The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, developed by the founders of the Nan Hua Zen Buddhist Society, was the first exclusively electronic ministry on the Internet. The priests of ZBOHY follow the ancient teachings of Hui Neng and Lin Chi and the modern teachings of Hsu Yun. The Sangha has no dues or fees of any kind, neither do we accept donations of any kind. Our site is maintained by volunteers all over the world in a spirit of service. Precepts are given free of charge to correspondents who have demonstrated a sincere desire to follow the Buddha's EightFold Path.
When we first begin our path of self-inquiry, we have often been driven to it by a profound notion that there is something missing in our life. We begin to realize that life can’t be just endless burdens we face day after day. Something else exists….but it is hidden from our every day consciousness.
This is how we think when we first begin to examine our daily life. We begin to look beyond the burdens.
These feelings of constant dissatisfaction fuel our problems as well as spur us on to find a spiritual path. We, however, sometimes end up putting our faith, our confidence, in this false reality. We think we need the dissatisfaction as a prod to keep us going. We are like Sisyphus….we believe we are cursed to push the boulder up the mountain until the end of time. But as we will see, all we need to do is step aside and let the boulder barrel down without us holding on.
There is no doubt suffering exists. It does poke and push us to find a way to liberation. To see and recognize suffering is a grace. It is a small touch of grace but it is nonetheless grace. But we need to develop our inner urge for freedom from suffering. For a long time we may believe we need the suffering to practice, thinking if we lose this constant prod we’ll give up. But to rely on the prod solely is not enough, we may begin a spiritual endeavor but we won’t continue. We need more than the prod to fulfill the two laws of Zen, begin and continue.
With time, if we are lucky, we learn to put our faith in our Buddha Nature; we switch our object of confidence to an inner reality we call Buddha Nature. An inner illumined awareness. This change often feels like an awkward beginning, a new step of faith. When we recognize we need confidence (faith) in the practices we gain a little more grace. It is true we do need confidence (faith) to begin to turn within to realize there is something more than our everyday burdens.
We need to put confidence in living out our Buddha Nature, (our divinity).
This living out divinity requires a lifelong, daily commitment of dropping the complaints of the hungry ego and accepting our divine, Buddha nature. More grace is needed to rely on the practices of discovering and relying on our inner true Self. Our hungry ego and our over thinking intellect challenges us. The ego wants something else, something more and the intellect thinks it knows better.
Another taste of grace is to know no matter what the ego gets up to, no matter what the intellect figures out our Buddha nature is untouched. It is immeasurable and ineffable and remains steadfast and unchanging.
As we begin to we know this Truth our confidence strengthens and broadens and words and ego desires diminish.
Our focus changes from finding our true self to living out the climb on the mountain of our true self in everyday life. This takes time. Patience, Effort. Endurance.
Our obstacles are in our distorted mind, a mind absorbed and identified with whatever arises; we go around the mountain instead of up it. We believe in our own myths much like Sisyphus. We don’t see that there is a possible path out of this endless inner cycle around our misery. In the cycle of misery we tend to rely on our wrong nature (our hungry ego and our know-it-all intellect) and not on our True steadfast one.
When inner faith/confidence is developed we see the path heading upward, we choose to go upward and know the difficulties and joys of going on this upward, unknown track. Discovering things at every turn of the tradition we sometimes think that there is some kind of secret teaching around this so-called Buddha Nature. And so we go on the arduous upward track for years and years, testing our selves. Instead we need faith in the simplicity, and humility of meeting what shows up in our day to day life of a practitioner.
We learn not to give up. Even a glimpse of our True nature helps us not to give up. We meet what shows up as the myriad forms of the undying and unborn nature. In all circumstances we are able to see through our Buddha eyes and hear with our Buddha ears. We realize everything is Buddha.
Everyday life is the path up to the summit.
Our intention encompasses bringing to mind the three pure precepts in every circumstance: we do no harm, cultivate goodness and purify our mind.
Un jour, le Bouddha se tenait près d’une rivière, attendant un bateau pourrait l’emmener sur la rive opposée. Le passeur qui conduisait le bateau était lent mais ne demandait qu’une piècette pour la traversée.
Sur la rive, un yogi, le dévot d’un gourou célèbre. Le dévot ricana du Bouddha, lui disant:
“Malgré tous vos discours, vous n’avez aucun pouvoir. Ne vous souciezvous pas de vos disciplines? Pourquoi agir ainsi… ?
Mon maître a passé des années à apprendre à léviter. Aussi, s’il avait été ici et voulait traverser cette rivière, il aurait tout simplement marché sur l’eau “.
Le Bouddha le regarda et répondit: «Des années vous dites. Il a passé des années à apprendre à léviter. Pourquoi consacrer son temps à apprendre à faire quelque chose qu’il pouvait avoir pour une minuscule piècette? “
Chers amis, Beaucoup de gens qui cherchent à être de bons bouddhistes Zen croient qu’ils devraient toujours être gentils, quelles que soient les circonstances.
Ils pensent parfois devoir pardonner tous les crimes ou donner de l’argent à chaque organisme de bienfaisance sans penser à la possibilité que leurs actions auront un effet néfaste sur la société.
Nous devons toujours être bons, mais nous devons aussi utiliser Le bon sens Zen.
Il était une fois un prince qui aimait les oiseaux. Son royaume était rempli d’oiseaux merveilleux, et il aimait se promener dans les bois chaque matin pour les accueillir. Il y avait même un endroit dans son palais utilisé comme une sorte d’hôpital pour oiseaux blessés qu’on trouve parfois sur ses promenades matinales.
Un jour, un fermier trouva un oiseau blessé sur sa terre et, sachant que l’oiseau avait besoin de plus traitement médical qu’il pouvait lui donner, porta l’oiseau au prince et lui demanda s’il pouvait aider la créature à récupérer.
Le prince a été ému par la gentillesse de l’agriculteur et lui donna une pièce d’or pour sa peine.
L’agriculteur rentré chez lui dit à ses amis quel gentil et généreux prince il était. Et leur montra la pièce. Ce soir-là un de ses amis sorti et mutila un oiseau, puis le porta au prince.
Naturellement, le prince le récompensa avec une pièce d’or. L’homme rentra chez lui et montra la pièce à plusieurs de ses amis. Et ce soir-là un grand nombre de ses amis sont sortis et trouverent des oiseaux a mutiler eux aussi afin qu’ils puissent les donner au prince pour leurs récompenses.
En in rien de temps, non seulement le trésor du prince fut vide, mais tous les oiseaux disparurent du royaume. Comme les gens dansaient et chantaient leur bonne fortune, le prince marchait à travers le bois et n’entendit pas un chant d’oiseaux. Il pleura en sachant que sa bonté aveugle avait détruit ces créatures mêmes qu’il avait essayé de sauver.
