Buddhist monks

“The Novice,” by Stephen Schettini

"The Novice," by Stephen SchettiniVishvapani reviews Schettini’s heartfelt and vivid account of becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk and his valuable reflections on what it means for westerners to practice Buddhism

When I first encountered Buddhism in the UK around 1980 there was already a generation of established practitioners, most of whom shared a common background. They were hippies … or should that be ex-hippies? Their faces lit up as they recounted their adventures: how they set out from respectable homes to discover the excitements of London’s Kings Road, join the flower children in the Haight, or make exotic journeys to the East. There were stories of dope deals that went wrong, revelatory acid trips, close shaves with bandits in the Afghan mountains, and spiritual discoveries in India.

Title: The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned
Author: Stephen Schettini
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
ISBN: 978-1-60832-005-9
Available from: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

All that is in The Novice. Stephen Schettini grew up in London and Gloucester in an English-Italian family with at least its share of emotional repression and Catholic guilt. At the time, he just wanted to get away and felt increasingly estranged from his family’s petty bourgeois ambitions. With his philosophical leanings and alienation from society, Schettini was a natural recruit to the counter-culture and he eventually hitchhiked along the hippy trail that led stretched from Europe to India. His story was so familiar that it seemed clichéd until it struck me that I couldn’t think of another book that tells it, and that Schettini tells it well. His writing is lucid and vivid, at least once the story gets going, and he doesn’t let the impulse to reminisce get in the way of his tale.

In India, Schettini‘s path diverged from that of the Buddhists I had met, who had enjoyed their adventures and come home. He heard that the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees were living in Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills, and set off to find what they had to offer. The turning point came when Schettini met and studied with Lama Yeshe, “the hippy Lama,” who exuded warmth, taught in English and knew enough about the Western culture to pepper his teachings with humorous asides about supermarkets and consumerism. Something clicked for Schettini when he encountered Tibetan Buddhism: the promise of an inner peace that would resolve his emotional turmoil; a new identity that would end his isolation; a philosophy that answered his questions; and benign, seemingly all-knowing lamas upon whom he could rely.

Schettini soon became a monk and found himself in Switzerland studying with the famous scholar, Geshe Rabten, and sharing an intense existence with several other young monks. Two members of this tight-knit group have become prominent figures in western Buddhism. Alan Wallace is a leading figure in the dialogue between science and Buddhism, and Stephen Batchelor is a writer and teacher whose approach is amply expressed in the title of his latest book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (which is also part-autobiography and covers some of the same ground as The Novice).

The intellectual trajectories of Schettini’s fellow-monks suggest the struggles that awaited Schettini himself as he moved from immersing himself in Tibetan culture and religion and hoped to integrate it with the rest of his life. Geshe Rabten’s regime emphasized study, but this turned out to mean memorizing ancient texts and mastering traditional arguments. Debate was on the curriculum, but it involved deploying those arguments skillfully, rather than subjecting an issue to the kind of fundamental inquiry that is found in western philosophy. The monks developed a camaraderie mixed with competitiveness that stopped some way short of intimacy. But the wider community around Rabten included proprietorial lay-women, wealthy donors who were treated as favourites and, later, a younger monks with a starry-eyed faith in the infallibility of their teacher.

Wishing to get to know the Tibetans better, Schettini left Rabten and traveled to Sera monastery in southern India, where he was the only westerner. Living among Tibetans and speaking their the language, the sheen that had made them seem semi-mythic beings faded and Schettini saw their limitations. The monks were immersed in a dogmatic system that closed off the possibility of even posing certain questions, and some thoughts were literally unthinkable within the limitations of the Tibetan language. Meanwhile, they lived in insanitary conditions, and refused to take basic precautions against infection and disease. Schettini returned to Switzerland, skeptical of many aspects of the tradition and was astonished by the naivety of Rabten’s students, who seemed so “dazzled by exotic thinking and ritual” that they accept the Teacher’s decisions without question. Before long he quit.

The remaining 25 years of Schettini’s story are recounted briskly. Unlike Batchelor, whose time as a Tibetan monk takes up just a couple of chapters of his book, Schettini was too snagged by the self-doubt and insecurity underpinning his decision to become a monk to explore other philosophies or Buddhist traditions. In order to live happily in a way that was authentic he needed to uncover the buried emotions that had been with him all along. Schettini realized that the very difficulties he had once fled were, in fact, the keys to his happiness. He needed to face them, and face himself rather than fleeing or blaming the monastic establishment.

