Yesterday I turned 58. It’s such an arbitrary number. But for me, it’s working just fine. I had the best birthday. We had our neighbors over the day before, and I ordered a cake the likes of which I only have once a year—it’s against all my values—and I fully relished every bite. A Baskin Robbins Jamoca ice cream cake with chocolate crunchies in the middle.
Then yesterday (on the actual day of my birth), I left early in the morning to visit Blue Cliff Monastery. It’s about a 2-hour drive into upstate New York, and the day was lovely for it. This trip had a particularly auspicious start because as I left (at 7am on a Sunday, mind you), my neighbor from across the street, Sattie, gave me a cup of home made chai, and a breaded magic thingy called “Bake”. It’s the most delicious, simple, satisfying food you ever put in your mouth. Fried bread of some kind, with potatoes, and a list of other interesting unremembered spices, etc.
So I’m travelling up the Cross Island parkway, taking little bites of bake and sips of chai, listening to NPR, and what comes on but my favorite program: On Being, with Krista Tippet. She’s interviewing Bobby McFerrin about music and spirituality. On my birthday. A musician driving to a monastery, listening to a singer talk about spirituality. This is just freaky. And we’re only an hour into the day! I was in heaven. Here’s a link to the interview, which I highly recommend: http://www.onbeing.org/program/catching-song-bobby-mcferrin/249/audio?embed=1
It’s mid-October, and although the East coast is known for its mind-bending beauty in the fall, the leaves had only just begun to turn. Still, it was a clear Sunday morning, and the air was crisp, and me and Bobby and the Bake were on our way to a place in upstate New York that’s been calling my name for a couple years now. Blue Cliff Monastery is an extension of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in France. http://bluecliffmonastery.org/sidebar/about-us The nuns and monks there are mostly Vietnamese, and have been ordained by Thay himself. (Thich Nhat Hanh is affectionately referred to as “Thay”). Once I got there, the dharma talk had already begun—it was a broadcast of Thich Nhat Hanh giving a retreat in Holland. Wonderful to be able to sit for a whole morning and listen to his teachings.
After the dharma talk, about 30 of us did walking meditation, through the trees. It was an experience that quieted my internal world and opened me to the true miraculous nature of everything around me. There’s something about 30 human beings, (monks and nuns and lay people), walking among the trees in silent reverence. I made communion with that inward sense of grace that we all carry within us, and pressed my feet into the leaves, one after the other.
Following this walk, was formal lunch. It was my first experience of the kind. We lined up at the buffet in two separate lines, men on one side, women on the other. In order of ordination (longest practicing monks and nuns first, then novices, then lay people). Everyone mindfully choosing the food they would put in their bowl. I was so hungry. In ordinary circumstances I would have been all over the map, trying to angle for a better spot in line, anticipating where I was gonna sit, tapping my feet, trying to read a book (I always carry a book with me) to distract myself, etc. But being here, and having just silenced so much of my monkey mind, I just dedicated the hunger I was feeling (along with the certainty that it would be met with delicious food soon) to everyone in the world suffering from hunger right in this moment. I thought of the millions who feel this (and worse) hunger, who have no idea when or whether they’ll eat again. I sent my experience to them, wishing them the beautiful meal I was about to eat, and the safety and comfort in which to eat it.
Once I filled my bowl, we all processed across the street, bowls in our palms, to the meditation hall. Took our seats (again, in order of ordination). I waited, watching. Once I knew that all the people in brown robes were eating, I figured it was ok, and I began to eat. Thinking of the many sentient beings involved in this forkful of food—the farmers, the packagers, truckers, printers of the containers, manufacturers of the containers, cashiers, accountants, all the employees of whatever corporations were involved, and then the cooks here at Blue Cliff, and the makers of the bowls and spoons, and the lumber yards and construction people involved in the building this meditation hall. This lunch was probably the most conscious lunch I’ve ever eaten. Think about this stuff. It’ll really change how you look at your next meal.
On the way home, I got calls from all three of my children (who are in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Miami), and this made me happiest of all—to hear their voices, and how they’re doing in the larger world. I miss them, and at the same time am always glad to hear the sound of their wings in the air, soaring in the sky, meeting all the new adventures life has for them.
Hit some Sunday evening traffic, and didn’t care, no one whit. Because “Wait, Wait. Don’t Tell Me,” was on the radio. It had some great moments. Here’s the link: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=3&islist=true&id=35&d=10-13-2012
And when I got home? My beautiful wife was there, screaming her head off at the Yankees (a moment of silence please while we mourn Jeter’s broken ankle and all that this might mean), and my two furry puppies: