Sunday, October 19, 2014

pah bah

Today, thanks to the generosity of two acquaintances, Paddy and Colin, I went to the Pacific Hermitage Pah Bah ceremony in White Salmon, WA.

Pah bah means 'forest cloth' in Thai; and the festival comes out of the ancient tradition of leaving cloth in the forest for monks to find for them to make their robes after the end of the three-month rains retreat. It's a time for the lay-community to 'draw close' and offer the monastic community gifts of cloth and other supplies they'll need for the coming year as they rely totally on the generosity of the lay-community.

This year's event was rather special in that both Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno were there. Both were students of Ajahn Chah, and both were at one time co-abbots of Abhayagiri until Ajahn Amaro was asked to take over Amaravati in England. It was a very auspicious reunion, and I'm glad that I had to opportunity to be there.

The day began with the afternoon meal, which was first offered to the monks, and then shared by everyone. Next was some traditional paritta (blessing) chanting followed by the actual alms giving and a Dhamma talk, which was split up. Ajahn Pasanno gave a short talk first, followed by Ajahn Amaro. The place was decorated in traditional Thai style, with saffron-coloured towel gibbons strategically placed all over as if in a forest.

One of the overarching themes was anumodana, which means 'rejoicing together' in goodness and generosity and/or offering encouragement. Gathering together and giving our time and support to one another produces a field of merit or goodness that brings happiness to everyone, those who give as well as those who receive.

Just as charity plays a big role in Christianity, the Buddha placed a lot of importance on dana or generosity as well. Generosity arises out of wholesome mental states, and gives rise to numerous benefits on its own. In addition, generosity is considered a requisite for spiritual development. I've always found it interesting that the Buddha begins most of his discourses on the gradual training with teachings on generosity.

After the ceremony, a group of us drove the short distance to the hermitage for a tour. The main building, a small house, has a kitchen, an office area, and a shrine where the monks gather for chanting and meals. Then there's a guest house, for the abbot or visiting monks, and a couple of small dwellings for the monks to sleep and meditate.

I felt bad that I missed mass in order to go to the Pah Bah, but I'm glad I went. It was a beautiful event. And in many ways, it felt kind of the same.

Friday, October 17, 2014

a visit from across the pond

Both Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno were at Portland Friends of the Dhamma tonight leading the Friday meditation and Dhamma talk. It was Ajahn Amaro's first visit to PFoD's new center, and my second time seeing him.

The first time I saw Ajahn Amaro was about eight years ago on Magha Puja, the day tradition holds that 1,250 arahants spontaneously gathered at Veruvana Temple, Rajgarh city. It was a pretty amazing experience, and I still remember it fondly. This time around, the circumstances were less unexpected, but they were no less meaningful.

After tea and some casual discussion, we all requested the refuges and precepts, and Ajahn Pasanno gave a short talk before meditation about the precepts and what we're taking refuge in: the Buddha, who personifies the qualities of awareness, wisdom, compassion, and purity; the Dhamma, which is the nature of truth, the nature of reality; and the Sangha, the realization of that nature, and the arising of those qualities within us.

My meditation was better than I expected from not having done much since the retreat at the end of September, and the talk helped. Instead of taking refuge in my daydreams or complaining mind, I attempted to take refuge in awareness. Whatever came up, I tried not to grasp it and get carried away by it, but simply stay grounded in the present moment. Afterwards, Ajahn Amaro gave the Dhamma talk, which mainly focused on the nature of things as they are, using the five subjects of frequent reflection as a foundation.

A few of the things that stood out to me during the night were: the precepts seem restrictive, but they're meant to free the heart; we take refuge in things that are insecure, courting disappointment; all things are nature, Dhamma, and wisdom or enlightenment is waking up to that nature—you don't gain anything, you simply realize what's already there; if you don't own anything (through non-clinging and the cessation of self-identification, not in a conventional sense), then you have nothing to lose or to cause you suffering.

Both Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno are inspiring teachers, and it was wonderful having them here tonight. I'm so fortunate to be here, now, in this place and have the opportunity to be near so many wise spiritual teachers in this tradition.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

noble friendship, part deux

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend my third retreat at Wat Atam, and the second led by Sakula, the spiritual director of Portland Friends of the Dhamma. The theme of the retreat was based around the threefold practice of virtue, concentration, and discernment, and how they're all integral to a successful practice.

The first night, when everyone attending was encouraged to observe the eight precepts while at the retreat, she talked about importance of virtue, which on the negative end consists of things we should refrain from doing, i.e., not harming living beings, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, not lying or using harsh speech, and not indulging in intoxicating drinks and drugs that lead to carelessness. But on the positive side, they encourage us to be kind and compassionate towards living beings, to be generous, to have safe and healthy relationships, to be honest and thoughtful in our speech, and to live in a clear and mindful way.

