100th Cloud Mountains Post!

Thank you for reading the 100th post of thecloudmountains blog! It has been over eight months since Graham and I left Tassajara Zen Mountain Center at the beginning of last fall, and we have had such a variety of experiences that it is difficult for me to even fathom how to describe my feelings about this trip. But what I can say is that although the blog has often (usually) been horribly out of date <sorry!> and even with Graham now back in Canada (and my continuing on solo), the 100th post of a blog (especially for someone who is near-phobic about writing) is a cause for rejoicing! And what better way to celebrate than to take the opportunity to say THANK YOU to the myriad beings who have given us their love and support on this amazingly wonderful, nourishing, inspiring, crazy, heart-wrenching, surreal, mysterious, and often difficult journey far out and away from the mountain monastery of Tassajara. This includes so many, many people: from our Zen teachers who gave their warm encouragement to take this trip in the first place, to the generous friends and family who have offered the financial support necessary to even get out of the country… from all the incredibly loving people who have so warmly welcomed us into their homes and treated us like their own family, to those who have been following our travels from afar, sometimes silently, and sometimes with a little message here and there letting us know that we haven’t been forgotten… Thank you to all of you! We have indeed been the beneficiaries of so much love and care throughout these travels to distant lands, as evidenced by the 99 posts that have come thus far…

It was a joy to search through some of the earlier photos as I wanted to find an appropriate photo to post for the occasion, and… whew, there were so many! But here is one I found:Graham and Mako GasshoThank you for following! Thank you for the encouragement! Thank you for appreciating! Thank you for keeping in touch! And thank you for all of the many forms of nourishment and kindness that have taken us this far…


This post is a tribute to my sweet little friend Osheen, whom I first met at a zen retreat in Tiruvannamalai this past October that I did with her parents, Joshu and Nirmal.

On one of our first encounters she showed me her Kali impersonation as well as a terrific and creepy trick to do with your eyelids:

And she also does a pretty good Hanuman:

Osheen Hanuman

While I was visiting in Nedumangad she developed an interest in photography (and my digital camera), and here are but a few of the fruits of that interest:

Coimbatore Cotton

One of the many things we did together as a group was to visit the cotton textile industry of Coimbatore (one of the main industries in Tamil Nadu). Our wonderful host Shailajah arranged for us to receive a tour of the cotton manufacturer, Sri Varaderaja Textiles. The woman who runs the company is a good friend of Shailajah’s and treated us all to tea and snacks after our extensive tour. Our recently departed Nada Odar also rejoined us at the cotton manufacturer that afternoon. Below are some photos from that day-trip. You will notice that the manufacturers use both high-tech machines (with laser quality control!) as well as older manual machines. Our guide informed us that the higher quality cotton is processed using the older technology… No surprises there after seeing the beautiful processes involved!

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Hurricane Sandy

Lavallette postcard boardwalkMy childhood summer home of Lavallette, New Jersey sits on a narrow stretch of barrier peninsula, occupying about one mile out of a total 20 miles long. The width of the town where my grandparent’s house was built is only three blocks wide (from the Atlantic ocean to the Barnegat Bay). On October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy devastated the northeastern seaboard of the United States and many of the towns on the Barnegat peninsula, including Lavallette. Continue reading

Diwali in Periya Palipattu Village

During sesshin Graham and I made a new friend outside of the ashram while sitting on a rock gazing at the scenery. Fifteen year old Joseph Stalin is from the nearby Periya Palipattu village and goes to school in nearby Tiruvannamali where he learns English and enjoys the Social Sciences and Tamil best. Continue reading

Manikka Swami

Today we went up the Arunachala mountain to see the caves where Ramana Maharshi sat (see Arunachala post). After we walked back down we went to see a swami that Shoukath and Shindo knew: Manikka Swami. He offered us coffee and cookies as well as a simple but delicious lunch. We stayed for several hours as he told us many stories and answered our various questions (with Shindo translating for us). We asked him about his practice and what schedule he kept, and then he read to us from a  very old Tamil Nadu text of the writings of the ancient Saint Vellore. All the while monkeys kept trying to sneak up to us from the rooftops, but the Swami’s friend kept chasing them away with a bamboo stick, which he rapped sharply on the corrugated tin roof. Continue reading