Schettini wrote and rewrote the book that became The Novice over many years as he wrestled with his past. But the product is far more than a therapy journal. In reflecting on his life and the religion he encountered Schettini tried to “pick out the gold from the dross.” The personal philosophy he arrives at is a kind of wary spiritually-aware humanism. He mistrusts institutions and dogmatically-held beliefs, holding that “the more deeply we are motivated by emotion, the more insistently we pass it off as reason” and that “denial is a force to be reckoned with and our principal obstacle.”

This is wise, but I read Schettini’s reflections with sadness. I am sad that the reality of Tibetan Buddhism fell so far short of the image that beguiled him and many others. And I am sad that his eventual stance is so circumspect. I believe there is more gold in Buddhism than Schettini acknowledges, however much dross may accompany it. Indeed, I think there are more possibilities in the human condition than he mentions, and that Buddhism speaks to many of them: possibilities of mental development, compassion, and moral excellence. Religious institutions may often be rigid, but that isn’t a reason to give up on creating better ones.

It is over forty years since westerners started to investigate Asian spiritual traditions in large numbers, and many of the institutions they created in their efforts to establish Buddhism in the West are likewise several decades old. It is high time to let go of illusions about both the mystical East or the glorious prospects for western Buddhism and reflect seriously and honestly on what has been learned. The Novice is a heart-felt, frank, informative and eloquent contribution.

See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention

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Meditation with monks

A bell tolls at first light. The old timber “nightingale” floors chirp under stockinged feet, there’s a whisper of saffron and black robes, a rumour of conversation and the monks enter the temple. Mist drifts around the eaves like incense and there’s a chill in the mountain air, yet behind the sliding paper screens it’s warm and dark. Low, golden lanterns illuminate an ornate altar, around which the monks sit perfectly still.

There are four monks, ageless, heads shaven. The head priest, seated in the middle facing the altar, lights a stick of incense. The monk to his left begins chanting softly, then the others. The words, incomprehensible to me, have a soothing monotony. The baritone sutras rise and fall, sinuous as breath, regular as heartbeat. My thoughts are lassoed by the rich ringing of a bell, the occasional collision of cymbals, but otherwise wander free no matter how I try to still them.

“Just focus on the breath,” the chief priest, Ryusho Soeda, had suggested during meditation last night, though of more immediate concern is the acute discomfort of sitting in the customary seiza position – kneeling and seated on one’s feet – for more than a few minutes. “Relax,” he reassures later, “we have practised all our lives.”

At the end of the ceremony I step outside. Before the temple is an urn holding a perfect lotus flower and a stone garden raked precisely into a swirling Sanskrit symbol. There is no trace of what I imagine to be a levitating gardener – his footsteps cannot be seen here or in the smaller pebble garden outsidemy room, framed by crepe myrtle and maple bearing the blush of autumn, which I gaze upon until the call to breakfast.

Rengejoin is one of 117 temples and more than 2000 shrines, pagodas, stupas and religious landmarks at Koyasan, a sacred mountain 1000 metres above the plains of Osaka to the north. At the beginning of time, gods descended to live in the Kii mountain range, spanning Koyasan and two other peaks that are now World Heritage listed. Its dense forests became the spiritual heartland of Shinto, the indigenous Japanese worship of nature, and Buddhism, after it came from China.

In 816, after years of study in China, a Japanese monk named Kukai climbed the holy mountain of Mount Koya and created the first temple of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism among its eight peaks, said to resemble a lotus. As he travelled he became known in noble circles as a great thinker and calligrapher and among commoners, with whom he worked and taught, as a man of action. Kukai was regarded as a saint by the time he fell ill at the age of 62, when his followers believe he passed into a state of eternal meditation rather than death. Along with his body, the spirit of Kobo-Daishi, as he became known, is believed to reside at the end of a forest path in Koyasan.

On my way to his resting place I walk through the town, past young robed men shod in dazzling white socks and the wooden thongs called geta. The town has the usual services – general stores, a couple of cafes, a barber (it can’t do so well, in a town where most men have shaved heads) – but the local haberdashery sells monks’ working gear, the produce shops sell bunches of umbrella pine for home altars and there are mandala paintings and prayer beads, Buddhas and religious knick-knacks sold everywhere.

Just outside town and along a two-and-a-half-kilometre path beneath centuries-old cedars is the extraordinary cemetery, Okunoin. Once Kobo-Daishi was interred here, everyone wanted to be buried close by. It’s thought half a million graves are here, the little carved stones of ordinary people beside the grand mausoleums of shoguns and emperors – all jumbled together and shrouded in moss and glowing in dappled sunlight. Mist hangs high in the cedars and all sound is muffled but the silence doesn’t feel deathly. It is called the “forest therapy walk” by locals and the effect of entering this city of spirits is powerful and calming, regardless of one’s spiritual inclination.

I pause at the third bridge. On one side is an audience of stupas ankle-deep in the gentle flow of the Tamagawa River, offered in memory of miscarried and aborted babies and people who have drowned. On the other is a line of Jizo statues (a powerful Buddhist protector) being doused with ladles of water – worshippers write the names of their dead loved ones on strips of wood, present them to the Jizo, splash water and pray for their souls. In the river beside them three women dressed in white robes are fully immersed, praying and chanting. And beyond the bridge is the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi, surrounded by three peaks and a cluster of halls, one of them aglow with hundreds of oil lamps and flanked by two stone lanterns said to have been kept alight for 900 years.

Beyond the cemetery is a network of walks through misty forests of cedar and hinoki. I walk through a landscape as mysterious as Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films, quiet and wild, and in a country of extreme hygiene and order I understand why these mountains are sacred. Pilgrims still approach Mount Koya by the seven main paths, including the Choishimichi, or stone marker path, forged by Kukai and marked by 180 stone pagodas.

There are 52 temples in Koyasan that welcome travellers and a handful are well geared for Western visitors. I stay in two shukubo, or temple lodgings: Muryokoin, with simple rooms and a pond full of koi as large as puppies; and Rengejoin, a larger temple with rooms as well appointed as any ryokan. Both shukubo have exquisite gardens and a similar daily routine: monks and guests attend prayers at 6am in the temple, followed by breakfast at 7am, evening meditation at 5.30pm, followed by dinner at 6.30pm, bathing until 10.30pm. If there are late-night bars in town, I don’t find them.

Dinner on the tatami mats in my room at Muryokoin comes on three trays, each as perfectly composed as haiku poetry, and accompanied by a visit from Hidenori Iwawaki, who seems pleased when I address him as Masterchef.

Shojin ryori, a cuisine developed over more than 1000 years in Japanese Buddhist temples, is based on a religious commandment prohibiting the butchering of animals and is intended to encourage spiritual focus. There are no meat, fish or animal products used and no garlic, onions or strong flavourings. What I imagine might taste bland is quite the opposite. The subtle flavours and textures are a triumph of invention and refinement, based on balancing five colours, five flavours and five cooking methods.

Masterchef urges me to start with konnyaku “sashimi”, little wedges of intensely coloured green, red and white jelly made from a starchy vegetable known as devil’s tongue; its complicated preparation alone might employ a kitchen of monks. In a bowl of thick plum-flavoured miso is a square of goma dofu, a Koya specialty of ground roasted sesame seeds and arrowroot tofu, topped with a tiny autumn leaf carved from carrot as a nod to the season. A neat tangle of soypoached matsutake mushroom, which grows only under red pine trees in autumn, sits beside a plate bearing a roasted chestnut, two wedges of koya dofu, another mountain specialty of freezedried tofu, and a tiny pickled ginger root.

There’s something pickled, something raw, slightly sweet and a hint of sourness, the crunch of lotus root beside the creaminess of eggplant, both tempura-fried, and delicate dipping sauces and stocks with each dish. The tastes and textures are so engrossing that eating becomes another form of meditation.

After dinner one night at Rengejoin, served on cushions in a large room framed by fusuma (very old sliding doors painted with scenes of mountain beauty) we’re joined by Kiyomi Soeda, the head monk’s 89-year-old mother and diminutive matriarch of the 700-year-old temple. In precise English, with barely an accent, she tells of growing up on the mountain, learning English as a child in far-away Tokyo and returning to Koyasan as a young woman when English was regarded as the “enemy” language. At the end of World War II, suddenly her skill as a translator for the villagers and American troops was vital. She describes the post-war poverty – “we counted every grain of rice” – her marriage to a priest and their struggle to save Rengejoin from ruin. Faith is a great healer.

Next morning, after prayers and a perfectly composed breakfast, I ask head priest Soeda-san the difference between Zen Buddhism, well known in the West, at least superficially, and the lesser known Shingon Buddhism, which originated here on Mount Koya. “They are different paths to the top of the same mountain,” he explains over a cup of hojicha, roasted green tea. They are difficult concepts to explain in a second language but he is unflappable – “Zen”, I might have said before I knew better. Zen would deny desire, he says, but Shingon recognises it exists and “seeks to transform it”.

Evening meditation in the temple lasts exactly 40 minutes, the time it takes to burn a stick of incense – “long enough to gain some spiritual tranquillity”, Soeda-san says. An old stereotype has an exhausted Japanese salaryman returning home to his wife with only three words: Meshi! Furo! Neru! (meal, bath, bed), the words symbolic of an empty marriage. For me, the routine is deeply therapeutic: morning meditation, breakfast, walking, reading, evening meditation, meshi (three trays of shojin ryori), furo (a long, hot soak in a big wooden bath) and neru, a long, dreamless sleep. My own modest nirvana.

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organisation and Singapore Airlines.


Getting there Singapore Airlines flies to Osaka for about $1150, with an aircraft change in Singapore. Jetstar flies from Melbourne for $854 and from Sydney for $716, both with an aircraft change at the Gold Coast. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) From Kansai Airport, take a 40-minute train to Nankai Namba Station in Osaka, then a train bound for Gokurakubashi, which takes about 75 minutes, then a 10-minute cablecar ride to Koyasan.

Staying there Shukubo, or temple lodgings, usually have simple tatami-mat rooms and futons with shared toilets and a traditional communal bathhouse (separate genders). Breakfast and dinner are usually included in the tariff. Rate for each person at Muryokoin from ¥9500 ($116); book by phone via Koyasan Shukubo Temple Lodging Cooperative, +81 736 56 2616, see shukubo.jp/eng. Rooms at the more upmarket Rengejoin cost from ¥9500 a person twin share, from ¥11,550 for a single. Phone the temple on +81 736 56 2233.

– Rent bicycles and English-language audio guides at the Koyasan tourist information centre, where you can also buy a ticket covering admission to six of the major temples and museums. See shukubo.jp/eng.

Sydney Morning Herald

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Act Normal: The making of…

Act Normal: A Documentary by Olaf de FleurRobert T. Edison was born and raised in Nottingham, England. When he was fourteen years old he began to practice Buddhism. At eighteen he became a monk and went to Thailand where, for a decade, he spent his time in monasteries as Bhikkhu Dhammanando.

He became the first Buddhist monk in Iceland when he moved there in 1994 and founded a Buddhist sect.

Here director Olaf de Fleur talks about the 10-year making of his documentary, Act Normal, as he followed the progress of Robert/Dhammanando from monasticism to lay life and back again.

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Act Normal: The cultural confusions of an English monk in Thailand

Act Normal: A Documentary by Olaf de FleurRobert T. Edison was born and raised in Nottingham, England. When he was fourteen years old he began to practice Buddhism. At eighteen he became a monk and went to Thailand where, for a decade, he spent his time in monasteries as Bhikkhu Dhammanando.

He became the first Buddhist monk in Iceland when he moved there in 1994 and founded a Buddhist sect.

In the title sequence from the documentary, Act Normal, directed by Olaf de Fleur, Dhammanando shares an amusing story about mistaking the Thai national anthem for an advertisement.

Act Normal can be purchased from Poppoli Pictures.

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Act Normal: The origin of suffering

Robert T. Edison was born and raised in Nottingham, England. When he was fourteen years old he began to practice Buddhism. At eighteen he became a monk and went to Thailand where, for a decade, he spent his time in monasteries.

He became the first Buddhist monk in Iceland when he moved there in 1994 and founded a Buddhist sect.

In this clip, from the documentary, Act Normal, directed by Olaf de Fleur, Edison, at that time a monk in Thailand, contrasts the Buddhist explanation of the cause of suffering with the explanations from theistic religion.

Act Normal can be purchased from Poppoli Pictures.

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Act Normal: Is Buddhist monasticism escapist?

Act Normal: A Documentary by Olaf de FleurRobert T. Edison was born and raised in Nottingham, England. When he was fourteen years old he began to practice Buddhism. At eighteen he became a monk and went to Thailand where, for a decade, he spent his time in monasteries.

He became the first Buddhist monk in Iceland when he moved there in 1994 and founded a Buddhist sect.

In this clip, from the documentary, Act Normal, directed by Olaf de Fleur, Edison, at that time a monk in Thailand, is asked whether his life is escapist.

Act Normal can be purchased from Poppoli Pictures.

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Act Normal: A Search For Love

Act Normal: A Documentary by Olaf de FleurA Buddhist monk decides to disrobe and get married after sixteen years of monkhood. This documentary, directed by Olaf de Fleur, took ten years to film.

Robert T. Edison was born and raised in Nottingham, England. When he was fourteen years old he began to practice Buddhism. At eighteen he became a monk and went to Thailand where, for a decade, he spent his time in monasteries.

He became the first Buddhist monk in Iceland when he moved there in 1994 and founded a Buddhist sect. Five years later Robert decided to “disrobe” and get married. After sixteen years of celibacy Robert had to deal with being “normal” – getting employment, paying his bills and dealing with the needs of his partner.

After four years in “the real world” Robert traveled back to Thailand to become a monk again.

Act Normal was filmed from 1994 to 2006 and is a unique exploration of one man’s twelve-year search for some kind of love.

Act Normal can be purchased from Poppoli Pictures.

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Buddhist monk has inner peace, just needs driver’s license

Knox News: The Buddhist monk reaches a top speed of 5 mph as he maneuvers his 16-year-old Toyota around the grounds of the meditation center in West Tennessee.

It is a practice excursion to make sure that the monk, Khenpo Gawang Rinpoche, is familiar with the car the next time he takes his driver’s license test.

A scholar among Buddhists, he has the equivalent of a doctorate in religion and literature. That means nothing to driver’s license examiners who have flunked him three times on Tennessee’s written driver’s exam.

“It’s kind of important to drive, to be independent, but language is a problem,” says Khenpo, who lives about a mile from the meditation center that he founded here two years ago.

He wears the same deep amber and burgundy colors as those worn by one of his heroes, the Dalai Lama, leader-in-exile of Tibet. The amber represents wisdom, the burgundy compassion.

Like the Dalai Lama, the monk fled Chinese-occupied Tibet to study in India. The Dalai Lama was born to a farm family. The monk was born to yak herders. The monk has studied in group sessions with the Dalai Lama as his teacher and thinks of him primarily as a religious figure – “the holiest of monks, a good and great teacher.”

He also thinks of the Dalai Lama as a political figure, campaigning for world peace and for self-determination for Tibetans in an occupied country.

The monk and his students bought tickets as soon as they became available for the Dalai Lama’s visit to Memphis on Wednesday to accept an International Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. He later spoke at The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts on “Developing Peace and Harmony.”

For the monk, peace and harmony will improve when he finally gets a driver’s license. He has to rely on students to drive him to and from the center, the grocery store and to the orthodontist. As part of his adaptation to Western culture, he began wearing braces a year ago to correct an overbite that interfered with his ability to pronounce certain sounds in English.

Students call him “Khenpo,” a title that means teacher. His given name is only one name, Gawang. Rinpoche is another title, recognizing a lineage of revered teachers or mentors.

Khenpo, 35, began studying English seriously in 2007 when he decided to open the Memphis center, the Pema Karpo Buddhist Meditation Center. He has learned to use a computer along with Photoshop software and Skype, software that allows him to communicate by live computer video with other Skype users. When his English improves, he hopes to teach Buddhism and meditation to students anywhere in the world.

But his immersion in English language courses like Rosetta Stone and children’s programming on TV are, so far, no match for the written driver’s exam.

“Abbreviations very bad,” he says. Along with standard fare about lane changes and turn signals, the exams include abbreviations such as “DUI” (driving under the influence) and “BAC” (blood alcohol content).

“It’s confusing for him,” says Candia Ludy, a Memphian and former Baptist who formally converted to Buddhism in 1987. She was working as a coordinator of courses on Buddhism at the Shambhala Mountain Retreat near Boulder, Colo., when she met Khenpo in 2005 and invited him to Memphis in hopes he might open a center here.

One of his Memphis students, attorney Halley Marker, says Khenpo’s decision to open the Memphis center showed a “pioneer spirit” willing to bring Buddhism to the Bible belt.

Having his own center was a longtime goal for Khenpo, whose work also includes translating ancient Tibetan texts into English. His dream of a driver’s license also is a longtime goal. As a 10-year-old child, he visited Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, with his father and saw cars for the first time. When they returned to their mountain village, Khenpo and his brothers used frozen yak dung as makeshift wheels to build toy cars.

In Buddhist tradition, Khenpo does not worry about his driver’s license failures or fear his next exam. “Sometimes we need to accept our own karma,” he says.

He knows of nothing he did to account for his three flunked exams, but in Buddhist tradition he does not dwell on the past. “If you want good things then you must do good things.”

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600 years of solitude, by Michael Chaskalson (Kulananda)

On the Irish isle of Skellig Michael, Celtic Monks once pursued a tough life of meditation. Kulananda (Michael Chaskalson) feels a connection across the centuries with these vanished contemplatives, and senses a continuity between his own efforts and theirs.

I am traveling about the Kerry coast with the team that runs the Dublin Meditation Center. As the Center’s president, I visit from time to time, helping out where I can. We are getting to know one another better, getting to know Ireland together, adventuring around its glorious coastline on a kind of pilgrimage.