Chers amis, Pourquoi oublions nous si facilement les enseignements du Bouddha?
Un jour, un saint homme était assis près d’une rivière, regardant l’eau s’écouler, lorsqu’il vit un scorpion s’approcher du bord de la rivière pour ensuite tombé dans l’eau. Le saint homme voyant le scorpion lutter contre l’eau, utilise sa main comme une pelle et soulève le scorpion pour pouvoir ensuite le poser. Lorsqu’il pose le scorpion au sol, la créature le pique. Le saint homme ne dit rien et continue à regarder le débit d’eau.
Quelques minutes plus tard, le scorpion revint à la rive du fleuve et a nouveau, tombe dans l’eau … et a nouveau le saint-homme refait la même action. Et a nouveau, le scorpion le piqua. Le saint homme ne dit rien et continua à regarder le débit de la rivière. Quelques minutes passèrent et le scorpion est revint au bord de la rivière et tomba une fois encore dans l’eau, et une fois encore, le saint homme l’a posé en toute sécurité sur le sol.
Et a nouveau, le scorpion piqua le saint homme. Le saint homme tourna simplement la tête et continua de regarder le fleuve.
Un homme ayant vu toute la scène s’irrita de voir le saint homme répéter ce sauvetage fou d’un scorpion ingrat. Il alla vers le saint homme et le somma de répondre. «Pourquoi persistez-vous à sauver un scorpion misérable qui ne montre aucune gratitude pour vos efforts et vous pique?”
Et le saint homme répondit: «Il est de la nature d’un scorpion de piquer, tout comme il en est d’un être humain d’aider une créature dans le besoin».
Dans le Zen nous enseignons cette vérité parce que nous sommes souvent tentés de chercher a recevoir de la gratitude pour la moindre chose que nous faisons pour les autres. Il en est comme si nous essayons de former un contrat avec la personne que nous aidons. Comme si dans ces instants on pensait, «Je vais le faire pour lui et puis il va dire au monde entier quelle personne généreuse je suis.”
Parfois, nous allons même penser, «Je vais le faire pour lui et puis, quand j’aurai besoin d’aide, il m’en donnera en retour. ”
Non! La façon Zen de d’harmoniser avec le monde est d’être comme ce saint homme et d’agir en accord profond avec notre nature propre, puis d’oublier complètement, indépendamment de ce qui se passe, et de revenir à nos vies ” en regardant le débit de la rivière s’écouler “.
Combien de fois nous perdons-nous dans la colère, à cause de mots ou d’actions que nous percevons comme insultantes? Si seulement nous nous arrêtions pour appliquer un peu de sens commun Zen à nos interactions, nous serions beaucoup plus heureux.
Une vieille histoire Zen nous rappelle pourquoi nous devrions nous arrêter et réfléchir avant d’agir.
Supposons qu’un jour, sur une rivière, une petite barque vide se délie puis commence à suivre le courant. Alors qu’elle s’en va vers l’aval, un homme assis dans une autre barque, essaye de traverser la rivière. Dès qu’il commence à ramer, il a voit le bateau se diriger vers lui. Il se rend alors compte que les deux bateaux vont entrer en collision, ainsi il sort sa rame et pousse la barque vide qui change doucement de direction et continue son chemin sur la rivière.
Mais supposons qu’un autre homme soit assis dans la barque qui était vide. L’homme qui avait précédement essayer de ramer à travers la rivière lui aurait crié: «Hé! Reprenez le contrôle de votre bateau ou nous allons entrer en collision!”
Et si l’homme n’avait rien fait et les deux bateaux se seraient rapprochés, l’homme qui ramait se serait mis à crier: «Regardez où vous allez, espèce d’idiot! Vous allez heurter mon bateau!” Et puis il se serait levé et aurait commencé à agiter sa rame comme une arme et à menacé l’autre homme. Les bateaux seraient alors entrés en collision, et il aurait frappé l’autre homme avec sa rame.
Peut-être dans la lutte, l’homme qui tentait de ramer à travers le fleuve serait tombé dans l’eau et se serait noyé. Qui sait? Mais pourquoi, devons-nous nous demander. Une telle confrontation était elle nécessaire?
Les deux situations étaient pourtant identiques. Deux bateaux allaient entrer en collision. Dans le premier cas, l’homme pousse doucement la barque venant en sens inverse de côté et continue son chemin. Mais dans le deuxième cas, voyant un homme inactif dans le bateau, immédiatement, il serait devenu furieux parce qu’il se serait aperçu qu’il était ignoré ou en quelque sorte déshonoré. Il n’aurait pas arrêté de penser que peut-être l’autre homme était malade ou blessé, ou tout simplement incapable de diriger son bateau. Il aurait permis à son ego de s’impliquer dans ce qu’il a perçu comme une menace personnelle, et à se construire ainsi un honneur d’homme attaqué à protéger.
Quels fous nous sommes lorsque nous répondons par la colère! Si cet homme avait seulement répondu avec bon sens et avec bonté, il aurait pu appeler l’autre homme, et ne recevant pas de réponse, il aurait simplement pu “poussé l’autre barque de coté et continué son chemin jusqu’à l’autre rive” en toute sécurité. Et peut-être même aurait-il vu que l’autre homme était en détresse et avait besoin d’aide, Il aurait pu être le Bon Samaritain et donné son aide à l’autre homme. N’aurait-ce pas été la meilleure façon d’agir… la façon Zen de répondre aux conditions?
Sometimes we assign too many miraculous qualities to remedial devices or else we take them for granted and gloss over the good they do. Either way, we don’t really consider to what extent they have come to permeate our personalities. Sometimes we expect too much from them. There’s an old Spanish folk tale called Las Gafas, which means “the eyeglasses.” A peasant farmer was standing outside an eye glass shop and overheard the owner say to a happy customer, “With those glasses you will now be able to read everything!” The old farmer saved his money and returned to the shop and asked for reading glasses. The owner put a pair on the farmer and presented him with a newspaper. “Can you read this?” he asked. The farmer said that he couldn’t. The owner tried another stronger pair; but the farmer couldn’t read the paper with those, either. The owner tried every possible pair on. Finally. he closed the last box and said that he could not help the man. “But I heard you say that your glasses would enable a man to read!” the farmer protested. Suddenly the owner understood. Angrily he said, “Do you know how to read?” And the farmer replied, “No, that’s why I’m here.”
Sometimes we grow so accustomed to our eyeglasses that they become as much a part of us as a nose or foot.
