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.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

the world must be crazy

I've become rather cynical as of late when it comes to politics and religion.

I see, for example, the problems that we're facing as a society, problems that stem in large part from the way our society is currently structured, and I instinctively want to fix them. But the solutions that I see are rejected by most as being too radical, utopian etc., and I can't seem to convince anyone to see things any differently, as if the status quo hasn't been consistently creating the conditions for systematic inequality and catastrophic global climate change for centuries. Whatever I do or say, I feel like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up a hill just to watch it roll back down again.

The majority of people seem to be politically apathetic; and the majority of those who aren't seem to be satisfied with lesser evilism. And don't get me started on the sectarian triumphalism of political parties that, in my opinion, sell a lot of snake oil to the faithful, but fail to do much of anything that's truly efficacious and for the good of all, dividing people more than uniting them in common cause. And much like in the realm of political parties, I think the sectarian triumphalism of religious institutions is guilty of the same when it comes to spirituality.

Individually, there are a lot of good people and groups out there doing a lot of good things in the world; but collectively, on the macro level, I don't see quite the same—I see conflict, division, and shortsightedness where it really counts. It's especially apparent to me after spending time at a monastery; when I come back to the 'worldly life,' the ways we live, the things we think are important, etc., seem so crazy in contrast. It's like as a society, we're ill; but we don't think we're ill, and we childishly fight against most of the things that can potentially make us healthier. The sanest and happiest people I know seem to be the ones who have renounced the world.

I don't know. I think I'm at least understanding the inner motives of hermits.

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.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Just finished reading Thomas More's Utopia, a fictional account of More's encounters with a traveller and philosopher named Raphael Hythlodaeus that explores a wide range of moral, philosophical, and political topics. Overall, I found it to be a quick, enjoyable read, not unlike many of Plato's dialogues. And considering More's background and history, I initially found much in Utopia surprising, particularly the relative level of religious tolerance that's advocated for "preserving the public peace" and "the interest of religion itself" since More actively persecuted Protestants in his role as Chancellor.

The subject matter of the text itself is fairly radical in the kinds of ideals and social structures it advocates. One of the first things that initially stuck out for me was More/Raphael's forceful argument against wealth inequality stemming from private property, unequal social relations, the displacement and disenfranchisement of workers, and unemployment, foreshadowing (and likely influencing) similar arguments offered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine.

In criticizing the death penalty for theft, for example, Raphael argues that the material social relations of the time predispose people to turn towards theft to make a living, and that it's better to "make such good provisions by which ever man might be put in a method how to live" than to impose harsh penalties for criminals that society itself produces: injured veterans who can't farm or find other work; dispossessed farmers pushed off the land by wealthy, idle landowners more interested in raising sheep (needing more land but less workers); scarcity and expensiveness of food created by the switch to sheep farming and enclosure of common land, as well as via market manipulation by the few, extremely rich landowners, etc. (10-4).

Without addressing these issue, Raphael quips, "it is a vain thing to boast of your severity in punishing theft ... for if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this but that you first make thieves and then punish them?" (14). (I think a similar argument can be made today in regard to our prison system and the high rates of incarceration for drug offences, robbery, etc.)

Another thing that caught my attention was its radical promotion of Republic-like, pre-industrial communism, which, although characterized by a rather rigid social structure, offers a lot of interesting (and in my opinion contemporarily relevant) arguments for a communal economic social structure, such as limits on capital accumulation and the abolition of money as the standard of all things (the abolition of wage labour?) for the good of the many since, as Raphael argues, the institution of private property leads to the best falling to the share of the worst (greedy rich/capital) and all things being divided among the few (wealthy/capitalist class), leaving the rest of the labouring population to misery and privation (27-8). (A 16th century version of the 1% vs. the 99%, I suppose.)

He further argues that, "till property is taken away, there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the world be happily governed; for as long as that is maintained, the greatest and the far best part of mankind, will be still oppressed with a load of cares and anxieties" (28). Laws and regulations can mitigate the disease of inequality caused by a socio-economic system based on private property "as good diet and care might have on a sick man whose recovery is desperate," but the disease itself "could never be quite healed, nor the body politic be brought again to a good habit as long as property remains; and it will fall out, as in a complication of diseases, that by applying a remedy to one sore you will provoke another, and that which removes the one ill symptom produces others, while the strengthening one part of the body weakens the rest” (28).

