Cycles: 2019 Meditation retreat

sunset with different hues with building in foreground

For a third time I went on retreat to Birken, a Buddhist monastery in the Thai Forest tradition. I try to do retreats like this annually as a way to reset my meditation practice. Going up on Friday, we stayed three nights and enjoyed complete silence, 45m meditation sessions at least twice daily, and lots of time in our rooms for introspection. I spent most of my alone time reading The Just King (review forthcoming). However the first day and a half I actually just spent sleeping! It took time simply to drain all the emotional stress of a busy 2019.

Since it had been nearly two years since my last visit, I was surprised to see so much change. There are newly transformed buildings at Birken, including a new studio and editing room (YouTube channel here) and a brand new state-of-the-art Abbot’s kuti (a meditation hut) with a 40 foot walking meditation path and super-insulated for the cold winters. The Abbot Ajahn Sona has been known for designing and building zero-impact “green monastery” facilities for cold weather climates.

The monastery is completely off the grid and not easy to get to. They added a new battery station and solar panels to the roof of the office building. Apparently the monastery generates more power than they can use in the summer months.

building with solar panels on roof
The office building’s solar-panelled roof provides electricity to all the buildings on the property.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Birken’s wonderful meditation facilities. The main sala, with its cool, reflective black floors, is a wide open space that facilitates the cultivate of a wide open mind.

mural of Buddha with rays of light emanating from him, and reflection on floor

Going down into the lower level to the eating area, my companion exclaimed, “Well! This place is special!” (in an awed whisper of course!). The eating area is adjacent to the walking meditation space, lined with ferns and vines to evoke an image of a walking meditation path in a Thai jungle. Amongst the plants are a number of wooden pillars adorned with beautifully lettered tiles — inspiration for introspection.

A series of concrete paths lined with plants and pillars. The pillars have words on them.
The walking sala

The words on the pillars are the Ten Pāramitā – or 10 Perfections – a list of characteristics that will help you on your way. Although meant for those pursuing a spiritual path, I think they could apply to lots of endeavours in life. Simply, the list is:

  • dāna – generosity
  • sīla – virtue
  • nekkhamma – renunciation
  • paññā – wisdom
  • viriya – energy
  • khanti – patience
  • sacca – truth
  • adhitthāna – resolve
  • mettā – loving-kindness
  • upekkhā – equanimity

These are real basics of Buddhism, but are useful reminders. And that is what retreat is about: periodically disconnecting from the noisy world and spending some time reminding yourself about what is important. You take that back to your daily life and practice at a higher level, until the daily noise gets too overwhelming and you struggle to stay on that straight and narrow path. Then you go on retreat again, and the cycle repeats. It is simple, but a very useful technique for self care, whether your path is Buddhist or not.

Delhi and Agra — The Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort

geometric patterns of cieling of gate to Taj Mahal

I had thought the roads in Mumbai were bad. The streets of Agra are less developed than Mumbai, and much less than Delhi. The current capital had the smooth, well-maintained roads befitting the nation’s capital of one of the world’s nuclear powers. The streets of the old Mughal capital of Agra were more reminiscent of a developing nation — an irony considering the Mughal empire was known for its amazing infrastructure. The (busy, of course) streets were lined with huts, piles of bricks and garbage strewn about. Holy bulls moved nonchalantly through traffic from garbage pile to garbage pile to feed.

Traffic jam in Agra

It took about three hours to get to Agra from Delhi. I had flown into Delhi from Mumbai the night before on a late flight and stayed in the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in my life. But it was very late and I could not enjoy the amenities since I had to be up at 6:30am to drive to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. People in Mumbai told me that the road would be nice since it was a new highway, and it was. Although it took an hour of driving through dense fog to get out of Delhi, once we got on the highway it was smooth sailing.

