Monkey King of the World

If you’ve chanced upon the Plum Village Facebook page in the past few weeks, you may have noticed that mindfulness has a new face. I’ll save you the trouble of going to look:

His name is Ngo Khong, or Realization of Emptiness, otherwise known as the legendary Monkey King. His feats in this and prior lives are too numerable to mention, so I’ll just throw in a little quote from wikipedia:

Sun Wukong (Ngo Khong) possesses immense strength; he is able to lift his 17,550 lb staff with ease. He is also extremely fast, able to travel 13,468 mi in one somersault. (Note that this is more than half way around the world).

Note also, that this beast’s go-to mode of travel is by somersault.

Last week he was charged with a Journey to the Northeast, whereby we were to take some monks to the airport and then pick some different monks up from a much later flight. I agreed to accompany him for spiritual support, and created a detailed schedule for the dead time between the two flights. We were to wander on foot around Bordeaux, performing spiritual wonders and converting the land to the way of the Buddhadharma. Of course fate had something else in store.

After a successful 5am drop-off at the airport, a great whirlwind swept up our van and placed it in the quiet beach-side village of Cap Ferret. As the sun rose, Ngo Khong peacefully composed a new plan to fulfill our mandate of bringing the light of awakening into the world.

One contemplative nap later, all was decided. We would build a great temple on this very spot, and when the local people saw the radiance and splendor, they would come and learn the Dharma. Ngo Khong somersaulted to some place in the world rich with the finest of building materials, and with his supersimian strength somersaulted back with a tarp and some bamboo. After a few false starts, our temple was erected.

What followed literally defies description, so I won’t even try to tell you about the great feats that took place in the refreshing lotus-blossom shade of that tarp. I can give you a hint and say that our practice of eliminating worldly desires was so successful that we almost arrived on time to pick up our monastic brothers in Bordeaux.

Here are a couple of watercolor sketches that came out of the day, some land art from Ngo Khong and a picture of some of the bunkers left over on the beach from WWII. Take care everyone.

Land art

 

Little Known Facts

I’d like to share some spiritual insights I had from a recent trip to the Louvre. First of all, if you’ve never been to the Louvre, you need to know that it’s huge. Ridiculously huge. And having visited before and made myself sick trying to take it all in, this time I limited myself to a single wing: Greek Old Stuff.

I saw an ad for the self-guided tour as I passed the welcome desk, and thought, why not? You get headphones, and an interactive tour-guide on a rented… Nintendo DS? Alas! Have the evils of worldly entertainment invaded even that sacred houses of art? Driven by my fear of eternal damnation, I gave the rental booth a wide berth and decided that I’d be giving myself true self-guided tour.

The amazing thing about ancient art is that it’s one of the only ways we can get in touch with our distant ancestors. What were they like? And more importantly, how did they look? These relics are our only hints. Starting about six to eight thousand years ago, we can see from these representations that mankind was still in a primitive stage, before the development of arms, legs, and heads. My sketchy understanding of evolution leads me to conject that the direct ancestor of these early Greek men was either a worm or a violin.

Next up, a couple thousand years more recent, we see the first primitive arms and legs developing. The head comes onto the scene, but without the facial features, which follow shortly thereafter beginning with the nose. How did the ancient Greek tell friend from foe? By sense of smell, apparently.

A little bit later, man starts to develop some muscle forms on the body, moving slowly towards the evolutionary pinnacle attained by the body-builders of today. I think we can safely assume that these guys originally had heads, and that they were removed to protect the anonymity of the models.

And finally, the human being comes into her own as the beautiful Venus de Milo, who is perfectly developed in physical form, yet still demonstrates the relative simplicity of the ancient Greek, who was still at pains to fully dress herself.

To give her a little bit of credit, she did get halfway there. Fully clothed humans probably didn’t evolve until sometime in the past couple of hundred years.

And finally I’d like to give a shout out to Apollo, who after vanquishing a serpent, took the first selfie in history some 2500 years ago. And also to this random guy, who last week took the 500,000th selfie in history in front of this statue of Apollo.

I thought, this is too much. I have to get this once-in-a-lifetime photo. Not so. If you stand next to this statue of Apollo for fifteen minutes, you’ll have a dozen chances to take the same photo. Oh and by way of apology to art people, this is actually a renaissance statue. Forgive me.

After my inspiring day, I made a couple little sketches in watercolor and gouache.

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Lost Masterpieces and Naked People

I don’t really want to bore you with more lame sketches, but when I was back home over the Winter my mom discovered a secret treasure trove that I just have to show you. First of all I should probably reintroduce myself:
My parents are moving out of my childhood home, and now that I’ve dried my tears I can tell you that it truly is the end of the world. There’s even an apocalyptic fire that consumes all things. My Dad started it, and not long after he threw in my favorite shoes. My yellow shoes. As if things weren’t hard enough. It was out of compassion though because I bought new ones, and my sunshine shoes had really seen better days. My luggage for the trip back to Plum Village was already pushing the weight limit anyway.
Moving is a lot of work, especially when you’ve spent over thirty years cramming little remembrances into every empty corner of a two-story house. My mom pulled box after box from the attic, and I learned about a peculiar habit of hers. Every time she would put a box into the attic, she would date it and write what everyone in the family was doing at that moment. What a wealth of strange little time capsules. And then there was the jackpot: my fourth grade art notebook. Upon coming back here and sorting through all my junk from the past six years, I also discovered a few gems, so I’d like to propose a tour of my artistic development.
First, the early days:
After about fifth grade I think I decided I wasn’t an artist, so there’s a brief hiatus here. These next ones are from when I first started up again about fifteen years later:
And finally, here’s some of the figure drawings I did during my sabbatical, about five years of practice later:
I’ll leave you with a few Springtime shots of France.

