24……TwentyFOUR

France

Sat-24

“It is clear that much of humanity is suffering and that I am the cause of some of that suffering, what can I do to help relieve it instead?”  The sweet wrinkled face of the woman across from me smiled and quickly answered in Vietnamese “Become a nun.”

The alarm went off very early the next day, switching on the light, I looked for my sweatshirt.  The night before I had returned to Plum Village after settling my bill in Bourdeaux.  Now that I was officially part of the residential community I was required to take part in the daily activities of the monastery alongside the nuns, and every day they started with a long seated meditation.  Exiting the dormitory, several silent figures floated past me and across the grounds towards the meditation hall, their robes gently following them.  Once inside, I followed as each of the women settled down onto one of the neatly spaced cushions and crossed their legs, preparing for their practice.

I had been studying meditation for the last eight years and had carefully listened to a number of suggestions and approaches from a variety of Buddhist teachers.  My approach had always been one of philosophical interest, the religious fervor, while I respected the importance for the speaker, never interested me.  Basically I felt that everyone’s experience of the same piece of knowledge is different and like chemistry reacts to the existing conditions within each person.  We are all composed of a universe of moments colliding or finding synergy. Mediation is simply breathing and looking closely at the present moment, being fully alive and a wake to every experience or emotion you have as a result and not turning away.

“Breathing in I see myself as a flower, Breathing out I feel fresh.  Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain, breathing out, I feel solid.  Breathing in, I make myself still, like a pond on a mountain, and, breathing out, I reflect things as they are.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Perhaps the build up of residue caused by US advertising and self-promotion or perhaps as a result of who I would have been regardless of birthplace, I have always been fiercely protective of my independence.  It may be this that prevents me from accepting that a “guru”  is the answer to recovering yourself from the abyss of never-ending distraction.  This is not to say that I do not find some teachers words inspiring or admire their choices but that I do not believe anyone can accurately dictate the direction of personal evolution for another.  Meditating as an act of exploring living has proved the best guide for me so far and I welcome insight regarding technique from teachers of all disciplines, although ultimately it is my own dedication that will prevail as the most useful.

Seated meditation can include long hours of stillness in the same position and occasionally pain can arise as the experience, many teachers will describe this pain as an opportunity to regain your attention on the present moment.  The first morning in the meditation hall, stiff and cold, several months of traveling and without regular practice, I experienced some leg cramps for the first  hour.  It was with was with some relief that the large metal bowl was struck signifying the end of that mornings session.  The sun was rising over the tree tops and beginning to chase the dew away as we stepped out of the hall and slipped back into our shoes.  We walked together silently and a deep tranquility permeated the atmosphere.  It was a kind of calm and peace that had been built up and reinforced like a habit over thousands of mornings like this one and I smiled to think of it.

All meals at the monastery were silent and it was during this time that the sounding of the 15 minute bell most connected the purpose of the community.  Everyone stopping and reconnecting with their surroundings – dropping back down out of their minds and returning to life together.  Later in the day I took part in a few hours of service, working to help clean one of the guest house buildings with a group of the nuns.  Before beginning our work, we climbed up onto the small balcony of the house a gorgeous green canopy above us swaying and dripping shadows onto the unfinished wood deck.  One of the nuns responsible for organizing the task that afternoon took out a small tangerine for each of us.  With everyone facing each other she explained “Tangerine Meditation”.  The instructions were simple; silently peel and eat the tangerine and while doing so fully taste the flavors of the fruit and delight in the complete experience of eating a tangerine.  Notice the texture of the peel as it came off into your hand, the tenderness of the segments inside, the smell of the fruit as you brought it to your mouth, etc…  By doing this together, she explained, we would be sharing the simple beauty present in our human sensation of eating a tangerine.

After several days of living at Plum Village, mediating, working, eating and walking amongst the nuns, it was announced that we were going to share the day with the monks down the road – the monastery was dived along gender lines.   Additionally  Thich Nhat Hanh had returned to Plum Village and would be giving a teaching later that day.  The atmosphere of calm reflection changed drastically and I remembered that the women around me had committed their lives to this teacher.  They had left their families and homes to live a life solely dedicated to his teachings.   I felt simultaneously envious of their clarity and disappointed to remember that the utopian life I had been enjoying had a ruler.

As we were preparing to leave as a group, one of the nuns who had taken a leader role at the monastery pulled me aside to explain that I needed to cover up my shoulders as I would be disrespecting the practice of the monks by tempting them sexually.  Europe was in the middle of a heat wave, the temperatures were sweltering and I was wearing a tank top.  Returning to the dormitory while the rest of the group started off down the road, I initially felt anger at being singled out, then shame at having been inappropriate and then acknowledgement of the human-ness of the community in which I was a guest.  I chose a shawl and began walking silently with a young french nun who had been waiting.  As we followed a dirt road through the surrounding vineyards, I let my emotions air out like opening the windows in a smoke-filled house.  After I had thoroughly calmed down I was left with the feeling that we were all so very fragile, that our paths even though chosen, could become difficult to follow.

