Packing in Pennsylvania

I’ve been hanging out with my folks in the tiny (don’t blink) town of Fort Hill, Pennsylvania. It’s about two hours from anywhere, southeast of Pittsburgh. While very rural, it is a beautiful area, and a great place to walk and relax.

Since returning here, I’ve been reducing, reorganizing, and repacking my stuff in preparation for future travels. I’ve traded in the giant suitcase for something more portable, plus a packable bag for gifts and extras. I’ve unloaded my car, and am now free to roam about the planet. At least as long as my savings will allow.

On Friday I’ll catch an early morning flight to London, landing there in the evening, and staying the night with friends until I head once again to a monastery for the following week.

So for now I’ll share a few pictures of the local area. Hope you enjoy them, and I’ll post again in a few weeks from England.

Live Free or Die

I’ve spent the last week at Temple Forest Monastery, nestled in the hills and forests of southern New Hampshire. I rode and drove down with one of the monastics and another lay supporter from Ontario, enjoying coffee and conversation on the way here.

The monastery has only been in existence for a few years, but I’ve been a regular over the last year or so from being in Connecticut. It’s a cluster of farmhouse type buildings on over 240 acres of forests and fields. The sala, or main meditation area, has been converted from the living room of the former owners, and is a beautiful space with 200 year-old beams in the ceiling. The land was set up to hold a communal, intentional living arrangement, but none of the arrangements really took off. Now it’s made a great place for the roughly half dozen monastics who live there. It was wonderful to visit with old friends, and also to see both a visiting monk from Thailand and my teacher who came out to visit from Abhayagiri.

For the next two weeks I’ll be in Pennsylvania with the folks, trying to wrap things up before going overseas for the big journey. I’ll try to post again once I arrive in England.

Creating the sima (ordination platform) boundaries
A visit to Insight Meditation Society

It’s like this, and it all belongs

I’ve spent the last 3 weeks at Tisarana Buddhist Monastery, outside of Perth, Ontario. The monastery is located in a forested, flat area with many bogs and lakes nearby. With all the water sources come friendly mosquitos, black flies, various other flying insects, and ticks, necessitating liberal applications of DEET.

Despite the bugs, it’s been an enjoyable time. The monastery schedule is similar to most: morning service, followed by breakfast, a work period, lunch, and then meditation/practice on one’s own until the evening service. The abbot of the monastery, Ajahn Viradhammo, is very similar to my main teacher, Ajahn Pasanno at Abhayagiri. He also has spent over forty years as a monk in this tradition, and is warm-hearted and easy going.  Coming recently from Abhayagiri, it’s been like staying at “uncle Ajahn Viradhammo’s place”. Although he number of monastics is about half the size of Abhayagiri’s, the warmth of community is no less.

I was picked up at the Ottawa train station by local supporters whom I’ve met at previous gatherings, and given a place to stay for the night (not to mention some delicious Sri Lankan food as well) before being taken out to the monastery the next day. There were several visits by local supporters who offered meals to the monastery throughout my stay here, and it’s great to see the place so well supported.

There’s been abundant wildlife around here, with deer, groundhogs, squirrels, chipmunks raccoons, turtles, birds and frogs. Each morning, we have whippoorwill alarm clocks that go off outside our windows. Although the idea of reaching out one’s window and patting the birds gently on the head seems amusing to think about, there’s no snooze button on the whippoorwill alarm clock. Just as well, since morning meditation starts at 5AM.

I’ve explored the local area on foot (and canoe) and found some beautiful places, but once again it’s been the people who have really made the stay enjoyable. While some who know me may find this hard to believe, I used to be pretty shy, to the point where some mistakenly thought me as snobbish since I didn’t talk much. I think working in medicine, and probably Buddhism as well, has certainly brought me out of that shell to a large degree. Although I’m still quite content to be on my own, more and more I find the joy in making new friends and sharing with others, and this trip is weaving a beautiful tapestry of connections as I go along.

Groundhog and her babies
Inside the sala
Mom and baby
The big old barn
Inside my kuti (cabin)
Loft bed
My kuti (cabin)

Poutine on the Ritz

Landing in Toronto, I happily found that my air bnb place was in walking distance of the train station. Actually walking distance of everything! I had found a room in a high rise condo in downtown Toronto, with spectacular views of the city from the 49th floor. Acrophobics need not apply.

The real estate agent who owns the condo has restaurant suggestions and helpful maps up on the wall, so I decided to try a nearby restaurant serving a Canadian classic: Poutine. For the uninitiated, Poutine consists of French fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curds. The restaurant, Smoke’s Poutine, has variations on a theme, and I went with added mushrooms and peas.

Yup. It’s Poutine. I had to at least try it, but I must say I prefer my French fries with a nice aioli.

I came back to the condo, reveled in having internet access for a while, and went to sleep watching the city lights.

In addition to taking a break from the train, I had decided to stop in Toronto to go see Niagara Falls. So that was the trip for today. The tour I booked picked me up out front, and I joined three other tourists in being taken out and dropped off at various locations around the falls and surrounding area. It’s a beautiful area, and I hope you enjoy the pics.

Tomorrow I’ll get back on the train for a few hours to Ottawa, where I’ll stay with some friends and head out the next day to Tisarana Buddhist monastery. I’ll be there until early June, so no posts for a while. Hope you’re all enjoying your summer!

Well that’s one way to get an upgrade…

Kamloops to Toronto by Via Rail

After the retreat, two local supporters of the monastery very kindly put me up in their home for the night, fed me, and woke up at “Oh-dark-thirty” to drive me to the train station, plying me with a care package of goodies for the road. I continue to feel warm gratitude for all the boundless help I receive on this trip!

From Kamloops to Jasper the train rode through the Canadian Rockies: Swiss-like mountains, rivers, and forests for miles and miles. While clearly visible, most of the views were behind and in between trees. Easy to see with the eye, but it became a comic effort to take pictures of anything in particular, other than trees. It was that way for nearly all of the trip – when one is moving so fast, in the time it takes to turn on the camera and/or focus it on the desired object, the opportunity is gone. I found it was easier to relax and enjoy the view without trying to make it last.

Bit by bit, we became more and more behind schedule waiting for freight trains with priority to pass. We got into Jasper, BC later than expected, which cut our visit time to a brief 45 minutes. Long enough to admire the surrounding mountains and browse a few shops. It looks like it could warrant a future visit.

Back on the train, we had a few hours of light in which to see local wildlife including moose and a coyote. As the sun went down, so did the elevation. By the next morning it was clear we weren’t in BC anymore, with gently rolling hills similar to eastern Montana. Pretty quickly the hills disappeared and transformed to flatter farmland, which continued for the rest of the second day.

I imagined when I booked the train that there would be bathrooms but no showers on the train. I was pleasantly surprised to learn otherwise. The shower is the basic 36″ size, but there is refreshingly hot water. It times out after 30-60 seconds, but can be immediately restarted. The challenge came in staying upright while the train was lurching from side to side, much like what taking a shower in a boat must entail. A boat on very choppy water, that is.

The food on the train has been another pleasant surprise. It comes as a package for those staying in bunks or rooms, and is quite good. There are usually about four choices for each meal, and are way above what you’d expect on a train – more like a  nice restaurant, complete with white tablecloths and the like.

So after some dietary indulgences, lost sleep, and general travel fun, I ended up with a migraine on the second day, and left the dinner table after the first bite. After I lost lunch as well, no less than three management folks came to talk to me about my symptoms. The result was that even though I had no fever and explained these were usual migraine symptoms, I was put in quarantine for 24 hours. Rather inconvenient, but on the plus side I was given an upgrade from my upper berth to a private room, and room service to boot. While I would not advise getting a migraine on a train, it certainly came with advantages! 

On the third day the landscape had transformed to boreal forests and lakes, which continued throughout the day as we rode through eastern Saskatchewan and Ontario. We ended up in Toronto about 3 hours late, just after noon.