Rear lights of vehicles barely visible in fog
Dense fog while leaving Delhi

The highway was surprisingly empty. Not only was there nearly no traffic (which was surprising enough in India!) but the countryside was empty too. For a country with 1.2 billion people I was expecting more density, something more akin to driving between cities in the population corridors of Japan… each city and town just sort of melds into one another with no break. On the road to Agra I stared out of the car window watching endless farmland and tiny villages pass by. Vehicles passed by us as well. Apparently our hired vehicle had a speed inhibitor limiting us to 80kmh, a common thing for commercially licensed passenger vehicles.

The land was flat and green. Rice paddies and mustard seed fields were divided by deserted single lane dirt roads. Occasionally we saw Hindu temple, or a Muslim mausoleum. Every so often there was a roadside stop with a gas station and some food amenities. We stopped at a nice one that was decorated “Chinese” style and had veggie sandwiches and masala chai served in traditional clay cups. I walked around the corner to the washroom and saw that there was a Starbucks… even here in the middle of nowhere.

Entrance of a Starbucks Coffee shop
A Starbucks in “Chinese” style

After a while the verdant fields gave way to the concrete interchange of dusty Agra, the old capital of the Mughals, Islamic conquerers with roots to the Mongol hordes who ruled India from the mid-16th century until being in turn conquered by the British in the mid 19th century. Agra is partially bisected by the Yamuna river, which wends and winds its way through the plain, and whose shores are decorated with spectacular Islamic architectural treasures. Today we would visit the two most famous.

Continue reading “Delhi and Agra — The Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort”

Mumbai — Roads, Rails, and Water

Swallowing a malaria pill, I was enjoying the “inflight entertainment” of scores of seagulls flying alongside our ferry to Elephanta Island. The ferry was laden with Indian tourists going to see the “city of caves.” It took about an hour for the little boat to make the 12 kilometres to the island, puttering out from the Gateway of India, past the naval base with its aircraft carrier museum, weaving through dozens of ships at anchorage, and finally past an oil terminal before docking at an ancient stone jetty.

A small ferry in the foreground, with shore in background
Ferry to Elephanta. Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway to India in background. (Photo credit to PB, my traveling companion)

Being on the Arabian Sea, Mumbai has been an important port city for millennia, an important crossroads for products, cultures, religions and empires from East to West and back again. This fact excited me the most about the opportunity to visit India.

Continue reading “Mumbai — Roads, Rails, and Water”

Mumbai — Opportunity and Diversity

Andheri is a neighbourhood of northern Mumbai, just past the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, a beautiful wood-panelled facility where white paisleyed pillars gently swirl up to the ceiling covered in a pattern meant to resemble the feathers of a peacock, the national bird of India.

I had been in Mumbai for four days and was standing on the roof of an office park in Andheri, looking out at the surrounding hills. Green trees grow tall making the hills look like lush jungle, even though underneath that canopy are millions of people, a tangle of traffic, and blocks and blocks of factories. Andheri is home to the SEEPZ Special Economic Zone. Every factory here in these 100+ acres are building products that can never be sold in India. The building I stood on held software companies, all providing services overseas. The pattern of greenery was occasionally broken by the pastels of a slum complexes, boxy rooms stacked upon one another, each a different colour, all clinging to the hill. 40% of Mumbai’s 18 million population live in slums.

Andheri from rooftop
Continue reading “Mumbai — Opportunity and Diversity”

Kashgar, 15 years later

I have been thinking of this very impressive New York Times photo essay of Kashgar, and how it has changed in the 15 years since I visited. Kashgar is an old Silk Road city in the westernmost reaches of Xinjiang province in Chinese Turkestan. A friend and I had crossed the Taklamakan Desert on a 36 hour sleeper bus journey where we were given bunks in the front (since the back is where the goats and chickens went). We used Kashgar as a base to travel up the Karakoram highway, through the breath-taking Pamir Plateau, to the Pakistani boarder checkpoint.