The rest of the day, I barely spoke at all; observing the lecture given by a man I greatly admire and respect, eating a plate of food in the sunshine, participating in a long walking meditation, helping to wash dishes and eventually returning down the dirt road back to the dormitory.  Later that evening I sat on a plastic stool in the orchard reflecting on my experience of the previous twelve hours.  The condition of being human offers us the ability to feel compassion and desire, to feel tranquility and love.  It also creates the ideal conditions for experiencing suffering, despair, pain and loneliness.  It was clear I would not be joining the monastery as a nun, but the last ten days had reminded that courageously turning towards this uncertainty in my own life and in the lives around me was the path I had chosen to experiencing humanity.

23 …… TwentyTHREE

France

Returning home from school one afternoon I informed my mother that I was, from that moment on, going to be Jewish. Careful thought was given to choosing a menorah and plans to start learning Hebrew; I was eleven.   My mother identified with my longing for spiritual community and decided to take the journey with me.   Shortly after my declaration she brought home a large hardcover book.  Reading “An Encyclopedia of World Faiths” became a nightly ritual – discussing and examining each tradition.  It was not until we reached the pages detailing Buddhist ideology that we set the book aside to look for experiential research.

Conveniently, Boulder Colorado has a very strong Buddhist community with an incredibly active lecture circuit, university and prominent meditation hall.  After several years of study, discussion and practice we joined the local Shambhala training; a weekend-long meditation course.  Shortly after we came across the teachings of a Vietnamese monk and both resonated deeply with the simplicity of his messages of peace.  Exiled from Vietnam as a result of his attempts to bring resolution between the French and Vietnamese during the war, he established several spiritual retreat centers in both France and the United States.

I pressed the enter key on a grimy keyboard in an Internet café in Barcelona and sent a message to Plum Village requesting to visit with them in France.  The monastery was located outside of Bordeaux and I was not at all certain that it was possible to arrange a stay of any length on such short notice, but I was chasing my own serenity and boarding the train that afternoon I was determined not to let it slip from my grip.  Once I was reasonably settled in the cheap French hotel near a park I went looking for somewhere to check my email and then somewhere to spend the rest of the afternoon after discovering an empty inbox.

It turns out that Bordeaux has a fascinating natural history museum, eerie, desolate and somewhat forgotten – the museum was in fact as much a relic as were it’s poorly finished taxidermy specimens.  Towards the back of the museum was a room with a warning hand painted in French on a wooden sign nailed to the wall above the doorway.  My curiosity piqued I entered to discover dozens of glass jars of varying sizes and contents – all displaying the most bizarre of scientific anomalies.   For the rest of the day I sat in the park on a bench watching the clouds pass and the light fade thinking about genetics.

The next morning I received a reply from the monastery about my request for a visit.  They requested that I meet their van at a station about an hour from where I was staying.  Not wanting to be intrusive, I had only asked to visit for the day and because of this I left all of my belongings in the hotel as I planned to return that evening.   The countryside was quaint and the train enveloped me in a classic European charm so complete that it was hard to imagine I was headed for a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery.

The short drive led us through sloping, curving, sun drenched roads twisting through vineyards in full mid-summer regalia.  We arrived at a very humble gate and a young French woman welcomed me, the soft pink skin of her scalp glowing and freshly shaven.  She led me into the dining hall and we sat at one of the long bench style tables.  Just as we sat down a bell chimed from the clock mounted on the wall.   My new companion stopped moving, closed her eyes and took several deep breaths.  Then she opened her eyes again and explained that every 15 minutes the bell sounds and it is a chance for everyone to stop whatever they are doing and reconnect with what they are experiencing in that moment.  To stop thinking, talking, acting and start being again.   After a short talk about this and other practices taking place at Plum Village, walked slowly around the property admiring the lotus pond and the beautiful meditation halls.

Lunch was served in a buffet style with everyone helping themselves to the simple, yet delicious vegetarian cuisine; silently.  No one spoke while they ate, they just ate and enjoyed the flavors and textures that had been prepared for them by their comrades, all of whom were women as the genders were separated between two distinct properties.  As I ate I noticed a piece of yellowed paper that was tacked up above the window.  It read:

I see in this food before me the presence of the entire

Universe – here to support my existence.