Besides helping to protect ourselves and others from the results of our unskillful actions, virtue is important because it acts as the foundation for our practice. For one, it helps to provide the meditator with a mind that's free from remorse and regret; and a mind that's free from remorse and regret is better able to develop deep states of concentration, which are difficult to develop when the mind is consistently worried or agitated (AN 11.2). And one thing Sakula had us do was to think of something skillful we did and delight in how good it made us feel.

(Believe me, a mind that's happier and lighter is a lot easier to observe and train. I know from experience. It's hard to meditate when you've done a lot of things you regret; they're the first things that pop up when the mind starts to get quiet.)

For most of the second day, the focus shifted to concentration. Often, living according to our desires, we develop habits that aren't necessarily good for us. We instinctually grasp for what's pleasant and push away what's not, rarely being fully aware of our intentions or what even we're doing. The problem is, in doing so, we suffer when that changes and we're separated with what's pleasant or come face-to-face with what isn't (SN 56.11). We may also do something because it gives us a short-term pleasure, only to end up suffering a great deal later on because of it. And this happens because our minds are untrained in restraint, mindfulness, and wisdom. To strengthen these tools, we need to first develop our virtue and then develop our powers concentration.

Just like a body that isn't used to exercise finds relatively intense physical activity difficult, if not impossible, a mind that isn't 'exercised' has difficulty turning inwards and being aware of the subtle mental activities and habits that give rise to suffering. We tend to take it for granted that what we're doing or thinking is the 'right' thing, but oftentimes what we're really doing is feeding our suffering. As Sakula mentioned, unpleasant thoughts and feelings will arise, but they'll also soon cease, unless of course we feed and sustain them, not being mindful of how feeding them can actually cause more problems than the initial thoughts and feelings themselves. We simply can't let them go.

We spent most of the day alternating between walking and sitting meditation, trying to focus on the breath or the soles of our feet while also trying to be aware of how our minds were reacting to thoughts and feelings and sensations, and when possible, letting them arise without pouncing on them and turning our attention away from our object. I had a lot of trouble with that, though, and found myself easily distracted.

At the end of the second day, as well as the last, she touched on wisdom. Wisdom is what can ultimately cut the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion. It's the aspect of our mental faculty that's capable of judging which of our intentions are skillful and unskillful, and more importantly, of abandoning what's unskillful. It dives through our desires and the narratives that we create, allowing us to see the deep and subtle way the mid works and giving us the ability to to really go against the flow of our craving. With wisdom, we can enjoy the pleasant without indulging in it and getting carried away by it; and we can endure the unpleasant without having to become overwhelmed by it.

One of the similes she gave that I really liked was of a person walking on some train tracks who's completely distracted by all the sights and sounds around them, unmindful of the train coming up behind them. The person is our mind, the sights and sounds are all the pleasant things we instinctually grasp, and the train represents both the unpleasant things in life and the changing nature of phenomena that tends to barrel us over. Concentration is what helps us turn around and see the train coming; wisdom is our ability to step off the track and watch it pass by rather than let it barrel us over unawares or to try and stop it in its tracks.

The last day was a special treat for me since it was not only Thai Vegan Day, with Wat Atam's community of lay-followers providing a feast of vegetarian Thai food for everyone to share, but one of my old teachers, Ajahn Prasert from Wat Buddhanusorn, was visiting to help raise a fund for sick and injured monks in the US.

Admittedly, I had a hard time meditating or really cultivating any wisdom this weekend. I did gain a deeper appreciation of virtue, however, especially that of others, and felt a lot of gratitude the whole time for all the kindness and generosity that made this retreat even possible for me, from Ajahn Ritthi for hosting it and Sakula for leading it, to Greg and Alistair for lagging behind and braving the I-5 rush-hour traffic so I could carpool with them and Phil and Marie at work who gave me an extra hand so I could get out of work on time and actually catch my ride.

There was a lot more to the retreat, but those are a few things that stuck with me the most. It was disheartening to realize how much I've slacked on my meditation practice and how I was luck if I could be truly mindful of three breaths the entire weekend, but it was equally as heartening being surrounded by such encouraging and supportive people.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

prepare to die

Yesterday a friend and I went to sit with the Friday PFoD group, which was notable for two reasons. The first was that Kyogen Carlson, the abbot of the building's previous community, Dharma Rain, suffered a massive heart attack and passed away unexpectedly the day before. The second was that, being the third Friday of the month, the Pacific Hermitage monks were in Portland to lead the meditation and Dhamma discussion. Due to the news of Kyogen's passing, the monks did some traditional Pali paritta chants before the meditation session, and the talk afterwards focused on death and dying.

