La Breche de Roland

We monks enjoy a life of great simplicity… just three robes and a bowl, that’s all we own! You may wonder how we manage in the modern world, but you underestimate the power of the practice. Conference calls take place on the Plane of Enlightenment. We don’t need Wikipedia because we already know everything, and for quick travel we just disapparate, a term I’m flagrantly stealing from the Harry Potter franchise. Alright, when it comes down to it we’re not exactly rolling like the Buddha, who, I’m pretty sure, also forbade his monastic brethren from wearing underpants. Not sure how a life of virtue is undermined by a bit of extra suspension but hey, it’s been 2600 years, let’s give the guy a break.

The moral of the story is that monastics in our tradition have a little bit more gear than previous generations, and it’s definitely not standard-issue. Let’s take shoes, for example. Now, I don’t know how people are coming into possession of their footwear. Some people are definitely saving up their monthly allowance, weighing their options and investing in something that provides just the support, function, and style that a well-to-do monastic needs. Others are taking whatever is in the lost and found pile, which is usually brimming with forgotten gear after the big retreats. For myself, my brother Jacob took me to an outlet mall and bought me a pair of “Streetcars”. Aptly named, as they share the same shape as a San Francisco trolley and have about the same function: carrying the elderly short distances. Then again, I didn’t ordain for the sweet uniform, and slip-on shoes are a must in this line of business.

As an aside, I once made the mistake of leaving my shoes unattended during the Summer. This is a dangerous practice with anything at Plum Village. Within a few days I was receiving reports that Thay Phap Do had been seen sporting a suspiciously familiar pair of kicks. I made out to give him a little piece of my mind, but I had to hit him when he’d least expect it. He joined an evening tea session and left himself wide open. I played my Ace:
“Um, Thay? well, I guess.. you know those shoes you’ve been wearing around? Well, they’re the shoes… that, well, I’m the one… who usually wears them around… you know?”
“So?” was his response.
He was clearly on the run. I didn’t want to school him further in front of so many brothers, so I just drank my tea and tried not to look smug. The next day I walked right up to his office, looked around, and after making sure I was alone, left quietly with my shoes. Class dismissed!

Diverse and interesting as our monastic footwear is, what I’m trying to hammer home here is that most of us have shoes that are designed for people who spend their afternoons whittling in the garage, painting ceramic figurines, or watching Wheel of Fortune reruns. They aren’t well suited for scrambling up the side of a mountain. For our final day of hiking, we would be climbing up and down a mile in elevation. A pair of Streetcars just isn’t cut out for this, and other brothers weren’t so lucky. About halfway into the snowy section of the hike, Tuy Niem and I happened upon a sorry sight. Pham Hanh was literally dragging Thay Phap Ton up the mountain. Phap Ton’s Reeboks, in addition to being indoor soccer shoes, were about five sizes too big for him and he’s a bit of a lurch even on level ground. These were not good climbing conditions. As we passed he just kept saying, “This! My first time here! You support me!” Pham Hanh was singing a different tune. It sounded a bit like, “Dear brothers, will you please help me with Thay Phap Ton? He’s having a very difficult…..” But I was out of earshot before he could finish the sentence. Don’t think that I was ignoring their plight; I stopped on the next ridge to document Pham Hanh’s chivalry, and thanks to the wonders of digital image enhancement, we can almost see into the very minds of these two courageous monks.

Tuy Niem, my companion through the better part of the ice fields, went with the trusty socks-and-sandals combination, and though I don’t think it served him well, he was certainly doing better than Thay Phap Ton. He was still recovering from illness and I was constantly reassuring him that the high mountain refuge was just around that ridge up ahead. Eventually we came around that ridge, and instead of a refuge, we saw a sign that said, “Refuge 1 Hour ->”. It indicated a steep incline covered with ice, boulders, and chains for our climbing convenience.

I think Man Trung also rocks retirement shoes, but he lucked out with a temporary poncho lend from some other friendly traveler. Now nicknamed, “The Mexican”, he was looking pretty damn epic. I can’t quite figure out if he does Kung Fu or Tai Chi or what, but he seems pretty physically able and enjoyed jumping, spinning, and sliding recreationally on the ice. Impressive for guy who had never seen snow before. This picture seems at first to be about Tuy Niem and Man Trung: epic mountain climbers. But if we look just a little bit more deeply we can see the mad props owed to my blood sister Aimee, who knitted the gloves that both of them are wearing. And now that we’re at the bottom of it, let’s not leave me unrecognized: the guy who shattered generosity records by lending out both pairs of gloves for our arctic expedition.

Finally we arrived at the refuge, which sits at the top of a massive glacial valley. Inside, brothers had torn off as much soggy clothing as was appropriate and were snuggling around the wood stove. I arrived just in time to see someone pulling out their cheese stash, and jumped at the opportunity to build brotherhood. Just as I had taken a massive chunk of something orange and Dutch, I heard that we’d have to hurry if we wanted to make it to the Breche before the melting snow froze into impassible ice. The fearless were leaving that very second and, not wanting to risk tarnishing my reputation, I had to think fast. After swallowing a golf ball sized piece of cheese and a grapefruit sized piece of bread, I was out the door. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my hasty decision would affect hiking performance, but La Breche de Roland waits for no one!

A little bit about this breche I keep talking about. Breche is like breach, or gap, and the one in question was attributed to a dude named Roland. He was a knight who set about defending France (which wasn’t yet France) from the Moors that invaded from Spain. At some point in this epic tale he smashed a hole in the mountain, creating a new pass between not-yet Spain and not-yet France. I’m not sure exactly how this supported his defensive efforts. If I had to guess, I’d say he felt pretty sheepish afterwards. Either way, the Gap of Roland is a beautiful, 40 meter wide opening on the border of the French and Spanish Pyrenees. From the middle you can look out over a lot of beautiful mountains in both countries.

I was feeling pretty gung-ho about reaching the summit. To protect myself from the bitter winds, I tied my red paisley handkerchief over my face as I imagine Lewis and Clark might have as they summited Mt. Everest. Then I charged the snowy slope with a handful of brothers. I quickly realized that this was not a task to be tackled with gusto, and even less so one to be carried out dressed as a wild west bank robber. The handkerchief proved about as permeable as a plastic bag, and what little air reached my lungs was thin, mountain air. After just about passing out I removed my costume and proceeded on my way at a much more moderate pace. The going was steep but the payout was beautiful. Phap Tai was the hero, effectively sprinting to the top and back down in the time it took the rest of us to tie our shoes. Phap Luu won the Wild Child award by deciding that he’d summit wearing nothing more than a pair of woolen socks. After a stern talking to, we were able to convince him that he should remain clothed, but he still showed his stuff by stomping up the snowy incline in a pair of Vibrams 5-fingers. And just to be clear, the only truth in those last two sentences was the bit about the 5-fingers. On the way down, we showed our mountaineering savvy by sliding down the fresh snowbank on our bums, hooting and hollering in an attempt to ward off avalanche. A couple of wise, French hikers nodded their assent from the refuge.

On the way down, I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Phap Trung appear mysteriously from behind a pile of boulders. I saw him for just long enough to take this picture, for which he wins the “Most Like a Wizard” photo contest. When I looked again, he was gone.

And that just about wraps up our Pyrenees. Until next time.