The House of the Potato: Part 2

Please read the exciting prequel if you haven’t yet. This is the conclusion.

It seems like only yesterday that I climbed aboard the fastest train in the world to leave my monastic refuge. But it was two days ago, and I’ve learned a lot in that time. First of all, I learned that five years of monastic practice isn’t enough to transform my distaste for loud, sloppy eaters. There was a guy behind me on the train, and honestly I don’t even want to know what was happening back there. It sounded like a couple of carp slurping on a soggy baguette. Incidentally it’s a sound I know well, as we feed the fish in the lotus pond with only the finest pain au cereales from the local boulangerie.

Five uneventful hours later, I was boarding the train for the final leg of my journey and dying of thirst. In France, there’s a great train robbery that takes place every time some sorry soul has to sustain himself with food from the dining car. I was a mere six minutes from my destination when I finally cracked, buying a bottle of bubbly water that probably cost me a euro an ounce. I huddled as close as monastically possible with a girl from Basque country who had suffered the same fate. Disgraced, we stepped off the train.

Two of my beloved monastic sisters awaited us at the top of the escalator. I was briefly afraid they might get the wrong idea about me and my new friend. “Back, single woman!” said I, “The Awakened One is my betrothed. Your womanly wiles hold no sway here!” Smiles of love and understanding were exchanged all around, and I hopped in the car for my ride to the monastery.

That magical night at Maison de l’Inspir was a revelation. Those sisters really know how to cook a potato. I had seconds, and then thirds, and I would have had more if it weren’t for the splitting stomach pains. And they serve potatoes almost every day! For me, it will forevermore be The House of the Potato. But I digress, because more than culinary perfection was revealed to me there.

Before I could get out my notepad and begin questioning, Chua Xua lapsed into revery about a day nearly one year ago. It was a story of love (for the Dharma), loss (of a brother), and most importantly, a well-cooked meal. Phap Nguong had arrived in Maison de l’Inspir for his last night in France. He had decided, as you’ll no doubt remember from last time, to return to Vietnam. Upon seeing this well-meaning and diligent monk straying from his path, Chua Xua experienced an upwelling of compassion that shook the very roots of the earth. “In the name of the Three Jewels, I will cook Phap Nguong a meal that will change his destiny,” she presumably said. She put all of her brotherhood and sisterhood, and as much love as allowed by the precepts, into a traditional Vietnamese sendoff dinner that he would never forget. I wouldn’t be surprised if she snuck some of those delicious potatoes in there too. Lo and behold, less than one year later Phap Nguong was back in Plum Village. Only two days after beginning my six-month expedition, and without making any particular effort, I solved the mystery that had so long boggled my mind.

But now I was in the lion’s den, because Sister Chua Xua took me on as her annual monastic-life salvation project. She candidly shared her plans with me, Sister Hai Nghiem, and anyone else who would listen. I think she didn’t have the same confidence in her western cooking, because she never mentioned a life-changing meal. Instead, she proposed to give me a weatherproof capsule with a five euro bill inside. In the event of a monastic emergency, I’m to break open the capsule and buy an ice cream right away. With tears in my eyes, I bowed down before her in gratitude for her great compassion, and casually mentioned that pancakes are my favorite breakfast food.

Twelve hours and one pancake breakfast later, I was on the road again with a belly full of gratitude. Those sisters sure know how to cook a potato. I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to Maison de l’Inspir, as my pancakes didn’t come with real butter or maple syrup, but I’ll always remember those potatoes. And there’s still an ice cream waiting for me somewhere out there along my path.

Until next time, take care everybody.

The House of the Potato: Part 1

Around this time last year, I was taking Phap Nguong out to a French market or chateau every other day. He had come to the hard decision of leaving our community and returning to Vietnam, and suddenly an interest and even sentimentality towards French culture was awakened in him. “Ah, I’ll miss these market days.” He said as we strolled through what I think was his first produce market. But fate is a cruel mistress, I added mentally, and on we went. He’s about as Vietnamese and Buddhist as you can get, and I’m only a little of each, so to avoid confusing each other we tend to keep our conversations to everyday things like food and flowers. Oh, and talking about flowers is a perfectly manly thing to do in Vietnamese culture, so back off. Phap Nguong is a die hard disciple of the awakened one, sacrificing even his own well-being to show his devotion. Last Vesak (that’s the Buddha’s birthday) he led a crack team of craftsmen in building a birthday fountain for the Buddha. That’s a necessary part of the celebration, because unfortunately for the Buddha he doesn’t receive cake or presents on his birthday, but a bath.

jpeg_img_9597

In the home stretch of the construction process, Phap Nguong, rather than see a lackluster birthday celebration, threw himself in front of a giant hammer. I assume that someone was trying to destroy the fountain or something. Reports varied as to the severity of the injury. Some alluded to a scrape, others spoke of bones protruding from flesh. In any event he went to the hospital, and the Buddha’s birthday went off with only a single hitch. I could never ascertain for myself what happened to his hand, as it was always hidden under a giant bandage.