When I was a child I had an eye problem that required correction with eye glasses. Maybe it was because other kids at school needed glasses but for one reason or another didn’t get them, or maybe it was the notion that kids who wore glasses were nerds, but whatever it was, I was a “four-eyed” misfit and had to be reminded of the fact regularly. Yes, When Clark Kent was the helpless reporter, he wore glasses. As Superman, his eyes were perfect. Woody Allen played a series of odd-ball characters who were essentially losers who always wore glasses. Same thing with Spiderman. And Robert Carradine in Revenge of the Nerds sealed the fate of any kid who wore glasses. We were nerds, not good for sports, and if we wanted any friends, they had to be with other “four-eyed” kids and our meetings – because we were excluded from athletic pep talks and practice sessions – were always in libraries. The feeling was that we just wanted to prove ourselves superior in some way and therefore tried to pass ourselves off as intellectuals. You could make a donkey look like a genius if you put a pair of glasses on him. It was the kind of cock-eyed thinking that the old peasant had. Just wearing glasses could make an enormous difference.
Years of this resistance to the Four-Eyed troop, helped to congeal a sense of indomitable unity in that troop that the other 20-20 visionaries didn’t possess. Our glasses were more than steel, glass, and plastic. They were a kind of epoxy that held us together.
Then came Lasik surgery.
Defectors from the group went ahead and got the surgery and threw away their “badges” – their “membership cards in our club. It was as though since children we had drawn our wagons into a defensive circle, and suddenly links in that protective chain vanished. We were vulnerable. We discussed the surgery. I was completely resistant to the idea! Why should I change myself trough surgery to fit others? Why spend that money for something so unnecessary? People kept asking me why I didn’t have it done, and sometimes I’d say that there were risks of infection, of “Flap” problems, of troublesome ‘dry-eye,’ or of procedural errors that resulted in worse vision problems, such as an intolerable blurriness. But the percentage of these problems was miniscule compared to the advantages; so, ultimately my reasons was simply that I didn’t want to have it done. My glasses were part of my identity. When I looked into a mirror, I saw me… a man with glasses.
Naturally, my relatives were less tolerant of my obstinacy. They didn’t understand and began to berate me for refusing to see an eye specialist. Their anger made my anger rise and soon we were having heated discussions.
One day, after a nasty argument with a new “ex-four-eye” relative, I finally got around to asking myself, “Why the hell are you so touched about this thing? Why does it push your buttons so hard?” Being a Zen Buddhist priest it isn’t my habit to hide myself when I see anger taking root deeply in me. As we all know, anger is a natural tendency and is only rarely benign. The Buddha teaches tells us that anger is born from ignorance, and that ignorance is deeply rooted in our habits and views.So came the questions: What was I ignoring? What was I hiding that resulted in such anger?At first I tried to look into the subject intellectually… and it was a mess. I first thought, “Well, it must be a kind of deep reaction against the crazy consumerism I see in this manner of doing surgery as easily as buying croissant for breakfast.” Then it went to, “It’s is a reaction against what I saw as a kind of silly conformism to new norms dictated by fashion”. These comfortable excuses suited me for some time. And then my thoughts hardened into a more durable aggression. “The people who submit to this are stupid consumerists. They want to show-off and join the ranks of people who insulted them all their lives. No, the problem is not in me, it is in them.”
Time passed. I realized that none of these explanations was satisfactory. I began to dig deeper. The real work was only beginning. Being a Four-eye wasn’t just a need or even a habit, it really became one of the grids of my identity, my sense of myself, and my sense of security in having a group of friends, like me, who stood bravely against the critical world. By leaving their ranks, I was betraying them just as much as I was betraying myself… capitulating to the world that had shunned me for being different.
I began to understand that I was attached to this worldly device… this pair of eye-glasses… just as I was attached to the people who shared my isolation for all those years. It was an ego response… not necessarily a bad ego response… but something I created to meet real or imagined challenges. Glasses were a device, a thing… and while it may have helped me, I had no right to extend my “attachment” to the thing to other people.
Once seen and realized, attachments simply loose their power on us. We still may feel fear or anger but the hidden, somewhat unconscious, play that our ego tries to do looses his impact. We suddenly see through the net the ego weaves to protect itself, and it just doesn’t work anymore. This is why the old masters and patriarchs always asked their students to “keep aware of phenomenon without getting attached to them” or “to not let thought mount to the 6th consciousness where is becomes at home in our minds.”
And now you might ask, did he get that surgery? Well… No. But I can appreciate the reasons that other Four-eyes chose to have the surgery and I’m happy they all had a good result. Maybe it scares me to have someone operate on my eyes. Maybe I’m a husband and father now and have other things to spend money on. I still don’t know why I resist. I did change the style of glasses I wear. For decades I wore the same old style and now people stop me to comment about my glasses just as if I had changed my hair color or clothing style. I wonder what they thought all those years before.
But wearing this new pair of glasses, I realized that I saw things better, not just visually, but with deeper insight. Yes I’m wearing my new glasses and when I look at the world around me, as we all do, I do not forget that in our daily lives we need to respect other people’s views, and not always try to tell them what we think is best for them. They can figure it out for themselves – which is the only way to create a common-ground, a commonweal.
So I have to be careful to change glasses from time to time, to integrate other views. And that is the way to break into our own habits and views, which leads to break into self identification, which leads to breaking into fear and ignorance, what the Buddha Shakyamuni transmitted us as Right View which leads to Right Practice and, finally, to Liberation.
Yes, the world would be a happier place if some of us didn’t feel it incumbent upon themselves to tell others how to live and how to think and how, by obeying them, they would be so much happier. That is a misunderstanding of our individual roles in life, and it makes the farmer who expected reading glasses to enable him to read, seem like a true genius.
It was our first night home. I was exhausted to the point that unconsciousness would better describe my state. Somewhere in my sensory fog a voice was calling, but I couldn’t be sure where it was coming from or if it even concerned me. ‘Wake up! Please wake up!’ I recognized the distant voice as my wife’s voice. I asked myself, What does she want? Doesn’t she know I’m sleeping? I’m so tired. I want to go back to sleep. But no. Here comes the voice again. “He just finished nursing. Could you please change his diaper?” He? Nursing? You? Diaper? All the words came together and I woke up fast.
I sat up and looked around. The room hadn’t changed except for one thing… there weren’t two of us anymore. There were three. And Zen priest or not, I was suddenly scared out of my wits. ‘Take him,’ my wife said. ‘His diaper needs changing.’ She held him up and I knew that I had to take him from her, so I did and was shocked to find him so light… weightless. All this commotion for weeks and days, and here was this little creature that was the cause of it all. I held my arms out and held him in my hands; and suddenly I felt like a bear holding a squirrel.