Meeting with Theological students in Tiruvannamalai

Today we went out to lunch in the town and then had an impromptu meeting with a group of Theological students about Buddhism. These impromptu meetings seem to be the norm here, and if you think you are going to stick with a particular plan for the day… you are just wrong! We ended up getting into a very lively conversation with them, and as soon as I can figure out how to upload a video at reduced size I will post a nice piece with Paul talking to them about what it means to be a priest. You can imagine that Shindo, Judith, Ann, Graham and I were all listening intently!

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Saints at Arya Vaidan Ayurvedic Hospital in Mangarai

Some of the saints at our Ayurvedic hospital, Birth Centennial Arya Vaidan in Mangarai, just outside of Coimbatore:

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More about our experience soon, I hope! The internet connection here outside of Tiruvannamalai is not so good, but here is the address where we will be at least for the next 20 days, until the 15th of November:

Sri Anantha Niketan

Periya Paliyapattu village

Pachal Post

Chengam Taluk

Tiruvannamalai – 606 704

Tamil Nadu, INDIA

Day One – Bangkok


09/26/12 Bangkok

We stepped inside the Guest House just as the first drops of rain started to fall. Big thick drops smacking fat leaves. ImageLightning and thunder so bright and loud that it left us looking around expecting some other signs of its awe. We are coming out of monsoon season and this is the normal affair. Normalizing. A sweet brother and sister own the Villa Guest House; relaxed, easy to smile with crinkles at the corners of their eyes. All the wood in this house is teak; the old floors and stairs are solid ten inch planks worn smooth with age. ImageWalking on them, there is no sound, just your feet. There are no windows, just open shutters and screens. Our room is spacious and looks out onto the courtyard where the garden is lush  with hanging orchids and large leafed things that just can’t help but grow; what a contrast from Tassajara, where the land moves so slowly in the dry summers. Sounds idyllic…and… we are still in Bangkok – the sound of the city is close, the feral cats are brawling and everyone, it seems, wants our money.

We slept on and off with the sound of the rain. A couple of times I woke and sat upright. Breathing in and breathing out. Here is the body, here is the mind: in the same place it’s always been. I am not in Bangkok, I am not at Tassajara, I have left home and it is right here. Back to sleep – are they eating oryoki right now?Image

I had an idea about day one before it started – calm and tentative with short forays out for food. And thus it began. After finding breakfast we strolled about thinking we might go to the nearby famous Khaosan Road. We met a lady on the road, and it really did feel like a chance encounter, she was a English teacher and told us that for today we could ride a yellow flagged tuk tuk to visit three Buddhist sites: the Standing Buddha, the Lucky Buddha, and the Golden Mount (A BIG BUDDHIST HOLIDAY!) and also go to a travel agency to make plans for our trip south in a couple of days – all for 20 baht each (about 80 cents).  Shortly after this conversation, sure enough, a yellow flagged tuk tuk and we started whizzing around Bangkok in a three wheeled motorcycle. Image

I never realized that traffic was organic; I mean, a chaotic organism that seems totally out of control and yet, a flow that leaves you with the sense that actually, everything is fine. There are motorcycles everywhere, weaving this way and that, some people wore helmets others not, sometimes there were two people sometimes three, sometimes there were 2 year olds on the laps of their fathers sometimes 4 years old. My mind could not stop expecting a crash, like now, now, how about now. Well no crashes. Instead of crashes we went to two Fashion House tailor shops- why? Because. 1. If we did our driver would get government sponsored gas vouchers. 2. There was a promotion where if we bought something (like an Armani suit) the government would give 30 percent to those people who were poor and affected by the flooding. 3. This is Day One. I bought 3 suits…just kidding, but can you say hard sell? We eventually just started to explain who we were, e.g. ‘monks just out of the monastery’ and then we started to talk about meditation and things dropped down a notch – or ten. Even though our monkness is not vinaya monkness we can still talk a little bit about zazen. Everybody is calm now.Image

Our Tuk Tuk driver dropped us off where we he picked us up (5 hours ago), and we continued towards Khaosan Road. Khaosan Road reminded me of Kensington Market in Toronto 24 years ago (times 10) (and no Mom, I wasn’t really hanging out in Kensington when I was 14) but maybe if I was 14 again I would have been gripped by excitement by all the shirts and food, hanging wires and peeling paint, pirated CDs, fake-ID peddlers and …. fortune tellers.