jpeg_img_1121

That’s one majestic monk. Now for the sake of full disclosure,  I should mention that there was another Vesak casualty. The monk formerly known as Phap Due (he’s since left the community) was the primary welder on the great pink lotus project.

jpeg_img_9524 jpeg_img_1072

The lotuses are made from steel rebar and some kind of indestructible hydrocarbon polymer. They’ll probably feature as props for the next 10,000 years of Plum Village skits. Phap Due, under the guidance of Phap Dien, who did some professional welding in Vietnam, had eschewed the welding mask in favor of squinting. The following day his eyes were like vine ripened tomatoes, and Phap Dan had to put ointment directly onto the cornea. Phap Due asked Phap Dien if this was the normal outcome of a day of welding. “Yes. Eventually you become addicted to it,” was the natural response.

Phap Due, manically juggling his own eyeballs.

Phap Due, manically juggling his own eyeballs.

But all that is just to say that Phap Nguong had left Upper Hamlet to return to his homeland, and I must admit that I also needed an excuse to use these archived photos. But Phap Nguong’s final farewell was all in vain, because this Spring he returned to Upper Hamlet. The obvious question, and object of my investigation: why?

Rather than go directly to the source, I decided that I myself should take a six-month sabbatical as a form of experiential inquiry. Some called me foolish, but I had a gut feeling. And sure enough, on the second day of my sabbatical, I hit pay dirt. I’m still compiling my final report, which I’ll share next time.

P.S. Do you know what happens to the Buddha after his Birthday? In Upper Hamlet, he’s left out on a big rock, apparently to collect enough lichen and dirt to need a thorough bathing the following year.

jpeg_img_1128

He didn’t make it though. This poor baby Buddha had another fate in store, because there’s a switch on his back. When activated, he makes a series of infantile gurgling, giggling, and crying noises approximately once every 30 seconds until the switch is turned off. The brothers took to hiding him wherever he might be heard at unexpected or inopportune times. I hid him in Phap Kim’s bed box, under a pile of laundry and books. It was just muffled enough that his cries would be inaudible, except in the dead of night.

Until next time.

Looking Up

JPEG_IMG_6973 It’s quiet in Upper Hamlet. We’re done with retreats for the season, and settling down for some institutionalized laziness. Here are some things I saw in the sky:

JPEG_IMG_6975JPEG_IMG_6976Does mist count as being in the sky? Just a beautiful, misty morning.

JPEG_IMG_6820Ugh. This thing. I suppose it isn’t long now until the buzz of drones becomes a daily thing. Yet I couldn’t help wanting to shoot this thing out of the sky as it hovered over our Dharma sharing group. God save me from my violent thoughts.

JPEG_IMG_6889Can you see what this is? This thing stopped me in my tracks. Pretty standard Vietnamese homemade kite setup: kite, string, plastic bottle. I guess the kite got away from someone. Luckily the bottle got stuck in the ancient pear tree in front of the monastic residence. And then they left it there. I was wandering home at 10pm or so and saw this thing dancing up in the night sky. Nothing like a kite to make you feel like a kid again.

Take care everyone.

Art History Month Part 3

Ok let’s have a whirlwind tour of my last complete sketchbook and be done with this painful business. I started this one in December and finished it in May. These first sketches are from our Christmas performance evening. Phap Dan said that they look like people from the French Old Regime. Occasionally I throw some color into the mix, even though color is confusing and terrifying.

 

Scan-7

I was pretty much melting down all Winter Retreat. It’s usually the most stressful and foreign-feeling time for me here, and I was heaping on all kinds of other unnecessary negativity to spice things up a little. I’ve learned to grab some time alone with drawing… even if I’m with people, to open up a little space. It’s not the same as sitting meditation, but it gives me something productive to do with all my energy.

Scan-8Scan-9Scan-10

Ok I’ll just let the rest speak for themselves.

Scan-12Scan-11Scan-13Scan-14Scan-15

Art History Month Part 2

I discovered that my sketchbooks are like weird journals. I go to look at the drawings, but I always find my emotional history, only legible to to me. It must be the best kind of secret language for a diary, so obscure that even the author doesn’t know what will be kept and retold.

Here’s the obligatory struggle page. Over the course of this sketchbook I discovered a lot more about what it actually means to draw. I’m not going to go all philosophical on you, but understanding is the key. Now I understand the function of a sketchbook differently, and that a good sketchbook should be full of bad drawings, drawings made when the intent wasn’t to make something beautiful, but just to understand what I see.

