Spanish Hospitality

We slept to the sound of pouring rain on the second night. We were in the attic and we could hear it loud and clear, whispering to us, “Maybe stay home tomorrow, huh? Who wants to go hiking in the rain?” Morning came and it was clear that some of the brothers were succumbing to that venomous drizzle. There were a few stalwart men who couldn’t be stopped. I’d like to say I was foremost among them, but as a monk I’m not allowed to brag. Actually I was also feeling pretty icky about the whole situation, and I was only partially comforted by the budget poncho that Phap Luu had bought for me.

Flash back to one week before the trip. Phap Luu and I were wandering around InterSport, weighing the rainwear options and doing some serious philosophizing.

“You see, the problem is that our society is facing an epidemic of consumerism.” he said.

“Mmm, you got that right,” I responded, nodding sagely.

“So what do you think about the poncho situation?”

“Well,” I said, “the ones on the rack are more breathable, but more expensive. There’s only about eight of the cheap ones left, and the green ones are child-sized, they’ll only fit the Vietnamese brothers.”

Phap Luu directed his meditative concentration to the problem at hand, and after a solemn pause said, “Ok, let’s just buy all of them.”

So we emptied the rack of ponchos, made a quick stop to survey the underwear section and veered toward checkout, discussing the recent trend of hiking umbrellas with many a “You don’t say!” and “Well, I never.”

So anyway, it was rainy and I was reluctant at best, but luckily for me I’m surrounded by greatness here, and the collective enthusiasm of the other hiking fans was enough to convince me to join the excursion. I was also intrigued by the prospect of today’s hike. Phap Luu was going to take us up to the village he used to live in. Once populated by over two-thousand people, it’s been abandoned for almost a hundred years; Franco forced people out of the mountains during the Spanish Civil War and into urban areas to work at factories. Now the Spanish Pyrenees are peppered with these little abandoned villages, and they’ve become a popular refuge for rural squatters.

We managed to get out the door, nine of us. Concerned that we didn’t already think he was awesome, Phap Luu told us he knew a super-sweet waterfall on the way, and it was right next to an organic coop run by a few of his numberless friends. I was already cold. The waterfall was raging and we were getting blasted in the face by some really wet winds before we even got close. I fell back, while the bravest of our number went in for the obligatory photo op.

Within roaring distance of the waterfall was the cooperative. After a warm welcome and firm insistence that all nine of us pile into the tiny living room, it was decided that we’d gather in the workshop for some herbal tea. We warmed up to the music of a Spanish conversation as introductions were spread around. Phap Luu had his work cut out for him, being our chief Spanish speaker. I can understand it pretty well but my speech is halting. Like, it comes to a complete halt. We admired their wood-fire bread oven, solar cooker, drying herbs and salt-cured tomatoes. The place is run by a group of passionate farmers who also happen to be serious rock climbers. They have a good chunk of veggies in their outdoor beds and greenhouses, plus the goats and chickens, which provide them with happy happy dairy. A sampling of goat cheese was offered, and this time my Spanish was ready for the job. “Por supuesto!” (Of course!

Two cheeses were brought out along with freshly toasted bread and our herbal tisane. One of the cheeses was a harder, aged chèvre, and the other was a fresh chèvre, stored in olive oil with the wild thyme that grows all over the valley. I did my best to position my body between the jar of cheese and our hosts each time I went back for more, vainly hoping that they wouldn’t notice what great quantities I was consuming. It was good stuff. After we were all sated, we wandered around for a bit of a tour. We met the goats, the chickens, and checked out their “meditation hall”, which was a really elaborate home climbing gym. We left with hearts full of gratitude or at the very least with tummies full of cheese. It’s pretty hard for me to distinguish between these two states.

By now it was almost noon, and we hadn’t even started hiking. We made a quick stop in town for goodies, and Man Trung showed his stuff by fearlessly wandering off in search of a bathroom. As his quest led him toward a nearby pub I hollered, “Bano!” to him. Next we spent a few minutes trying to sort out the confusion, because all non-Vietnamese sounds are the same to him. Phap Thang came to the rescue with a quick translation, something I could have done myself if I’d remembered that “Toilet” is the same word in Vietnamese. He went into the pub armed with the sword of knowledge, and came out victorious. The rain stopped, the clouds lifted, and on high we saw that the mountains were draped with the first snow of the year.

