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This past Saturday I drove up to Metta Forest Monastery in Valley Center, California with my friend Sally. (Ok, she drove.) The abbot, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, known as Ajaan Geoff to his students (Ajaan is a Thai word for "teacher") gave a two-hour teaching centered on the Introduction to his book The Wings to Awakening. There are several other monks in residence at MFM (I spoke to a very nice monk named Than Isaac, whose mother is a schoolteacher in Oklahoma) and soon maybe there will be one more: The young man sitting next to me in the class was due to be ordained as a bhikkhu in July.
The drive (from Del Mar, where I was staying) was very beautiful, but to this jetlagged East Coaster, also felt very long. You pass through Escondido, which means "hidden" in Spanish (I'm told), through the old timey town of Valley Center, all the while driving up and down between rocky hills and shady valleys. The directions on the monastery's website are pretty good but don't address the windiness of the roads after the last turn, within the monastery grounds. Anyway, forty or fifty people made it through the maze of narrow roads to the 10:30 AM teaching. Some tasty food was on offer but we got there just as that was wrapping up.
The section of Wings to Awakening we talked about had to do with the Buddha describing his awakening -- this was the beginning of the Introduction, which was a good class for a first-time visitor. One good story Ajaan Geoff told (see, I get to call him that since I went to one of his classes) had to do with the attractions of the spiritual life. A king came to the forest and saw all the monks sitting there meditating and wondered what drew them to this life. He went to various teachers and asked them this question but didn't get a satisfactory answer. Finally he comes to the Buddha and says, "I see the attraction of other callings in life. Barbers cut your hair, and they get paid," etc. He goes through several professions, on up through the king, whose life is of course full of tangible rewards. "But," he says to the Buddha, "what is the benefit of being a monk?" The Buddha, seeing that the king was not high up the ladder of spiritual understanding, to put it kindly, said, "Well, suppose you were a servant in the palace of a king. You get ordered around day and night. You leave this life and become a bhikkhu. Then the king himself comes to the forest and sees his former servant. Can he order him around and abuse him now?" "No," the king says, "the monk will be shown respect, and offered food." "Well," says the Buddha, "there's the advantage of the spiritual life right there." And of course it goes beyond that, to the end of suffering that is the monk's goal and the greatest reward of all.
The class was full of stories like this, told much better and funnier than I've told this one here. He also spoke very interestingly about the Malcolm Gladwell book Blink and about a psychological study examining couples during an argument -- their macro and micro faces -- and isolated the one feeling / micro-expression that was poison for relationships: contempt. These psychologists could predict whether the relationships they observed would last with a good degree of accuracy, apparently, based on whether there was contempt in the air. Your "macro" face, by the way, is, I think, the general way you carry yourself in the world -- "I'm a capable person," "I'm a tough person," etc. Your micro-face is your involuntary facial expression when you're angry in the moment, surprised, etc. These are what the cameras recorded in this experiment. Very cool. I'm not sure where this came from, exactly.
I was called out at one point during the class (and of course I hadn't done the reading for that day, just like high school all over again) because of the Q & A session Thanissaro Bhikkhu is currently doing for the Tricycle site. So he wasn't going to ask me anything too difficult, he just wanted to let me know he was thinking over the questions I'd sent him. Some of the questions posted during this Q & A session were asked during the class too, in one form or another, which was interesting. We all have the same questions, I guess. Here are some pictures I took on my visit:
|A baby avocado. The whole place is full of avocado trees. It was a bad harvest this year because it's been very dry and also there was a rare frost in February.|
|It really is a forest. There are platforms set up underneath these trees for visitors to pitch tents. There were several visitors staying for a week or more when I visited. It was nice and cool under the shade of the trees. I almost nodded off but then I would have missed the class.|
|A bodhi leaf from a tree near the main temple. Actually, it's even closer to two glassed shrines on the edge of the clearing in front of the main temple. I call it a clearing but it's also a parking lot.|
|This is the view from the parking lot. This was fairly early in the day so the fog hadn't quite burned off yet. Or maybe it was just a hazy day.|
|The road in. It looks very straight, doesn't it? Just like on the map. That's because I didn't take a picture of the windy part. That would be a picture of trees and rocks, not the road. This section of road also divides the bhikkhus' quarters, to the right, from the visitors' quarters, to the left.|
|Thanissaro Bhikkhu, abbot of Metta Forest Monastery. Right after I took this picture I apologized for all the Questions he had to answer for the Tricycle website, but he was very nice about it. During the class he was asked how to handle problems with bad tempers, issues at work, school, and at one point was even asked for business advice, or rather, advice on practicing dharma in the business world. He said emailing with important info at 4:45 PM on a Friday was a bad idea. Wait until Monday.|
|I took a short walk after the class and found myself on this charming stretch of path. I don't know what the metal posts are. (See the dark things standing up to the side of the path?) Maybe something to do with watering the avocados.|
So that's my vacation slideshow. If you're in southern California Metta Forest Monastery is definitely worth a trip. As is Roberto's Burritos. I can't vouch for Alberto's Burritos.
- Philip Ryan, Webmaster