Scan-6

2015 was a world-view-shattering year for me. It was a good thing, and a challenge. After our annual retreat season here in Plum Village, I headed home to spend some time with my family. I don’t really like the word burnout, but people keep using it to describe the state I was in. One way or another it was amazing to be with my peoples in Washington and to take some time to reflect. Airports are great places to draw, as are living rooms on family holidays. Oh and don’t be too shocked about the censorship here. There was a phone number written on one of the pages.

Scan-7 Scan-9 Scan-8Got some serious wisdom from spending time with my family and friends, and that got my gears turning about all kinds of things, not the least of which was my mysterious impetus to draw. What do I really want to do? Why do I want to draw all the time? I always thought of it as kind of a distraction, but it’s become increasingly important to me. When I came back to France I had a crazy meltdown in which I decided that making art is not an optional or secondary part of my life, so I’m still trying to figure out what that means for my life path. I try to get out of the monastery a couple of times a week to draw people in the market. There are all kinds of beautiful, interesting people at the open markets here in the Dordogne region. I’ve also taken to drawing during the Dharma talks, which is not exactly ideal practice for a monk. But the people are so still! How can I resist?

Scan-12Here’s a page with a drawing I’m actually pretty happy with. The anatomy and everything are all wonky, but I can feel the love between the mother and baby. Also there’s a little gem here from Pham Hanh, the Dutch monk who has a magical touch for mixing up English idioms. Please excuse the profanity.

Scan-14And just one more farewell image from sketchbook number 2. When I was back home, my new friend Emily somehow convinced me to check out a book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. The mere existence of a book with such a title suggests one of two things. Either people in this world are very desperate to make a positive change in their lives, or the book is gonna drop some legit wisdom on how to tidy up. The latter turned out to be the case. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but the key is appreciating your things. So in this vein I wrote a little thank-you note to my sketchbook on the last page.

Scan-15Until next time.

Art History Month Part 1

I’m the obsessive self-improvement type of guy, always learning something of dubious relevance. When I was young I couldn’t get my kicks  through being a straight-up badass like my brother, who I assume got some satisfaction out of being universally respectable:

-2

So I had to develop all kinds of unexpected skills and personal facts. In lieu of genuine approval, my ego inflates upon receiving surprise or even aghast at my decided quirkiness. Yeah, I’m wearing orange pants. Because I like orange pants. You think I suck at football? Well I don’t suck at drinking root-beer floats. Don’t like hanging out with me? Well guess what? I like not having any friends.

Well OK it wasn’t quite that bad. And now that I look back, I guess I wasn’t all that quirky either. But I did take home what Napoleon Dynamite said about girls only wanting boyfriends that have great skills. To this end I developed the ability to study like a maniac: with great intensity and very briefly on any given subject. In preparation for my first surfing trip in high-school I spent hours on the Internet researching boards, beaches, breaks, waves and wet suits. The day of our trip, Jake and Connor were blown away by my know-how. Or I guess that’s just know. I never did catch a wave, but then again I was surfing the icy waters of Washington State in a wet suit so thick I looked like the Michelin Man.

I’m not boasting, though I have upon occasion. I’m just laying down an empirical fact: I’m a studying machine when I want to learn something. Over the last year or so, it’s been drawing. I picked it up when I first came to Plum Village, and it’s grown into something of a passion. At first it was hot ‘n cold, you know? But destiny has flung us into each others arms.

After the Winter Retreat ended in January 2015 I found myself in the hospital in Bordeaux, helping to take care of our teacher. He had just woken up from three months in a coma. For those who don’t know, he had couple of massive strokes in November 2014. Me and some of my bros were doing shift work with Thay, and then we had the long hospital days to kill in the hospital hotel. Drawing was my anti-drug. So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll post some shots from my sketchbooks over the past year. My buddy Cole told me that I have to post my crappy sketches too, so I can’t pretend that I picked up a pen and miraculously drew one day. I’ve got a long way to go, and what progress I’ve made is due to practice and nothing else.

Here are a few pages from my first sketchbook. The whole point of these sketchbooks is that they force me to draw real things, people, and situations, so none of these are from imagination. They’re direct recordings of me struggling to understand what I see.

This one is from the hospital. Lots of people to draw in a hospital, and lots of sadness, sickness, and death. We went to the park to feed the birds when we had time. We were like, “Whoa! This park is like bird paradise! There’s like a million different kinds of birds here!” But then we realized that it was bird prison, and all the birds had their wings clipped.

First-Sketchbook-01These gems are from a little later, when I was back in Plum Village. The struggle is real. I like the little dude in the bottom right, who was supposed to be human but looks like a penguin on human legs… with a cane.

First-Sketchbook-02

And here’s the big reveal after the surprise make-over. Four or five months later, some of these ghastly things begin to resemble humans:

First-Sketchbook-03Next time: the next sketchbook!

Springing from the Archives….

It’s a pun, because the photos are from last Spring. I’m not going to apologize. Enjoy the gallery.

IMG_8779