Neither death nor dying are something that most people want to think about, but in the Buddhist tradition, these reflections are an important part of the practice. One reason is that they help give one a sense of urgency. Knowing that our time here on Earth is finite and relatively short, with death itself often being unexpected, we're motivated to use the time we do have wisely and develop the tools we'll need to confront death with a stable footing when our time comes. Another reason is that such reflections help remind us of the inconstancy of conditioned things, like our minds and bodies, and how little control we truly have over them:

Aniccà vata sankhàrà.
Uppajjitvà nirujhanti.
Tesaü våpasamo sukho.

Impermanent are all conditioned things.
Of a nature to arise and pass away.
Having arisen, they pass away.
Their calming and cessation is true bliss.

There's a lot of good we can accomplish in our lifetime. There's a lot of joy and happiness to be had as well. But by living heedlessly and ignoring the nature of reality, we run the risk of confronting death unprepared, whether that of a loved one or our own. Because we are born, death is inevitable, but we rarely seem to plan for it. All of the things we accumulate throughout life, wealth, possessions, status, relationships, etc., can't go with us; and yet our lives are almost solely focused on acquiring rather than letting go, so when it comes time to part with that which we hold dear, we sorrow, grieve, lament, beat our breast, and become distraught.

We all must face death numerous times in our life, and countless times if you believe the teachings on rebirth. For that reason alone it's worthy of our attention. From the Buddhist point of view, it's only with the cessation of birth that there's the cessation of death; and being mindful of death leads one to heedfulness—to developing mindfulness for the sake of ending the effluents of the mind. When mindfulness of death is developed and pursued in the proper way, it gains a footing in the deathless, and has the deathless as its final end. And even when our minds and bodies fall apart, there will be peace in the heart.

Monday, August 25, 2014


Both Jesus and the Buddha encouraged their followers to renounce the world. This doesn't mean, of course, that one must literally run away from the world and go hide in a cave. It's primarily a kind of attitude, a shift in the focus of one's life. To renounce the world is to play by a different set of rules, to go against the current of selfishness and craving, and live a life that others may not understand.

To live in the world is to be fully immersed in sensuality, to live for the sake of experience and pleasure and according to the whims of worldly opinions. To live in the world is to be moved by the eight worldly winds of gain and loss, status and disgrace, censure and praise, pleasure and pain, to be swept away by the passions of the world. To live in the world is to seek happiness and satisfaction in the conditioned, that which is impermanent, subject to change and dissolution.

The Buddha said that life is uncertain, that death may come at any moment, so we should practice heedfulness, the way to the Deathless, and freedom from the yokes of sensuality, becoming, views, and ignorance. In the Bible, too, one can find this kind of exhortation to live a life against the current of worldly passions and concerns for the sake of a greater happiness, to live heedfully and with wisdom:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: "He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us"? But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that." But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. (James 4)

It is the craving for sensual desires that give rise to greed, hatred, and delusion, leading to quarrels and conflict. To live by the whims of these passions, one 'makes a friend of the world' and turns away from the noble life, from truth and peace and the Deathless. Our actions and intentions must be cleansed, purified. We must give up some of the short-term happiness and pleasure we experience from following our passions because they lead to long-term harm and suffering; and we must do what might initially be difficult for us to do because it will ultimately lead to our long-term welfare and happiness. We must be honest and practice right speech. And above all, we must not be heedless.

Although many have escaped into the forests, mountains, caves, and other remote places of the earth to help them renounce the world, which can be helpful, 'the world' itself goes with them. One can't escape the world simply by fleeing from civilization. Renunciation, then, is ultimately an internal turning away from our craving and desire once we begin to discern the drawback of sensual pleasures and the limitations of feeding our hunger for pleasant feelings and experiences.

Unfortunately, renunciation is often perceived as a negative word, especially in the West—a word that implies depriving oneself of something essential to living a full and happy life. But in the Buddha's dispensation, as well as in the teachings of Christianity, renunciation actually means the opposite of this—it's a word implying the relinquishment of something unessential to living a full and happy life.

One of the main reasons I find monasticism so appealing, I think, is that it's a way of life specially designed to help foster this kind of internal renunciation on the external level. Monastic life is like a spiritual training ground for those who either have trouble cultivating this spirit of renunciation while living a worldly life (like me) or who simply desire to devote themselves fully to a life of renunciation.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

five days at our lady

Thursday morning, I awoke to a bright, blue sky and a dull headache nesting behind my right eye, excited and at the same time somewhat anxious about my five-day guest house retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey. I'd written to Brother Chris about a month prior during one especially 'dark night' asking about their monastic life retreat, as well shorter guest house stays, and had received an encouraging reply suggesting that I schedule a guest house stay and go from there.

