE, begun by Sebastian’s life savings as well as a large loan, is supported by donations. Sebastian emphasizes that while he is back in the area to raise money to continue his venture, he also wants to “help people to be aware of what’s happening, what the situation is there and what I’m doing. People often want to open their hearts but they don’t know how. This is an opportunity to support something.”
Than, who has now left the monastery but may return, says of his teacher, he has a “generous and kind heart … he shares everything with us.” He laughs, “His mind is like a monk”
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead on 28 Mugford Street will host Michael Sebastian and Than this coming Wednesday, July 18. A casual dinner at 6 will be followed by a presentation at 7, and all are welcome. If you plan to attend the dinner portion of the evening, a donation to the Marblehead Food Pantry is requested.