22 dec 08 Buddhist Birthday (revisited)

If we were going to spend a month in two predominantly Buddhist countries, I thought I might attempt to understand the local religion and maintain some sort of spiritual practice during our trip. I read Peace is Every Step by Thich Naht Hanh several years ago and re-read it sometime in the last few years when the non-peaceful 'diplomacy' of our country was becoming personally unbearable. Last summer I studied a small pamphlet, The Mindful Quaker by Valerie Brown, for an introduction to Buddhism from a fellow Quaker. For this Southeast Asia sojourn, I brought Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Naht Hanh along in the hopes of learning about Buddhism and bringing some new perspective to my own religious tradition.

My birthday fell on a laid-back travel day in Luang Prabang in Laos, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its many Buddhist temples and pagodas. We were with four friends, two couples, from Talkeetna. The guys had signed up for an all-day cooking class; we women planned to relax, take care of some travel logistics, eat a fabulous lunch, and get a massage. I slept late so had the guest house dining room table to myself for morning coffee. That's when I read the introduction to Living Buddha, Living Christ. I met the rest of the group at a restaurant nearby on the Mekong River for breakfast and then had the rest of the morning to myself. I found a large rock under a tree on the Royal Palace grounds -- a quiet spot for meditation, reading, and reflection.

Thich Naht Hanh's openness to understanding Christianity helped me to be open to absorbing Buddhist principles. He drew parallels between the life of Buddha and the life of Jesus; this reminded me of what draws me to Quakerism. Jesus was fully open to the Light of God, similar to Siddharta's achievement of enlightenment. Jesus used that Divine guidance to determine how he led his life and how he treated others. For me, religion should be about how we live our lives on Earth, not about some reward in the next life. Buddhist precepts, principles, and practices could help me be more open to the Light, bring me closer to nirvana, and transform me into the person I'd like to be.

The Laos people and the beautiful city of Luang Prabang embodied many of the lessons that TNH wrote about -- generosity, loving-kindness, mindfulness. We rose early several mornings to watch the monks walk through town to receive food from the faithful. The giving touched me more than the receiving, which was done humbly and silently. The local Buddhists provide all the food that the monks eat. Should they sleep late one day, some monks would have less rice that day. Would there be hunger in this world if we all felt such responsibility to ensure that our neighbors were fed each and every day?

The Laos people are often called laid-back (I used the term myself in emails from the road), but that description ignores the spiritual foundation that enables these people to be so warm, welcoming, and peaceful despite a very tumultuous recent history. Paul summarized Buddhism as "Suffering happens. Be happy." I'm hoping that accepting more of Life with that thought can help me continue on my spiritual sojourn and that my 43rd birthday is the start of a more enlightening year.

I'm working my way through the 1200 photos I took in Laos and Vietnam. I'll be posting them on my Picasa site by theme and location as I go.

** Click here to see photos of Luang Prabang **

5 December 2008 World on Edge

On Friday, my friend Rose and I snowshoed the new singletrack trails at Bicentennial Park near my house. A foot of snow fell last week so we planned to pack the trails for winter bikers. A windstorm in early October felled trees all over the Hillside of Anchorage. Singletrack Advocates, the group that built these new trails, has cut out trees that completely blocked trails. Those overhanging and somewhat passable have just been marked with some reflectors (see the gray one on the left side of the photo?). The number of trees down is somewhat hard to comprehend.

I've tried to imagine what the forest must have sounded like that night, with 100 mph wind gusts and 40' - 50' spruce, birch, and cottonwoods cracking and crashing to the ground. In some places, like the one shown here, the entire root system (of 2 trees!) just lifted from the ground and went with the tree. Roots in Alaska stay within the top soil layer where the ground is thawed more of the year and where water is more readily available. Rose said that with some of the smaller trees, they were able to tilt the entire assemblage back into place.

Sometimes our lives or how we view the world gets turned on edge and we aren't sure how to set it upright again. That's happening to a friend of mine who I work with. The matter isn't life-or-death, but a matter of friendship. She thought that one of the guys she supervises was her friend and that they worked well together. He's leaving for another job and told her boss and the director that it's because working for my friend is difficult. Despite their request, and the assumption that there was a true friendship here, he refuses to approach my friend himself. She feels like she's been "kicked in the gut."

How can this situation be set right? I think it's easier to place small trees back in place. Despite the fact that we're all human, we tend to forget that other people are fragile, too. Feelings can be hurt and one of the worst is to feel betrayed by a friend. We don't need to coddle each other, but honesty with respect and sensitivity can deepen our friendships and make us, and our friends, better people. So please be honest and kind with yourself and your friends.