Wake Up Ireland I

I wrote this series of posts a couple months ago, just hadn’t posted them yet. Get ready for hiking, dancing, volleyball, meditation, and pretending to get work done. If you’ve read this one, check out part two or part three.


We just finished a crazy awesome week here in Upper Hamlet. We hosted a crew of about 35 Irish people from all across the cold, rainy northland. They’re part of a group called Wake Up Ireland. What is Wake Up? Well, you aren’t talking to an expert, but as far as I can tell it’s a way for young people to organize meditation groups according to our tradition. For my first couple of years here I’ve avoided it like the plague, partially because young people terrify me, partially because I’m jaded against those youth spirituality movements that seem so desperate to be hip. I’m thinking back to a so-called modern translation of the bible I ran across in my teens that retold how the centurion asked Jesus to kick it at his crib. Well Wake Up Ireland is definitely not desperate to be hip. In fact, they broke hipness records all over Upper Hamlet during their week here. I should also add that they weren’t even all Irish. People move to Ireland from all over Europe to work for big tech companies, or just because they love it, and the group had some wildcards from Italy, German, and Spain.

On Friday they swarmed into Upper Hamlet like a… flock of sheep? Sack of potatoes? Celtic knot? I don’t know enough about Irish culture to make a good analogy. Most of the group arrived after midnight, racking up early point on the hipness meter. They all stayed here with the brothers, despite the fact that most were women.

CUT SCENE: Somewhere beneath Upper Hamlet, a robed figure passes through labyrinthine tunnels, lined with electrical conduit and rusted pipeline. Steam pours from a cracked coupling, and he disappears momentarily in the swirling mist. He pauses, glances back over his shoulder and then descends through a trap door. Now he winds his way through unnamed tombs and ceremonial chambers, finally arriving at a massive console cut into the dank limestone walls. Above the tarnished machinery, barely legible, read the following words: Upper Hamlet Chastity Defense System . He turns the great, red dial to “Overdrive.”

Luckily both man and woman alike fit right into our big family, and we did have some nuns come lend us their support. Wake Up Cork was one of the newer groups in Ireland, and in our first meeting it came out that they didn’t have a Sangha name, but they had an idea for one. They all arrived in France the day before their reservation here in Plum Village, and had scheduled a 6:00pm meeting for sitting meditation at their hotel, a rendezvous that none kept. Reflecting on their pure-heartedness and lack of follow-through, someone suggested the name, “Good Intentions Sangha.”

Well, they aren’t the only ones with this problem. We had a big group of brothers sit together a few days before the retreat. I think seven. We brainstormed a jam-packed schedule and figured, what the hell? Why not throw in some extras. Personal wake up calls, piggie-back rides to and from sitting meditation. Why don’t we use a single strand of goat’s hair to write their names on grains of rice, then fold them into slumped glass and hand them out as keepsake necklaces?. Mmm…. Love those good intentions. It turned out to be a pretty crazy week in Upper Hamlet. The big brothers were meeting daily to discuss which of the novices would recieve full ordination in May, and three of our committee members fell sick. Then we had new ideas for even better activities, rendering useless the printed schedules we handed out. Everyone was a good sport about it though.

I spent a lot of time with the Irelanders over the week, because they inspired me. They totally transformed this place. These people are building community out there in the trenches. They offer their time and money to create a space where people can feel welcome, make friends, and learn the joy of meditation. It’s just so damn wholesome! And they have fun doing it. By way of comparison, I live in a monastery. Meditation is served to me on a silver platter in between naps and bars of chocolate. Spending a week with people who pour their love into the practice while juggling a family, full-time job, or both… well, it gave me a chance to reflect on my practice and inspired me to do better.

I’ve got a boatload more that I wrote about this and more pictures too. This is just the warm-up.


Welcome to France

This is another one of those wayback posts, from just after the end of the Winter. Three monks from our US center spent the Winter Retreat with us here in Upper Hamlet, and after spending the whole time cooped up here we figured it was time to go out and get some Europe in us. Uncle Sal, also known as Tai Sinh, masterminded the expedition. He’s Lebanese but moved to the US when he was young. Hien Tai, Quan Chieu, and myself are probably about half his age, but the dude’s got some serious energy. I don’t know which of the believe-it-or-not tales to recount about him. Maybe it’s enough to say that every year he takes a month off from food and just drinks lemonade. A MONTH.

Back in the day he was a union cameraman in Hollywood, so he can spin a yarn about the film industry, photography, art, sometimes a dash of celebrity gossip. Before we had left Bergerac we learned not only the technical specifications of an IMAX movie, but also how the machinery works and who invented it. I used to be a film junkie, so Tai Sinh and I launched into some shop talk in the front seats while Quan Chieu and Hien Tai had a normal conversation in the back. Pretending like you know a lot about something never gets old.

First stop was Beynac. It’s a steep, winding number with a feudal warlord style castle hanging over a cliff at the top. Sadly I don’t have a single picture that depicts it like that. But here are some very beautiful old stairs, and more importantly my monastic bros: Quan Chieu, Tai Sinh, and Hien Tai. That’s in left to right in order by face.


