Thursday, June 29, 2006

When Sunflowers Talk

Sunflowers seem to be the topic of the day, so much so that at the noon meal some of the brothers were coming up with recipes using only the sunflower plant, then I spoke of my use of the sunflower seed head for meditation, and then Bro. Clarence, normally the most rational and logical of us all, presented us with this method of making important life choices, those kinds of choices that change our life direction, choices that put us on another path, even those choices that alter our very being. I must say, the initial amusement was replaced by a time of silence, then I noted brother after brother slipping away and into the kitchen, and some hurrying past the dining table with a handful of styrofoam coffee cups!

Bro. Clarence: When Sunflowers Talk

Acquire some of those styrofoam coffee cups, the large size, white, then get a packet of sunflower seeds, the giant variety. Ballpoint pen in hand, pen each life choice or option on each white cup. Five, ten, twenty ... as many cups as you have life choices. Gather some good soil. Fill each cup with soil, then read aloud the life choice you penned on the cup, say a prayer about that choice, and only that choice, then with eyes closed, pick one seed from the pile of sunflower seeds, then plant it in the soil in the cup. Do the same with all cups. Find a nice sunny place for the cups, and give them equal treatment, and equal watering. Maybe, daily randomly shuffle the cups about. All well and good. Now observe the seeds sprouting into life, reaching for the sun, and daily observe which sunflowers show the most growth. After 30 days, your life choices will become clear.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Something afoot!

Bro. Clarence seems somewhat proud of his somewhat primitive, at least I think so, irrigation system that waters his patch of sunflowers, as well as his small plot of vegetables. I think I described his trenching in the earth to provide some channels to his greenery, the narrow aqueduct covered with some old planks of wood, and that covered with sand. All this allows him to pour several buckets of water into a sort of reservoir, which is a bit higher than the plots, thus allowing the water to follow gravity to the thirsty sunflowers. All well and good, Bro. Clarence completes his watering task in no time, and this provides him with a bit of spare time to enjoy watching some of the other not so inventive brothers carrying either water buckets or sprinkler cans back and forth from the one water faucet near the outside kitchen door to their plots. Last night Bro. Juniper revealed to me that something was afoot, for he related to me that in Jean-Jacques Rousseau book “The Confessions” Rousseau relates a childhood prank in which he and friends plant a tiny willow tree, in hopes of some refreshing shade from the summer sun. Of course their willow sapling needs constant watering, so they devised a simple trench from a walnut tree, which is regularly watered by the gardener, to their small willow. All this is done in secret, with the ‘aqueduct’ amply covered over to avoid detection. And soon they watch as the walnut tree is being watered by the gardener and jump in glee when they find water flowing around their willow. This story sparked Bro. Juniper’s imagination, and I understand that water is now being ‘secretly’ diverted from Bro. Clarence’s sunflowers, to the abbot's sunflowers!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Sunflower meditation

For as long as I can remember, each Spring Abbot Eastley plants a row of giant sunflowers along the East Wall, and because the wall is perhaps six feet in height, the early growth misses the morning sun light, but at noon, the desert sun shines high about, the leaves finally catching sunlight and following their source of life until sunset in the west. This continues for a while, but the abbot's variety of sunflowers are some mysterious Russian giants that seem to sprout up to six feet in no time, then peek over the wall to catch even the early morning sunlight. One path beyond the East Wall is used by many of us for our early morning meditative walks, and it is always a joy when upon returning to the monastery we view the first yellow petals seemingly lining the top of the wall. Then each day the yellow fringe become a long row of half moons, then full moons, then in all their glory the sunflowers rise above the wall to greet us each morning. What a delight!

Several years ago someone came up with a sunflower challenge, and many of the brothers have taken up the challenge. So here and there are patches of giant sunflowers, each patch cared and nurtured by one of us seeking to grow either the tallest sunflower, or the one with the largest sunflower head (we measure diameter and circumference), the widest leaf, and even the one with the largest stalk. Of course the abbot defers from this competition, for his garden is not a competition or a challenge, it is a meditation and a food source. Years ago he hung several lithographs of van Gogh's sunflower paintings throughout the monastery, and those have been augmented with real sunflowers in vases placed here and there with some of the brothers even duplicating the sunflower arrangements as seen in the lithographs.

Bro. Juniper uses the fully mature sunflower, with its spirals of seeds, as meditative pieces, somewhat like walking a labyrinth, only using your eyes instead of your feet to make the spiral journey. I must admit, this meditative spiral spiritual journey is wonderful, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. I use a large sunflower, one with a full fringe of yellow pedals still intact, then in the chapel or other room with subdued light, I tie a string around the stem of the sunflower, then hang it so that it is at eye level, usually close to a wall, so as to keep the sunflower from slowly spinning in circles. Once the sunflower is stilled, I seat myself so that my face is about arms length from the spiral of seeds, then after a silent prayer of thanksgiving, I begin my journey, my focus moves from seed to seed, following the spiral from outside, in. Moving around the circumference one seed at a time, then following the spiral in, again and again and again. Sometimes I will pray for those concerns on my heart, a new prayer for each arm of the spiral. Other times I will simply empty my mind and simply continue the journey with my sight, and when words do begin ping-ponging in my head, I'll simply observe them, then release them, and continue on my journey.

It was 109-degrees today with some thundershowers, but even so, growing sunflowers in the desert isn't natural. We all keep an eye on the abbot, especially in this summer heat when he insists on carrying a pail to water his sunflowers. Some of the brothers have invented various irrigation systems, actually quite primitive, such as digging shallow channels, covering them with boards, with sand atop. But the rain today did all the work for us. Oh, I should add, the abbot uses his sunflower seeds to feed his homing pigeons.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Holy Spirit

spirit, wind, breath
and sketchy vagueness
rushing to creation
spoken into existence
breath of life
filling me -- ah ha! awakens what will be
for all, dreams and visions, set loose, can you see?
listen up! I tell the truth
in conscience, little voices silenced
making room, for it to be

Friday, June 23, 2006

I Like Ike

Someone chalked this quote on the dining hall blackboard.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed." --Dwight Eisenhower.

I find it of interest because of the author, someone who used the materiel of which he describes as theft, the arms used to halt an evil regime that dealt in death. But nevertheless, I believe he is right on target, for the manufacture of armament becomes an industry in itself, regardless of real or perceived threat, for once the 'machines' begin to roll and the profits begin generating, and many ordinary folks become dependent on this vocation, the 'machine' cannot easily be halted.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Purpose vs Purposeless

For the theist, a Creator is the explanation for all.

For the atheist, no explantion is possible, for each bit of life merely expires to nothingness (organic to inorganic) -- no matter, no consequences, no purpose. The closest explanation for them is, "life is" with a bit of speculation about some remote time when "life wasn't" and some mystic brew that caused inorganic to become organic life.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Nothingness is a terrible thing to waste

At the break fast table Bro. Sedwick was somewhat worked up, so with but two paper towels to take notes on, I did glean the following:

"Yes, the atheist must create meaning out of their nothingness."

"First we have Noam Chomsky in The Guardian revealing his god: Biology. 'The urgency of halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and moving toward their elimination, could hardly be greater. Failure to do so is almost certain to lead to grim consequences, even the end of biology's only experiment with higher intelligence.'

"Then we have Stephen Hawking proclaiming, 'colonize space or die' ... and we must hurriedly get our DNA off this temporal planet before a really big disaster strikes and reduces us to nothingness. I suppose his motto could be, 'DNA is a terrible thing to waste' ... especially after all this random evolution that could never be recreated and would be lost forever.

"Maybe the motto should be, 'Nothingness is a terrible thing to waste!'"

A few moments later Bro. Sedwick came back from the kitchen holding an iron skillet in one hand and a spatula in the other, then scooped two sunny-side-up eggs onto Bro. Simon's plate while proclaiming, "Well my dear Bro. Simon, did the skillet create your breakfast, or did the chicken, or did the eggs?"

Friday, June 16, 2006

A Borderless World?

Back in the hammock again, this time with much cheeping in the background, mother sparrow zipping about, gathering meals to quiet her young, and this made me think of the freedom of birds, seemingly flying about in a borderless world, but then that isn't true, birds as well as other creatures mark off their territory, their personal space so to speak, and these invisible borders (invisible to us humans) form a complex of irregular demarcations that cover the earth. How so we marveled at the first photos of earth taken from space, the blue marble someone thought the earth appeared, then others pointed out the absences of borders, and even others thought this blue marble planet appeared so peaceful from the distance of space. Yes, distance can be deceiving, time too. So a few romantics, or commune dwellers, dreamed of the day when reality would be just as that distant view from space, a borderless world. Well, with borders in the news lately, I again considered this most unnatural proposition, a borderless world. And yes, the current borderless world is coming along just fine, even if we have to make a show of putting the military on the border and pretend we are building a 'real wall' ... but all that is a sideshow, for the real borders of today are economic borders, and the powers controlling world economies have us to believe that the old political borders are not only a remnant of the past, but that they hinder the free flow of trade, and likewise, the free flow of people.

So, what if the old borders were no more and folks could then move about as they wished? I suspect that in no time the old genes would kick in and 'birds of a feather will flock together' ... this time not birds of birth or birds of tribe or birds of nationality, but birds of vigor and zeal and enterprise will congregate together while birds of slumber and indifference will find common ground. And over time, the diligent birds will begin building borders around their enterprise to keep the indifference birds from spoiling their landscape. And then, some on the outside will claim kinship and blood ties with some inside, and will search archives for ancient maps and birth records, and will make their case that it is only natural for birds of birth and tribe and nationality to flock together.

Bro. Bartleby

Thursday, June 15, 2006

from beginning to end

Bro. Juniper has just returned from a produce run to Barstow and he said after loading the pickup truck he made a quick stop at The Coffee House for a cup of java and lo and behold there was Gordon Hu seated at a table with two soldiers! He said the two soldiers were from Fort Irwin and that Gordon Hu had the Bible that Bro. Clarence gave him, and he was reading passages to the soldiers, who were helping him with certain words. Bro. Juniper said that one of the soldiers had just returned from Iraq on a medical leave, but was to be returning soon. Of course with a pickup truck full of produce, he had to cut his visit short, but not before learning that Gordon Hu is reading his way through the Bible, and this day, with the help of the soldiers, was working on Ecclesiates. This brought a smile to my face, hopefully they will be able to visit us soon.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

What does the worker gain from his toil?

I have seen the burden God has laid on men.

He has made everything beautiful in its time.
He has also set eternity in the hearts of men;
yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Sandals vs Icons

Bro. Clarence was 'pitching' the idea that we should consider his hand-woven yucca sandals as sellable products, and removing them, he handed the left sandal to Bro. Juniper who was seated at the noon time meal to his left, and he handed the right sandal to Bro. Simon to his right. Bro. Juniper seemed to be taken aback, while Bro. Simon carefully studied the handiwork, with one hand, while the other he held his nose. And around the table the sandals were passed, all the while Bro. Clarence assured us that he could teach us all to weave sandals that we could either sell at a roadside stand, or even, he gleefully said with a slap of a hand to the table, over the Internet. Bro. Sedwick wasn't impressed, noting that sandals need to be constructed in various sizes, thereby lessening the chance of this being a practical product that we could produce and stock up on, wereas Bro. Clarence thought that we could come up with a sort of "tube sock" size, a one size fits all, with adjustable straps. Seated across from Bro. Clarence, it was I who was handed both a left sandal and a right sandal at the same moment, interrupting my tuna sandwich, which I confess, smelled a bit like the sandals. Well, two sandal in two hands, I brought up my previous idea, that we should instead consider painting icons, for again and again, we receive mail asking if we have icons available for sale, and as always, we point to other monasteries, when in fact we could be producing them ourselves. After all, I noted, the dear abbot painted icons, yes they were somewhat controversial at the time, but still, with my previous art training, and using the abbot's icons as a sort of starting point, I asked the brothers to reconsider my idea. With that Bro. Clarence reached across the table and took his two sandals from my hands, leaving me empty handed, so to speak. Bro. Sedwick mulled out loud, perhaps small icons would be of interest to those surfing the Internet, to which I added that we could even have a website with a gallery to display the icons. Just when some of the brothers began nodding their heads in agreement, Bro. Clarence did his own outloud mulling, "Perhaps I could weave an icon from yucca!"

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Time and time again

As Bro. Juniper mentioned to me, Gordon Hu did not return to the monastery, and this has led to a bit of speculation, but what I find more of interest is the various comments at the break fast table. Granted, Gordon Hu stay was short, yet listening to all the brothers tell their various personal vignettes of their encounters and chats with Gordon Hu, if I didn't know otherwise, I would have concluded his stay was of a much longer duration. My personal encounters, if someone happened to ask, I would more than likely say that I enjoyed hours of conversation with Gordon Hu, yet now that I contemplate the actual time spent, the longest was when he set up his new hammock for a "test run" as he said, and as we both viewed a very busy mother sparrow zipping from nest to places unknown, we chatted about a host of things, but if I were to carefully consider the exact amount of time spent, I would have to confess that the "test run" was well under an hour. But again, it now seems as though we chatted for half a day! Bro. Juniper had a similar testimony, at first he thought he had many long strolls about the monastery ground with Gordon Hu, the totality of which he thought were many hours, yet upon careful consideration he concluded that he had six strolls, and each lasted no more than 15 minutes. Less than an hour and a half, yet he 'feels' the encounters could only be measured in hours and days. Again and again I listened to stories of short encounters that were remembered as long and focused. Bro. Clarence said he now had a grasp of the 'Five Canons' and no longer considers the 'Book of Changes' as a bit of hocus pocus, while Bro. Timothy said he now has a grasp of the Analects, and Bro. Simon was so taken by the moment that he stood and said, "Confucius said, 'At fifteen my mind was set on learning. At thirty my character had been formed. At forty I had no more perplexities. At fifty I knew the Mandate of Heaven. At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing moral principles."

With that I think it dawned on all of us that time isn't the 'big hand' on the clock that continues to tick away as though 'it' were the essence.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Midnight at the Nag Hammadi

After the evening meal, most of the brothers were still at the dining table, for Bro. Cecil, who is currently researching the findings of the Nag Hammadi Library, as most of you may know, this 'library' of leather-bound papyri manuscripts was found in 1945 in Egypt by six Bedouin tribesmen. Actually they were gathering 'fertilizer' and one hit upon a large clay vessel, sealed at the top. Being both superstitious and illiterate, they wondered what was inside the vessel, yet feared it may harbor some evil spirits, but after some debate on the matter, another possibility came to mind, it may contain gold! That was enough for one to smash the clay vessel upon a rock, revealing not gold, but leather-bound manuscripts. Unable to read any language, these Coptic manuscripts were somewhat of a disappointment to them, and five of the gents declined their share, leaving the manuscripts in the hands of a Mohammed Ali, who then lugged them to his humble dwelling, when he simply dropped them in a corner of the room, whereupon, later, his mother preparing a fire for cooking a meal, used some of the papyri sheets as kindling for her fire. Lucky for us, Mohammed, after thinking that perhaps he could sell his findings, safeguarded them from further destruction. And the story goes on, but what is important is the writings themselves, penned in the first centuries by early Christians, the Gnostics, who later were more of less swept off the table when the New Testament canon was cobbled together. But that is all another story, and a debatable one at that. So, back to the dining table, tonight Bro. Cecil read the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and here is a bit of it that I find most interesting. I hope you do too.

The Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus Christ.

After he rose from the dead, his twelve disciples and seven women continued to be his followers, and went to Galilee onto the mountain called "Divination and Joy". When they gathered together and were perplexed about the underlying reality of the universe and the plan, and the holy providence, and the power of the authorities, and about everything the Savior is doing with them in the secret of the holy plan, the Savior appeared - not in his previous form, but in the invisible spirit. And his likeness resembles a great angel of light. But his resemblance I must not describe. No mortal flesh could endure it, but only pure, perfect flesh, like that which he taught us about on the mountain called "Of the Olives" in Galilee.

And he said: "Peace be to you, My peace I give you!" And they all marveled and were afraid. The Savior laughed and said to them: "What are you thinking about? Are you perplexed? What are you searching for?"

Philip said: "For the underlying reality of the universe and the plan."

The Savior said to them: "I want you to know that all men are born on earth from the foundation of the world until now, being dust, while they have inquired about God, who he is and what he is like, have not found him. Now the wisest among them have speculated from the ordering of the world and (its) movement. But their speculation has not reached the truth. For it is said that the ordering is directed in three ways, by all the philosophers, (and) hence they do not agree. For some of them say about the world that it is directed by itself. Others, that it is providence (that directs it). Others, that it is fate. But it is none of these. Again, of the three voices I have just mentioned, none is close to the truth, and (they are) from man. But I, who came from Infinite Light, I am here - for I know him (Light) - that I might speak to you about the precise nature of the truth. For whatever is from itself is a polluted life; it is self-made. Providence has no wisdom in it. And fate does not discern. But to you it is given to know; and whoever is worthy of knowledge will receive (it), whoever has not been begotten by the sowing of unclean rubbing but by First Who Was Sent, for he is an immortal in the midst of mortal men."

Saturday, June 03, 2006

An Early Encounter With Nothingness

I recalled during my first year at the monastery Bro. Sedwick held a hands-on course titled “Existentialism in Existential Cinematography.” I do remember that we constructed a 16mm Bolex camera from balsa wood, also a boom and microphone from a broom stick and tin can. After typing our movie scripts, Bro. Sedwick collected them all and then tore each page into four pieces, then shuffled and reassembled the quartered pages randomly, ala William S. Burroughs, and scotch-taped the quarters back into full pages. After picking straws, a director was chosen, who then cast the ‘actors’ from the remaining students. It was in the dry riverbed behind the monastery that the neophyte actors attempted to rehearse from the cut and reassembled script, and I believe it was Bro. Carl who ‘filmed’ the final production with the balsa wood 16mm Bolex. After, I believe, four days and nights in that dry riverbed, the production was completed and we all returned to the monastery for a critique by Bro. Sedwick, but not before we viewed our production. I recall that we all stared silently at a blank wall for two hours before our ‘teacher’ suddenly stood and faced the class and applauded while shouting, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!”

Friday, June 02, 2006

Historical Jesus vs Storical Jesus

Bro. Juniper said that he heard that Gordon Hu plans to visit the monastery this weekend, which seems to delight everyone here. I now recall the conversation with Gordon Hu that changed his somewhat sober demeanor to what I would describe as a real "Ah ha!" moment. He had been peppering me with questions, most pertaining to what he described as the unbelievable aspects of Jesus, all things metaphysical, as he said, those 'miracles' which prevented him from ever seriously studying Christianity, keeping him firmly planted in the here-and-now of Confucianism. I had said that sometimes one must distinguished between story and history, that is, 'history' is the gathering and studying of data, the sifting of myth from fact, whereby 'story' is the studying of myths that resonate with us, for they speak a truth to us that is perhaps greater than any accumulated facts. In other words, I once heard someone say, the Bible is not a "historical" document, but a "storical" one -- it tells stories that transcend history.