I've been drawn towards monastic life for what seems like most of my life (I don't remember it myself, my mom told that when I was very young, she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told her a recluse). But most of my experience had up to that point been with Theravadin Buddhist monasticism. However, due to the influence of various films and books and conversations with others over the past few years, I'd found myself growing increasingly more curious about Christian monasticism, particularly that of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or as they're more commonly known, Trappists.

I think the first thing that drew me towards the Trappists was their distinctive habits, white tunics with contrasting black scapulars. I know it may sound silly, but something about them is just so aesthetically pleasing and inspiring to me. The second thing that indirectly attracted me to them was Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert, which I found had a lot in common with the wisdom of many of the Thai Forest ajahns, whose ascetic lifestyle in many ways mirrors that of the early Christian monks and nuns who lived contemplative lives in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. And later on, what further deepened that interest is their contemplative approach to prayer, most notably what they call 'centering prayer.'

When I first wrote to Br. Chris, I'm not sure what I really wanted or expected, but I was at least conscious of the vague, reoccurring dissatisfaction with worldly life and desire to connect with both spiritual people and a deeper, more profound level of reality I often feel spurring me on. Although I'm admittedly skeptical of the existence of something more, something transcendent and beyond intellectual understanding, deep down I want there to be, and I seem to be predisposed to searching for it within the quiet depths of my own soul, whether it be in the meditation halls of Buddhist temples or the guest house of a Trappist abbey.

Arriving at the abbey, however, my mind was overflowing with doubts and worries, and I began to second guess my decision to come. For one, I was completely unfamiliar with Catholicism, and Christianity in general. I started to worry that I'd offend someone and/or make a fool out of myself due to my lack of familiarity and general ignorance of proper etiquette. And as open-minded as I know some within the Catholic Church can be, it can't be denied that there's also a very rigid orthodoxy, and I sensed the potential for conflict, both internal and external.

There are aspects and dogmas of Christianity I'm not sure I could ever fully accept, assuming, of course, I found myself pursuing that spiritual path; and even my belief in God — personal, pantheistic, or otherwise — is shaky. I value the idea of God, although I'm not sure how much faith in God I truly have, if any. I think Jesus was a revolutionary spiritual teacher; but I have a difficult time understanding him as God and our relation to him. And yet here I was, about to spend five days at a Catholic monastery, led here by a myriad of conflicting circumstances and desires I didn't fully understand.

But despite my many misgivings, the abbey was quite inviting and peaceful. Instead of having to give any sort of account of myself or my beliefs, I was immediately given the opportunity to let the peaceful, serene atmosphere at once become a part of my retreat experience.

After a short tour of the guest house area from a kind volunteer named Rhonda, I settled into my room, which was small yet comfortable enough, and was further reassured by a small, four-page pamphlet encouraging me (and all retreatants generally) to “enter into quietude,” listen with ears and heart, and allow my “inner self' to surface”—to be “revitalized in my spiritual life,” free from the anxiety and demands that often go hand-in-hand with ordinary, everyday life in our modern society. I took a few moments to sit in the rocking chair and allow what I'd just read to sink in and really begin my retreat.

Maybe thirty minutes or so later, I walked over to the church for Vespers. The church, like the rest of the abbey I'd seen so far, was simple and inviting, yet also inspiring a kind of reverence. The high ceiling and skylights gave it a bright, spacious feeling, and its simplicity was humble, practical, and in my mind, just right to put one into a contemplative mood.

After the service was over, which mainly consisted of a mixture of hymns, prayers, and scriptural readings as the monks alternated between standing, sitting, and bowing, I briefly met with Br. Chris, who introduced himself, asked if I had everything I needed, and suggested that we meet again the next day at 9:30am to talk about my stay, the monastic life retreat, and likely whatever else came up.

Right after Vespers was supper (lunch is called dinner), which I ate in the guest dining area with another guy who also there on retreat. The meal, which was simple, vegetarian, and quite good, was eaten in silence, although talking is permitted during supper. Two more ladies on retreat walked in as I was finishing; but they took their meal into another room to eat, while I took a cup of coffee and made my way out to explore the grounds, meandering around one of the man-made ponds behind the guest houses, full of frogs and some fish and frequented by all sorts of local wildlife.

Once my coffee was finished, I headed back and once again entered the church for the final service of the day, Compline. I tried to “enter into quietude” and truly listen, being mindful of the hymns and my reasons for being there, but I found it rather difficult as my mind's internal dialogue was unwilling to settle down and observe the same silence as my body. It wasn't an entirely unpleasant or unfruitful experience, though; and as I was exiting the chapel with a somewhat reverent attitude on my way back to my guest house to retire for the night, I ran into two deer leisurely wandering the grounds, grazing on the foliage, thus ending my first night of my first stay at a Trappist monastery.

