The pilgrimage around the world has led me to many sacred places. A few of them hold a special place in my heart. Those are the communities that I wish to return to again and again, knowing that I will be welcomed home even if I don't know anyone there. Sathira Dhammasathan is one of them.
Sathira Dhammasathan (SDS) is much more than a thriving nunnery in the middle of Bangkok. It is an urban oasis, a Dhamma park, a second home for all, located "in seven acres of trees, with lotus ponds, winding paths and meditative nooks. It is a tiny drop of water, radiating peace and serenity amidst the oceanic mega-city of Bangkok."
If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.
- Ram Dass
Affliction is Bodhi (wisdom).
- Zen saying
It has been seven weeks since I've returned "home" to China, after two years on the global pilgrimage, and ten years of living abroad.
"Being home" is to share the same space with my parents every day, as we drove through China. "Being home" is to live for a month with my maternal grandparents during the Chinese New Year, caring for them as they are advanced in age. "Being home" is to see our hometown in Inner Mongolia, a place I've only occasionally visited since leaving before the age of two. "Being home" is to get to know China again, a familiar and foreign place, full of possibilities and paradoxes. "Being home" is to continue the heart connections with my global family, and to deepen in daily cultivation.
Before two American monks embarked on their 800-mile bowing pilgrimage in May 1977, their teacher saw them off, saying, “Be the same on the highway as you were in the monastery.” I've been holding onto this same advice as I "return home".
In my case, the global bicycling pilgrimage is my "monastery", where things are sacred, simple, solitary, and structured. And coming back to China is my "highway", where things appear to be complicated and chaotic. The challenge now is to maintain a pilgrim's mind back in the "real world". In some sense, it is much easier for me to be out there on the "highway", but that's the whole point of a pilgrimage -- a rehearsal for life.
Below are some reflections from 7 weeks "back home".
Thanks to the hospitality of dear friends, I am now writing from a balcony on the Asian side of Istanbul, looking across the Bosphorus Strait toward Europe. It's so close that one could swim over. Some say, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet". Here, the twins are not only meeting, but have also been learning to live together for centuries, through low and high, in grief and praise. It is quite a fitting and striking setting to reflect upon the past three months of journeying through continental Europe.
There have been people who have asked us: “Who are you to change the monastic codes made by the Buddha?” Our answer is always: “We are the children of the Buddha. We are his continuation, and we are practicing to carry out his wishes." […] For Buddhism to remain a living tradition, the teaching and practice should remain relevant. […] We are certain that the Buddha counts on the insight, intelligence, and courage of his descendants to continue making the path of liberation accessible and open to our current generation. Therefore, revising the teaching and the practice is truly necessary.
-- "Freedom Wherever We Go: A Buddhist Monastic Code for the Twenty-first Century", by Thich Nhat Hanh
I never expected that I would feel so disoriented and uncomfortable in a Buddhist monastery -- much more so than during a previous week in Taize, a Christian monastic community. After all, I have spent months in meditation centers and Buddhist monasteries, and have been feeling increasingly at home.
But that's exactly how I felt when I first arrived at Plum Village, a monastery founded by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (called "Thay" by his students) in southern France, and the largest monastery in Europe. I stayed for one week there during the Summer Opening Retreat -- the "largest and most festive retreat" of the year. My discomfort lasted -- and evolved -- throughout the week :)
Seeking reconciliation and peace involves a struggle within oneself. It does not mean taking the line of least resistance. Nothing lasting is created when things are too easy.
-- Brother Roger’s unfinished letter
It was Sunday again in Taize. That time of the week when some people come, and some people go. Actually, it is thousands who come to spend a whole week in this small "village" in rural France. During peak summer months, up to six thousands people -- mostly youth -- come from all over the world to Taize each week. That’s over 100,000 pilgrims every year. They've been coming for over half a century -- and are still growing.
People -- from the Pope to politicians wishing to capture young hearts -- have been wondering for decades why the youths keep coming to Taize. Nobody really knows. In fact, materially, Taize has little to recommend itself. The food is famously bland. The church looks like a self-storage warehouse. The housing has the feel of a temporary summer camp. There's nothing noteworthy to "see" for tourists, or to "do" for entertainment.
Yet, the youths keep coming.
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.