My wife and I had made a deal. She would feed him and I would clean up the results of that feeding, i.e., change his diaper. I took him into the bathroom and put him on the changing table. I unsnapped his pajama bottom and pulled them off. So far, so good. I found the diaper’s adhesive tabs and pulled them, and then like a bizarre flower the diaper opened up and the poop I expected to find wasn’t there. Instead my little son had filled his diaper with something that looked like crude oil or greenish tar. It was dark, thick, sticky stuff. I took a baby-wipe and tried to clean it off. I was fully awake now, and being so, I began to remember what the nurse at the Birthing House had said. Then it had seemed just a casual comment; but now it made important sense. Meconium. ‘For the first few days, the infant will excrete all the contents of his intestines… everything that had been ingested while he was in the uterus.’ She said that it wouldn’t smell funny at all; and in fact, it didn’t. She had said that it would be different from normal poop, and it was. So I had learned Lesson #1. And my son had passed the first test. If he had excreted this meconium while he was still in my wife’s uterus, he might have ingested it; and that would have made him a candidate for some very serious problems. The nurse had told us that people used to think that this meconium was sterile; but, in fact, it isn’t. Researchers in Spain tested many samples and found that half of them contained E. coli. Uh, oh. I used a second wipe on his behind… and then a third. I wanted to be sure I got it all off.
Where, I wondered, did people get the idea that changing a diaper was just a simple thing? Changing a tire is less hazardous… and less complicated! When I was certain I had gotten his bottom clean, he peed in a pretty golden arc. I stood there speechless and watched him. He gurgled or giggled. I couldn’t be sure, but it certainly seemed that he was laughing happily as if he were really having fun. I knew only that this whole messy experience was absolutely beautiful. Now I was giggling, too. And I got wipe #4 and did my duty.
Naturally, I thought about Zen Masters who take their turn with the “Shitstick.” There was a time that monasteries would be built in rural areas and, since monks are human beings, they went to the toilet regularly. Disposing of this waste was usually accomplished by diverting a small stream into a sluice that depended on gravity to get it down to wherever the waste would finally be deposited. Often clumps of waste would get stuck in the sluice, and the monks had these paddles that they used to push the waste down so that it didn’t form a blockage that would dam-up the flow. It wasn’t a pleasant job; but the Masters would demonstrate that they were no better than the lowest monk when it came to these human necessities. There is no place for an ego in the act of eliminating waste. The Shitstick united the master with the novice. Titles cannot separate us from our common humanity. And I learned something else, too. I was due to officiate at an Ordination ceremony. This would be an even more awesome experience since now I was aware of the hazards and complications none of us ever imagines will occur, but they do. Human beings make mistakes and they also are simply ignorant of things that they will later need to know. It is scary to take on such responsibility; but if, like those masters who took their turn in using the Shitstick, we remember our common humanity and keep our ego out of the process, we can prevail and share a happy experience instead of showing disgust at actions that we decide are beneath us.
Da Shi Yao Xin conducts an ordination service in Belgium and speaks about the priestly mandate to remember our common humanity.
So there I was… a dad… like a doctor or a plumber or a grocer… putting a clean diaper on my boy. His bright eyes looked at me. I don’t know what he saw, but I saw an adorable face that radiated a kind of confidence in me and an approval of what I had done. I had begun the task, shocked to see what looked like lava that had erupted from his behind. And then with just a little knowledge and, I suppose, a lot of instinct, I had wiped away the tar and the urine and in this act, I had joined the rest of the world’s dads.
My step-father and I raced to the Birth House and found my wife sitting calmly on the side of the bed. At first, I didn’t know what to think. We had been warned about Braxton Hicks contractions – those so called “false labor” uterine pains that are often taken for the beginning of true labor. Was she so calm because the pains had stopped or weren’t really labor pains? She smiled brightly at me, and I asked, “Is the baby on his way?” She and the two nurses in the room said, in unison, “Yes… it has begun!”
In French we have a saying that is almost exactly like the English, “Calm before the storm.”
But everything seemed to me to be too calm. She explained, “My water broke and the contractions started about two hours ago.”
I felt a little foolish standing there so I sat in a chair beside her bed and suddenly her face contracted as if she were really concentrating as if she were trying hard to remember something. Her eyebrows were furled and her entire face became tense. Little beads of perspiration formed on her forehead. Then she relaxed and her face seemed radiant as she smiled at me again. I had put a few CDs in our “birth pack” and figured that this was the time to play some music. I put on a recording of old French folk songs and suddenly the nurses, my wife, and I were singing along with the music. This was the last thing that I expected to happen. “Well,” I said to myself, “this is gonna be a piece of cake.” Why did people make such a fuss about childbirth? This was rather enjoyable.
A sing-along! Wasn’t that nice? The birds were singing in the ranches of the tree just outside. The rays of the sun were coming through the window. Every now and then the muscles in my wife’s face would grow tense, and she would squeeze my hand, but the muscles would soon relax. Yes… this was going to be easy.
By the time the CD ended, my wife started full labor and things weren’t so easy anymore. The sun had set and the nurses lit groups of votive candles, giving the room a reverential or maybe even a cozy atmosphere. And now, when the pain started, I could hear her chant “Om” and nobody was happily singing old French folk songs anymore. I began to join her in chanting Om, and doing deep breathing exercises with her between her contractions. Inhale for four seconds, hold the breath for 16 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds… and then start again until it was time to chant Om again.
And then, despite the fact that my wife has sung in choirs, the “Om” wasn’t singing anymore. It was shouting. And since there was less time to do the breathing exercise and more time to shout Om, I tried to hold the singing syllable as she relaxed between contractions. We must have sounded like a couple of wild people in an ashram.
Through the window, I watched the stars come out. And then a feeling that is known to all Zen meditators came over me: I felt a Oneness with my wife, the nurses, and the entire room. It was as if the room was lit by something inside me. Her chant of Om had been reduced to a whisper and then it disappeared altogether as if it had been internalized. At that time the feeling of Oneness also disappeared and I was just myself sitting beside her. She was totally in herself, her own world, and her thoughts were not shared with anyone. She had that prowling look on her face, the look that in Chinese Chan we call, “A tiger coming out of the forest.” I wondered whether all the things I had once read about Yin and Yang were actually occurring. Had her Yang chi risen up to meet her Yin chi, merging with it, so that now she had the eyes of that bright, determined but calm, tiger? Had her Yin chi come down to her belly where it was nourishing the baby before his long trip in his quest for light and love? As I watched her lying on her side, transfigured, she became to me a magnificent tiger that occasionally lifted its head and roared.