Later, in detailing the nation of Utopia, More via Raphael seems to foreshadow similar (albeit less sophisticated) arguments made today by communist blogger Jehu and anthropologist David Graber regarding the desirability of a reduction of hours of labour (in this case, six hours a day) and the elimination wage labour, as well as the weeding out of 'vain and superfluous' (or what Graeber calls 'bullshit') jobs. To help facilitate this, he argues, much like Plato, for the education of women and their inclusion in workforce and even the priesthood (38-40). Unfortunately, however, women still hold a subservient role in More's fictional society (ultimately being subservient to their fathers and then to their husbands), and the society itself is characterized by a form of slavery and a rather strict Protestant work ethic (the latter of which I think modern technological innovations have made superfluous).

Switching gears somewhat, I found that the section delving into the Utopians' lifestyle, religion, philosophy, etc. has a number of parallels with Epicurean and Buddhist ideas, particular in their approach to pleasure. For starters, I see a lot of similarities between the middle way of Buddhism (i.e., the middle way between the two extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence) and the hedonism of Epicurus. Epicurus' philosophy, for example, was aimed at attaining ataraxia, peace of mind and freedom from fear, and aponia, the absence of pain, via a system of ethics, rational thinking, contemplation, and a secluded, moderate lifestyle. His hedonism wasn't so much unlimited indulgence in sensual pleasures as it was about balance.

Epicurus himself held that the absence of pain was the highest pleasure (compare that to the idea of nibbana being the highest bliss a la Dhp 202-04), and he favoured static pleasure over dynamic pleasure. The difference is explained by Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy using hunger as an example:

Dynamic pleasures consist in the attainment of a desired end, the previous desire having been accompanied by pain. Static pleasures consist in a state of equilibrium, which results from the existence of the kind of state of affairs that would be desired if it were absent. I think one may say that the satisfying of hunger, while it is in progress, is a a dynamic pleasure while, but the state of quiescence which supervenes when hunger is completely satisfied is a static pleasure. Of these two kinds, Epicurus holds it more prudent to pursue the second, since it is unalloyed, and does not depend upon the existence of pain as a stimulus to desire. When the body is in a state of equilibrium, there is no pain; we should, therefore, aim at equilibrium and the quiet pleasures rather than the more violent joys. Epicurus, it seems, would wish, if it were possible, to be always in the state of having eaten moderately, never in that of voracious desire to eat.

This doesn't mean, of course, that you constantly stuff your face, but that you eat moderately, just enough to keep the body from experiencing the pain of hunger but not so much that it experiences the pain of overeating. In fact, Epicurus himself, contrary to popular belief, bordered on asceticism, renouncing sex and living off of little more than bread and cheese. The Buddha had a similar attitude towards food (among other things), as well. For example, from AN 4.37:

And how does a monk know moderation in eating? There is the case where a monk, considering it appropriately, takes his food not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification, but simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life, thinking, 'I will destroy old feelings [of hunger] & not create new feelings [from overeating]. Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, & live in comfort.' This is how a monk knows moderation in eating.

This, in my opinion, is in many ways similar to the Utopians' view of pleasure; and both the Utopians and Epicurus seem to think that the absence of pain is the highest pleasure, at least as far as bodily pleasure is concerned. For them, the pleasure of eating is truly pleasurable insofar as it drives away the pain of hunger and recovers the body's health:

But, of all pleasures, they esteem those to be most valuable that lie in the mind, the chief of which arise out of true virtue and the witness of a good conscience. They account health the chief pleasure that belongs to the body; for they think that the pleasure of eating and drinking, and all the other delights of sense, are only so far desirable as they give or maintain health; but they are not pleasant in themselves otherwise than as they resist those impressions that our natural infirmities are still making upon us. For as a wise man desires rather to avoid diseases than to take physic, and to be freed from pain rather than to find ease by remedies, so it is more desirable not to need this sort of pleasure than to be obliged to indulge it. If any man imagines that there is a real happiness in these enjoyments, he must then confess that he would be the happiest of all men if he were to lead his life in perpetual hunger, thirst, and itching, and, by consequence, in perpetual eating, drinking, and scratching himself; which any one may easily see would be not only a base, but a miserable, state of a life. These are, indeed, the lowest of pleasures, and the least pure, for we can never relish them but when they are mixed with the contrary pains. The pain of hunger must give us the pleasure of eating, and here the pain out-balances the pleasure. And as the pain is more vehement, so it lasts much longer; for as it begins before the pleasure, so it does not cease but with the pleasure that extinguishes it, and both expire together.

