October 6, 2007

10/06/07 Plum Village France

Upper Hamlet

5am came very early this morning. Good thing I used the alarm on my watch because I didn't here the bells outside. A heavy fog made walking in the predawn hours difficult enough that I had to go back and get my flashlight to find my way to the meditation hall.

It is a funny feeling being one of the new people, not knowing exactly what to do. I guess it is a way of being humble, admitting that you don't know everything but not getting upset or anxious about it, especially not beating yourself up about it. Just go with the flow, watching everyone else. And when you do make a mistake, calmly correct it. No problem.

This mornings meditation was longer than I was used to. Just another reminder that I need to work on my flexibility more. The sitting meditation posture has been used for centuries because of it's stability, and it's facilitation of good posture. But it is not used because you're supposed to endure the pain. Better to stretch a bit.

The very simple shrine in the meditation hall

After breakfast, the five new people met in the hall for orientation. Dominique was there, along with my roommate, Stephan from Paris. Paddy is here on his doctor's advice back in Ireland for stress reduction. And Philip is a Catholic writer for a Franciscan magazine in Paris doing an article on other faiths. With his research, he decided that Buddhism was more 'practice' than beliefs. So, he thought he needed to experience this practice first hand.

The Brother who lead the orientation did a wonderful job of explaining the 'how' and more important 'why' of all our activities here at Plum Village, but without using any unknown Buddhist jargon. Basically, everything around the monastery is there to help a person become more mindful, to be more in the moment. For example, whenever you hear the bells go off, no matter what you are doing, you are to gently stop and take a few deep breaths, taking note of the 'now' of the moment. The idea is that too often we go on autopilot, not really paying attention to ourselves, those around us, or what's happening right now. By repeatingly coming back to the moment, we hope to alter our habits of constantly being elsewhere, like experiencing regret for the past or worrying about the future.

This rings for all our activities

Later in the morning, everyone met for Walking Meditation. We spent an hour slowly walking around the compound, walking step by step with the rhythm of our breathing. The 'average' mind does not like activities that it labels as boring or ordinary. It is constantly trying to flood the time in with thoughts that have nothing to do with the current experience. For example, I couldn't get my mind to stop thinking of how I was going to write about not thinking during walking meditation. I couldn't focus on the sounds of the birds around me, the colors of the leaves, the moisture in the air, the earth beneath my feet, or all the people walking in silence with me. I guess that means I need more practice. [smile]

The huge bell of Upper Hamlet

At lunch today, those of us just arrived were asked to introduce ourselves to the rest of the sangha, the community. There was another couple arrived this morning from Switzerland. Later, Brother Man introduced himself as coming from California. I think there are 5 or 6 Western monks among all the Vietnamese.

After lunch, it was working meditation. Together with Paddy and Philip, we swept and mopped the dinning hall (that happens to be about eight times bigger than the one at Nalanda). I think it took us almost two hours to get it done 'mindfully'. But it might have taken less if I hadn't knocked over the mop bucket spilling the whole thing across a third of the floor. I think I was being mindful but just not smart enough.

I just had enough time to take a quick shower before the evening meditation. And afterward, we got more qi kong lessens. Unfortunately we never seem to have enough time to learn all the movements even though there are only sixteen.

There was an atheist at Nalanda who didn't mind telling you every day of that fact. Sometimes he would even try to provoke an argument by asking if you "believed in this Buddhist crap?" I found it strange that he didn't have any qualms about accepting the monasteries hospitality.

Today I met a retreatant who is "not a Buddhist" and proud of that fact. I think there is a strong cultural bias against labels of any kind in our 'politically correct' culture. But when I call myself a Buddhist, I do so in humility because I am extremely far from Buddha-like. To me, the affirmation simply reminds me, and only me, that I will try my best, every moment of my life, to try and understand the teachings of the Buddha and make some effort to put it into practice in my daily life. If you get right down to it, labels are just labels.