Also we ran into a group of French kids and presumably parents as well. It wasn’t tourist season, and I guess that, like us, they were looking at getting some good old fashioned European history without the high prices and crazy crowds of the summer. Well they got even more than that. Here they can be seen demonstrating their newly acquired cultural competence in American. Courtesy of Hien Tai and Tai Sinh.


Thankfully they kept their peace signs horizontal. I guess over here an innocent American “peace out” is the same as flipping someone off. Learned that one the hard way. Anyway, About the time we finished oohing and awing, it started to rain hardcore so we ran back to the car. Things weren’t looking good for our picnic. We continued on to Sarlat, and happily by the time we parked it was starting to clear up. Here you can see the interesting variety of reactions possible when the photographer says, “Pose!”

IMG_7917We ate straight out of a hotel-pan, like real homeless monks. Then we went wandering around and I was glad we didn’t come later in the year. This place is just insane during the summer. Having some quiet time, we found all kinds of beautiful little nooks and crannies. More in the gallery at the end. Living in Plum Village isn’t exactly like living in France. It’s “FrAsia” according to Phap Dan. So it was nice to get out with the boys and check out some more of the local culture.


IMG_7938More or less everything was closed, and we really didn’t have much of a plan anyway, so the inevitable happened. We had coffee and croissants, and then left for home. But then inspiration struck! We were passing another historical town, and seeing as Hien Tai and Quan Chieu were just about to head back to the States, we decided to sally forth for one last chance to be tourists.

But it wasn’t going to be easy. Our first obstacle was a closed road right as soon as we came into town. Disheartened, we turned back, but thankfully we were so disheartened that we decided to pull over and eat a little bit to cover up our suffering. Now, thoroughly re-heartened, we took stock of our situation. The Universe had turned against us, but we were dead set for adventure and we needed an insight. Finally someone noticed an observation point, high up on the rocky cliffs surrounding the valley. The perfect objective.

Back in the car, we were up a winding valley road, and really putting my French to the test by asking for directions from locals. How do you say observation point again? I never found out. After flagging down a passing car and chatting up an elderly couple in their backyard, we determined that the way up was… down? Down a steep path that, as far as I understood, would spit us out somewhere with a view. As our journey continued, though, both myself and my companions became less sure. As tensions rose, the subject of my skills as interpreter became a favorite topic of conversation. They were praising me, I mean…

Finally we wound up almost where we had started, except for we didn’t have a car anymore, and we knew we had to walk up a hill. Then we saw a sagely old Dutch lady taking care of her garden far below. It seemed like a fated encounter, and knowing how these things work, we figured we only had three questions.

Tai Sinh went first, yelling, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes.” Golden. We’ve got this.

Then it was me, “Can we ask you a question?”

She looked at me like I was an idiot, and I definitely felt like one. “Well, yes?!?”

Then Tai Sinh again, “How can we get to the observation point?”

She paused and with somber eyes surveying us, this is what she said: “The observation point? Oh, you’ve taken a wrong turn. The way is up, around the bend. There, behind that house, the path turns. But I must warn you, the way is difficult. Normally… well, you need a guide. There are many obstacles. You can try, but… Yes, it will be very difficult without a guide.”

Awesome. We weren’t daunted.




Well I’ll try and make a long story short here. We did find a lookout point, and from there we could see the whole valley. We could see all the way over to where the real lookout point sat aloof, about 5km away, laughing at our incompetence. Well, we had fun anyway. The evening was mild and beautiful. We took about a half an hour to sit, enjoy tea, and see who looked coolest standing on the precipice. Here Quan Chieu and Hien Tai are debating the results.



And now for the obvious winner:


That’ll be about all for now. Wishing you well from Upper Hamlet.




Now Featuring: Pictures of Me!

Some shots from a day in Carcassonne with Tai Sinh, Dai Dinh and Nyanayasha. I didn’t take them so there are pictures of me for once!


Carcassonne is a beautiful walled city. It was one of the strongholds of the Cathares, a whole civilization that rose up in opposition of the Catholic church in the middle ages. Naturally, an inquisition ensued and the Cathares were more or less wiped out. But we can still see some of their beautiful architecture!




On one of our adventures Tai Sinh told me about how the mongols rendered fortresses like this useless by their use of smoke bombs and wall-climbing. Here I demonstrate the technique, and reenact a mongol victory dance.



And speaking of Catholics! On the way home from this adventure we ran into some Benedictine monks from a nearby monastery. We were stopped at a gas station and some guy runs up and knocks on our window. “You’re monks?!?” – “Yeah! You’re monks? What tradition?!?” A pretty exciting moment in the life of a rare species. They were great and we’re going to try and catch up with them over at their place. Here are the guys with Jean-Chrysostome, Sebastian, and Robert. I don’t remember who gets which name anymore.


I’ve got a backlog of pictures that belong to forgotten stories, so I’ll try and hammer them out with minimal text like this, so you can at least see what I’ve been up to.