October 04, 2010


I dreamt I was stalked by an unknown danger, real, named, but unseen. My family came to be with me, but they did not know how to protect me. I lived in a home with many tall rooms in a strange city with snow laying white upon the darkened streets. And there was something I had to do, an important errand to find another I had lost. I left my family in the bright rooms and ventured into the white ways, where the danger might find me, but I might also find what I sought. I encountered many people and animals. I saw violence, blood, and death, but always I kept seeking, among tall, stone buildings, in deep snow on empty streets. Someone called to me and I turned back, but I would not stop. I turned to go, took a step forward, and woke with the gentle light filtered through the avocado trees beyond the window.

I was at Metta Forest Monastery and it was seven o’clock in the morning. I lay for a moment looking at the shapes of leaves and the lightening sky beyond the curtain, feeling the solidity of the floor beneath me barely cushioned by the sleeping bag I lay on, smelling the chill breeze coming through the window above me. I took my ear plugs out and heard the sound of voices and the rhythmic chopping of vegetables just outside my door. I shimmied into my jeans and went out to find them, leaving behind danger, violence, cold, and darkness. But I think I took my seeking with me.

That afternoon someone asked Ajahn Geoff about longing. Often we hear that we must let go of our desires and attachments and yet also cultivate the longing to be free. It is the raft to which we cling until we reach the other shore. When we are there, we will no longer need it, but until then it is a skillful means we should not let go.

Ajahn Geoff if formally called Thanissaro Bikkhu. He was unknown to me until very recently, when his essays were assigned class reading. He is a monk in the Thai forest tradition of the Theravada, the abbot of Metta Forest, and also a very hairy man. He is an American, the stubble on his shaven head long gone white and the fluff on the shoulder bared by his simple brown robe following suit. Otherwise, I could not tell you his age, except that it seems in all things he is old enough to know better. He wears gold rimmed glasses and speaks with a calm, strong voice.

He rides heard on a group of seven younger monks, mostly tall, thin, bald, white guys and one Thai. The Thai families who drove up for the Sunday alms giving, chanting, and Dharma talk bowed to the elaborate golden Buddha statute in the simple wooden hall and then turned to bow to the eight monks on their platform, touching forehead to floor three times in succession. I followed along, as is customary, but though I felt reverence for the giant metal statue, I felt nothing but courtesy for the anonymous monks in their brown bed sheets.

I understand in an intellectual sense the reverence many Buddhists show to monks and nuns, yet I cannot bring myself to share it. It was not the culture in which I was raised. I show courtesy to all, respect to some, including clergy, but reverence to very few. There are many who deserve my respect, more than perhaps I sometimes show, and a greater number than I can fathom whom I might do well to revere, but, to put it simply, I do not know them. I have not met them, and if I have, it has been on such short acquaintance that I have been unable to discern such things.

Ajahn Geoff seems close to such a person. It may be disrespectful to include notes on his back hair in describing him, but I mean to paint a thorough picture – a picture of an American man totally at ease and entirely unselfconscious regarding what in many from our culture would be cause for vanity or embarrassment. He was patient in answering our barrage of questions, though they seemed unending. His responses were clear and precise. He did not pretend to knowledge when asked about other systems of Buddhism with which he was not familiar, but still attempted to offer some guidance. And he was most generous, turning a group of Buddhist grad students loose in the monastery’s book sheds with the guidance to take whatever we like. (In some cases, it was more than one could carry.)

I learned many things on this trip. I learned that a malfunctioning camera responds well to a happy monk. Nuns can juggle. Monks arm wrestle. Politely accepting ginger candy may endear you to a stranger more than the candy will endear itself to you. The coolest place in the afternoon is the shade in the avocado groves with the hum of the sprinklers giving life to the trees in what is otherwise desolate hill country. And that I am still seeking.

I did not ask Ajahn Geoff any questions, but I listened to many answers. Sometime I wonder if I am depriving myself of a great opportunity for the sake of pride, but no honest queries came to mind. I often feel as though I know so little, I do not even know what to ask. I wait and I listen and when I start to think I know a little bit, then I have many questions. Likely whatever I think I know is, by that point, wrong. Perhaps that is the unknown danger that stalks us all, when we think we know what it is without see it, and we go out alone into the darkness seeking anyway.

My cat was glad to see me home and bit my feet until I removed my socks. I lay one on my desk in front of me and she rubbed and rubbed against it, then went to rub and rub against my shoes.

I do not know why, but I was happy to see it.

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