Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1994

Emptiness and Pure Awareness; Ajahn Amaro
Ajahn Gunhah: A Profile; Ven. Chandako
A Little Awakening in Italy; Aj. Chandapalo
Lay Practice in Essex; Pamutto
Love Unbounded; Srs. Candasiri & Medhanandi
Suffer the Little Children; Ven. Sobhano
Temple Project at Amaravati
Sutta Class: Authority of a Teacher; Aj. Sucitto


Suffer the Little Children

Venerable Sobhano writes of his tudong through the Balkans which took him to an orphanage in the remote north-east of Romania.

As we approached the orphanage I started to float. The crowd of orphans, volunteers and kids from the nearby villages had swollen to somewhere between 40 or 50. We walked underneath the entrance way with a great sign pasted up saying "Bine vinetu" which means "welcome" in Romanian. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. To my right I caught sight of the director looking down from the orphanage balcony with the local mayor and priest, observing our bedraggled procession as though they were members of the polit-bureau attending a Red Army parade. I rounded the corner of the old pink and green nobleman's building where a group of blind musicians began to play, the children gesticulating their distorted bodies to the music with glee. As everyone seemed to be looking at me for the next cue, I pulled out the icon from my rucksack that I had been carrying from Mt. Athos, a gift from an American novice for the orphans of Romania. On the back were messages in Greek, English and Romanian. I made my presentation to the priest who gave me a great hug and kissed me on both cheeks.

So my journey was over. Not so much an anti-climax, more a "what now" feeling. Sublime moments seem to be characterised by their brevity. But what stayed was an exquisite, and all too rare, sense of having reached my goal. Ionaseni had been the destination of my pilgrimage these past four months, a journey that had taken me from Mt. Athos to Macedonia, where we had began our walk, through Serbia and for the last six weeks from the south-west of the Carpathian Mountains to Moldavia in the north-east of Romania where the steppes begin their great roll toward Siberia.

The main therapy was touch, some volunteers reported that after spending time holding the children, their growth rate accelerated, putting on inches in as many weeks.

My welcome had been especially poignant because of the noticeable absence of my two younger brothers, without whom I would never have found myself in this remote part of the world. They had come to Romania in 1990, immediately after the revolution, with an Aid convoy from Scotland. The older of the two, Rupert, was covering the journey as a journalist, and Moona, a skate- board champ turned surfer, was taking a break from his quest for the perfect wave. The place was worse than anything they had seen so far. Over a hundred children tied to their beds, with a few older kids patrolling the dormitories with metal batons. Three nurses came and went, swilling out the toilets once in a while, preparing a meal when they felt like it. The director was reputedly a blatantly corrupt woman who had been cynically accepting the foreign aid for resale on the black market.

My brothers stayed because there was no one else. They found volunteers through friends and other charity organisations who were already working in Romania, but generally there was no real co-ordination. The nightmare conditions, and the emotional damage of the children was balanced by the corps d'esprit of the volunteers who came by the truck-load. Tradesmen gave up their holidays and came to work on the plumbing and wiring. Youths from Belfast and Glasgow mixed with University graduates and nurses. The volunteers would have to barricade themselves in at night to get away from the clamouring of the orphans, desperate for affection.

An early video I saw showed the children sitting outside for the first time. Many had never walked before, so they simply sat there rocking, blinking in the new sun. Inside, the walls had been painted bright white with great splashes of colourful cartoon figures on every bare space. On the soundtrack you could hear rock 'n' roll music from the sixties, the first sensory stimulation many of the children would have ever received. The main therapy was touch, some volunteers reported that after spending time holding the children, their growth rate accelerated, putting on inches in as many weeks.

The work was also changing the volunteers. I saw how my brothers had matured in a very short space of time. In a strange way the values of our lives, mine as a monk and theirs, merged, something I could never have predicted when I first joined the Sangha. One of the joys of the early part of the walk was walking through Serbia with Rupert, who I hadn't really seen for nearly 15 years. We were still able to keep an argument running for the good part of a day, but it seemed that neither of us were that bothered about who won. We didn't need to prove ourselves. I could recognise the qualities of virtue and discipline that he had developed in his work, and I think he also found a different person behind the robe than he had known before.

The walk across Romania took six weeks. Having arrived from Serbia with Rupert, he returned to the head office of the charity Scottish European Aid, in Edinburgh. My other brother, after working in Romania for three years, had moved on to start an aid project in Bosnia. I set off from Timisoara then, the main city to the west of Transylvania, with Paul Shaw who had flown from London to help with food and travelling expenses.

After being in former Yugoslavia for two months I thought I would be used to the post- communist culture, but I quickly discovered that Romania was in a far worse state than anything I had seen so far. There was a lot less money around for one thing. The signs of consumerism were slow in coming, and an atmosphere of gloom still hung like a pall. The Romanians are naturally vivacious and open people, their Latin characteristics a light contrast to the Slavs. But the communism of Ceaucescu had been of altogether another order than Tito's of Yugoslavia. It had bowed the people.

Workers sat on buses exhausted with a life of repetition. Factories in the countryside seemed absurdly anachronistic in their remote settings. Collective farms had been either abandoned or limped along without any real motivation. The farm land of the Saxon villages we walked through, which had been famous for their terraced vineyards, were hopelessly neglected. Ten years of post-war occupation by the Russians had bled the country dry of its significant wealth and Ceaucescu who had been initially welcomed as a hero for standing up to the Russians had been universally loathed. Five years after the so-called revolution the Romanians who hadnít been completely numbed into complacency by forty years of mental repression were waking up to the fact that they had been duped. The 'revolution' it turned out was a coup d'etat by the third-ranking communists. They had since cemented their power by dividing the opposition, (there are approximately 200 political parties in Romania, 26 of whom have seats in Parliament), and suppressing the second wave of student revolts in 1991 with the miners.