Honestly I kinda checked out for the hike up to the village. I saw what was happening as we walked: I had gotten myself all stoked up for this abandoned village and all the sweet pictures I was gonna take, and that’s where my mind was. We past lots of donkey-droppings on the trail, which suggested that there were still people living up there. Phap Luu said that, at least when he was there, they could only get supplies in by donkey. He had heard that most of the people he knew had moved on, so we were curious to see whether there was anyone around. The path bent around a low stone wall and revealed the village. The sound of an old terrier barking like mad told us that it wasn’t empty.

Meet Pepe, effectively the mayor of this beautiful old town. He invited us in for a cup of something soothing and a good sit. We crammed into his one room house and marveled at the warmth radiating from the wood stove. Naturally there was some catching up between Pepe and Thay Phap Luu, and my attempts to understand were earnest and futile. Apparently almost everyone had left the village, but Pepe and a few others remained. Pepe was the only one we saw over the course of the day. We got ready to offer our cheese and bread, but Pepe beat us to the punch with picnic supplies of his own. The house was filled with bags of nuts, drying herbs, and jars of homemade pickles. He seemed to be living a life of plenty and before we knew it our tea party had turned into a feast. The village has orchards that once provided for thousands. That’s a lot of food for the three or four remaining residents to eat. He was an enthusiastic host and we quit his company only when curiosity to see the rest of the village overcame us (or at least me).

The village delivered what it promised. Beautiful, old stone buildings in various states of disrepair, wildly overgrown gardens and orchards, a well-worn settlement slowly being reclaimed by the forest. Thay Phap Luu gave a guided tour, but I lost the group. I spent a little extra time taking photos from the old church steeple, and when I came down my friends were nowhere to be found. Thanks to the fresh rain, the ground was soft and made tracking my companions easy fare for an experienced woodsman such as myself. I followed their tracks, which were easy to distinguish because Thay Phap Luu was wearing those toe shoes. Passing a particularly muddy spot I was startled to see the eight distinct tracks merge into one set of hiking boots. As I wandered further and further from the village, the tracks became fainter, eventually disappearing altogether. Taking stock of the situation, there was only one conclusion. I had fallen victim to mischievous forest magic. If only I had eaten those berries Dai Tue had recommended! I returned to the town center and retired my woods-lore for the day. Now I relied on an even more ancient and mysteriously reliable tactic often taught to children in case they get lost in the airport: go to the last place you were all together and wait.

About fifteen minutes later I heard the group returning. They were coming from the opposite direction that my forensic inquiries led me, confirming my suspicion that there had been some kind of foul-play. We reunited happily and headed toward home. Pepe wouldn’t let us leave without giving a tour of his garden and yet more herbal infusion, our third of the day! This time it was a homemade blend of dried hibiscus, pear, apple, and raspberry. Again, good stuff. He also gifted us with a few gourds, prized items that caused division and envy in our normally harmonious group. We survived though, and thank goodness because the fourth day would be our most epic.

So next time, the magnum opus of our hiking expedition: The Breach of Roland.

Ordesa Valley

After our first lazy wander in the Bujaruelo valley, Phap Luu decreed that we’d be going down to Ordesa next. For some brothers, the first day was already more than they had bargained for. To these bedraggled monks, Phap Luu said, “If you’re tired and you’re sick, and you’re not going to join us for all the hiking, you should come today.” Ordesa Valley is the part of the Spanish Pyrenees that’s fully UNESCO’d out as a World Heritage Site. There are waterfalls and mountains and trees and all of the fancy stuff you’d expect from a beautiful valley, but the hiking path is massive and Disneyland immaculate.

This was the day that the most dire act of anti-backpacking was committed. A few of the Vietnamese brothers decided that their tea party wouldn’t be complete without a pitcher of hot water. I don’t know where they got it, but they brought a massive carafe, stainless steel and insulated. It’s the kind of thing you expect to see, filled with half and half, waiting for you next to the stale croissants at the Best Western breakfast bar. It also seemed that none of them had a backpack, so they carried it by hand, a devil-may-care gesture that caused everyone we passed to question what they thought they knew about hiking. It’s been a few days now, but I think it looked a little something like this.