 

It was a profound reminder; each ingredient was cared for in some way by the sun and the soil, the rain and the atmosphere, then protected and harvested and transported by many human hands all in order to reach this tiny kitchen and then to be prepared for us by the efforts of the community now sitting around us sharing the benefits of it’s nutritious value.   The though caused my eyes to soften and my senses to come alive to the full experience and appreciation of my meal.

After lunch I spent some time walking around the pond and contemplating in one of the hammocks set up on the grounds.   When I asked about returning to the hotel that evening, one of the older nuns was instant that I stay with them overnight.  Overhearing our conversation several of the other nuns joined in explaining that “Thay” or Thich Nhat Hanh would be returning to the monastery in a couple of days and that I should stay with them until then.  A few minutes of quick logistics planning and it was settled.  I would return to the hotel the next evening on the shuttle and check out of my hotel in order to return to Plum Village to live – for the next 10 days – at the monastery.

16 …. SIXTEEN

France

Wed_16reedit
Pablo Picasso fell in love six times… at least.   A Russian ballerina, a photographer, a popular studio model… wildly chasing a muse from woman to woman and leaving depression, suicide, loneliness in his wake.  Personal strife has been accepted historically as the price a muse must pay in order to inspire a great artist, while the same artist is readily forgiven their bad behavior as it is considered a natural result of genius.

Picasso grew up in Spain but chose to spend most of his adult life in France.  Like many of his contemporaries he found himself on the French Riviera with Sarah and Gerald Murphy – a wealthy American couple who spent their time sunbathing and hosting lavish parties.  The couple became patrons and friends to many prominent creatives of the time (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Man Ray, Cole Porter…) forming the epicenter of what Gertrude Stein would later coin the “Lost Generation”.

While Picasso was in Antibes, he produced a number of paintings, sculptures and ceramics of which many were donated to the city and eventually installed in a museum which became the first museum to be dedicated to a living artist.  Chateau Grimaldi sits crowning the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and houses over 240 pieces of Picasso’s work within its stone walls.

Eyes bleary and our luggage heavier than we remembered my brother and I crossed the border into France on the first train from Genoa.  The sun was rising over a landscape dominated by green hills and small clusters of houses still sleeping.  groups of travelers nestled into the corners of the train station, a cold air lingering on from the night pervading the long hallways.  We opted for the view and standing on a thin cement ledge, our hands gripping a metal fence, we took in the light breaking the warmth of a new day onto a new horizon.  Birds started singing and one after another took flight, soaring over the ever brightening scene.  Their dark bodies contrasted beautifully with the pale blue of the morning sky.

The train to Nice was a short one and we took the opportunity to doze off in the sunlight as it flickered in through the wide glass windows.  Once we arrived the day had gotten some momentum and the small city on the French Riviera was awake and having a late breakfast.  Deciding food was a good idea we bought some fresh bread and went to the beach.  Nice has what is called a pebble beach, instead of fine sand it has small weathered stones of varying hues.  After choosing a good picnic spot we sat down to enjoy our own breakfast.  I quickly noticed that among the pebbles was scattered pieces of a strange kind of glass.  It was frosted and smooth but not larger than the rest of the stones.  it was the first time I had seen sea glass and the idea was inspiring.   More than 50 years ago someone tossed an empty bottle out into the open ocean and that bottle was smashed and broken and rolled around during thousands of storms until it was polished and smooth and just light enough to be washed up onto the beach.  I selected a few of the most interesting specimens as we finished breakfast.

Back on the train that afternoon, we continued to follow the Mediterranean stopping for the evening in Antibes.   I was tired.  The glory of the morning and the slow burn of our mid-morning fuel had finally been exhausted and it was all I could do not to surrender myself to the soft bed at the modest hotel we checked into.  But, I was in France and on the Riviera so I managed to convince myself to close the door on the cool white sheets and the downy pillow that were calling to me like sirens to a sailor and we set out again to see what we could discover.

After about an hour of walking around we ended up at the marina and among a forest of sailboats bobbing up and down with the waves casting shadows on the wooden planks lined up in front of us.  Next we made our way up to the Picasso museum, Chateau Grimaldi.  The rooms were cool and quiet and nearly sleep-walking, I followed the sweet breeze as it wafted through the open rooms.  That night I slept very well and we left Antibes on the first train the next morning.

A short distance down the cost the train stopped in Cannes.  We hauled the bags from the carriage down onto the platform and were instantly surrounded by activity.  The platform was electrified with people moving in all directions.  Apparently the infamous Cannes Film Festival was to start shortly and movie crews, future super stars and a healthy amount of up-and-comers all crowded the station.  Relieved to be escaping hysteria of the crowd, we boarded a train that would take us to Spain.  Safely aboard the train I peered down on the manic sea of people from the deep blue velveteen and tried to distinguish the muses from the “great artists”.