The Buddha, too, I think, would agree that eating in order to drive away the pain of hunger and to recover our health is a more ideal pleasure than, say, eating for the sake of pleasant tastes, especially if one is seeking to realize an even higher pleasure—nibbana. From the Buddhist point of view, sense pleasures are ultimately ephemeral, void of lasting satisfaction, and not worth clinging to (MN 37). After all, the body is inherently susceptible to aging, illness, and death. Moreover, I find the ideas suggested in the last four sentences above about the nature of sense pleasures and health evocative of the Buddha's discourse in MN 75 when taken to their logical conclusion, although I think the Buddha would take issue with the Utopian's praise of the appetites planted in us by the Author of Nature later on since they're characterized by pain as much as pleasure.

Another fairly radical idea found in a text written by a devout Catholic who'd later go on to persecute Protestants is that of euthanasia, which the Utopians find honourable (and advisable) in the case of incurably ill citizens who are given the blessings of their priests to end their own life through self-starvation or the use of opium, but no one is forced to end their life. Those who choose not to are still taken care, while those who do are given all the honours of a proper burial. Those who decide to end their own lives "without the approbation of the priests and the senate," however, are denied the same honours, and instead, thrown into a ditch (64).

Utopia is full of such contradictions, mixing conservative values with radical ideas and vice versa. Women are given more status and freedom, yet are still put into a subservient social position. Euthanasia is allowed, but those who do so without the proper authority are cast into ditches. The island is communal and governed by a minimum of easily-understood laws, and yet certain things which seem to us as trivial are dealt with quite severely (although less severely than was the norm in Europe during that time). Divorce is allowed if there are sufficiently good reasons, but pre-marital sex is severely punished and offenders aren't allowed to marry (and must remain celibate) unless granted a special permit by the prince. (Interestingly enough, the reason for the latter is because the Utopians believe if this wasn't punished so harshly, few would be willing to "engage in a state in which they venture the quiet of their whole lives, by being confined to one person, and are obliged to endure all the inconveniences with which it is accompanied" (65).)

And what of its author? More was a lawyer, yet in his Utopia, there are no lawyers, the law being easy to understand and judge. More was a devout Catholic who'd later go out to persecute Protestants, but in his Utopia, one of the most ancient laws is that "no man ought to be punished for his religion" (80). For the time, the idea of religious freedom was fairly radical (it wasn't until Vatican II's 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom that the Catholic Church formally expressed its support for the protection of religious freedom), but the man behind the idea was quite reactionary, which makes me wonder whether Utopia is more satirical than 'utopian.' Is More's Utopia really his version of an ideal society combined with contemporary social criticism? Or is it a parody of utopian literature poking fun at the notion of such an ideal society by suggesting it's nonsensical?

In the end, it's hard to say. Despite his actions in life, More via Raphael makes some good arguments for the Utopian's radical ideals and social structures, echoing much of Socrates' discourses in Plato's Republic. But one has to wonder if More wanted those ideas to be taken seriously considering the names he gives to the people and places in Utopia: Utopia = 'Noplace,' Hythlodaeus = 'dispenser of nonsense,' Achora = 'Nolandia,' Polyleritae = 'Muchnonsense,' etc. Perhaps More was satirizing the very idea of such a rational society in a violent and sinful world.

Monday, August 4, 2014

fives 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 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 ample 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.

Friday, July 25, 2014

why i stand with gaza

I think it's hard to deny that this current round of violence between Israel and Hamas began when Israel accused Hamas of abducting and murdering three Israelis in the West Bank and started its crackdown of Hamas. Many were skeptical that Hamas had anything to do with it, and Hamas itself denied any involvement, which has recently been confirmed by an Israeli police spokesman who said that "a lone cell not operating under Hamas leadership was responsible for the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens last month." Nevertheless, Netanyahu was quick to place the blame squarely on Hamas, saying, "Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay."

