There and Back Again… Lazy Post

I’m lazily posting this email I wrote to my family as a blog post!  Enjoy.

Well I successfully went to Paris with the Sangha and didn’t die. Leading up to the trip I had been enjoying a brown rice and sesame salt diet, and I was hoping to continue through our travels. To this end, I hunted down Pháp Đô the night before we left to see if he could help me out. Last year he made some crazy delicious brown rice balls during the health retreat. He said that when he was a VC soldier they would be given a few of these rice balls and sent out into the jungle for months. I imagine they did some foraging and hunting too, but the rice balls would stay good for the whole time. I tracked him down in the kitchen where he was kicking around with a few other brothers and his Mom, who recently came to visit.  Oh and just for clarity the rice balls are about the size of a cantaloupe and dense as a quasar… or some other very dense celestial body. Anyway, Uncle Đô was more than willing to teach me how to make a few for my travels. He patiently endured my incompetence with cooking rice, all the while commenting on his mother’s inability to go to bed while there were still dishes to be cleaned in the kitchen.

His Mom’s a little like him: she doesn’t listen to anything you say, and squarely does whatever she wants. She speaks Vietnamese, Chinese, and German, generally switching around if she knows you don’t speak any of them. The good news for me is that I do speak a little Vietnamese now and she’s one of the only people stubborn or senile enough to just blab away at me about whatever she’s doing even though I hardly understand a word. I’ve also noticed that she corrects everyone’s pronunciation even though she’s one of about three people in the monastery that speak the Northern dialect. That night in the kitchen she made a big batch of mung bean sticky rice for the following day’s bus trip.

In the morning I loaded myself up with my gear, about half of which I didn’t need and a third of which I forgot. I showed up at the parking lot and there was the Mighty Sangha, doing their best to turn a state of the art touring bus into something third world. They had done a pretty good job, and if we weren’t vegan I bet they’d have done better. Most of the cargo space was taken by crates of various gourds, veggies, pots and pans. There were Vietnamese grass hats tied together in bales because there were so many of them. Then there was the luggage, which was packed in so densely that the only thing I could fit was my sleeping bag. Undeterred, I boarded the bus, assured by some of my foolish brothers that there were enough empty seats to hold the rest of my luggage. This was not so. I thought skinny thoughts as I slowly worked my way through the bus, hoping beyond hope that I wouldn’t take some poor nun’s head off with my sleeping mat or an errant backpack strap. Once at the back of the bus, I couldn’t really turn around. Watching the drizzle slide down the rear window, I faced the facts. This was one damn crowded bus. Then came a tap on my shoulder. Unable to turn around, I turned my head in a kind of Yes?-like gesture. Pháp Tai was there, and he whispered sweet nothings that told of an excess of baggage, an additional van, and a need of good company. I was saved.

Pháp Tai, my hero, is a French monk who has been in the community for around three years now. He’s sarcastic, witty, and his mind is dirty as only a Frenchman’s could be. His off-English makes his jokes even funnier. One Spring afternoon he roped me into helping him cut onions on the veranda. After about five minutes I had tears streaming down my face and I was struggling to avoid cutting or at least smashing my fingers with one of our many blunt kitchen knives. The conversation turned to folk remedies for onion tears, many of which, I noted, are ancient Chinese secrets. He peered down at me over the rims of his glasses and said sagely, “I know an ancient Chinese Wisdom. If you go to bed with your butt scratching, you’ll wake up with your finger smelling.”

So it was with this high-caliber wit that I passed the six hour journey to Paris, some of which was really well spent getting to know Pháp Tai, some of which was spent lulling in half-sleep, and the best part of which I spent as a reconciliation counselor, trying to help Pháp Tai piece together his shattered relationship with Catherine, the French language announcer on the TomTom. Things were going well enough when we had it set to Maria, an amiable Spanish woman who patiently directed us to take “la proxima derecha” despite our lack of comprehension. Catherine and Pháp Tai, it turned out, had a long and sordid history, but our linguistic needs forced our hands. I learned that the core of the issue was trust. Pháp Tai didn’t trust Catherine, and Catherine met his pleas for compromise and mutual understanding with cold indifference. “Dans trois cents metres, tournez a gauche,” she’d say. It continued like this until we arrived at the campground.