Ven. Sobhano's route through the Balkans
And yet as we proceeded through Romania, we found every truth contradicted by its opposite. Alongside the industrial wastelands there was the beauty of the land; wild flowers still growing in the pasture land, the wide expansive forests stretching for hundreds of miles in all directions, and the mountains that seemed to mock our attempts to negotiate them. Set against the state's denigration of the people was their spirituality and the strength of a monastic tradition which was unlike anything I had experienced in the West. On the last stretch of our journey we followed a chain of monastic settlements along the north-east ridge of the Carpathians. Sometimes we found ourselves surrounded by pilgrims who had come from all over the country to hear a great monk talk, or attend a church blessing. Services would be overcrowded with the faithful, and the monasteries themselves were unable to cope with the demand for places.

People complained, like everywhere else that they didn't have enough money and that things were better in the West. I used to protest that it wasn't as good as they imagined. We also had poverty, unemployment and crime. In many ways their lifestyle was a lot more conducive to mindfulness practice. The only way to live within a system where nothing worked properly was to develop patience. Situations which would have brought most of us to our knees with frustration had almost the opposite effect on Romanians. I also admired the sense of community I found in the towns. There was always a wonderful street life, children playing freely there, parents and grandparents sitting under the trees in the balmy summer evenings.

The first orphanage we came to in Romania was in the Hungarian region of Transylvania. 450 'normal' children in one huge building. It had been right on the aid trail so had received more than its fair share of support, with newly painted interiors and some modern facilities. We had come to visit the handful of volunteers there who were being sponsored by a large German charity, Romania Aid. The children over twelve seemed to have prematurely aged, as though a protective layer of anger had formed a shell around them. The younger children, still trusting and hoping, swarmed around us feeding off our attention like a drowning man gasping for air. My heart went out to the volunteers who though genuinely motivated to help the children, were struggling to get any perspective on their emotional involvement.

It was here that we first experienced the conundrum that is facing all the charities in Romania - of separating the human problem from the present political situation. The director of the orphanage was known to be an alcoholic, but nobody had the power to get rid of him. The teachers were regularly brutalising the children in class, but the charity volunteers had no authority to influence this. To effect any change meant taking on the whole political infra- structure that turned a blind eye to the problem.

When the media images of the Romanian orphans first hit the West, many were baffled that the people could permit such treatment. Perhaps Romanians had something against children. Walking through Romania dispelled all the prejudices I might have entertained as we saw how strong the family bonds were within their society. The wider family network survived in spite of the state rather than because of it. The other invention, or projection of the West, that better explains how the orphanage problem arose in the first place, was the idea that Romania was an underdeveloped country. In fact all the mechanisms of a modern state; roads, public transport, a civil service, a telephone system etc., are in place. But none of it worked, giving the appearance that the state was taking care of the abandoned children when in fact it couldn't.

Now the local politicians are waking up to the effect of the charities presence in their country. More bad news about neglected handicaps gives Romania a bad image abroad and exposes the corruption of those from the old regime trying to consolidate their positions in the new political arena. While the charities, both at home and in Romania, are being encouraged to "hand back" their projects, money, (that will still be needed to tackle the problem of actually retraining Romanians), is scarce. Some charities have simply given up trying to work within the present system and have announced their imminent withdrawal.

When I arrived at Ionaseni it was immediately apparent to me why my brothers had spent three years of their life with the children there. In fact it was difficult to tell who had benefitted more. The children seemed to awaken a sense of joyful compassion, that didn't really make any sense in terms of the insoluble problems before one, but was obvious when you were there. My own arrival had offered an excuse to simply celebrate Ionaseni, however I wasn't much good at handling the children themselves who took great delight in hiding under my robes, scratching my hair and generally clambering all over this strange creature in saffron. We were able to spend a few days with the volunteers over the time I was there - meditating together in the forests around Ionaseni. It was a small gesture, but I was surprised how keen people were to hear the Dhamma. It seemed to bring some relief to the emotional demands of their work, and it was something I could give.

One memory stands out for me as an example of what a difference the simple presence of another human being can make. Sitting by the entrance way to the orphanage I was watching a friend, Nick Carrol, (a Buddhist layman who had come out from England for the last two weeks of my stay in Romania), playing with one of the older children, a blond haired boy with ice blue eyes and no obvious physical or mental handicap. He moved like a wild animal and would try to steal anything he could lay his hands on. Nick was playing a riding game with him, trotting him on his knees and varying the pace, now to a canter and now to a trot. Suddenly, quick as a flash, the boy darted aside to grab a badge from a little girl in a wheelchair innocently playing beside us. I immediately felt my bile rising at the injustice of this act, but neither the girl or Nick made any response. Nick just carried on bouncing him on his knees, and after a while began a new game, gently stroking the palms of his hands and his open fingers. The boy seemed transfixed. Very slowly the boy started to melt as Nick extended his caress to his arms, shoulders and head. It took a long time. Nobody said anything, but in the end the boy was just lying there in Nicks arms receiving perhaps for the first time the touch of loving hands.

Nowadays the orphanage is clean. A few Romanians have taken over the running of the physiotherapy unit and a small arts therapy space. But for the bulk of the children their life is still an interminable wait. Their prospects for the kind of education that would recognise them as being anything other than a medical problem, still rests in the hands of Western charities. Returning to the UK, and contemplating what my own contribution could be, I am immediately faced with a feeling of hopelessness. But perhaps by my effort to put into practice the teachings of the Buddha, I am making my own small contribution. The children of Ionaseni then become an inspiration - to bring to an end the suffering in this world, here and now.