So despite Hamas' denial of involvement, and little-to-no proof that they were involved, Israel initiated a crackdown of Hamas anyway, with Netanyahu declaring that they "knew 'for a fact' that the kidnapping was Hamas’ work." Numerous arrests of Hamas members took place (including members released during the 2011 prisoner exchange), and both commercial and pedestrian crossings into Gaza were closed. As the crackdowns were intensifying, Hamas began firing homemade rockets into Israel in retaliation. Israel responded in turn with 6 airstrikes in Gaza, followed by the shooting death of 15 year-old Mohammad Dudin by the IDF during a search of his home for three other teens in the West Bank, further intensifying outrage.

The violence escalated from there, with more rocket fire from Hamas, more Israeli airstrikes, and the murder of a 16 year-old Palestinian boy, who was found "burned alive in a Jerusalem forest, the day after the burial of the three Israeli teens," presumably in revenge. Cue more rocket fire from Hamas (which the US condemned), hundreds of airstrikes by the IDF (which the US said nothing about, of course), and an eventual ground invasion of Gaza by the IDF, culminating thus far in 850 Palestinian casualties — mostly civilians according to the UN — and 5,200 injured (again mostly civilians).

In addition to instigating this round of violence, Israel claims it's not intentionally targeting civilians despite the vast majority of casualties being noncombatants, that they're warning people to leave before attacks come and blaming Hamas for hiding behind civilians. But Gaza in an open-air prison, and there's nowhere for people to go. Israel has bombed almost every part of Gaza, including beaches, hospitals, mosques, sports arenas, fishing boats, and schools, many without any warning at all, like the UN Relief and Works Agency school that was converted into a make-shift shelter for Palestinian families. They're basically shooting fish in a barrel with Gaza. Yes, there have been Israeli casualties as well, approximately 35 soldiers and 3 civilians (one of which was delivering provisions to soldiers), which are just as tragic as those killed by Israeli forces. But I have a hard time feeling sympathy for Israel's position.

What's happening, and has been happening, to the people of Gaza is a horrible crime—it has to be condemned as well as discouraged, especially by the US, Israel's closest ally. Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen; and I can only conclude from the recent unanimous Senate vote in support of Israel that our politicians are so blinded by money, political ambition, and/or a clearly one-sided narrative that not one is willing to stand up and say this is wrong and that we need to immediately withdraw our monetary, diplomatic, and military support until Israel ceases this carnage, halts its continued settlement expansions, and ends its apartheid-style treatment of Palestinians.

That, plus the fact that Israel is essentially an occupying power, is why I stand with the people of Gaza and the West Bank. We need to put pressure on Congress and the President to actively put pressure on Israel to loosen its chokehold of Gaza and the West Bank and negotiate a one-state solution, seeing as how I don't think a two-state solution will work given the history and logic of settler states. Our fervent support of Israel and its policies (including monetary and military support), as well as our fairly aggressive foreign policy in the region over the past 60+ years, is part of the problem, and I think both of those things need to change for there to be any hope of a peaceful end to these conflicts in the foreseeable future.

Friday, July 11, 2014

gentrification, how do I hate thee?

Gentrification, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

This is a development going up near SE 28th and Burnside. Aesthetically, most of these developments are eyesores. They tower above everything else, homes, apartments, and businesses, obscuring views and even the sun. This one, for example, dwarfs Chopsticks Express II and almost completely obscures their sign. I don't hate all developments, but these kinds of money-hungry developers don't care about the surrounding community at all, from their impact on rents and local businesses to ways they physically and aesthetically alter our communities. It's ridiculous how little fucks they give, and how little we can legally do about it.

Even worse, however, was the apartment complex on the corner of SE 28th and Taylor that I walked by tonight, where I overheard two of the tenants talking. Apparently, the owner had recently evicted everyone in order to remodel and the deadline to GTFO was at hand. The one was asking the other whether he'd found somewhere to stay yet and he said no. He's basically living out of his car. The lady who asked shook her head and said that a lot of the other people hadn't either, some staying with friends, some in motels, etc., and then made a comment to the effect that, 'There should be a law that the owners of these places have to wait until everyone has found somewhere else to live before they begin construction.'

I couldn't agree more. That could be me again one day. Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen within the context of a for-profit political-economic system centered around private property rights, which is why one of the main issues I have with the institution of private property in relation to our current setup is how it essentially links private property to liberty, and through private property rights, secures the liberty of the propertied (in this case, the liberty to evict all of their tenants from their homes regardless of whether they have anywhere else to go). Consequently, the greater one's property, the greater one's means of self-determination; while no access to property means a complete lack of self-determination whatsoever.

And these are just two of the many ways I hate gentrification.