The Fortune Tellers of Khaosan Road – they really want your money, and we gave them some. Why? because we said we would – if he would tell us Mako’s current boyfriend’s name (Graham), her mother’s name (Masami) how many brothers(1) how many sisters(1) and her birthday (March 23, 1972). Right? Anyone who comes and meets the Fortune Tellers of Khaosan Road – just say no, and then no again, and then no nonononono. Why?  Because they KNOW.

(A word to our sponsors: I feel obliged to say, at this point, that I am sorry. To think that you have supported us financially and for us to be so generous to unworthy causes is shameful – did you know that the Buddha strictly forbade his monks from using their psychic powers to tell fortunes? He did, and even though I don’t think he said anything about getting your fortune told he should have. Please forgive us.)

We made haste from Khaosan and were on our way home, when …

A French women, Je parle un peu de français, mais ce n’est pas si bon, came up to us really distraught. Here is the story. Her husband and her were traveling from Cambodia to Bangkok by bus, he had traveler’s diarrhea, but the bus couldn’t stop every time he needed to go, so they decided to stop in a city which turned out to be a major sex trade city (Pattaya) in which he got mugged at knife point while at an ATM.  He fought back and beat one of them up while the others got away – and was arrested.  So now she has no passport, no money, no credit cards and the consulate, although giving her a place to stay, still needs to pay the court 6000 baht, or so, which is why she is asking for money from us, and any westerner she can find on the street. We gave her some money, and after a kiss on both cheeks and a ‘bon chance,’ we continued on our way, for a little food, and…sleep.

ImageOne part of me is reminded of Ryokan Taigu, the Japanese hermit monk, who, as the story goes gives a thief his robe because he has nothing else to give, ‘you must have come a long way to see me, I hate to see you leave empty handed,’ and later reminiscing that he wished he could have given him the moon. Another part of me thinks we are naive and our money is very limited and needs to be protected. I can easily analysis these situations and create scams retrospectively – I feel my body harden. The phrase from the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi comes to mind: ‘Turning away and touching are both wrong for it is like a massive fire.’

My vow is to live right here; right in the middle; right in between the soft and the hard – into the fire we go.

Day 2: Wat Bang Phra and yes, really, bamboo spikes.

Last days at Tassajara

The final days at Tassajara came quickly and as a bit of a blur to me. The season of Fall Work Period was upon us, and although I was not the same kind of participant as I was during my first Tassajara work period, I could not help but appreciate the feeling of it all: Scores of eager hearts and hands all coming together to take care of the practice, the grounds, the cooking, the infrastructure, the students, and each other. This was the Tassajara I first entered and the one I was honored to depart from over 11 years later.

Work Period is fundamentally a time of transition, either from Practice Period to Guest Season or vice versa. This one began with the usual mass exodus of students going away for vacation or to the next thing in their lives, leaving behind a discombobulated few to keep the daily practice together.

One of the first events to happen in the Fall WP at Tassajara is a meeting of the Four-Winds, which includes representatives from New Camaldoli Hermitage, Esalen Institute, Esselen Tribe, and Tassajara. Gathering four times a year at each our centers, we discuss stewardship of the Ventana land we occupy, the particularities of our community practice, the various trials and tribulations of our individual spiritual center’s community events, infrastructure, and life of ceremony and ritual. We share our stories and practice together, eat delicious food, and sometimes hold special ceremonies. For example, this fall Betsy MacGowan of the Ventana Trail Crew brought us a Santa Lucia Fir to plant at Tassajara, which we did with a ceremony officiated by the Esselen elder Tihikpas. The Santa Lucia fir is the most rare conifer in North America, growing solely in the Santa Lucia mountains that make up part of the Ventana Wilderness. The only known Santa Lucia firs in the immediate area were completely burned in the Basin Complex fire of 2008. Long-time benefactor of Tassajara and ecologist Diane Renshaw wrote an article about this auspicious event on the San Francisco Zen Center Sangha News.

We were also able to welcome another new being who appeared at Tassajara for the first time: work period volunteers Amanda West and Peter Coates brought their 3 month old baby boy Solas. What an amazing place to experience at such a young age. While I can only speculate about the impact of being at Tassajara on him, I can say that my hope is for Amanda and Peter to bring him back year after year, until he is old enough to decide to return on his own! A member of the next generation to join the present one.

Each year so many of the people who come for work period return, many for 5, 10, 20, and some even for 40 years and counting! Tassajara seems to belong to everyone and to no one at the same time, and it is truly a different place at each of the various times of the season. It was my very first Tassajara, and my last (or at least most recent), and even though I had the intention and hope of being able to enjoy some spacious time with so many old friends, I had to let go of that as I packed up a decade of accumulated items (what happened to one robe, one bowl?!), wrapped up the last bits from my directorship over the past three years (which included all the preparations for the upcoming practice period in which I would not be present for), and even went up to the city for a few last meetings. I apologize to all those dear friends who have nurtured and sustained Tassajara and my own being over the many years. At the risk of being cliche, I wish to say: Thank you, I’m sorry, and I love you! Here are a precious few photos:

Signs of an upcoming practice period… Thank you to Susan Sprenger for taking care of the monk’s apparel! With 24 new Tangaryo students entering the monastery on September 24th, your work will be appreciated by more than just the Ino.

Our delightful Ron Adams, who comes all the way from Albuquerque year after year to administer to the Age-of-Decline Fleet of Tassajara vehicles: all eleven of them! His patience, fortitude, good humor and charm are beyond measure!

And Jonathan Toste, who first came for work period around the same time as Graham and I. You are like a brother to us. Your big bright heart has touched ours along with so many others!

Tim Kroll, also in life transition: from SFZC payroll and back to school to study Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. Our friendship has nurtured and sustained me over our years of practice together!

Adra Ross, whose love, kindness and generosity seem to transcend space and time! Sharing stories and photos from her time at Thiruvanamalai so many years ago was taken by me as a sign – both of the rightness of our going there and of our personal bond. It will be an honor to walk where you walked!

And what can be done about this wayward Scottish rascal? Pictured here with incoming Tangaryo student Erik Irvin, Barnyard-o Bernie Bernard McPhillips, THANK YOU for taking such good care of the work period projects and practice in the Tassajara Shop. If you have never heard one of Bernard’s Work-as-Practice shop sermons and you are skilled in any field of construction, you simply MUST come to the Fall or Spring Work Period at Tassajara! Just email tassajara@sfzc.org in mid-March or mid-August and let them know of your intention to contribute to and perhaps find a home in the vibrant, beautiful, and ever-expanding community of Tassajara Work Period!

My deepest regrets to the all-too-many people I do not have pictured here on this post: Marty Demare, Judith Keenan, Gayle Matusak, Bruce and Margie, John and Roseanne, Mike and Beth, Chris and Monica, Desmond, Lisa, Holly and Hummux, Sandy, John Bermel, Dan and Jenny, Dan Landy, Bernie R, Peter and Katie, Ted, Taiyo, John L, Linda H, Fran B, Kim and countless others… thank you for your love and support and incredible presence over the many years! Wishing you all the very best in all things, we hope to see you again someday!

Lastly, a photo of Jing Guan Joanne Pirie, Susan Sprenger, Graham, and myself, dropping Susan off at her hotel in Monterey on our drive up to the city together. Jingguan, Graham and I fresh from our own departing monks ceremony that morning… the last one of five this work period (after Jeff Miller, Brendan Crowe, Judtih Randall, and Dan Belsky). Only six hours until Graham and I board a plane to Taipei and then Bangkok and beyond…

Auf Wiedersehen! พบกันไหม่! Poitu Vaaran! Itsu made mo ogenki de!