One evening we set out in search of a place to hold an impromptu meeting: three members of the Western Buddhist Order meeting to discuss our practice and our work. We find a quiet cove and start along a “mass path” to an old “mass rock,” where outdoor mass was said in the absence of a church during the time of the Penal Laws that suppressed Catholic church services.

Thirteen monks, living a life of prayer and contemplation in their tiny, round, rock-built huts 600 sheer feet above the rolling north Atlantic.

It is a golden evening, the sun setting softly pink into the still ocean as we scramble over rocks and through purple rhododendron glades. Rounding a corner, the two Skellig islands suddenly appear before us, like huge Gothic cathedrals, floating in yellow light upon a gilded sea, an eruption from another dimension.

Some time in the sixth century a small band of monks headed out into the Atlantic Ocean off the south-west coast of Ireland in a hide-covered coracle. Their destination was a peaked rocky outcrop, seven miles out to sea. Battered by the deep Atlantic waves, somehow they negotiated a landing against the island’s steep face of crumbling sandstone. They had come to stay here, a day’s perilous journey from the mainland, on a barren, storm-battered rock at the edge of civilization on the western-most tip of Europe. On their horizon the sun set over the very end of the world.

Thirteen monks, living a life of prayer and contemplation in their tiny, round, rock-built huts 600 sheer feet above the rolling north Atlantic. Unbelievably, a small community flourished on that rock for six centuries. They fished, kept a tiny garden and maybe an animal or two. On the southern pinnacle, above a chimney of rock, a solitary hermit once passed his days in complete isolation.

…when most of western Europe was plunged into darkness and illiteracy, the Irish Celtic monks preserved classical learning…

Skeilic means “rock” in Irish. and there are two Skellig Islands. Little Skellig is an uninhabited haven of seabirds; a mile and a half away is Skellig Michael, dedicated, like so many high places, to the archangel of that name. It is barren pinnacle of rock, less than half a mile long and nowhere more than 500 feet wide. It rises steeply to a peak 700 feet above the ocean.

Six centuries. Despite, cruel winter weather, despite the scarcity of food and fuel, for 600 years a monastic community clung to that rock. And ever since has been a place of pilgrimage, a place of awe.

A romantic picture perhaps, but here in the west of Ireland the mind turns naturally to romance — it’s in the air, in the radiance of the light, the greenness of the land. Awestruck, we stand and quietly stare, new Buddhists on an old mass of rock, bringing a new religion to a country where an old one was once so hampered; gazing at an illuminated haven of timeless contemplation.

The next day dawns gray and wet, and there is only just time to buy ourselves green plastic rain capes before heading off to join our boat. “You’ll not be needing those today, boys,” says the boatman, seemingly oblivious to the squalling rain. But as we approach the islands the sky clears, the wind drops, and we circle Little Skellig on a clear, calm sea.

Little Skellig is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of gannets. They jostle for space and fleck the rocks white. There soar flocks of razor bills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes: a multitude of seabirds. Seals bask in small inlets, and there I caught my first sight of a puffin: a childhood wish at last fulfilled.

The smallness of the buildings is accentuated by the vastness of the space all around. Man, on this rock, is but a little thing.

Landing on Skellig Michael, we climb an ancient rock-cut stairway. A thin layer of soil clings to gray, lichenous rock. Sea campion, plantago, scurvy grass: a few plant species scrabble out a desperate living. A sign put up by the Office of Public Works urges us to take care of the flora, not to throw stones, and to respect the “spiritual atmosphere” of the place

The monastic enclosure sits on a flat terrace at the edge of a 600-foot cliff. The windowless huts are shaped like beehive domes and are roughly rectangular inside, none more than 15 feet by 12. The smallness of the buildings is accentuated by the vastness of the space all around. Man, on this rock, is but a little thing. There are altars, prayer stations, and a few Celtic crosses — everything starkly laid out against a brilliant Atlantic sky.

There are no springs on Skellig Michael; rainwater, as well as dew and condensed mist from the rocks, was gathered in cisterns. And since there is nothing to burn, there can have been few fires, and little cooking. The monks must have lived on a few vegetables, grain from the mainland, wind-dried fish and raw seabirds’ eggs in season. Through the wet, freezing winter their rough woolen garments can rarely have been dry. This was no easy life.

As my friends and I crowd into a tiny drystone cell, the silence settles and a sense of awe arises. We know why those monks came there, 14 centuries ago. In our own ways we know that same yearning, the desire for peace and solitude that moves all meditators.

