Reflections on an hour with a Buddhist monk

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 1.04.24 PMAt 16, my oldest child is taking a class on world religions. So far, she’s studied a variety of religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism and Judaism. I am amazed at all she’s learned and believe the broader world perspective at a younger age could serve her well going forward.
Personally, I’ve been curious to learn about other cultures and religions since I was young, but without an opportunity to learn formally, I’ve made a point to seek chances to learn on a personal level.
Just this week I had the pleasure of meeting with the Venerable Tsering Phuntsok, a Buddhist monk who has been visiting the area. During our time together, he explained four truths of Buddhism — each a good reminder, regardless of religious beliefs.
The first truth was regarding the preciousness of human life. He explained that Buddhists believe that because our human life starts with our mothers, our mother is the first person we honor.
After a discussion about the importance of honoring our mothers, he suggested that I consider the many other people I know who have played roles in sustaining and nurturing my life. He explained the importance of honoring them as well. Then, he asked me to think about all the other people I don’t know who have touched my life through the years.
For example, he asked me to consider all the food I’ve eaten through the years. He asked me to consider all the people, animals and plants that have given to nurture and sustain my life — the person who planted the beans for my soup, the person who picked the beans for my soup, the person who transported the beans for my soup, the person who packaged the beans for my soup, the person who sold the beans for my soup — and the list goes on. He then explained the importance of honoring each of those people, plants and animals that gave and served in the process of nurturing me.
“In a sense, all of these things contribute to giving, sustaining and nurturing your life, and so we honor them too,” he said. He took that a step further and compared all the living things around us and their role in giving us life to our mothers.
“Look at all beings as your own mother. So wherever you go, you can feel at home,” he said. “It becomes easier to fit anywhere.”
The second truth was all about the impermanence of everything — including my own life and the lives of those I love, including my parents, my siblings and my children. None of us are permanent. Our time in this life is finite.
“We can’t learn everything in this life here on earth. We can’t completely love everything either. But, we do what we can while we can, and then we will have the chance to learn and love more in the next life,” he said.
He explained that by accepting the impermanence of everything, we become more peaceful because we live each day knowing that no state will last.
Thirdly, he spoke about cause and effect — karma. When you give positive, you get positive. When you give negative, you get negative.
Lastly, we spoke about the importance of recognizing the suffering of others and in nature. I need to give further consideration to this tenant to grasp it more fully.
He said, “Change is suffering.”
To not surprise, there are parallels to other religions for most of these thoughts. Our conversation gave me food for thought for the week. If you would like to meet the Ven. Tsering, all are invited to the Phuoc Minh Monastery, 7311 W. Congress in Duson. The temple is also housing the Jade Buddha for Universal Peace, a giant Buddha carved from more than four tons of gem quality stone. All are welcome, but today is the last day the Buddha and Ven. Tsering will be in Duson. There will be a 10 a.m. ceremony and the Buddha is available for viewing until 6 p.m.

Things don’t last

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(This column ran yesterday, but after my big party, I was too tired to post it until now!)