The group disintegrated after the first waterfall. A few brothers were completely MIA. I don’t think we saw them for a few hours. Tea was taken, snacks were eaten, and half of the Sangha had lunch before we reached our picnic spot due to some kind of miscommunication. We also enjoyed violating the designated viewing areas to inspect the waterfalls up close. They’re real all right.

Traipsing through the woods is all well and good, and I’m not one to turn up my nose at a waterfall, but the meadows are where it’s at in Ordesa valley. Shaped by some beautiful combination of glacial activity and cattle grazing, the last leg of the hike was lazy and surreal. Trickles from the canyon walls joined up in the middle, at what I guess is the birthplace of the Ara river. The far end of the valley held yet another waterfall, and a good picnic spot. I was one of the fools, tricked into eating lunch early, so I climbed up the canyon wall to take some pictures. On the way up I ran into Thay Phap Trung, who was the hands-down winner of the “Most Like a Jedi” photo contest.

Phap Trung is a bit crazy and mysterious. He also won the “Most like a Wizard” contest, but that was on day four. He was one of the few brothers who disappeared from the group early on, and I have no doubt that he spent that time in communion with forest creatures. Heading up the side of the valley, we encountered chains and metal bars, and a steep rock face. Now we were in climbing country! I enjoyed a side of fear with my adventure, but the climb wasn’t too difficult. Phap Trung bounded to the top. We’re up high, huh? I say. “No. Not very high.” Did you climb mountains in Vietnam? “No… but I climbed trees. Big trees.”

From here the other brothers were tiny tiny, and I assume we looked the same to them, but our adventure did not go unnoticed. A few other monks followed shortly behind, and we had high-5s all around. A few continued up, one stalled halfway for fear of heights, Phap Trung dissolved into a passing dust-devil, and I was left to descend on my own. The walk back was lazy and I ran out of space on the camera. Alas!.

Next up is day 3: Spanish Hospitality!


I noticed that some people I don’t personally know have read this blog. To cut down on confusion and encourage a sense of relevance, here’s a brief monastic roll call covering some of the major players from our trip to the Pyrenees. First off is me! My name is Troi Bieu Hien, aka Chad Skeers, and I’m a novice here at Plum Village. Enough said.

Next up: my ordination family. I was ordained with two bros and nine sisters, plus another fifteen or so young monastics in Thailand, who we haven’t met. Together, we’re the Azalea Family, or Gia Dinh Do Quyen, in my ghetto Vietnamese. I was hoping we’d be the Grizzly Bear Family, or the Tiger Shark Family, but we’re not, we’re Azaleas. And if you think about it, Azaleas are pretty dang cool. Know what I mean? If you don’t know what I mean, keep thinking about it… *clenches fists menacingly* Only bros came on the hiking trip, so here are my two bros.

First up is Pham Hanh, formerly Bart Bannink. Pham Hanh is Dutch. And like all Dutch people, generations of living below sea-level has made him crazy–in a good way. First of all, you can always rely on him to have what you’re looking for. An extension chord, string, a flashlight, edible clay, anything you could possibly want. Why, even today I discovered that he had an iPod charger just like the one I lost three weeks ago, although admittedly that was the result of a mix-up. We didn’t exactly rub each other the right way at first. Namely I made him agitated and he pissed me off. Now we’re Dharma bros though, and do our best to look out for one another. Pham Hanh is caring, concerned, and proactive, which means that Tuy Niem and I, who are both dismissive and irreverent, make him the butt of many a joke. The day that we finally found that we could insult each other without offense was when the ink on our friendship certificate dried.

Tuy Niem is an Aussie, a surfer, and a yogi in the yoga sense of the word. Just so you know, he’s cut like a Chippendale’s dancer under those robes. Before coming to ordain he had a series of excellent adventures, including a teaching stint at a juvenile detention center and a year of living in an ashram. Recent exploits include prodigious Summer fig consumption and getting visual confirmation, from yours truly, that yes, he can do a sweet handstand. Suffering from illness and general aversion to the cold, he was a real trooper on our hiking expedition.

Now some of the other guys.

Phap Tai I already introduced. Sufficed to say, he is French and awesome.