The roar became more coarse, a growl or grunt was added to it, and one of the nurses said to me, We’re in the last stage. The baby will soon emerge.”
At that point I was lost. I felt like a spectator at a play that was given in a language I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what was going on. There were a few more deep grunting roars and then the nurse said, “I can feel the head.”
And then, a few moments later, I could see the crown of my baby’s head for the first time.What a feeling! For some reason I felt like an archeologist who had just discovered a priceless artifact.
He came out, but face-down, and I couldn’t see his features. Then the nurses picked him up and turned him around to show us that he was perfectly formed. He wailed and we yelled in triumph. My wife just totally went limp and cooed the way mothers always do.
The nurses washed Eliott and tended to my wife for a few minutes. They weighed him and filled out his birth certificate. They wrapped our little tiger cub in a little blanket and handed him to my wife. Her cooing exponentially increased.
A few hours later, we were all lying on the same bed. The Birth House, unlike ordinary hospitals, allows patients to call restaurants and ask them to deliver food. All the grandparents came into the room and we all celebrated with Pizza and Coke. My wife was as hungry as I was relieved. Little Eliott slept between us. He was no longer our little “shrimp.” He was our son.
I felt as though I had conquered the world. This birth business was so easy! What was all the fuss about? So it took a mantra and a breathing exercise… and, Oh yes… a few French folk songs… I patted myself on the back. Zen preparation! Zen training! And this was all there was to it. My wife and I were on a bed with a sleeping baby between us. It was simplicity itself. I felt like reciting the old Dao quatrain: “How wonderful! How mysterious! I chop wood. I carry water.”
Little did I know. Maybe the Dao monk who penned those lines meant chopping the wood of all the trees in the Ardennes. Maybe he was thinking about carrying the water of the entire Mediterranean. It may have been wonderful and mysterious, but it would also be scary and exhausting.
I would soon learn that what I knew about babies any father on earth could safely forget and not run the risk of being uninformed. In short, I knew nothing… nada…zilch.
My first lesson would be: tiger cubs are nocturnal creatures. My second? They have toilet habits that are totally unacceptable in an adult world!
Fatherhood takes a man out of dreaming and, like the Buddha, causes him to awaken… frequently.
As we got close to the baby’s delivery date, we became seriously stressed. Our situation was complicated by the simple fact that my wife is a doctor and during her medical school days she had seen so many women go into labor for agonizing hours; and not until someone said that the cervix had become dilated a specific number of centimeters would the doctor be called. And then an additional anxiety would be added to the wait. Sometimes the doctors took their time. Yes, they knew what they were doing, but to an onlooker or to the woman who is experiencing the wait, it seemed as though the doctor must have gotten lost in traffic and was now on his way to Patagonia.
Another problem we faced was that we had just moved to a new town and we didn’t know the reputations of obstetricians or hospitals. Like every couple in our situation, we had to make a choice and we had no basis on which to choose. We decided to ask any young parents who seemed inclined to talk what their respective experiences had been with the local hospitals and doctors. When we got this not-so-brilliant idea, we were in the baby clothes section of a big department store. There was a sale going on and the place was filled with new parents. Some women started the dialogue by asking my wife when she was ‘due’ – and then in the conversation that followed we’d ask them to tell us their experiences and opinions about doctors, hospitals, and giving birth. What a mistake! Everybody had a different story to tell and the only thing the stories had in common was the agony of labor. Nobody agreed on which hospitals and doctors were best. Instead we heard many personal stories: some “nearly died” and had to have caesarian sections; most had episiotomies (where the obstetrician cuts the woman from vagina to rectum to make it easier for the baby to exit the birth canal. (Then the doctor stitches the cut and the woman apparently can’t sit down properly for weeks.) Some delivered pre-maturely and spent a fortune keeping the baby in an incubator; and still others had a breech birth – in which the feet decided to come out first.
I was nervous before we got all this information; afterwards I was nearly catatonic. I began to have nightmares about that guy in Alien who is sitting at a table when this monster baby bursts out of his chest. In desperation I asked a neighbor lady who had four children, “What’s it like to have a baby?”
She answered, “What is the strongest muscle in the human body?”
I said, “The heart.”
“Wrong,” she said. “That may be true for men, but for humanity as a whole, it is the uterus. Now,” she continued, “have you ever had a cramp in your toe or calf muscle?”
I said, “Sure.”
She said, “What do you think about when you have such a cramp?”
I laughed. “You can’t think about anything but the cramp.”
“That’s right,” she said. “And if you just wait a minute or so, the muscle relaxes and you can think again. Imagine the strongest muscle in the body going into a cramp and holding it for a few minutes and then relaxing for a few minutes and then going into a cramp again. Over and over, sometimes for hours. If you can remember that calf or toe cramp, magnify the pain of it ten thousand times. That’s what labor feels like.”
I whispered, “Wow.” Now I was really stressed. “Ok, ok,” I said, “Where’s the best place to have a baby around here?”
“The Birth House,” she said definitively. “It’s only two blocks from here. The nurses are fully qualified, and if there is some kind of emergency, they can call in an obstetrician. But usually there is no trouble especially if you and your wife practice certain techniques that people call Zen techniques. Learn how to breathe and how to relax your body and mind. You should try these Zen exercises.”
I felt like laughing or hitting myself on the head a few times. But I thanked her and said that I did happen to have a book or two that taught these Zen techniques and I would surely study the pages.
We checked in at the Birth House and I proceeded to teach my wife a controlled breathing exercise. I also quoted the great Dao and Zen masters on how to condition the mind into “going with the flow” and accepting pain as a natural occurrence and not letting the ego dwell on the sensation of pain. Instead of focusing on discomfort, she should relax every muscle that she could control and concentrate her thoughts on the beauty of birth. Life, in all things, consists of pleasure at one end and pain at the other; and the goal is simply to achieve a balancing harmony between these two poles – to bring them closer together. This is “equanimity.”
We had another problem: naming the baby. Especially after my wife had a sonogram and knew that she was carrying a boy, everyone asked, “What are you going to call him?” After our Cretan experience we were sure that the “little light” in my wife’s belly was an Eliott. But we knew what would happen if we answered, “We’re going to call him Eliott.” Everyone would have an opinion. Why don’t we name him after one of our fathers or grandfathers? Don’t we know that we should name him after the saint whose day he was born on? Is this Eliott a living relative and if so, don’t we know it’s bad luck to name him after a living relative? And finally, What in the world would his nickname be? Ellie? Ott? We would be advised to think over our decision. I wanted to avoid all this petty conflict and began to search for good ways to defend our choice. All I can say is, “Thank God for Mongolia!” The Mongols, I learned, give the unborn baby a silly name that can be happily shared with everyone. So we called our baby “the shrimp.” And our friends and families got used to calling him “the shrimp” and kept calling him “the shrimp” to the very day he was born.
As to the birth process itself, I did not want to study a few articles about childbirth and then ask the nurse if this or that stage had been reached – as if I knew what I was talking about.
In Zen we often find that a newcomer will read a few books about Zen and its exalted states of transcendental experience. They may learn of the great mystic tradition in Zen, the Realm of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And then, armed with this information, they relate every dream they had as if it confirms their advancement. Some think that if they take the Bodhisattva Vow to save all sentient beings… well, then… they must be Bodhisattvas. It’s difficult to explain to them that this isn’t how it works. Steps exist on every path, but they are tools for the experienced teacher to use as he or she leads the inexperienced student on the path. And there is always the danger of regarding the steps as the aim and not focusing on the primal goal of the path: finding light and love. This is what the baby is trying to achieve and this is what the Zen practitioner should strive to achieve.
And one day, working at my desk, I received a call from my step father. “It’s time! I’ll pick you up in five minutes and take you to the Birth House.” It took nearly five minutes for me to get it through my head that this was the moment, the end of doubts and questions and possibilities. I ran out to meet my step-father. I was now awake to reality.
The next morning brought a blue and gold day. We had promised to visit Mouni Pofiti Ilyas and to speak to the priest there; and it was a promise we eagerly looked forward to keeping.
We were directed to a mountain lake and told that we could hire a boat and spend some time, just the two of us, on the surface of a blue pearl of a lake in the middle of Crete. We stayed on the water for an hour or so and then continued on to the church that the “pope” had recommended to us.
It was a huge disappointment. We stared up at the church that seemed to have been thrown together in no particular style, banal in the worst way, and half falling apart. A small 19th Century monastery sat grudgingly beside it. Why, we wondered, had the “pope” insisted on his particular monastery. “Probably,” I said, “he was proud of his village and wanted us to know it better.” The shame was that there were so many really beautiful and very well preserved spiritual sites all around us. “We may be wasting our time here,” I decided.
What we were doing, was “judging a book by its cover,” and this is always a foolish thing to do whether we are looking at people or old churches. The things in life that give us the most trouble are those things that we are too quick to dismiss or to overlook, regarding them as useless, unaesthetic, or unimportant. What we should have done was to be positive and trust in the old priest’s judgment – to look for that feature that was so special to him that he wanted us to see it. But instead we superimposed our own values on the building’s appearance and were negative and disappointed.
We walked around the monastery ground and finally found the main entrance, a very large metallic door. As I pushed on it I felt like a child pushing open a museum door. My wife encouraged me to continue, The sun was overhead and very hot and all I really wanted to do was to go back to the cool lake.
But we pushed the door open and to our surprise there was another door just inside the first one. This door was small and we could tell ancient. I had to laugh at our initial foolishness. We opened this interior door and found a lovely little patio – the flowered square that sits in the middle of the monastery complex. There were beautiful trees and flowers everywhere. “It’s like an Eden in here,” my wife said. And all around it was a high wall.
I thought about the habit we humans have cultivated since antiquity: constructing high walls that separate what is inside from what is outside. City states and the walls are our frontiers. Sometimes our homes have walls and guards that permit only the chosen to enter. In religion we see such walls too. They are supposed to enclose a sacred space. But the wall around the outside of this church was difficult to understand.
The interior walls were painted pure white and the sun’s effect on them made them dazzle and scintillate and, frankly, to hurt our eyes. I was still visually adjusting to the place when I saw a big black thing on a wall. At first I thought it was a hole in the wall and then the hole moved. It was a very tall and husky monk and he scowled as he stood up and looked at us. I knew without asking that this was the monk the “pope” said we should meet.
I could appreciate that monks must get sick of tourists who ask the same dumb questions over and over. But this monk was showing more than irritation at being interrupted in whatever it was he was doing. He glared at us and my wife murmured that she was uncomfortable being there. His black robe – which was much like our black ceremonial robes – had blotches of white all over it; and I realized that we had interrupted him while he was painting the wall.
He walked towards us, whispering something into his thick beard. I quickly told him that the village “pope” had sent us. He squinted a moment, doubting us perhaps, and then he told us to wait until he had finished painting the wall and had cleaned his brushes and tools. We waited in the garden, playing with a cat (there are always cats inside a monastery); and then
we walked around looking at the various architectural details that had been hidden from the street. The monastery was far more beautiful than we had imagined.
Finally, he came to us and quite rudely asked, “Before you enter,” he said, “I must ask whether or not you are Protestants.” We said that we were not and explained our backgrounds. He seemed relieved. “Zen,” I said, “Is the mystical path of Buddhism.” He looked at me as if to say, “I know that.” So I stayed quiet. I knew that there were centuries of old conflicts regarding the universality of God’s grace and the manifested energy of the divine. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine how what seems to be trivial is actually sufficiently powerful to split Christianity. In Buddhism we have similar splits about points that seem trivial to others. But I could tell that this priest neither needed nor wanted any comments from me.
Keeping our mouths shut, we followed the monk into the monastery church. Here, again, there were no Byzantine wonders to be seen. It was simply a nice 19th Century church – with one exception. The church displayed many fanions or banners, black and gold decorations that bore the double-headed eagle – which is the Mount Athos’ emblem. This monastery was then a sub-branch of an Athonite monastery, one that was outside the Athos peninsula. I didn’t know that such places existed and realized that the church had to be very special… very holy.
The emblem of the double-headed eagle signifies that the monks practiced “union and silence” throughout their everyday life.
We paid homage to the icon at the entrance, a beautiful icon of Elihya waiting for the coming of Christ at the end of times – which is, of course, similar to the way we await the coming of the Future Buddha, Maitreya. We also bowed before an icon of Mary carrying the Christ in glory, his head at the center of her chest – her heart chakra. Finally, we reverently bowed and acknowledged a variety of holy relics just as we would bow to a stupa. Finally we were directed to sit on a bench near the altar. We took out our Buddhist prayer beads, and silently repeated the name of the Buddha as we circled the beads through our fingers.
The big “bear monk” looked at us strangely. He was astonished by our respect for his icons and what he regarded as their Christian Orthodox practices. He came and sat next to me and said, “Keep repeating the prayer.” I thought this was strange but I did as he asked. Then he said, “You need to be diligent in your practice, more effort is needed.” Now I was clearly confused.
Here was an Athonite monk giving me a critique of a Buddhist practice. He saw my confusion and explained, “Saying the prayer isn’t enough. A prayer has nothing to do with just repeating words.” My own master had often reminded me of not falling into the trap of self-hypnotic trances by getting lost in a mantra. I was not succumbing to that hypnotic attraction, so I looked at the monk, wondering what he was trying to teach me.
“When you pray” he said sternly, “you must keep humble and attentive. When you pray you must pray for all the world, just as when you confess your sins, you must also acknowledge the sins all human beings make, and pray for them, too.” I was really stunned by these words since they could have come from the founder of my own Zen lineage: Ummon or Yun Men. He always insisted that students practice attention in all things they did. Every moment, every action is a mirror of our essential oneness with others. This was the mindfulness, this realization of not being someone who stands out, but is rather humble, a member of the whole of mankind.
The monk pointed at my wife’s swollen belly. “Baby’s name?” he asked.
“Eliott,” I said, and his face lit up joyfully. Suddenly he was not the grumpy, grudgingly tolerant monk I thought he was.
“Eliott’s father and mother,” he said buoyantly as he jumped up, “you come with me.” He led us to the entrance of another small building. He asked us to wait, and then he closed the door. We waited, admiring the simple but beautiful details of the wooden door. Finally he returned. His face was very serious and he carried a small gold cross in his right hand. “This cross,” he said, “is the one that the founder of our monastery always used. It had belonged to one of our saints. Do you wan to receive the blessing?”
I looked at my wife and saw that she was intrigued. We both cautiously answered, “Yes,” like children who are asked, “Can you keep a secret?”
The monk began to utter a few mantras that we did not understand, and then he blessed himself with the cross, just as an esoteric Buddhist would do before “entering the mandala” to establish the “Vajra Wall,” that would purify and create a sacred space.
He turned to me and rubbed the cross on the crown of my head and in the three dantiens, the three more important chakras (head, heart, hara). The he repeated the actions but in reverse, ending at the crown of the head. Finished, he indicated that I step back into the shadow of the church’s tower.
And then his face changed. He said the same mantras, but this time they seemed so full of meaning, as if he were not merely praying, but communicating with someone. He proceeded to perform what in yogic or other mystical traditions is regarded as “opening the channels and chakras” and “attaining the union of opposites in the heart. It looked like a Christian version of accessing the microcosmic orbit. My wife looked radiant as he blessed her and he, too, had that “other worldly” look of exaltation. And I knew that he was connecting with a saint… the prophet Elihya. It scared me a little to think that so much holiness was being heaped on my little son… as if he would be expected to become some kind of Buddhist saint.
Years before, at a crucial point in my spiritual life, my ass was saved by the Zen teachings I found in the Orthodox Christian teachings of the Desert Fathers. Through the Desert Fathers I was able to reconnect with Zen. I’ll always be greatful to Thomas Merton, Gregory Palamas, and an old summary of the Philocalia. But in that church at that moment, I realized that mystical traditions in all the great religions are the same to all true spiritual seekers.
A few days later, we were in the ancient capital, Hania, the very night of Orthodox Easter. All the parish church communities gather to prepare a big altar with an holy image which they surround with flowers and lights. All the church bells ring and everyone carries a candle.
I looked at my wife, her face glowing in the candle light, and thought about the the other living flame, the one that was in her womb. And then I remembered the priest’s insistence that I be humble and attentive and think not only of my child but of all unborn children. I felt a curious connection to the world. It was a very heavy thought! I tried to shake off that sense of responsibility to all children. Even though I knew it would haunt me, for the moment, I tried to brush it aside, and I asked myself, “Good Grief! What on earth are you going to name your next child?”
Still in Crete, we went down to the village and walked across the square and faced the entrance of a small church. The sound of hymns and the scent of incense floated from its open doors, inviting us to enter. We could see that there were flickering candle lights inside the church; but outside, standing in the moonlight, we both felt that strange sensation of kensho, of being between two worlds.
We entered the church and something unimportant caught my attention and I precisely lost… my attention. I drifted past the icons at the entrance, nodding an homage, and then I became aware again of the church. It was very old, but well preserved with beautiful ornaments and murals painted on the walls. My wife was getting a little tired, so we sat in a rear pew.
Suddenly a change in the liturgy occurred. A group of men, local farmers, formed a circle around a high rotating table on which was placed an open book of hymns. Each man took his turn to step forward and sing a part of the hymn in his own style, reading the text or reciting it from memory. We could see that the men’s role in the ceremony was central – their expressions were not the fake piety we often see in paintings – but were rather like the expression of a messenger who has to convey important information. Every few moments in each man’s recitation, he’d glance up at one of the icons as if the message was meant specifically for the spiritual entity that had inspired the artwork. It was as if something inside the man was singing to something inside the statue. I knew that feeling. Often when chanting “Amitabha” – sometimes letting it sound like “Ah-mi-tow-fo” – I’d stare at a statue of the Buddha Amitabha and my voice did not seem to be my voice, but just a sound made by someone inside me that was meant for the marble or the brass to hear.
Behind the main altar, a curtain separated and a man clad in a long ceremonial robe and golden kesa appeared. The words of the hymn seemed to change, as if they were cues to make a certain mudra, chant a certain line, or strike a certain bell. The man, who I assumed was the head priest or, as one villager called him, “the pope,” became an integral part of the whole. The singing circle of men and the man in ceremonial robes could no longer exist without each other. And then the liturgy ended. A blessing was given and the people began to disperse.
It was late and I knew my wife was tired. We had done a lot of walking in the mountains and it had felt good to sit down in the church, especially in that strangely holy atmosphere. We were glad we waited to the end of the ceremony.
As we stood up to leave, one of the men who had been in the circle, spoke to us in English. He welcomed us and explained a few things before he could introduce us to “the pope” who had just removed his golden chuddar or kesa from around his neck. He reverently kissed it and folded it just as any Zen priest would have done with his rakusu or kesa. I watched him and it occurred to me that he was now completely alone… or at least alone with his God. And then I remembered something my grandmother used to say: “Religion is what you do when you are alone.”
The priest approached us with a silent calm, and then he noticed my wife’s swollen belly and he smiled broadly and picked up the wooden cross from his rosary and held it against her belly, whispering a prayer. Then we began to talk. He spoke a bit of English and some words of French that one of the men who had chanted could assist in translating if we needed it.