It was about three hours into our drive that my attempt to eat healthy food faltered. Coffee and croissants were consumed, and things degenerated pretty rapidly from there. The sisters brought an unbelievable amount of food for the trip. We had a big canopy at the campground, naively designated as the dining hall. It was so packed with food that there was nowhere to sit. This included at metric ton of instant noodles, which were a popular choice for most of our stay. When we left we had eaten about one eighth of our supply, and had to haul it all back with us in the end.

We stayed in a nice campground, out in the Paris suburbs, marred only slightly by fear of gypsy tent-robbery. In the end I don’t think anything was stolen, and our fears proved unwarranted. Happily ten minutes walk from a boulangerie, croissants and other pastries were enjoyed in excess. We visited the fledgling Paris practice center on the second day. Maison de l’Inspire, which translates somewhat awfully as “The House of Inhalation”, is in a ritzy neighborhood with lots of green. For some time now the area has been protected by an ordinance that requires three trees planted for any one cut down, and a tree can only be felled for the purpose of construction. The Maison has a two hundred year old horse chestnut tree in the front yard, and it was gathered under that tree on a blue tarp that we had our orientation for the Paris talks.

The Paris center is run by some superstar older French nuns. They’re joyful, peaceful, and rock solid. They shared a little bit about the goings on in Paris, and about the relatively new center. The original building had been recently demolished and a new one built in a new spot. The wounds of construction and demolition still showed on the property. Combined with the numerous tents and one hundred monastics on a blue tarp, it looked like some kind of strange refugee camp. Thây came out for the orientation. He just sat and smiled and after about ten minutes of orientation he said something like, “Chúng ta có được đi chơi chưa?”, more or less, “Can we go and play yet?”

On day three we had the first talk. It was in the evening at the Paris equivalent of Wall Street, a massive concrete plaza called La Defense. Directly in line with l’arche de triumph, La Defense has a modern mirror for the classical monument: a 100m arch that doubles as an office building. It’s cool in a Tron-kinda way. Our talks were given by Thây in the convention center directly below, and as usual Thây slayed it. The following day was another talk, this time followed by a lunch outdoors and public walking meditation. There were probably about three thousand people there for the peace walk, and our presence was a strange sight in a massive complex of high-finance offices and shopping centers.

Our last day in town was for tourism. I tried my best to borrow a camera, but the best I could do was get my hands on someone’s iPhone. It was one of the sisters, so I won’t see her for awhile. Eventually I’ll get all the media and put it online. We had a great wander around the city. It’s nice to be a monk, because I really don’t have to try and be anybody anymore. I mean I still do, I can’t help it, but sometimes I can just play. We went out into the city as an ordination family: Nathan, Bart, Yung, Susan, Malina, Silka, and me. We popped into a few of the big churches, people asked for photos with us even after we shared that we weren’t affiliated. In the park outside Notre Dame, one woman said, “Can I just take a picture of you guys? I don’t want to be in it or anything, I’m just so happy to see people smiling. I’ve been here for two weeks and I’m so tired of trying to fit in and I’m just so glad to see happy people.” So that was nice. This was a nice change of pace, coming right after we were pinned down by an angry New Yorker who told us all about how the Christians were ruining the world.

I didn’t escape the bus ride on the way home. I spent almost the whole thing with Monsieur Harry Potter (the audio book). I was pretty fed up with it after a few hours, but toughed it out and I think my French comprehension improved by the end. We got back in the evening and crashed out. Now we’ve got lazy days and it looks like there’s going to be a trip to the Pyrenees. I’ve signed up, so it seems I’m looking at five days of hiking, resting, and hot-springs. This time I’ll go to greater lengths to get a camera.