Phap Dang, formerly the most terrifying monk in Plum Village, is a pretty cool guy. There were a few months there where my attempts to greet him were met with a blank look or even laughter. Once, before my ordination, I was wearing one of those Indonesian cloth wrap things (sarong?) instead of normal pants. “We don’t wear skirts here. If you want to wear a skirt, go to India.” was his suggestion. Anyway, that phase in our relationship seems to have passed. Now we get along fine just as long as I take numerous portraits of him. No problem Dear Brother!

Phap Ton is a superhero. I don’t know what kind of dark injustice lies in his past, driving him onward, but he seems sure that the path to redemption involves learning English as a second language. During his first three weeks here he approached every Westerner and told them the same thing, “You! My new English teacher!” Then he was everywhere. You couldn’t take a piss at 2am without hearing, “Hello Dear Brother! Where are you from?” Polite compliance gave way to patient endurance, until eventually one or numerous people did some clarifying on the dos and don’ts of language learning. Now someone needs to give that lesson to whoever keeps teaching him strange phrases. First he was calling everyone, “Mafia Monk!” and then switched over to saying, “You.. very Dangerous Brother!” He also gets points for intentionally making this baffling face for photos. I keep asking if he’s ready and he says “Yesh” like a ventriloquist, as if he’s not willing to risk me taking the picture while he responds.

Man Trung is taking the slow route with language learning. With my crappy Vietnamese, and his crappy English, we’re lucky if we can scrape together a successful exchange, let alone an entire conversation, but one thing is for sure: we’re friends. He’s one of the few Vietnamese brothers that’s down for anything. Swimming in the mountains, hot springs, playing in the snow, all of these sound awesome to me. But for some reason, cultural or otherwise, not everyone else partakes. Man Trung was ubiquitous on this trip, and we had some good laughs.

Dai Tue ordained with a few other guys just before our family.  He’s German, and prone to making safety recommendations.  He’s also our resident herbalist, and has gotten pretty good at convincing me to try random plants along the path.  Isn’t that poisonous? I ask.  Apparently not, as long as I don’t eat the skin or seeds. Also it will help me communicate with spirits and move quietly while hunting.

Phap Luu was our fearless leader. Towards the end of the trip, he said to me, “Every day that I plan goes perfectly…” Out of context it sounds much more arrogant than it really was, and the fact is that he was right. Each of the days that he planned for our trip were exceptional. Even the weather cooperated with his divine will. Phap Luu is one of those people who is good at things. He speaks about six languages, studied at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, LiveStreams the Dharma talks, does the Plum Village accounting, and dabbles in mandolin. I’m told that he used to literally live under a rock, although I’m not quite sure how that is physically possible. He can talk at length about any subject, and finds everything interesting except for celebrity gossip. We’re lucky to have him.

Voyage to Los Pireneos

Once we got back from Paris, our 10 lazy days were supposed to begin. After retreats we usually get some time to chill out and for most of the Sangha, it’s the end of a long lineup that began in Spring and kept us busy until now. We’ve been hearing rumors of a trip to the Pyrenees for awhile now, but after getting back to Upper Hamlet and resting for a few days, there still wasn’t much in the way of concrete details. Then Thay Phap Luu emerged from the finance office, rays of divine light beaming from his brow. Hand in hand with the Buddha, he wrote the details for our trip on the white board: hiking and hot springs in the Pyrenees!

Up until this point I was entertaining the idea of staying home… foolishly. Once I saw the sign-up sheet I was one of the first on board, and true to form the Sangha lifted its majestic head last Sunday and began to fill vans with backpacks, cooking equipment, and various produce. The community is a bit like a blind elephant and the fact that anything ever gets done around here takes rank amongst the highest and most beautiful miracles of life. In this case, Thay Phap Luu gave a few skillful prods and the brothers followed spectacularly. By 9am we had all the luggage in the vans and enough food packed to keep our twenty-two brothers fed for six weeks. We’d booked a refuge so camping wasn’t a concern.