This is expressed by the Buddhist poet Shantideva, writing in India maybe 100 years after the founding of Skellig monastery

… one should recoil from sensual desires and cultivate delight in solitude, in tranquil woodlands empty of contention and strife.

On delightful rock surfaces cooled by the sandal balm of the moon’s rays, stretching wide as palaces, the fortunate pace, fanned by the silent, gentle forest breezes, as they contemplate for the well-being of others.

Bound to none, one enjoys that happiness and contentment which even for a king is hard to find.

During the sixth century, when most of western Europe was plunged into darkness and illiteracy, the Irish Celtic monks preserved classical learning in a project of voracious bibliophilia. Not only the Gospels, but Aristotle, Euripedes, Virgil, Ovid. Whatever they could find they copied, preserved and returned to the rest of Europe. The debt we owe them is immense. But I don’t see these Skellig monks as scribes. We know very little about them but surely they were contemplatives, upholding the more inward dimension of the Celtic Christian tradition.

I am humbled by the commitment of those monks, by their single-minded devotion to the contemplative life

On the saddle of the island, with the blue sky all around us and the myriad-colored Atlantic rolling beneath, I sit talking with a friend. Discussing his meditation practice and thoughts about life, I feel a strong resonance come upon me. Yes — this is it. It rolls on and on. The same searching, the same fundamental quest. The Skellig monks practiced for the sake of the life to come, for the glories in heaven. Shantideva, like all Buddhists, taught practice for the sake of radical change here and now. But for all their differences, they share a profound commitment to spiritual effort, a deep dedication to the inner life.

On the boat back to the mainland a still solemnity steals over me. As a western Buddhist in western Europe, it is not often that I experience a sense of continuity between my efforts and those of the ancients. I felt it once on the Acropolis and something like it, from a different dimension, in Florence. But on Skellig Michael the feeling is much more immediate. For six long centuries that barren rock was dedicated to contemplation. So our journey there seems fitting, for although we are bringing something new to that land, something clear and not heard before, it distantly resonates with something very old, and long buried. I feel it welcoming us back.

With that feeling comes humility and awe. I am humbled by the commitment of those monks, by their single-minded devotion to the contemplative life, which led them to live far out in the wild North Atlantic. That level of dedication is something to aspire to.

But omens abound on Skellig Michael and solemnity doesn’t last. As I emerge from my reverie, a school of dolphins surfaces around the boat. Leaping and diving, they are joyfully at home in their own true element, out here in the wild Atlantic Ocean.

KulanandaMichael Chaskalson (also known as Kulananda) is a leading teacher of mindfulness-based approaches to work and healthcare, training senior executives, executive coaches, clinical psychologists and others in this radical approach to creativity and personal effectiveness. With Dominic Houlder he is the author of Mindfulness and Money and has written several books on Buddhist themes. See www.mbsr.co.uk for more information.

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Monks succeed in cyclone relief as junta falters

Monks Succeed in Cyclone Relief as Junta Falters – NYTimes.com

KUN WAN, Myanmar — They paddle for hours on the stormy river, or carry their sick parents on their backs through the mud and rain, traveling for miles to reach the one source of help they can rely on: Buddhist monks.

At a makeshift clinic in this village near Bogale, an Irrawaddy Delta town 75 miles southwest of Yangon, hundreds of villagers left destitute by Cyclone Nargis arrive each day seeking the assistance they have not received from the government or international aid workers.

Since the cyclone, the Burmese have been growing even closer to the monks while their alienation from the junta grows. This development bodes ill for the government, which brutally cracked down on thousands of monks who took to the streets last September appealing to the ruling generals to improve conditions for the people.

The May 3 cyclone left more than 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million survivors grappling with hunger and homelessness. This week, some of them who had taken shelter at monasteries or gathered on roadsides were being displaced again, this time by the junta, which wants them to stop being an embarrassment to the government and return to their villages “for reconstruction.” On Friday, United Nations officials said that refugees were also being evicted from government-run camps.

The survivors have little left of their homes and find themselves almost as exposed to the elements as their mud-coated water buffaloes. Meanwhile, outside aid is slow to arrive, with foreign aid agencies gaining only incremental access to the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta and the government impounding cars of some private Burmese donors.

In a scene the ruling generals are unlikely to see played out for themselves, a convoy of trucks carrying relief supplies, led by Buddhist monks, passed through storm-devastated villages in the delta this week. Hungry children and homeless mothers bowed in supplication and respect.

“When I see those people, I want to cry,” said Sitagu Sayadaw, 71, one of Myanmar’s most respected senior monks.