He asked if we were Orthodox and I told him that I was a Zen Buddhist but that I respected the Orthodox way and knew it quite well because I had practiced in small retreats that had been founded by Hesychast Orthodox monks from a French community associated with an Athonite monastery. Athos, or Mount Athos, is a sacred mountain in Greece; and our conversation quickly began to talk about spiritual practices, the role of Silence, the wonders of repeating certain prayers. To the Orthodox Catholics it was particularly The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I told him that in Buddhism, although it could be expressed in slightly different ways, it was “Namu Amida Butsu” or “Namo Amitabhaya Buddhaya.” We both agreed that there was a inexplicable power that came from repeating these mantras. We also agreed on the meditative peace of Perfect Silence, the silence that comes when body, mind, and breath are in harmony. I quoted Lin Ji, that this state “Gives the mind what it needs to attain Oneness.”
Finally we talked about a modern saint I had come to respect from reading his works. The priest had met this saint several times at Mount Athos. We were speaking of Saint Father Paisos and the priest or “pope” and I became quite animated talking about him. We forgot all about the pregnant woman standing next to us. And then, perhaps because the candles behind her had burned down to a critical level, her shadow was cast on the wall. He and I noticed it at the same time. And he murmured that Mary must have looked the same as the shadow on the wall.
I thanked him and took my wife’s arm and we started to leave the church when he suddenly called out to us, “What have you named your son?” Startled, I said in a voice that was more question than answer, “Eliott?” It was the name my wife and I had recently decided upon.
“Ah yes,” he said. “Did you know that the village’s monastery is called, “Mouni Profiti Ilyas” (Monastery of the Prophet Elyha). Elyha is the root name of Eliott. He added, “You should both visit the monastery and the monk who is in charge of it.” He blessed us and we thanked him and then got in our car and drove to our little inn in the hills.
During the drive, I began to wonder about odd coincidences. What in the world had made us decide to name our baby Eliott? My wife and I both live in Belgium and our main language is French. Eliott isn’t a common name at all here where we live. It was, at best, I had thought, a name we heard on a TV sitcom or in some movie. There were hundreds of names we could have chosen. I knew the name of Saint Father Paisos, but I had not associated it at all with any monastery. As to Athos, that name is well-known as one of the Three Musketeers. We both would have steered clear of giving our boy any name associated with an adventure story. It would have been like calling a child, “Clark-Kent” or “Samson.” So I cannot answer what has become a koan to me. Why did we choose the name Eliott?
The title may seem pedantic, and the subtitle a bit over-reaching; but my series will give you, I hope, a Zen look at giving birth and facing death in a very short life. Maybe these are just my views on “being and non-being” as seen through the astonishing image of giving birth from the “nothing important” act of just having sex.
It won’t be anything earth-shaking. I’ll try to present a series of small articles on moments shared with my wife and first boy.
This introduction will be a small episode in itself. It was inspired by an event I had in the Greek island of Crete in July 2014 when my wife was seven and a half months pregnant.
She puts more wood on the fire, and he serves me another glass of his home-made wine. “Kallo Krassi” (“the wine is good,” one the few things I know in Greek), I answered. Our hosts were the humble owners of a beautiful “Taverna,” a typical kind of cafe in the Cretan village of Rustika.
My wife and I chose the place for two reasons, first, it was recommended, second, it was the only one we could find. We were told the villages in the area were not that beautiful, but that the mountains were charming and very accessible. It looked fine to us. We didn’t want to spend our holiday in this part of the Mediterranean lying on beaches or sitting in night clubs.
No, we wanted to go high in the hills and visit monasteries and holy places. The atmosphere of Orthodox Easter coming a few days later was in the air, and in this very religious, spiritual region, we were absorbed into the atmosphere. Although it was late in her pregnancy, my wife was full of energy and looked forward to driving through the mountains to stop at holy places in our tiny rented car that seemed easily able to drive us anywhere. But this was, after all, our first baby, and despite the energy and the enthusiasm we felt visiting mountainous holy places, we both felt an increasing anxiety about the coming birth. Especially me. It’s scary when you know how many things can go wrong.
When we first entered the Taverna, a bearded old man was setting a fire in a big fireplace and his wife was cleaning tables. As the sun was setting, the place had a reddish and gold glow that made it feel cosy and friendly… and it was quite empty. We sat down and quickly understood that there was no menu and that couple’s English language skills were limited. But their words were said with simple and open smiling faces and we had no problems communicating.
After ten minutes a few locals came in and began drinking and playing instruments. The room was no longer empty. I was feeling happy and thought this Taverna could have been in the Portuguese village I was born in. The same friends gathered toguether after a long day of work; the same reddhish light at the end of the day; and the same folk songs sung and the same instruments played. I’ve lived in Belgium for more than twenty-five years now, I grew up and studied in Belgium, loved and married in Belgium, and always felt at home there. But I remembered the pleasant sense of togetherness I felt in the villages of my Portuguese region of Alentejo.
We ate and drink everything they put on our table. The majority of the dishes were made by them, and the rest came from the surrounding shops. A few hours later we met two English families and shared a few laughs with them; and then everyone prepared to leave. Suddenly our wonderful old host, the old man – whose name I can’t remember – stopped me and my wife and asked us, in a kind of grandfatherly way, “Are you believers in God?”
I asked myself if I should start to tell him the details of my own vision of divinity. I decided not to and simply answered, “Yes, in my own way.” He nodded and told us to pay our respect at the church. “Hurry,” he said, “it’s near the end of the liturgy and ‘the holy words’ that are said then will be a special blessing for your baby.” We quickly went to the old Christian Orthodox Church and as we entered we were consumed by the ambiance of the place. The scent of incense, the light coming through the colored glass, the tinkling of cymbals, and the voices magically chanting. We heard that final prayer, and when we left, we seemed to have left much of the birth anxiety behind us, as if it had been carried up and away by the smoke and the prayers.
The whole experience was a lesson in humility, in the true meaning of happiness. These were ordinary folks, no one of any great importance, yet in their grace and “elegant simplicity” they had become marvelous icons, the living embodiments of people God surely had made in his own image. They had no stratospheric ambitions and were content to live down upon the earth in a very human way of life.
As we drove on, they made me remember my own grand-parents, all of whom worked in jobs that are mostly forbidden today in Europe. They had been child servants in rich homes, miners and farmers. And they all had those smiling faces that were full kindness and compassionate yet could never quite conceal the lives of hardship they had known.
What, I wondered, will I be like when I am as old as they? In our age of smartphones and wifi everywhere, the context is always changing; but what it means to be a human being and to deal with the world shouldn’t be allowed to change. Yet. when so much is instant and anonymous, how do we remain true to ourselves and to others? With the scales always growing longer and more complex, how do we harmonize with this world? More simply, for me at least, I stopped worrying about the baby. It all came down to the big question: what is it going to be like to be a father? Will I fill the role naturally, will I grow into it with time…