However, sleep didn't come easily for me, even though I felt tired, and most of the night I tossed and turned and dreamed of things I quickly forgot upon waking. The air was stuffy and humid and I couldn't get comfortable. Then, just before 1am, I noticed flashes of light outside. At first, I was unsure of what it was; but as I went to the window I realized that it was lightening, so I got dressed, stepped outside, and watched through the tress as flash after flash arced across the sky, listening to the deep, low rumble of the thunder as it grew louder and louder the closer the storm drew to the abbey. Finally, it was upon us, and the rain began to fall. It was wonderful. I'd seen relatively few storms like that since leaving Michigan over ten years ago. I went back to bed and tried my best to let the sounds of the storm lull me back to sleep.

Vigils, the first service of the day, began promptly at 4:15am. I had a rather vivid dream just before my alarm went off at 3:55am that my phone, which I use as an alarm clock, froze during the night, and that I woke up late, slightly panicked and disappointed at the realization that I'd missed Friday's Vigils. Everything about the dream felt so real, especially the feeling of disappointment; and it was with both a sense of confusion and relief that I awoke for real when my alarm went off.

Although the rain had stopped by now, flashes of lightening could still be seen in the distance, and through the skylights of the church. Like Vespers and Compline the night before, Vigils was a mixture of hymns, prayers, and readings. I enjoyed the reading on prayer near the end from St. Alphonsus Liguori, but was curious about something that came before to the effect of 'God loves those who fear Him.' Why fear, I wonder?

The morning air was left damp and chilly from the storm, and I wished that I hadn't accidentally left my hoodie in Annie's car. The church itself was quite chilly for Lauds and Community Mass, the latter of which was a bit different from the masses I've attended at Orthodox churches. Less ceremony, but no less solemnity or celebration. I did feel a bit awkward at times, though, being the only non-Catholic there (everyone but me took communion); and some of the internal conflicts I was worried about the day before started to surface, such as my difficulty in understanding the concept of the Trinity (three distinct persons being a single divine entity), Jesus being the son of God (being wholly man) and God (being wholly divine) at the same time, and the ritual consumption of Jesus/God.

As much as I appreciated the service, I found myself doubting that I could ever believe in all the things that essentially make one Catholic. I could, of course, see and appreciate those concepts in a metaphorical sense, i.e., how the act of eating the sacramental bread and drinking the sacramental wine was a way of remembering and honouring Jesus as a spiritual teacher and the things he taught, as well as the importance of love and forgiveness (forgiving ourselves and others for our misdeeds, and allowing ourselves to be forgiven in return), and symbolically eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, the essence of life and salvation, connecting one to God, to nature, and to one another. But to see and understand these things literally seemed a bit beyond what I was capable of.

After breakfast, I met with Br. Chris by the pond and talked for a little over an hour. He asked me a bit about my past, and told me a bit about his, growing up in California, working in forestry, and becoming a monk. I learned he was continuing his education at Mt. Angel to eventually become a priest. We discussed literature, and he recommended Rumi, Dostoyevsky's Idiot, and Stranger in a Strange Land. And when talking about Christianity, he more or less said that it's ultimately all about Jesus and what he embodies—love and forgiveness. These two things are the essence of what Jesus taught, and hence what Christianity itself is really about, which is something I can appreciate. He also suggested that I go for a hike and mediate with the novitiates after Vespers.

Afterwards, the pessimist in me was hoping that I didn't make too big of a fool of myself and lamenting the fact that I'd actually said shit at one point during the conversation. But I really enjoyed our talk, and we agreed to meet again on Saturday so that he could take me on a tour of the monastery. I spent the rest of my time before Day Hour strolling around, taking some pictures and making friends with a particularly brave and seemingly curious frog who, unlike his fellows, didn't chirp and swim away as soon as I walked by, allowing me to get relatively close and even coming closer himself.

Day Hour was a short service, followed by dinner, which this time included tuna salad and what looked like some kind of chowder. Even here, vegetarian really means pescetarian, but there was still plenty for me to eat. And with all the free time I had left, I contemplated my future.

Earlier, Br. Chris had asked if I'd thought about going back to school, and I told him the cost made me hesitant and that the things I was interested in — literature, philosophy, political science, etc. — weren't very practical things to get degrees in. But what I'm doing now isn't very fulfilling, and it hardly pays well; and being in a monastic setting, with the peace, simplicity, and wholesomeness of monastic life at the forefront of my consciousness, my longtime desire to ordain became ever more present. But that's a big commitment, and would mean equally big sacrifices that would be difficult to bear. I felt torn between these two choices, these two lives—one of the world and one apart from it. I longed for the joys and pleasures of both, even though I knew one day I'd have to make a choice. My heart was light and heavy at the same time.

