This is an article about taking off and getting far far away from home; about learning to be more self-aware; about coming full circle but vastly changed. In startup parlance, one of those moments in life where I pivoted myself.
It’s also an excuse to show off an article that I wrote and got published by the Straits Times from way back. Hah. Throwback to 25 September 2007. A re-post from the past, for personal archive, for memory’s sake, since the original link no longer exists.
Buddhism in Bordeaux
Smack in the middle of French wine-growing territory are two monasteries that teach you a thing or two about life – and yourself
By Jason Leow
Straits Times, Life, 25 September 2007
My family and friends thought I had lost it. ‘Yes, that’s right. Buddhist monasteries in France,’ I told them, referring to my recent vacation plans. My mother worried that I might go on to become a monk.
My plans were to spend a month in the Nalanda monastery of Tibetan-Buddhist origin near the city of Toulouse, and another three months in Plum Village, a Vietnamese-Zen monastery-cum-practice centre near Bordeaux.
It did sound like a strange travel plan since there was hardly any ‘travelling’ involved. But I had grown tired of whirlwind city-hopping, where only a day or two was spent in one place.
I felt this did not truely plug into the heart and soul of the country’s culture, lifestyle and people.
I had always been drawn to all things French and country. Coupled with a curiosity of the simplicity of monastic life, I saw that a monastery stay might be just the ticket to accomplish what I yearned for.
It was through word of mouth and much good fortune that I came across Nalanda monastery and Plum Village. Finding out more and arranging the stay was much easier thanks to their websites and email links.
Rollin’ good times
Imagine 108 sheets of A4 paper, with Tibetan Buddhist prayers printed on them. Every day, I had to roll them in a particular manner to yield a tidy and tight bundle. Many such rolls would later be stuffed inside a huge Buddha statue housed inside a new temple being built beside the older one.
Such was the volunteer work – among various other types like construction and making religious artefacts – that the Nalanda monastery was offering.
The Buddhist monks were very gracious and kind to open their doors to live-in volunteers like me. I was also given three meals a day, and allowed to meditate with these disciplined monks who were up before dawn for meditation and chanting.
But these monks of European birth did take a day off on Sunday, when the gong sounded only at mealtimes.
Most of the days at Nalanda focused around prayers, chanting and scripture study. I was very inspired by the simple life, and the peace exuded by the temple grounds and even the monks themselves.
And the world beyond was also breathtaking. The farmlands blazed in autumnal colours, with corn fields yellowing in the sun, cattle pastures so green and luminous that they resembled golf courses and clear skies of such a deep blue it felt as if the ocean had become sky.
Much inspiration also came from working, living and eating with the residents of the monastery. Everybody had a unique story of how he ended up there.
Many were taking time off from their regular lives. Some were testing the waters of monkhood by staying in the monastery for an extended period.
One guy flew in from London to stay for a month. For the whole period, he devoted himself to making tsa-tsas, little plaster models of various Buddhist deities.
He said his teacher had asked him to make half a million of them.
However, even though there was no shortage of colourful characters, living with them within the tight confines of a monastery could be trying at times.
Most of us volunteers had personal and cultural habits which were fodder for disagreements. But issues were swiftly and amicably handled, and there was little room for anger to fester.
That sense of community living provided the greatest lesson I learnt in my month there. Bidding my new friends goodbye, I was on the road again, to Plum Village near Bordeaux.
Hot tea, cold days in Plum Village
Before I left Singapore, my friends had teased me about the location of Plum Village.
‘A Buddhist monastery near Bordeaux, right in the middle of France’s famous wine country? Are you sure you cannot drink wine in the monastery?’ they asked.
True enough, the drive up to the monastery is filled with postcard-pretty scenes of vineyards on green rolling hills, punctuated by rustic stone farmhouses or the occasional cow.
The main practice in Plum Village is a Vietnamese blend of Zen Buddhism and drinking alcohol is not ‘encouraged’ within the grounds.
But no one, not even the monks, will stop you if you did. However, they would ask that if one had to drink, one should do so in complete awareness.
The idea is that as you develop this awareness in every facet of your daily life, you slowly realise how some lifestyle behaviours are bad for you.
During my three-month stay, I met many people from other religions and their presence proved that different belief systems could co-exist.
But the local weather was hard on me. The wine country in this part of south-west France seemed to host a winter that was both cold and damp at the same time, with the wetness seeping through the layers of jackets and T-shirts.
But everyone was kind and gentle almost to a fault, leaving me in disbelief in the early days of my stay. The many tea breaks with my new friends, all of us sitting in a circle sharing hot tea and biscuits while the outside cold frosted everything, were unforgettable.
Tea-drinking was just one of the many ways in which we celebrated life every day at Plum Village.
Watching the dawn break after morning meditation, counting the innumerable stars on a clear, moonless night or taking a slow, silent afternoon walk with the trees as company were the little things which gained a whole new light during my stay there.
Indeed, gaining that perspective was the most valuable gift I received from this journey.
It gave me a fresh pair of eyes which I knew would allow me to return home and see the country afresh – like a traveller in a foreign land.
And for the first time in all my travels, I had never felt more excited about returning home.