Fair warning. This column is schmaltzy. I offer my apologies up front. You see, today is my last day to be 49. And while I am very cool with that, I have reflected more in the past week than usual.
Before launching into the sentimental journey, I owe thanks to Carolyn Pons, a participant in a writing workshop I facilitated this week. She inspired a different perspective on my soon to be 50 years in her piece called “Things don’t last” about her upcoming 50th wedding anniversary.
She and her husband tried to remember all the things they had through the years. She started with a blue vase they purchased in Gatlinburg on their honeymoon. Chronicling the years, they added up how many sofas, how many cars, how many washers and dryers, etc. Her husband deducted that, in fact, things don’t last — but somehow their marriage had.
Carolyn’s recantation of three sofas, seven cars and an orange candle put me to thinking. As I celebrate a 50th anniversary (of my birth), what do I have that has lasted through the years? With Carolyn’s blessings in the sharing of her idea, here goes:
My oldest possession is the tiny woven twill river cane basket my great-great grandfather, William Hawkins, gave me when I was five years old. I believe it was the first week of November and remember the day vividly. I went to see him with my grandmother and my great-grandmother, his daughter and granddaughter. I was his oldest great-great grandchild and remember sitting near him in a rather dark room, with light coming in through the window. He gave me this little basket that he told me he made earlier in his life. I knew it was something to keep because this guy was old! In homage to my roots, I’ve taken the tiny basket with me for each of the moves of my life.
Since I was the first great, great grandchild, the folks around me did their best to make sure that I appreciated the significance of these moments and carried their stories with me. You may wonder how I’m sure exactly when my great-great grandfather gave me this little basket. The truth is I remember earlier that day or week, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Harris, sent a note home with each of the students in my class. The mimeographed note said that PBS was going to start a new television show just for kids — and the show would be called “Sesame Street.” The iconic children’s show first aired Nov. 10, 1969. My great-great grandfather died Dec. 30 that same year.
Aside from elementary school yearbooks, my other oldest possessions are few and far between. In one of my high school yearbooks I have nine ribbons I earned in track and field in junior and senior high school. Turns out the benefit of placing third, fourth and fifth is that the ribbons’ colors hold. My only blue ribbon, won in the seventh grade for the 440 relay, is now an interesting shade of brown.
Most of my ribbons are from relay races, but the most prized two are from the high jump and low hurtles. The truth was that I was a mediocre-at-best hurdler and high jumper, but I enjoyed the thinking and practice required to get my whole self over those bars. I knew I would never be great, but clearing the high jump bar and the hurdles offered a definite sense of satisfaction and joy that is difficult to explain or duplicate. Either you made it over or you didn’t. In a world that isn’t very cut and dried, I still find that the things that are refresh me.
The third thing I found that I’ve had with me a long time is a small wooden box I bought at the USS Alabama gift shop when I was 10. It’s the kind of small, carved wooden trinket box with a hinged lid that holds change, charms and old cookie fortunes. Inside, there is one-dollar coin from 1974. My grandfather gave it to me the same year I bought the box. Also, there are a few safety pins, buttons and two charms. One charm is from Philmont Scout Ranch. A friend gave it to me years ago. The other is a Sweet 16 charm I bought for myself the day before my 17th birthday — my last day to be 16. I bought it because I recognized that there would come a time when I’d want proof I had been 16. I realized time was passing fast.
I was right.

Knowing they would hear me or Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my favorite Southern Irishman

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 8.58.31 PMTree house logic is clear and simple. Some trees are simply well suited for tree houses, and some are not — I have built tree houses in both types of trees.
Pounding nails and steps into trees were regular occurrences throughout my childhood. To be clear, my tree houses were not masterpieces like those you might find on Pinterest. In fact, my tree houses usually amounted to a single plank stretched between two limbs. Even so, the planning and engineering required was exhaustive.
The steps did their job. They served simply to get us to a limb. From there, if the tree was right, we were off.
Building tree houses was more fun with friends, but occasionally I built alone — especially when I was, as we said back then, “out in the country” at my grandparents’ farm and no cousins happened to be handy.
There was a pecan tree directly across the road from my grandparents’ home that was not an ideal tree for a tree house, but that didn’t stop us. I vaguely remember being a part of a cluster of cousins fighting to hammer 2-penny nails through four boards of various lengths and widths to serve as a ladder up the truck of the pecan tree.
I was toward the tail end of a dozen cousins born within a six-year span — which translates in tree house speak to, “For several years the steps up the side of the tree were too far apart for me to use.” I couldn’t reach the next one up to climb any higher.”
But time passed.
And you know what happens as time passes, I grew. And as I grew, my cousins did too. By the time I was tall enough to climb the steps up the pecan tree, they had lost interest.
Which is how I came to spend as much time on my own in that tree as I did. The first time I realized I could get up the ladder, I was five. I was alone and I climbed far higher than I should have.
Anyone who has ever climbed higher than they should have in a tree knows the problem there. I suppose it boils down to Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation, doesn’t it? As I was going up, gravity was going against me and kept me stable. As I began to go down, several things happened, starting with:
– I had no idea how high I had climbed until I looked down, which brought my new heights into quick perspective.
– Gravity was happy to assist in the process of getting me down the tree.
– I recognized the possibilities gravity offered.
So I did the only thing I knew to do.
I started hollering. As loud as I could. I knew only two people might be able to hear me — and they were both inside the little house on the other side of the road. To my great relief, they eventually opened the front door and came out on the front porch. I don’t know if that says more about their hearing or my hollering.
Even way it’s impressive. I just did the math and realize now that my grandfather would have been 77 years old, when I was five. This tree was about 50 yards from their house, and they heard me yelling and came to see what was wrong.
Finding me took a while. I kept yelling, “Up here. Up here. In the big tree.”
Once they spotted me, they crossed the road. My grandmother stood at the foot of the tree and my grandfather began to climb the steps my cousins and I nailed in to the tree’s trunk.
If I close my eyes just right, I can still see him balancing on the branches through the leaves of that tree, helping me get down.
I am so grateful that I grew up knowing that if I hollered loud enough somebody would come.
And they did.
Even though he was born and bred in the South, my grandfather was an Irish storyteller. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Papaw Greer.

Finding your place wherever you are: Tips on how to make the most of a move

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 6.03.25 PMA friend recently learned that her husband got a promotion and her family of six would be moving to Australia. The four kids are between the ages of 10 and 15. Even though they’ve moved several times as a family, this new experience will surely change all of their perspectives for life.
Because she’s always done such a good job of moving, I was surprised when she wrote me not long ago and said, “You’ve moved several times as an adult and I’ve always been impressed with the way you integrate yourself in a community. What advice do you have for us as we get ready for this move to the other side of the world?”
She’s right in that I’ve moved several times as an adult — 10 different cities since I was 16, including the city where I went to college. Clearly, I thrive on change more than most and have approached each new locale with great anticipation. In fact, the only move that was a struggle for me was our move here to Lafayette. We’ve been here for a dozen years now. It’s the only home our daughters know. Even so, I have lots of thoughts on moving to a new place and starting a new chapter of life.
From the moment you learn where you’re moving, become a student of that place. The Internet makes this process much less complicated, but there are still several steps in that process.
1. If there are guidebooks, buy them. Study them. Get a feel for the fun things to do in what will soon be your new home. If you’re a list maker, make lists of the things you want to do and the order you want to do them in. I will confess that I have a guidebook addiction problem, but you would be amazed just how much you’re able to learn from them — from exactly what to order in great local restaurants to hidden trails that take you to special vistas. I recommend first focusing on the area within a 60-minute drive of your new home. Then branching out from there for weekend trips and getaways. Look for diversity of activities. Keep at the guidebooks, long after you’ve arrived.
2. Start reading their newspapers and other publications. Get a feel for their news, politics and culture. Find out about big events in the area that are happening now. Next year, you’ll be familiar with them and already know which ones you want to attend. Like the guidebooks, keep reading the paper once you get there. It will give you insights and connections to that place and people that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
3. Start reading and watching good fiction set in your new home. No, it’s not all accurate and some of it is over dramatized, but it will offer you insights and familiarity that is impossible to get otherwise. Especially with your family going to Australia, there is so much literature and film based there. The possibilities are wide. I’d recommend a family movie night once a week until you knock out the big movies of Down Under.
4. Start seeking out music from your soon-to-be home. No matter where you’re moving, there is bound to be a variety of local music — new and old that will give you a sense of place that you simply can’t get any other way. (As far as Australia goes, The Waifs — a band that came to Festival International a couple of times years ago, is a personal favorite!)
5. Start researching the school and sports options for your children now. Figuring out where you want them to go to school now will help in the house hunting process. If you contact schools, they will often put you in contact with other parents whose children already attend school there. I recommend communicating with those families in advance to help determine where your children will go to school. Plus, it’s a great way to have some pre-connections for activities once you get on site.
6. Research clubs, groups, churches and other organizations you might be interested in joining once you arrive in your new home. Once there, join them and get involved.
7. Once you’re in your new home, instigate outings and dinner parties with new friends. Even though you’re the foreigner, don’t wait for others to invite you to do things. In fact, the best thing about being a foreigner is that you’re not expected to understand all the local customs. So don’t worry about that kind of stuff at all! Invite people into your home and lives — and they will do the same. Of course, every outing won’t be a love connection, but in time, you’ll find your people. And your world will never be the same!
The bottom line is to get engaged with that place and its people. Volunteer. Ask questions. Seek advice – especially from people who have lived there a long time. Personally, I love to talk to old people in a new place. They also offer a sense of place that you just can’t get from another source. Listen to everyone’s stories — people love to tell their own stories. In those wonderful exchanges, you will not be able to help falling in love, bit by bit with your new home.