I decided to take Br. Chris' advice to go hiking and clear my head, thinking that I'd take the easy route to the Hilltop Shrine, following major forest roads all the way. Instead, I ended up getting lost after taking a trail I thought would lead me straight there, then getting turned around after a couple of forks, having to backtrack a couple of times when whatever trail I was on became too overgrown and full of spider webs and poison oak for my taste. I was worried that I'd miss Vespers, but I eventually made it to the shrine and found my way back with time to spare. I'm glad I went. The shrine was quite nice, and reminded me of similar ones I saw on the trails at Abhayagiri.

I sat alone in their Zen-styled meditation hall, Bethany House, for about fifteen minutes or so before Vespers. It was almost like being back at Dharma Rain. Br. Chris told me that one of the previous abbots, Father Bernard, really wanted a place dedicated to meditation; but many of the older monks predated Vatican II and were less than enthusiastic about the idea, and it took him three votes before everyone eventually agreed and it was finally built. After Vespers, I tried to sit and practice centering prayer with three other monks, but had a hard time staying awake, and was constantly drifting off into those kind of spontaneous waking dreams that gradually seduce you into real sleep. It was only a 25 minute sit, but I guess the lack of sleep and two-hour hike really did me in.

I ate a light supper and ended the day with Compline. I think out of all the services, Compline is my favourite. It's much like the rest, with singing, praying, and readings; but they end this particular service by walking around the altar in the centre of the church, facing an image of Our Lady (Mary), and singing a hymn to her. Then the abbot blesses everyone with holy water as they exit the church for the final service of the day. I'm not sure if it's what they sing or the way they sing it that I enjoy so much, but it's a pleasant way to end each night.

Sleep came much easier this time, and before I knew it, my alarm was going off for Vigils. Vigils is always a serene experience. Every morning before dawn, you walk into the dark church at 4am, many of the monks already there, sitting or standing, in prayer and meditation. Then the service starts, with its particular set of hymns and prayers and readings; and even though I'm always tired, I find it an uplifting experience, much like morning chanting at Theravada monasteries.

Listening to and reflecting on some of the hymns or passages that were being recited, however, depressed me. One, detailing the history of Israel and how the people of Israel suffered under oppression in Canaan, reminded me of the current conflict in Gaza and how Israel is now the oppressor. It saddened me to think of this, and of all the pain and suffering there is in the world; and I found myself wondering whether it's the world that corrupts our good intentions or our 'good intentions' that corrupt the world. It brought to mind Dostoyevsky's novel, Demons, and how the demons that possessed people were the ideas and isms that obsess our thoughts, colour our perceptions, and blind us to all else. What can drive out such demons when we cling to them with all our might?

With these thoughts and others in mind, I sat again for another 25 minutes before Lauds and Community Mass. At the sound of the church bell, we made our way to church for the next service; and once again, I found myself pondering the Eucharist, the consecrated Host (bread and wine) of Christ, and what it represents—still unable to full appreciate its 'mysteriousness,' but at least appreciative of the sense of community and unconditional love it's meant to foster and celebrate, transforming offenses made and received into forgiveness, and uniting the many into a collective whole through a sacred bond that transcends all our differences. To me, at least, it's a spiritual experience that speaks directly to our nature as social creatures.

I napped after breakfast and felt better for it. The lack of sleep Thursday night and the early morning service was catching up to me. I awoke before the alarm I'd set, and spent some time reading by the pond before Day Hour. I saw some of the monks taking care of the grounds and got to thinking about the other things the monks do, e.g., forestry, book binding, making fruitcake, etc.

One of the biggest differences between Christian and Theravadin monasticism that I've noticed is the role of work. Theravada monks and nuns are mendicants and depend almost exclusive upon the generosity of the laity. They're prevented by their rules from working for money (they're not allowed to even handle money), and are only allowed to eat what's offered to them by the laity each day. They do 'work' by writing, taking care of the monastery grounds, building and maintenance projects, etc.; but work in and of itself isn't a part of their vocation proper. Christian monks and nuns in the Benedictine traditions, however, must labour to support themselves. They can't depend entirely upon donations. It's an explicit part of their vocation to work. But, despite this, both seem to acknowledge the need for prayer/meditation and study to be balanced by labour of some sort.

Day Hour came and went quickly. I read some more by the pond, then met with Br. Chris again, who took me on a tour of the cloistered area of the monastery. The tour lasted about an hour and half, and one of its main purposes was to show me around so I could get a better sense of what being a Trappist monk entailed and help both he and I to decide if their month-long monastic life retreat was something that might be good for me.