Our convoy of vans stopped only three times. First, to buy bread, fruit, and contraband (cheese and yogurt). Then we stopped for a toilet break within sight of the Pyrenees. After crossing the beautiful, winding pass and sliding down the Spanish side of the mountains, rocks and grass and cattle, we began to swing east and on progressively smaller roads, close to our destination. Our final stop was initiated when the rear guard swerved wildly in the distance and apparently abandoned the group. Phap Tai, our driver, ignored the missing van with impeccable composure. “They know what direction we’re going”. Eventually they were spotted again, but now someone was waving a neon-yellow safety vest out the window. Our three vans cluttered the shoulder, monks disembarked, and the situation was discussed. Pham Hanh’s van was running low on gas, dangerously low, he felt. The sentiment wasn’t shared by our fearless leader or our lead driver. While half of the Sangha emptied their bladders into the alpine brush, a curious ritual of Plum Village diplomacy was enacted yet again. Pham Hanh’s agitated arguments were more or less ignored, discussion on the subject trailed off, and then, as if this happy stop was just a bathroom break, we all climbed back into the vans and continued on our way.

The final stretch into the Bujaruelo valley was a well kept dirt road. Here we were stopped by a group of ganaderos bringing a group of cattle down the mountain. We pulled up to the refuge and wandered over to the stream, spanned by a beautiful stone bridge. We skipped rocks as cattle continued to slosh across the river and down the mountain. The water was clear and the stones were big and smooth, good skipping rocks.

The refuge was fantastic and I didn’t take any pictures. Most of us slept in the attic dormitory, eighteen dudes in one room for five days. It stank pretty bad up there. Also we pretty much completely seized control of the common spaces. The kitchen shelves, floor, and tables were packed with all of our food, cookware, and propane tanks. It turns out these places in the Spanish Pyrenees have beautiful traditional hearths, which allowed us to cook indoors with all of our camping gear. The center of the second story was a square room, benches on three sides and the fourth side open to the dining area. The walls and floor were black, and in the center was a raised platform for building a fire or, in our case, using propane burners. The walls of the room tapered as they rose, eventually becoming the chimney. Looking up, we could see the light of day coming through the vent above.

The following day was our first hiking day. Thay Phap Luu spent lots of time examining the molded plastic map of the mountains on the wall. It didn’t have any trail information, but at least you could get an idea of the terrain in no time flat. We were going to take a gentle hike up one of the valleys as a kind of lazy warm up. Leaving the refuge at the crack of 10:30, clad mostly in tennis shoes, we sent a message to all we passed that said, “We’re not just monks, we’re serious hikers.”

I borrowed the Online Monastery’s DSLR, so I was a big hit with a few of the brothers who liked to have their pictures taken. Winners of the vanity awards were Thay Phap Dang, Thay Phap Chinh, and Thay Phap Ton. Our path took us up, through the woods and into a meadow valley, heavily grazed by cattle. We took a break while Phap Luu charted our course, and saw a marmot. It was too far away for me to really get a picture, and size estimates varied from “dog sized” to “bear sized!”. We may never know.

Having hiked for a few hours, it was clear that there was a wide range of hiking ability and disposition, in some cases made worse by lack of proper footwear. Thay Phap Ton, ever happy to practice his fledgling English vocabulary, proclaimed that anyone who wasn’t tired within the first two hours was a “Very Robust monk!” Others preferred to meander, enjoying the view and, I would assume, a lot of solitude, the rest of the Sangha leaving them miles behind. Occasionally we’d have a head count and end up somewhere close to twenty-two.

After our break we went up the North branch of the valley, eventually settling down near a stream for lunch. Tuy Niem and I took an alternate route, which took us high above the rest of the Sangha and eventually deposited us on the opposite side of the river. While we were unpacking our food, Pham Hanh came over and in a combination of motherly care and urban naivety he warned us not to try to cross the stream. “It’s too deep, the current is too fast!” It was halfway through my meal that I actually looked at the water, crystal clear and eighteen inches deep. After lunch we splashed our way upstream to a waterfall and a beautiful pool, deep enough to jump into. Man Trung jumped in as well. The water was cold but refreshing, and I felt great afterwards. Phap Tai followed and then Pham Hanh, now convinced of the relative safety.

After sunning on the rocks, we packed it in. The walk home was a lazy stroll, punctuated by bits of Celtic herb-lore from Dai Tue and Phap Tai’s speculations on how frequent exposure to very cold water might complement the practice of celibacy. Next up is Ordesa Valley, rock climbing, and the importance of a tea party.


I also put a bunch of photos up on Google+ if anyone is interested.