All in all, it was a good trip, although if I did it again I’d do it a little differently. I’d spend a night or two in Jasper and Winnipeg to break up the constant sitting. I’d pack more clothes (some a little dressier than jeans and a t-shirt for the dining room) with me vs in my checked luggage that I didn’t have access to. And I’d spring for the single room.

While it was a surprise not to have Internet, especially when I had planned to use it for correspondence, its absence wasn’t the end of the world. It also gave me more opportunity to just sit and enjoy the view, which seems to be what the train experience is all about.

Ontario muskeg
Trees again!

Watching the Breath

My latest leg of this extended journey was a short retreat at Sitavana Forest Monastery, south of Kamloops, BC. I went with a group of monastic and lay friends from the Portland/White Salmon area, and it was lovely to catch up and practice with each other.

Sitavana, more commonly known as “Birken”, is more a retreat center than a typical monastery. Similar to other Thai Forest monasteries, it is remote. Tucked away near Roche Lake Provincial Park, it’s surrounded by forests, marsh land, and pastures, and is very quiet and isolated. It is also run purely on a donation basis like other monasteries. But unlike other places, the interior has sort of a “five star monastic” feel, with very simple yet beautiful decor. The other difference is that most monasteries include a morning work period that lasts until lunchtime, but here visitors are given shorter tasks in order to offer more meditation time. The community of live-in volunteers provide the majority of work. There are benefits to the other style of monasteries, but this place offers a unique opportunity for extended meditation and other time. So we had ample time to enjoy the gorgeous weather, just relax, go for long rambles, feed the marmots, or just sit and watch the breath.

Usually when one sits down for meditation, the mind is like that college roommate that just Won’t. Shut. Up. On and on, nattering on about this and that, usually nothing important although it may seem earth-shattering at the time. It rarely stops. With practice and the right conditions, focusing on the breath gets the concentration needed just to get some space from that annoying roommate. At least an adjacent room. And the peace provided from doing so is quite a joyful experience.

Also joyful was reconnecting with friends whom I haven’t been able to see much of lately. I’ve seen how our lives have gone on without each other, but recently we’ve been able to share our experiences and the connection that remains through time and space. This sense of community, of connection, has been a recurrent theme for me (or that roommate). There’s even a part of me that has thought about just ditching the trip and settling down. When I originally planned this trip, I sort of hoped that it would get the travel bug “out of my system”, although I never expected it to happen so quickly. While I don’t see myself as being someone content to completely stay in one place all the time (and rest assured dear readers, this trip will still happen), I am beginning to feel the draw of having a place to come back to.

I am currently riding on the Trans-Canadian railway, which surprisingly, does not have wifi. So my next posting will be when I stop in Toronto. See you then!

Abiding in Hope

Hope is a little town that time, and seemingly everyone else, forgot. It’s home to just under six thousand people, and nestled in the Cascade mountains, bordered by the Fraser and Coquihalla rivers. Quite the beautiful place. Its claim to fame, apart from being rich fodder for numerous puns, is that the first Rambo movie was filmed here. It’s not exactly a cultural Mecca. Mostly it’s just been a great place to walk and relax.
It hasn’t been without entertainment, however. Hope’s accommodations are all 50’s era motels, and staying in the highest rated lodgings still means staying in a 50’s area motel. While the interior of my room has been updated, the depth of the walls has not, and I get a front seat concert of all the things that go on in hotel rooms. It’s good prep for India, and just part of the adventure of traveling in general.
One of the reasons that I enjoy traveling is that it takes one out of their comfort zone, and forces the mind to either adapt to new ways of thinking or doing, or end up doing a lot of suffering. It’s very difficult to be content while insisting the world conforms to “the way I’ve always done it”. So in traveling, one learns a vast number of ways to see and do things, and becomes more at home in the world, wherever it may be.
So I hope you enjoy the pictures, and I’ll see you next when I’m beyond Hope!-D

The end in the beginning

This one’s for you, Sue!-)