The tour began in the church, and he told me about the history of the construction, details about the design, and the people who helped with it all. I really liked symmetry, and was impressed to learn that the wood for the pews, altar, and monk benches was all local, most, if not all, coming from their land. I was then taken into the cloistered area, which is generally off limits to the public, and saw everything from their library, infirmary, and rectory to their dormitories, laundry room, and office space. The entire layout is incredibly nice and well thought out considering the construction took place in three stages. It mirrors the church in both its symmetry and simplicity. While not as austere as some of the Thai Forest monasteries I've seen, it was far from lavish and expressed a genuine contemplative atmosphere.

He also explained that in their tradition, working to support the monastery is an important aspect of their vocation, and told me about the various things they do. The way it's set up, they have two accounts, one for the various jobs that support them financially, which is for-profit, and one for donations, which is non-profit and can be borrowed against when the former doesn't provide enough to support the monks' needs. Finally, I was given a fairly detailed tour of their book bindery, which, sadly, in the age of Kindles and iPads, isn't as busy as it once was.

At the end of the tour, Br. Chris gave me a gift, which was a hardcover copy of Benedicta Ward's English translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (where Merton gathered his favourite sayings from for his book, The Wisdom of the Desert) handcrafted and bound at their bindery. It was an extremely pleasant surprise. Not only because of the gesture, but also because I was eying a paperback edition of that very book in their bookstore. It couldn't have been a more fitting gift; and I took it as a sign that maybe I should give some serious thought to attending one of their monastic life retreats.

I also thought it rather humourous and intriguing that, when I returned to my room and opened the book to a random page to read an excerpt, it happened to be a story related by Abba Daniel about an inhabitant of Scetis who, out of his simple faith, thought, “The bread which we receive is not really the body of Christ, but a symbol”—the very thing I found myself thinking the past few days during mass, having trouble understanding it any other way.

As the story goes, two old men heard that he said this, and knowing of his outstanding way of life and that it was not said in malice but out of simplicity, went to see him and exhort him to change his position to one in conformity to the church, i.e., that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ. The man replied that, “As long as I have not been persuaded by the thing itself, I shall not be fully convinced.” So the two old men suggested they pray about this mystery throughout the whole week in the hope that God would reveal it to them.

At the end of the week, all three went to church together on Sunday, and as the priest placed the bread on the table, a child appeared to the three men alone. When the priest went to break the bread, an angel appeared with a sword and poured the child's blood into the chalice. When the priest cut the bread into pieced, the angel cut the child into pieces. And when they went up to receive the sacraments, the man alone received a morsel of bloody flesh and was afraid, crying out that he believed it was truly the body and blood of Christ, upon which the flesh immediately became bread. Then two men said to the third, “God knows human nature and that man cannot eat raw flesh and that is why he has changed his body into bread and his blood into wine, for those who receive it in faith.”

Suffice it to say that the story wasn't enough to fully convince me, and I imagine that as long as I haven't been 'persuaded by the thing itself,' I too, shall not be fully convinced.

The rest of the night was much like the one before: Vespers, meditation, supper, and finally Compline. Off and on, I imagined what it'd be like to live with the monks for a month and participating in each service, and I felt preemptively sorry for anyone that'd have to hear me mangle hymn after hymn because I'm so tone deaf. I don't think there's a rule against not being able to carry a tune, but that might change after they hear me try to sing.

Sunday, Vigils was longer than usual, and included a reading from Thomas Merton's The Living Bread, which focused on the mystery of the Eucharist and how it, and Christ's Church, are one mystery, not two. It seems I can't escape this theme.

Lauds was also longer, and on Sundays, starts forty-five minutes later as well. Afterwards, I ate breakfast and found a copy of Merton's Living Bread to read before the start of mass. One thing that I found interesting was his explanation of the importance of ritual sacrifice as a “response to a deep religious sense of the sacred, the 'holy,'” and that the “higher and purer the religion, the deeper is the meaning of the sacrificial act.”

He also speaks of us rising higher in the 'religious scale' (implying a type of historical, as well as individual, progressive spiritual maturity, I suppose); and as an example, he compares the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, which were rebuked by the prophet Isaias, with the “development of an idea of interior sacrifice in which man offers himself instead of offering victims” underlying the spirit of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the ideal man, Jesus, who is also, paradoxically, God—an “infinite propitiation for all offenses that have ever been committed against God [or divine moral law].”

And in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which I'd started reading a couple of weeks before, Merton writes of the importance of our mutual dependence on one another for our salvation, reinforcing the need for this spiritual, sacrificial union with God and each other in the form of the Mystical Body of Christ, quoting this passage: “You are the body of Christ and members of one another... And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not your help; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.... And if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it; and if one member glory all the others rejoice with it.” For him and many others, this supernatural union is the only thing that has the potential to unite all of humanity together in a truly universal and salvific way.