Village after storm-hit village, it is clear who has won people’s hearts. Monks were among those who died in the storm. Now, others console the survivors while sharing their muddy squalor.

With tears welling in her eyes, Thi Dar, 45, pressed her hands together in respect before the first monk she saw at the clinic here and told her story. The eight other members of her family were killed in the cyclone. She no longer had anyone to talk with and felt suicidal. The other day, word reached her village that a monk had opened a clinic six miles upriver. So on Thursday, she got up early and caught the first boat.

“In my entire life, I have never seen a hospital,” she said. “So I came to the monk. I don’t know where the government office is. I can’t buy anything in the market because I lost everything to the cyclone.”

Nay Lin, 36, a volunteer doctor at the clinic, one of the six emergency clinic shelters Sitagu Sayadaw has opened in the delta, said: “Our patients suffer from infected wounds, abdominal pains and vomiting. They also need counseling for mental trauma, anxiety and depression.”

While the government has been criticized for obstructing the relief effort, the Buddhist monastery, the traditional center of moral authority in most villages here, proved to be the one institution people could rely on for help.

The monasteries in the delta that are still standing have been clogged with refugees. People who could help went there with donations or as volunteers. Monasteries that served as religious centers, orphanages and homes for the elderly have also become shelters for the homeless.

The interdependence between monks and laypeople is age-old. Monks receive alms from the laity and offer spiritual comfort in return. In villages without government schools, a monastic education is often the only option.

“The monks’ role is more important than ever,” said Ar Sein Na, 46, a monk in the delta village of That Kyar. “In a time of immense suffering like this, people have nowhere to go except to monks.”

Kyi Than, 38, said she traveled 15 miles by boat to Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp.

“Our village monk died during the storm,” she said. “Monks are like parents to us. The government wants us to shut up, but monks listen to us.”

Faced with the deadliest cyclone to hit Asia in 38 years, senior monks have organized their own relief campaigns.

Every day, their convoys head down delta roads. A leading figure in these efforts is Sitagu Sayadaw, whose name invariably draws a thumbs-up sign here.

“Meditation cannot remove this disaster,” he said. “Material support is very important now. Now in our country, spiritual and material support are unbalanced.”

Trucks of rice, beans, onions, clothes, tarpaulins and cooking utensils, donated from all over Myanmar, pulled into his International Buddhist Missionary Center in Yangon from early morning on. Each day, shortly after dawn, a convoy of trucks or a barge on the Yangon River departs for the delta, loaded with relief supplies and volunteers.

Sitagu Sayadaw sat on a wooden bench in his field headquarters as people lined up to pay their respects. Villagers came to present lists of their most urgent needs. Monks from outlying villages came asking for help to repair their temples. Wealthy families from towns knelt before him and donated bundles of cash.

However, like other senior monks here, he must strike a careful balance. He has the moral duty to speak out on behalf of his suffering people, but in order to protect his social programs and hospitals, which provide free medical care to the destitute, he must try not to anger the government, which views such private undertakings as a reproof.

Nonetheless, speaking at his shelter as an afternoon monsoon rain drummed against the roof, Sitagu Sayadaw sounded frustrated with the government.

“In my country, I cannot see a real political leader,” he said.

“Gen. Than Shwe’s ‘Burmese way to democracy?’ ” he said, referring to the junta’s top leader. “What is it?”

He defended the monks’ uprising last September, saying the government’s failure to provide “material stability” for the people undermined the monks’ ability to provide “spiritual stability.”

Among monks interviewed in the delta and Yangon, there was no sign of imminent protests.

Still, a 40-year-old monk at Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official retribution said that “monks are very angry” about the government’s recent move to evict refugees from monasteries, roadside huts and other temporary shelters, even while the state-run media are filled with stories of government relief efforts. “The government doesn’t want to show the truth.”

A young monk in the Chaukhtatgyi Paya monastery district in Yangon predicted trouble ahead. “You will see it again because everyone is angry and everyone is jobless,” said the monk, who said he joined the September “saffron revolution” and had a large gash over his right eye from a soldier’s beating to show for it.

A monk from Mon State in southern Myanmar, who was visiting the delta to assess the damage and arrange an aid shipment, said, “For the government, these people are no more than dead animals in the fields.”

The simmering confrontation between the pillars of Myanmar life was evident at the village level after the cyclone.

Shortly after the storm, a monk in Myo Thit, a village 20 miles from Yangon, walked around with a loudspeaker inviting victims to his monastery and asking people to donate. The monk had to stop, villagers said, after a township leader affiliated with the government threatened to confiscate the loudspeaker.

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