In those days, the city was divided by the main road, with mostly Uighur communities in the north, and Han in the south. After days of eating mutton, we crossed the highway to the south to have some “Chinese” food for a change. Our beautiful hotel used to be the Russian Consulate during the days of the Great Game, romanticized by one of my favourite authors Peter Hopkirk. I remember walking through the old town, the narrow streets and clay multi-story homes transported me back to a different era… something like 1001 Nights. According to the Times, these buildings are being destroyed by the Chinese government as the state increases the surveillance burden on the Uighur population. Even 15 years ago I thought Beijing’s presence was overwhelming. The People’s Square, where there was a Nowruz festival being held with all sorts of Uighur folk dances, is overlooked by the second largest statue of Mao in all of China. We saw government propaganda written in the Uighur Arabic alphabet on wide red banners strung across overpasses. That was nothing compared to what is happening now. Watch and listen to the photo essay and see what Kashgar has turned into, and read this Twitter thread by one of the journos for some behind the scenes material.

screencap of the linked tweet from the NY Times

Some pics from Kashgar in 2004

Calming on the surface – A review of Hawaiʻi

waikiki during the day

I stare at the waves.

At 5am, while the kids sleep, I drink coffee on the 24th floor balcony afforded a spectacular view of Waikiki Beach. It is meditative. I breathe in the ocean’s breath on my face. I have just turned 40. The vast ocean is my lungs, the waves my breath, slowly undulating. My computer and work are 4500 kilometres away. It has been six years since I have had totally disconnected vacation.

The mottled colour of the morning ocean washes up on the shore. The formative volcanic crater Diamondhead rises in the distance, imposing yet spent. On the water’s surface is a peppering of early morning surfers, at the mercy of nature. Under, are the dark grey blotches of dead coral, at the mercy of man.

I stare at the waves. Continue reading “Calming on the surface – A review of Hawaiʻi”

There is no “I”

At 6:15 the bell tolls. You have already been awake for a half hour. Anticipation? Slowly, you pad out of your cell at the Birken Forest Monastery, walking over the matted straw floor and into the carpeted hallway. You peek down into the meditation hall from this second-floor hallway to see if anyone is already in there. A few are. Anticipation.

The meditation hall from the second floor hallway

Down the wooden staircase to the first floor, you alight onto the tiled entrance way. Many wear socks, but the monastics don’t, so you don’t. You open one of the double doors to the sala and give a short, Japanese-style bow to the five-foot-tall statue of the Buddha. You are still unsure of the etiquette in a Thai Forest monastery, so you stick with what you know.

Along the back wall of the sala are the large, square mats, and the round, stuffed meditation cushions. Taking a set, you settle down on the black, marble(?) floor. Quarter-lotus is all your poor inflexible legs are capable of, but yesterday you could only do Burmese style, so you feel a little sense of accomplishment. Resting your hands near your belly, thumbs lightly touching, you gently close your eyes and (try to) calm your mind.
Continue reading “There is no “I””

The National Mall, Washington DC

I am travelling in the capital region of the United States right now on business. I took a day to walk the National Mall in Washington, DC. It was a gorgeous day, sunny but not hot. The wind made it deceptively cool, and I got a terrible sunburn.

I walked the 5km from Union Station to the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and finally to the Lincoln Memorial. The National Mall is massive. This is America doing BIG at its best. The architecture, design and sheer size of the monuments is awe-inspiring.

satellite photo with line representing walking path
My walking path at the Mall

The Capitol Building had some protestors on the lawn. I didn’t get close enough to find out what they were protesting — being a foreign citizen I didn’t want to get swept up in anything. I was shocked at the size of the Washington monument. I thought that it was just an obelisk. The thing is massive and has an elevator inside! The thought put into the design of the Reflecting Pool and the Korean War monument is amazing. Below is just a few of my pictures. You can see all 45 photos and videos on Flickr →

From the Lincoln Memorial, I took a quick taxi to the White House. There were lots of school groups around on the day. You cannot get tours of the White House as a Canadian anymore. I walked around the north side and the south side, and then to the White House Visitor center, which is open to the public. On my way I was stopped by some very aggressive yelling police (actually, pretty much all the police in DC were like that). Everyone on the sidewalk was told to freeze while they blocked off the roads for some sort of presidential motorcade. Of course, everyone including me took video. I am not sure if Trump was in that car or not, but it was quite an entourage.

