Thursday, February 19, 2009


For those who have completed the journey,
for those who are sorrowless,
for those who are wholly free from everything,
for those who have destroyed all ties,
the fever of passion exists not.

The mindful exert themselves;
to no abode are they attached;
like swans they quit their pools,
home after home they abandon and go.

They for whom there is no accumulation,
who reflect well over their food,
whose object is the Void, the Signless, Deliverance––
their course cannot be traced, like that of the birds of the air.

(Dhammapada 90-92)

19 feb 09

I have been staying for the last three days as a guest of the Capuchin Franciscans at St. Felix of Cantalice Friary and House of Formation here on Penang Island–Pulau Pinang in northwest Malaysia. The friary is right across the street from a huge retreat house named Stella Maris, which in turn is right on the beach overlooking the Straits of Malacca facing north. It has been typically hot, even with the breeze off the water, but I have enjoyed a morning jog on the beach each day and found one little spot on the terrace around the second floor where a breeze blows cool around the corner. There are only five friars here, one who just entered his postulancy last night as a matter of fact. I have been impressed by the fact that they live a pretty simple life. I have been reminded a number of times of the simplicity as well as the communal atmosphere of Gospel Brothers in Chicago in the ‘70s. The food here is modest, and the double house is sparsely furnished and not air-conditioned, which seems like a big thing for Malaysians who are absolutely hooked, like Singaporeans, on icy cold air-con.

The superior here is Fr. Paul Cheong, himself a simple, under-stated man. He reminds me of my Uncle Bong of happy memory. I had met him already at the WCCM retreat last weekend. He has recently agreed to be the spiritual director for the WCCM Malaysia. They are happy about this because, as one woman told me, “he is a real contemplative.” I was impressed by the fact that he traveled to and from the retreat by bus wearing his light brown Franciscan habit carrying only a knapsack on his back. A real friar of the first hour. I suddenly felt like my backpack and guitar case were like lugging an entire cruise ship around. Paul has an interesting background and a connection to Fr. Bede. (This should no longer come as a surprise to me.) He first joined a diocesan seminary in the early eighties but decided early on that this was not his vocation, and so he left and went west… to India for six months. He stayed first at a Christian ashram run by a Jesuit who Paul says was quite strict with his visitors: if they weren’t serious about their spiritual practice and his schedule they were encouraged not to stay. He then spent three weeks at Shantivanam where he found Fr Bede, by way of contrast, welcoming to everyone, he said laughing, “even hippies and wanderers.” After a time visiting a Buddhist monastery in Colomba, Sri Lanka he came back to Malaysia and joined the Capuchins.

At the retreat this past weekend I was wondering if Fr Paul was buying into what I was teaching about integral spirituality––spirit, soul and body––and drawing from other traditions, but he didn’t say much all weekend until the very end. At breakfast on Sunday morning he suddenly out of nowhere said to me emphatically, “I am so glad that you are talking about the importance of the body!” and then went on at length about it. Then later at the closing Q&A, there was some debate about the connection between the mantra and the breath. I had suggested earlier on the retreat, as I usually do, that you focus on the why first, and then posture and the breath, and then attach the mantra to the breath. One of the long time meditators countered “not to worry about the breath, just say the mantra!” But Fr Paul jumped in in his sober way and said, “I am glad that you brought up the importance of the breath. This is one thing we learn so important from the Buddhists” and went on at length about that. Just this morning when we were talking about my upcoming days in Bangkok, he said again at breakfast that he was fascinated with the Buddhists and had also spent some time meditating with the Theravadan monks there. And a number of times over these days he has brought up again “taking care of the body” and how much he enjoyed the stretching and breathing I did with the retreatants, and how maybe next time I come I could do that with the community here. Though I am convinced of this path of holistic spirituality for myself, sometimes I worry that it is simply too eccentric for most others. And then, every now and then you get a glimmer of recognition and an affirmation, and you think, “There just may be hope. We just may be having some kind of positive effect on the world.”

I have basically had two days off after my concert on Tuesday, but I didn’t take into account Asian hospitality. My immediate marvelous host Serena was quite insistent that she take me touristing a bit on Penang. She even gave me a pile of brochures and maps to bone up on my geography and history as preparation. Wednesday afternoon she took me to an active old Chinese Taoist-Buddhist temple, and a clan house. Other than a quick visit two years ago with Jonathan in Singapore, I have had very little experience of the devotional side of Taoism; I know it mainly by the Tao Te Ching. But Huston Smith’s distinction between the three kinds of Taoism was really helpful: there the is philosophical Taoism of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu and Wen Tzu; then there is scientific Taoism, of Taoist yoga, Chinese medicine, feng shiu etc.; and then there is devotional Taoism, prayers to deities and ancestor worship. This was the latter, and Serena herself was raised as this type of Taoist before she converted to Catholicism. There were may people there offering paper and oil and food to the deities, and a Taoist priest offering prayers for other folks, and shrines and humungous joss sticks burning everywhere, plus murals of Maitreya Buddha and Kwan Yin. (Syncretism is no problem for many Asians.) As a matter of fact the temple was dedicated to Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. This was the first time I had heard it explained to me so clearly that Kwan Yin was actually a man who had so perfected the virtue of compassion that he had achieved a balance of yin and yang and turned into a woman. From what I understand of the Jungian perspective, it makes perfect sense––at the height of the process of self-actualization we can then access the other side, anima for man, animus for man.

Yesterday morning then Serena recruited her friend Won Fong to drive us to the other side of the island to Balik Pulau. From there on a clear day looking west if you squint you might get a glimpse of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. We picked up another friend of theirs who guided us through the forest to a beautiful beach, where they let me take a long walk by myself. The most significant note about this beach is this that was where the full force of the tsunami hit, fishing villages were destroyed, and many people died. I was trying to imagine a 12-foot wave roaring up on shore.

In addition, later that day I visited the local seminary with one of the friars. It was at one time called General College, now called Martyrs Seminary since it was the seminary that launched both the Korean and Vietnamese martyrs. It dates back to the 17th century, although it has relocated several times to various places in South Asia.

I’ve now had my last piece of kaya toast (that marvelous coconut, egg and sugar jam) and am going to go with Vincent, the new postulant, to the market where I will have one more teh tarik–my favorite tea in the whole world bar none, “pulled tea” only made by mameks–Indian Muslims––and trade my remaining Malaysian ringhets for Thai bahts. And this afternoon I fly off for Bangkok to meet our old friend ex-pat extraordinaire, Willie Yaryan. More from there.