|Drawing of me by one of my students.|
Next up, I asked what a monkey could give, and a student suggested a banana, which was perfect, I thought, since the word I wanted to use was "food". Banana isn't in the list of words they have to learn, but food is, so this seemed a natural substitution to me. "vānaro āhāraṃ deti" ("the monkey gives food"). But once again, I was confronted with a chorus of "no! no!" What's wrong now? "We don't eat monkey meat!" Oh, I guess "the monkey gives food" sounded too much like "we get food from monkeys", as in "we get meat from cows" or "cows give milk". Come to think of it, for all I know, the word we were learning for "food", "āhāra", may mean "meat" in Sinhala. We had a few run-ins like this where some kids would tell me I had the meaning of the word wrong because there was a homonym in Sinhala with a different meaning. Anyway, after clearing up that the monkey was giving food, not being used for food, I suggested that monkey moms and dads surely give food to their kids, and this, they had to admit, made some sense.
We went back and forth like this on many of the examples I gave, but by the time we got near the end and I revealed that it was "Buddhassa vānaro" ("the Buddha's monkey"), which I had originally thought might cause trouble, they were on to my games and playing along. After I put the whole sentence together, "Mitta Buddhassa vānaro pāsāṇamhi ajāya hatthebhi rukkhasmā āhāraṃ deti" ("Friend, the Buddha's monkey gives with his hands food from the tree to the goat on the rock"), we spent the rest of the class time constructing sentences and sentence fragments with the words from their vocabulary list. I was quite pleased that we were able to go to the monastery on the moon riding the merchant's horse, and ride a bird to the village. I was worried that they were being too literal-minded. But either I had just picked some bad phrases to start with, or by the end they realized that we were playing with the words, and that they didn't have to make serious sentences, just grammatical ones.
After class, I got more than the usual number of students prostrating - yes, they kneel down in front of me and bow to the ground - at which point I'm supposed to touch them on the head. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to say something, but I've taken to saying "be happy", which I figure is about the simplest summary of Buddhism I can give them. I really knew I had done something right though when one of the little boys said to me "Sir, you are a very good Sir". I didn't actually understand him at first, and he had to repeat it, and a little girl standing nearby chimed in with a "Yes, Sir!", so I thanked him warmly, and I've had this phrase on my mind and a smile on my face for the rest of the day.