Weekend at Turtle’s

When billionaire Grumaster Turtle loses both his hearing and eyesight, two spinsters pose as his long-lost brothers to try to win over the neighborhood and make off with the colossal inheritance.

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Helga Monkeynook and Diadora Phoop have lived in the neighborhood for years, working as the aging Mr. Turtle’s in-home assistants. But as the tycoon’s senses fail, Helga comes across certain documents while cleaning his study that suggest a turn of fate for the two maids.

Helga's plan begins to take shape.

Helga’s plan begins to take shape.

Working in league with a stylist-turned-clown from the neighborhood, they develop a formula for the perfect cotton candy: addictively delicious and chemically identical to human hair.

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The two crones plan a party for the whole neighborhood, introducing themselves as Turtle’s quirky and benevolent brothers.

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Hilarity ensues as Helga and Diodora jump back and forth between their roles as the help at the party, and the two guests of honor. Everything goes according to plan, but when a long-lost nephew shows up seeking a tearful reunion with one of the brothers, all bets are off!

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The neighbors are delighted by the touching family reunion, and stupefied by the delicious cotton candy, but when Mr. Turtle’s nephew gets a taste of Helga’s beard during an embrace of reconciliation, the sugar-spun scheme begins to unravel.

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I know I’ve tasted that beard somewhere before….

How will this heartwarming romp end? Who is this mysterious nephew? Why aren’t Mr. Turtle’s descendants actually turtles? Find out for yourselves, in Weekend at Turtle’s: coming soon to a theater near you.

P.S. Sisters Phu Nghiem and Man Nghiem, please don’t kill me.

 

Showdown in the Old Southwest

Gather round, gorditas, and I’ll tell you a tale from the dusty Southwest. Of France. Back in those days, the French had only just crawled out from the primordial kitchens of the world, and the people of the land knew little more than rosée, brioche and confit de canard. But in a little hacienda called Plum Village, all that was about to change.

One night, with the dry, west wind at his back, a stranger came into town. He was a quiet man, whose actions spoke louder than his words: actions like remaining quiet, and occasionally sneezing. He had a face like a lunar eclipse, and hands the size of gloves. He wore a sweat-stained hat that said *OJAS*, and a white apron. And in a sombrero in his hands was a pile of tortillas, glistening white as if torn from the very fabric of the sun.

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Five days he stayed there, and for five days he listened to the inhabitants of the village boast of their food. The finest cuisine in the world, they said. The only cuisine in the world. He ate their brioche and confit de canard, and he never said a thing. But on the sixth day, he began to cook.

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He cooked alone, for the villagers mocked him. “That’s neither brioche, nor confit de canard,” they said. But he cooked on. And as the hours passed, an enchanting odor began to dance on the desert wind. Farmers put down their tools and picked up their guitars, and the fields were filled with song. Guitarists put down their guitars and picked up their wives, and the houses were filled with dance. Dancers took off their shoes and stood on their socks, and productions were postponed indefinitely. And still the stranger cooked on, and one by one the members of the village laid aside their judgements and began to lend a hand.

Cole squeezed the limes.

Cole squeezed the limes.

Phap Chieu cut the avacados.

Phap Chieu cut the avacados.

Bieu Hien tried to look busy.

Bieu Hien tried to look busy.

Dai Luong scraped some nameless black substance into a blender.

Dai Luong scraped some nameless black substance into a blender.

Phap Chuan... also squeezed limes?

Phap Chuan… also squeezed limes?

He cooked on and on, and the savory smell ranged ever wider on the wind, until people from all around the world set aside their daily doings and began walking in search of the source of the siren’s song. And when they finally arrived in Plum Village, there was the stranger, ready with a dish the likes of which they’d never before tasted.

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They took a taco, each and every one of them, and with the first bite they saw into the interdependent origination of all phenomena. With the second bite, they were liberated from the five hindrances and the three poisons. And with the third bite, they realized that there was more to life than rosée, brioche, and confit de canard.

Just a few of the people whose lives were changed by those fateful tacos.

Just a few of the people whose lives were changed by those fateful tacos.

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Female, Vietnamese John Lennon had to be stopped before entering into a legal union with her taco.

Female, Vietnamese John Lennon (AKA Sonya) had to be stopped before she entered into a legal union with her taco.

And like cactus flowers after a flash-flood, the little Southwest town blossomed with new culinary creations. The Italians discovered a dish they called “pizza”.

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The Vietnamese brothers discovered deep-fat frying.

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And Phap Cau discovered something he called, “caviar punch”.

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They were thrilled about the world that had been opened to them, but when they went to find the stranger and show him their new dishes, all they found was an empty sombrero.

A somber Phap Sieu demonstrates that the mysterious Taco Bodhisattva is not hiding in his sombrero.

A somber Phap Sieu demonstrates that the mysterious Taco Bodhisattva is not hiding in his sombrero.

And so my little enchiladas, that’s the tale of how we had an open house here in Plum Village last Summer. And to this very day in the rugged southwest of France, if your heart is pure, you may still catch a whiff of those legendary tacos on the evening breeze.

Until next time, enjoy the gallery!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.