Despite my own skepticism, all of this at least helped to impart to me the deep significance given by people of this faith to the act of taking communion; and as I sat through mass, I tried to keep that in mind and perceive it from their perspective—that the bread and wine they were accepting was God; and that God is love, so that they were all uniting in love with God and one another. As for myself, being non-Christian, I had to settle for my own communion of cookies and coffee when it was over.

Later, I headed down to the pond to do some reading and think about why I was there. On one level, I'm drawn towards the monastic way of life in general. It appeals to me for some reason; it always has. I tend to fell at home in places like this. On another level, I sometimes get this sense of a possible fulfillment to the spiritual search I think many of us are called to make to fill an otherwise unfulfillable hole in our hearts, and I'm naturally drawn towards religious people and places in the process, both for guidance and for inspiration. It's a deep, intuitive feeling of something more underlying life, a reality that transcends our temporal, subjective experience. At the same time, I fear that this feeling is only a mirage, a delusion, a psychological distraction, leaving me bewildered and lost in a proverbial desert of uncertainty.

During Day Hour, they opened the tabernacle, revealing the Eucharist. I sat and stared at it for a long time, even after the service was over and most everyone else had left and were eating dinner. Part of it was just enjoying the moment; but I suppose part of me was also hoping for some sort of sign or vision or something. (It was quiet and serene, but nothing I'd call miraculous happened.) At Vespers, they did a special ceremony where one of the ordained monks censed the Host from the tabernacle and took it out to bless everyone before closing it back up. At Compline, I felt sad knowing tomorrow was going to be my last day here

I awoke Monday morning with the faint memory of some strange dream. I attended Vigils, which included a reading from St. John Vianney on how prayer stretches the small heart of a small (finite) creature all the way to God (the infinite), and then sat with Br. Paul in the meditation hall for about an hour as the sun rose. After mass, Br. Chris came by, asked if I had a good stay, and told me to think about attending the monastic life retreat, which I think is something I eventually want to do.

As I finish writing this on my last day, I don't know what kind of lasting affect this time (or any future time) at Our Lady of Guadalupe will have on me, if any. I don't know if I'll ever find God or become Catholic or both and one day enter a Trappist monastery. Conversely, I don't know if it'll strengthen my conviction in my Buddhist practice, or throw me altogether into even deeper uncertainty.

Living a spiritual life can be difficult, especially for those with faith in something that's vague and undefined. Often, there's no guiding star, no clear map, no obvious road signs pointing the way. How do you reach a destination if you're not even sure where you're going, let alone the way there? Is it God I'm searching for? Is it some kind of enlightenment? Both? Neither? Sometimes I think it'd be so much easier to just 'stay put' and live a thoroughly worldly life and simply forget about such things; but as much as I try, my restless heart continues to push me onwards in spite of myself.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

pfod grand opening

This weekend, I had the good fortune to be able to attend the grand opening of the new Portland Friends of the Dhamma centre, which recently relocated into the former zendo of Dharma Rain community. A number of prominent monks from the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah came for the ceremony, including Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Viradhammo, and Ajahn Sona. It was like the Buddhist equivalent of hanging out with a bunch of old school rock legends. Sort of.

Friday night, the weekly mediation and Dhamma talk was led by Ajahn Viradhammo, one of Ajahn Chah's early Western students and current abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Canada. Saturday, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah's first Western student and former abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England, led a day-long of meditation and Dhamma reflections. And Sunday, Ajahn Pasanno, abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California and the second-most senior Western student of Ajahn Chah, led the grand opening ceremony, which consisted of chanting, some reflections by Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Sona, Sakula, and other members of the community, and a Thai-style water blessing.

Not only was it great to sit with and listen to the reflections of monks who have been practicing longer than I've been alive, but it was great to see how the PFoD community has grown over the years and for them to finally have a permanent home. A lot of people worked very hard, and gave generously of their time and financial resources, to make this grand opening a reality. When the building they were previously in was sold, and they had trouble finding another suitable (and affordable) location, there was some worry that the group might have to disband. But thanks to all that generosity and hard work (and maybe a bit of luck too), PFoD still has a spiritual home in Portland.

The entire experience was extremely auspicious, and I know it meant a lot to the whole community to have so many venerable monastics present, including Ajahn Sumedho. I know it definitely meant a lot to me. I think it's safe to say the weekend was a success, and PFoD's new home will continue to act as both a 'landing pad' for visiting monks and nuns and a place of training for the lay-community, being a welcoming sanctuary for anyone interested in trying to put the Buddha's teachings into practice.