DC is a really nice looking city, much cleaner than most of the US cities I have been to. Mind you, I was only in the hipster Adams Morgan neighbourhood, with its tree-lined streets and classic buildings, and downtown in the capitol area. Still, it was pleasant. Contrast it with Baltimore, which I visited the following day. I grabbed a taxi from the train station and we were heading downtown. I could see a massive building with late 19th century copper roofing, similar to the parliament buildings in Ottawa. I asked the driver what that building was — literally the first interesting building I saw — and he replied simply, “Jail.”

I am staying in the inner harbour in Baltimore and it is all under contruction/gentrification right now. Red brick of the old industrial town is giving way to glass facades. It isn’t very reminiscient of The Wire at all, and I am glad for it.

Baltimore downtown

Best of 2016

2016 has been a tumultuous year, for both the entire world and for me personally. I have categorized some of the best hits and big changes below into three categories: Life, Posts and Media.

Life

Death and rebirth

This year we had a cancer scare in my family which made me put community activity on hold for a few months while we waited for test results (maybe I should write a post about how we were totally failed by the Canadian medical system, and had to get this sorted out in Japan?). I had to leave ORCA, which was sad because I think they do important work. I stopped playing D&D. There were many serious talks.

However, two good things came out of this: first, it doesn’t look to be cancer. Second, it made me rethink my life. What they say about near-death experiences is true.

New job

After 4 years in startupland, 3 of which dealing with adtech, I finally moved on to a new, more stable (and less morally hazardous) work environment. My new company is in a massive growth phase, so I get to use a lot of my startup skills. The nice thing is they have lots of customers and resources and experienced executives, making it a much easier to execute.

Vegetarianism

On December 28th 2015, I decided to stop eating meat. A year has passed and I am still not eating it, and am pretty happy about the decision. I wrote about why at the 6 months mark →

Travel

I had the opportunity to visit Texas for the first time, and learned a bit about that state’s history, and of America’s as a whole. My wife and I also took a getaway to the Sunshine Coast, where we could delve a little into BC’s aboriginal history.

This year we took two trips to Japan (I am still on one as I write this). Since we stay in Kyoto, the city of temples, I took both opportunities to explore Japanese Buddhism. Here are a couple of posts exploring the issue:

Public appearances

Early this year I did a couple of radio interviews: one on downsizing and one on Syrian refugees. I was on a public panel about transportation. Lastly, and totally randomly, I was on local TV news.

Posts

blog-posts-by-year-2009-2016

This year was a good one for blogging. I have 54 posts (including this one) for 2016, which is an uptick over recent years. Starting a newsletter to help people who do not use Twitter or RSS to help keep up gave me some more motivation to write, holding me accountable to a schedule. Also, I hit 500 posts this year since starting in early 2009. Lots of introspection about how my thinking has changed over the years here.

Standout posts for the year include:

Media

53 films

The Force Awakens (second viewing) was my first film of 2016. Rogue One (first viewing) was my last. Well, the first 45 mins of it anyways, since my (not quite) 5 year old got a little too scared and we had to leave. I am sure I will get another opportunity to see it.

In February and March I went on a tear and watched a bunch of Oscar-related films which was just about the deepest, non-Marvel non-superhero, non kids watching I did. Standout films include:

62 books

This year I set out to discover new podcasts and Great courses, so I originally set my Goodreads challenge low, to like 30 books. I was still reading a lot, so I kept having to up the challenge. But now when I look back, 20 of those 62 books were graphic novels (including the 8 volume series on the Buddha reviewed here), which means I actually didn’t hit my final goal of 45 books. Also, only 10 of those 42 books were in text form, making my audiobook ratio 76%, which is pretty high, even for me.

I read a lot on Syria, about Marxism and leftist politics, and a lot about Buddhism this year. It is a reflection of the ever-changing perspectives and interests of someone trying to live the examined life (or write the examined blog at least).

My standout books this year are as follows: