DOM Jacques Bouvray, the abbot, informed the entire community that very soon they would receive four Buddhist monks as visitors. Brother Antoine sat with the assembled Cistercian monks and scrutinized their expressions as the abbot spoke. Forty-six of his brothers were seated on benches opposite one another along the chapter-room walls, while the abbot sat on a raised throne at the end, under a crucifix.

"As you know," Dom Jacques said in French, "Benedictine and Cistercian monks and nuns have been given a Vatican mandate to establish dialogue with monks of other religions. This is why we have invited the Buddhists. I am certain that if we are open-minded and hospitable, this exchange will be a singular learning experience for us."


Old Fathers Cyprien and Marie-Nizier were asleep, their heads shamelessly bowed to their chests. Antoine smiled as he observed how the other monks looked toward the abbot with open mouths and raised eyebrows. Excellent, he thought. The Buddhists will be good for them.

"We need a volunteer," the abbot said, "to look after details of the visit," and he peered out over his reading glasses. Antoine saw no hands. After an awkward moment the abbot spoke again.

"We need someone friendly and open-minded, someone interested in world religions."

Still no hands. Antoine felt uncomfortable and nervously scratched at a spot on his scalp, behind the left ear.

"Thank you, Brother Antoine," the abbot said. "You're just the person for the job. I appoint you our official East-West Dialogue Contact Person."

Antoine was caught by surprise, but in the days following, his job grew on him. At first it sounded ridiculous. How many Buddhist monks lived in Manitoba? East and West were a very long way from each other in some parts of the world. From where would these monks come? A Buddhist monastery in Asia?

Antoine read the stack of material given him by Dom Jacques and discovered that Dharmsala, India, was exactly where the visitors were coming from. Several Roman Catholic monasteries had combined efforts and shared expenses to bring Tibetan Buddhist monks to North America. Antoine also learned, from bulky correspondence, that several abbesses took issue with the arrangements. These women carefully explained that although in theory they were not opposed in any way to the visiting Tibetans, they could not put them up in their monasteries, because the visitors were men, and men were strictly excluded from the papal enclosure of women. Benedictine and Cistercian abbots responded by reminding the nuns that women were likewise forbidden from entering most areas of men's abbeys -- but such details, they said, should not inhibit hospitality. And in light of the fact that the Vatican had called for a cordial exchange, the nuns ought to find adequate sleeping quarters for the Tibetans outside the cloister, perhaps with friends. As long as the cloistered areas were respected, they said, with men remaining on one side and women on the other, the exchange could take place. In the end, the nuns withdrew from the arrangements. Nevertheless, six Canadian abbeys remained on the tour, and Brother Antoine's was fourth on the list. The Tibetans would arrive from Quebec and travel on, after Winnipeg, to an abbey in Saskatchewan and another in British Columbia.

Many details of the tour had not yet been arranged, however, and Antoine wrote and received several letters, and even spoke on the telephone when necessary. At first he was shy, but quickly he became more forward, even officious, receiving calls from Quebec and India with the full approval of the abbot. He often had to leave work in the dairy barn to handle this or that pressing detail, making long-distance arrangements with monks he did not know.

Antoine became enthusiastic and soon found himself studying. Because he knew next to nothing about Buddhism, Dom Jacques allowed him to read any Buddhist-related book he could get his hands on. He ordered exotic tomes through interlibrary loan, and Brother François picked these up when he went to Winnipeg for supplies. Antoine read about Zen monks in Japan who spent whole days in a folded position like the Buddha, impervious to disturbances. He was edified, and wondered why his Cistercian brothers could not do likewise. He noticed that they could not sit still for a moment, fussing and passing gas in choir during the most sacred moments of the liturgy. Antoine read of Tibetan monks who ate nothing for weeks at a time. This seemed inhuman. But surely, he thought, the intense discipline they practiced led to high levels of spiritual enlightenment. Otherwise, why would they bother? Cistercian monks grumbled if they were made to give up desserts for Lent. The more Antoine studied Buddhism, the less edified he was by his own brothers, and subconsciously he began to long for a better place to live. He imagined rows of motionless figures seated on the floor, solid and stonelike, their lips moving in a salubrious whisper of words. He wanted to be with real monks, who ate tiny portions of cooked rice and pickled vegetables, who slept on the floor, who remained for hours at a time in stationary meditation, unperturbed by one another, hardly noticing the world in their contemplation.

As Contact Person, Antoine learned that one of the Tibetan monks could speak both French and English. This was exciting news, and Antoine prepared himself to discuss religious matters by reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, none of which he understood. He repeatedly attempted to gain some insight, some small bearing on the subject of Buddhism, in a washing ambiance of words, as he read books aloud in the pig barn. He tried several times to sit in the lotus position, but each time he forced his legs into a knitted arrangement in front of him, his feet went to sleep and he found walking difficult afterward. Nevertheless, Antoine eagerly kept after his preparation for the Tibetans, even though Contact Persons were advised to "be themselves" and to present the Buddhist monks with living Western monastic traditions.

Antoine asked himself, What living Western monastic traditions? After reading books about the great feats of Buddhist monks, he felt embarrassed by Western monasticism. He saw nothing extraordinary about his own abbey, and without realizing it he became even more anxious because of this low assessment. He corseted himself with Buddhist meditation practices as described in books by Western writers. He painted himself with a hodgepodge of Eastern attitudes that he lifted from footnotes. Antoine wanted to present a version of himself that he thought the Tibetans would admire, and in the meantime, his scorn for all things Western grew.

EAR Brother," Dom Jacques said to him one day, after he saw Antoine building a Tibetan prayer wheel, "the Buddhists are coming here to see Western monks. Take pride in yourself and in your own monastic heritage. Why be embarrassed by your abbey's peculiarities? We will receive the Tibetans into our home under our terms."

"But you don't understand, mon père abbé," Antoine answered. "I don't want the Buddhists to think we are ignorant of their ways."

Secretly Antoine cut back on food. He hoped to become accustomed to less, so that if the Tibetans by chance noticed him in the refectory, they would be impressed by his nibbling on a piece of dry toast while his brothers shoveled oatmeal into their mouths. All Buddhists ate rice, he assumed, and rice was occasionally served at the abbey, though it was prepared in a slimy, gruel-like soup. Antoine took portions of this and passed on the cheese. Very often he had only a slice of bread. After a few weeks of his new diet he became anemic. He fainted in choir one day, and when he opened his eyes, Dom Jacques was slapping him on the cheek.

"Brother Antoine," he said, "why are you not eating properly?"

He told the abbot he had a delicate stomach. The abbot ordered the kitchen to serve Antoine whole milk at every meal, and from his place at table he watched Antoine swallow it all down.

Anemia was not what bothered Antoine. He was hardly aware of its symptoms, except for vague aches and pains when he worked among the dairy cows in the barn. His mind was preoccupied with psychological discomfort, for the more he studied Buddhist monasticism, the more he felt he had been tricked. After all, he had been with the Cistercians for four whole years, and to very little effect. He had thought that these austere-looking monks, shaved and scrubbed, would draw him up a ladder of monastic discipline that would lead to perfection. Antoine wanted to be flawless. He wanted to be a saint: as clean as a piece of carved ivory, as pure-smelling as beeswax. And why had it not happened? Why was he so unaccomplished in the spiritual life, bored with the everyday sameness of it all? Why had he made so little progress in four years?

Only one answer was possible. Surely, Antoine thought, he did not live with real monks. Real monks did not scratch in odd places when they assembled to hear their abbot speak. Real monks did not belch in choir. Real monks did not eat so hurriedly in the refectory. Real monks had manners.

One evening during supper Brother Antoine was called to the telephone to speak to a Cistercian monk from Quebec, a Father Léon Gaide-Chevronnay, who wanted to pass along information about the Tibetans' itinerary. He said he would be traveling with the Buddhists to ensure that they made the proper connections.

"I will be in complete charge of their tour in Canada," he said in French. "I have been to Japan, you see, and I am quite familiar with Buddhism. You need not concern yourself about anything, Brother, except for transportation to and from the airport and, of course, our lodgings."

The hair on Antoine's neck bristled. "I am the official East-West Dialogue Contact Person for our abbey," he said. "I will not relinquish my responsibility for their visit. And I know my fair share about Buddhism myself, thank you."

Father Léon apologized. He only wanted to be helpful, he explained, and he thought his being with the Tibetans would relieve others of a burden. Antoine detected trouble, however, and did not look forward to fighting with Léon over these monks.

Further complications arose. Brother Norbert Gignoux, who was assigned to work in the forge but in fact could never be found there, took Antoine by the sleeve one day and hauled him into the scriptorium.

"Brother Antoine, I have a question for you," he said. His bushy white eyebrows twitched. Antoine was already late for the afternoon milking.

"We're not allowed to speak in here," he reminded Norbert.

"When you get to be seventy-four," Norbert answered, "you can do exactly as you like. Now, Brother, I want to know if these monks coming, are they Catholic?"

"As in Roman Catholic?"

"Yes," Norbert said. "I want to know if these Buddhist people are Catholic."

Antoine had to close his eyes for a moment. "No," he said. "They are Buddhists, Norbert. There is no such thing as a Tibetan Buddhist Roman Catholic monk."

Norbert's eyebrows continued to twitch, and he snorted. "Well," he said, "we ought to pray for their salvation. Perhaps we could baptize them while they're here."

THIS was exactly the kind of nonsense Antoine had feared. He had no doubt that the Tibetans were monks of spiritual depth, far beyond anything Brother Norbert could imagine, and Antoine did not want someone of Norbert's ilk offering prayers for the Christian conversion of the Buddhist visitors even as they were listening. He asked the abbot to silence Norbert, to prevent his offering public prayers, but the abbot refused.

"Norbert means well," Dom Jacques said. "The Tibetans will understand."

The Buddhists arrived on a weekend in September. The air was cool, but ice had not yet formed on pools of water along the road. Leaves had turned into cascading colors of lemon, orange, and raspberry, and a vague smell of ripe apples hung in the air. Brother François and Brother Antoine met the Buddhists at the airport. Among the first passengers to disembark was Father Léon. He wore civilian clothes in public, just as François and Antoine did. Moments later three Tibetan monks appeared, clothed in identical ox-blood robes. The first was Geshe Damchoe Gyaltsen, professor of dialectics. He was supported by two younger monks. Léon explained that Geshe Damchoe was not feeling well, having caught a severe cold in Montreal. He was supported on his left by the eighteen-year-old Venerable Sering Wang-chuk, the geshe's English and French interpreter. On his right was the Venerable Tenzin Dechen, who also spoke some English. He was fifteen. He looked more like twelve. Father Léon introduced everyone and asked the Canadians to return the goodwill gestures of the Tibetans. They folded their hands and bowed. The Tibetans then put white scarves over their hosts' necks as a sign of best wishes. An awkward moment of silence followed, and just when Antoine was about to ask about the fourth monk, a shriveled peanut of a person appeared with the last of the passengers from the airplane. He wore the same oxblood robe. He smiled broadly and without benefit of a full set of teeth. This was the Venerable Ngawang Chonzin.

The heads of all the Tibetans were shaved. Sering and Tenzin both had smooth walnut-colored scalps. Their luminous eyes made them seem happy even when they were not smiling. The geshe had several weeks' worth of stubble on his overly large head. He looked sick and puffy in the face. Patches of yellow skin framed his eyes. On the tiny one -- the old monk who got off the plane last -- the lack of hair revealed a bumpy, gourdlike skull, discolored in places as if he had slept in dirt. He smiled incessantly.

Because of the sickly geshe, no time was wasted returning to the abbey. Father Léon proved to be pushy and difficult about all the arrangements, just as Antoine had feared. He demanded changes of schedule and accommodation, along with certain dietary adjustments.

"No meat," Léon said. "And, of course, they want no milk."

The Tibetans were given rooms inside the cloister grounds, in what was called the old seminary house, a big white clapboard building sheltered by trees near the river. The geshe went to bed at once, while the peanut Ngawang, who never left off smiling, put a pillow on the floor in the hallway and sat on it to say his beads.

"Mantras," Sering explained. "We're obliged to recite one thousand mantras a day, but Cello says ten thousand or more. The beads help keep track of the number."

"Cello?"

"Yes," Sering answered. "It's a nickname. You may use it if you like."

Because Antoine found the name Ngawang unpronounceable, "Cello" was a good alternative, and the little man did seem a brown, worn-out old instrument.

The abbot came to speak with Father Léon, and while they were thus occupied, the young monks asked Antoine to give them a tour. He took them to the wine cellar, where Father Cyprien made wine from Australian raisins; to the bakery, where Brother Jules made heavy whole-wheat and honey loaves each day; and to the scullery, where Father Casimir sliced cheese and laid out portions for the nightly collation. He also took them to the bee yard, where Father Anselme examined hives without benefit of a veil; to the forge, where Brother Emery repaired brake shoes and tractor gears; and to the barn, where Brother Gennade milked sixty Holstein cows by machine. As soon as the Tibetans saw the cows, they began to speak rapidly to each other in their own tongue; the flow and contour of their voices sounded like a gentle agitation of smooth stones in a brook. Tenzin became very shy and covered his face. Sering spoke to Brother Antoine in English, asking if they might have a drink of fresh, unpasteurized milk. Antoine hesitated for a moment, remembering Father Léon's orders, but then he went to fetch cups.

"We like," Tenzin said after he drank the foamy liquid. "We very much miss yak milk."

"Yes, yak milk," Sering said, looking at Antoine with large, shiny eyes. "It tastes very much like yak milk." Tenzin held a hand in front of his mouth to hide the moustache that had formed there. "Hot yak milk with tea and butter and salt. This is our very best favorite drink."

The information surprised Brother Antoine, and it made him question books. It also caused him to wonder how precise was Father Léon's knowledge of Tibetan monasticism. Perhaps Buddhist dietary laws in Japan differed from those in India.

Meanwhile, Father Léon had come in search of the young monks. He had gone through the abbey, and when he could not find them there, he looked around on the farm. He found Sering and Tenzin in the chicken coop with Antoine.

A bantam rooster had been holding the attention of the Tibetans; they were amused by his crowing and by the way he strutted before hens twice his size. When a hen fell down on her breast before the little rooster, he proved too small to climb on her back. Sering and Tenzin whooped and laughed over the little cock.

Father Léon cleared his throat with a sharp cough. "The Tibetans have their own schedule for meditation," he said. "We mustn't be keeping them."

Antoine glared at the priest. He was about to voice a complaint about how some people can ruin a good deal of fun, but Sering and Tenzin had already dropped their interest in the rooster, and they waved good-bye to Antoine, smiling politely. They walked away with Father Léon.

Chickens had never been so interesting, Antoine thought, and he was delighted with his new young friends, amazed by how lively monks could be. He decided that he enjoyed them even more than he had anticipated. But he was also confused, because they seemed such ordinary people. Antoine reminded himself that they were really only teenagers. He wondered if he would have shown as much understanding if he had seen Father Norbert laugh at a bantam rooster.

THE Tibetans had their first formal encounter with the entire Cistercian community on the following day, in the chapter room. The abbot asked Father Léon to introduce the guests. The priest did so. Antoine closed his eyes and frowned: he considered Léon's words unctuous and condescending. Besides, Antoine had not been called upon to facilitate the meeting in any way.

The geshe was asked to speak first. He held seniority among the group, because of his learning: geshe meant "doctor" in their language. Although his face was sallow, he stood for the entire address. He did not flag at all. He spoke in a monotone that sounded almost like chant, and went on and on, sentence by sentence, for an hour and twenty minutes. Sering translated with confidence, as though he knew the geshe's words by heart. It was all about bad thoughts. When someone raised a hand, it was ignored. Later Antoine learned from Tenzin that Buddhists considered it bad manners to question a geshe before he was finished speaking.

Fathers Cyprien and Marie-Nizier were the first to nod off during the homily on bad thoughts. Nizier snored loudly, but this did not seem to affect the geshe's concentration in the least. Others began to drop their heads and breathe heavily. The geshe continued in his trancelike tone, moving his mouth in a steady, monosyllabic pace, without any hint of excitement in his eyes. All the while Antoine kept his eye on Cello, who paid no attention whatever to the geshe's delivery. He smiled broadly while reciting mantras on the rosary. His murmuring lips produced the sound of a baby chick calling in distress.

"Bad thoughts lead to bad actions," the geshe explained. Bad actions create more bad thoughts. A vicious cycle results, and produces unhappiness. "There is much unrest in the world," Sering translated. "People are not happy, because of their bad thoughts. And they take their bad karma with them into the next life. Over and over people struggle with bad thoughts and bad actions, while souls are reincarnated as worms or angry, howling ghosts. We must put away bad thoughts and keep our minds at peace." This was the substance of the geshe's vast speech.

When at last he bowed, all rose from their benches and left the chapter room for common prayer. Lunch followed in the refectory. Boiled potatoes and green beans were served, along with a noodle soup and thick slices of buttered bread. To Antoine's dismay, the geshe ate as heartily as anyone, taking potatoes into his mouth quickly and with evident relish. Though Antoine nursed only a small cup of broth, no one seemed to notice. Dom Jacques pulled him aside after the meal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The Tibetans look uncomfortable to me," he said. "They look cold. Perhaps you could find some coats and shoes." Robes and woven sandals were the extent of their dress, Antoine had noticed, and he was perturbed that Father Léon had not thought of their comfort in Quebec. He went to fetch coats and sweaters, thick socks and shoes, from the wardrobe in the attic, and took them over to the old seminary house in a wheelbarrow. When Sering and Tenzin saw the pile, they poked through it, examining each article, pulling at it and trying it on while laughing at each other. Tenzin went inside with a thick coat and threw it over Cello. Sering selected a coat, a sweater, woolen stockings, and shoes for the geshe. Then the teenagers chose colorful clothing for themselves, articles that seemed to blend well with their oxblood robes and saffron undergarments.


Illustration by David Johnson

THE next day the Cistercians were allowed to question the geshe. He sat alone under the crucifix, on the abbot's throne, while Sering translated the questions. Someone asked how old he was. Another asked at what age he had become a monk. A third asked if Buddhists believed in a heaven, and Brother Norbert wanted to know if Cello was saying the same rosary that Catholics said. To all these questions the geshe responded with the same answer: Bad thoughts must be banished from the mind.

While this was going on, Antoine nervously pulled at his ear. He began to realize that as long as the geshe was present, the other monks would remain silent, except of course for the necessary translation, and for Cello's incessant whispers. He made plans to get rid of the geshe.

That evening he tapped lightly on Father Léon's door. A moment passed, and he heard footsteps.

"Yes?" the priest asked. Only one eye and a nose were visible behind a crack in the doorway.

"Excuse me, Father, but I noticed today at the conference that the geshe is definitely not looking well. In fact, I see that his color has become worse since he arrived."

"Really?" Léon said, opening the door wider. "I thought he was perking up." He held a book in his hand, a finger stuck between the pages. He wore odd half-moon spectacles on his nose. Antoine continued in an evenly paced whisper, the most authoritative voice he could muster.

"Did you have a doctor look at him in Quebec?"

"Why, no," Léon said, rubbing the book against his nose. "We didn't have time, what with our schedule. Besides, it's just a case of the grippe, don't you suppose? I feel rather bad about hauling him all over the country this way, but we do have a schedule to keep."

Antoine lifted a hand to his mouth and paused for what he hoped would seem a grave moment of consideration.

"Well, now, Father," he said, "imagine the consequences if the geshe were to have serious complications. How would anyone know until it was too late? What if he had walking pneumonia, for instance? Or a bacterial infection of the lung? Who are we to say? The geshe could become dangerously weakened. And what would happen then? Your tour might be held up. You'd have to explain to everyone how seeing a doctor had never occurred to you. And if the geshe should die ... Well, Father, you must understand how I want to save you embarrassment."

By four o'clock the next afternoon Father Léon and Geshe Damchoe were at the Victoria Hospital, in Winnipeg. While they were away, Antoine went to the abbot and told him that the remaining Tibetans wanted to speak to the community. Then he told the Tibetans that the community wanted to ask them questions. A conference was quickly arranged.

They gathered in the chapter room. This time Cello was given the abbot's throne. He crawled up into it and sat on a cushion with his feet dangling over. Thus seated, he smiled and muttered his prayers. Sering and Tenzin sat on either side of him. Cello took questions, answering them without hesitation. Sering translated.

"How many vows do you take?" someone asked.

"Tibetan monks take a vow to abandon each of the two hundred and fifty-three downfalls," Cello said. "Nuns vow to avoid only the eighteen root downfalls."

"Why do women take less?"

Cello rubbed his nose. "Because vows must be received from the novice by a living monk or nun, and the tantric tradition died out among Tibetan nuns."

"When did you enter the monastery?"

Cello laughed. "I was given to the monastery as a child," he said. "Most monks and nuns begin their monastic lives this way. In fact, the best monks and nuns are those who spend early formative years memorizing all the necessary scriptures and living a monastic life while they are most impressionable. Adults may enter the monastery, of course, but they never make very good monks or nuns, because they haven't memorized the necessary scriptures."

"How old are you?"

Cello had no idea. No record existed. He explained that he had been given to a monastery in Tibet, and when the Chinese occupied the country, his monastery was destroyed with all its records. The Chinese put an end to religious freedom, and Cello fled to India with thirty companions. Only three of them survived the trip through the mountains.

Brother Norbert raised his hand. Antoine felt the blood rush to his head. He thought Norbert would ask if Cello believed in the Virgin Mary, if the Tibetans would consider giving up the error of their ways and being baptized as Roman Catholics. Antoine feared that Norbert would offer a prayer on the spot for the conversion of the heathen and the liberation of the world from the dark fog of Buddhism. Antoine thought for sure Norbert would inform Cello how stupid it was to believe in reincarnation, to believe in howling ghosts or prayer wheels. But Norbert did none of these things.

"What does the name 'Cello' mean?" he asked.

Sering translated the question. Cello raised his eyebrows and then spoke briefly in the bubbling language they used. The whole room waited for a translation, but Sering hesitated. Cello waved a hand to encourage him.

"Cheh'leh," he said, "is the word for 'nun.' You see, Cello is a woman. She is the abbess of the famous Geden Choling nunnery, in India."

Mouths dropped open, and Antoine heard gasps. No one said a word. The Cistercians needed time to absorb the fact that the short, wrinkled person on the abbot's throne was not a monk. The cloister had been invaded. A woman had taken the abbot's throne.

Everyone turned to the abbot. He was seated on a bench like the others, portly and overheated. At first Antoine thought Dom Jacques's face was red with anger, but then he noticed that the abbot's shoulders were moving up and down. For a whole minute Antoine heard only the thick sound of his own pulse in his ears, while he wondered whether the abbot was laughing or weeping. Then he noticed the abbot's eyes, how they sparkled. Dom Jacques's mouth fell open, and he let out a short hoot that began the rumble of his laugh, and this set off a chain reaction with everyone in the room.

Cello smiled broadly, showing her four little teeth. Even with laughter coming from all around her, she took up her beads and continued her mantras.

The tension in the room dissipated. The laughter died down, but no one knew what to do next. Tenzin covered his mouth. Sering's cheeks were rosy with embarrassment, and he cleared his throat.

"We didn't want to tell you," he said, "because it seemed to us a discourtesy. We had no idea, in India, that you wanted only monks. We didn't know how very important it is for you to exclude women from your monasteries. After we brought Cello all this way across the ocean for our tour of North America, we thought it ungrateful for us to disappoint you, so we said nothing. After all, what were we to do with Cello? She is, after all, the abbess of the Geden Choling nunnery, and the founder of five other nunneries. Besides, who would know that she is a woman? Our heads are shaved. We wear the same clothing. She may as well be a monk. In our world, because we remain celibate, we are equal. We are more alike than different. And even without such considerations, each of us has been a man or a woman in a past life, and each of us will be a man or a woman again, unless we are reborn as higher spirits. So, you see, it makes no difference."

The abbot rose and adjourned the meeting. He immediately summoned Brother Antoine to his office. Antoine worried. As official East-West Dialogue Contact Person, he thought he would be blamed for having staged a debacle. Inside Dom Jacques's office he looked at the floor while sitting in a chair facing the abbot's wide oak desk.

"Brother Antoine, I thought it best to inform you about things as they are," Dom Jacques said. Antoine's palms began to sweat. "You know," the abbot continued, "that Father Léon insisted upon taking Geshe Damchoe Gyaltsen to the hospital. It was a very wise decision. The geshe has a bad cold, of course, but the doctors have discovered an aortic insufficiency near the lower left chamber of his heart. This condition may be life-threatening, and he has been persuaded to give up his tour. Father Léon will accompany him to a Tibetan monastery in Colorado, where he will be looked after by American doctors. Meanwhile, Sering, Tenzin, and Cello will continue on to Saskatchewan."

"I will notify the other abbeys that Cello is a nun," the abbot said. "She will be respected as an abbess, of course, but the cloister must be observed. I was startled and amused by this revelation of identity, but I must uphold the rules about cloister."

Antoine nodded and smiled. He kept silent, but he was fuming that Father Léon had been given credit for the hospital visit. Who cared about Cello, he thought. She was old. It didn't matter any more if she was a man or a woman.

"A magnificent human being," the abbot said, "this woman who has suffered grave injustice, in the mountains watched her companions die, been in exile all these years -- yet she is so cheerful. So humble."

Antoine nodded. But he said to himself, She has no teeth. How can anyone with no teeth be "magnificent"?

"She's not what I expected," he said to the abbot. "I mean, even beyond the surprise, her being a woman, she's too odd to be an abbess. I had hoped for someone more dignified."

The abbot opened his mouth to say something but tapped his fingers lightly against his lips instead.

"Brother Antoine," he said after a moment of silence, "I want to thank you for your assistance as Contact Person. The Tibetans are scheduled to continue their tour tomorrow. It has been a rare opportunity, this exchange of cultures. Perhaps you have some private questions for Cello? I give you my permission to speak with her."

Antoine rubbed his chin. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "I don't think I need to talk to her. I want someone more interested in meditation. She just says those mantras over and over. I find that boring."

The abbot leaned back in his chair. "You're missing a golden opportunity."

The only opportunity Antoine wanted was to take rightful credit for having saved the life of Geshe Damchoe Gyaltsen, something Father Léon did not deserve. Then an idea flashed into his head. He could explain to Cello, Sering, and Tenzin that he, Antoine, had saved the geshe. If he could tell them how it happened, how he had gone to Léon and begged the priest to take the geshe to a doctor, they would realize Antoine's virtue and how much they owed him.

"Yes!" Antoine said to Dom Jacques. "On second thought, there might be something I could discuss with Cello."

HE went off to the old seminary house. He found Sering and Tenzin outside, pushing the wheelbarrow. Cello was seated in it, like a small Oriental dignitary. All her earthly belongings were in a little felt bag. She was speaking softly to her carriers, in a confident and reassuring tone, without the usual rosary in hand. Antoine made them stop.

"What are you doing?" he asked. "Where are you taking her?"

Cello stopped speaking. Sering smiled and said that they had been told to move the abbess out of the cloistered grounds to the gatehouse, where Brother Henri would give her a room.

"Oh, yes," Antoine said. "Such a bother." He stood in the path of the wheelbarrow. All three Tibetans smiled at him, but he did not move.

"I've come to set something straight," Antoine continued. "The geshe's being in the hospital -- that was my idea. I'm the one who told Father Léon to take him there."

Sering looked at Tenzin, and they spoke briefly in their native tongue. Sering looked back at Antoine.

"This hospital is not a good idea?" he asked. "The geshe is in a bad place?"

"No," Antoine said. "You misunderstand. I am the one who saved Geshe Damchoe Gyaltsen's life. That was not Father Léon's idea."

"That's fine," Sering said. "We are not unhappy."

Before Antoine could explain further, the wheelbarrow was taken up, and he had to move out of the way. Cello continued speaking in a thin but expressive tone, much like a Chinese grandmother telling a bedtime story. Antoine followed alongside. The little procession moved down the road and past an orchard where red, nutlike crab apples hung in profusion on branches.

"What is she saying?" Antoine asked.

"She is giving us a teaching," Sering explained. "Her subject is Gelugpa, or the Yellow Hats, one of the principal sects of Tibetan Buddhism, to which His Holiness the Dalai Lama belongs."

Cello's cheerful, rocking words seemed somehow connected to the movement of the wheelbarrow, and Antoine had difficulty believing that she was talking about anything serious.

"Can you tell me what she is saying?" he asked.

"It's very complicated," Sering answered. "In general, she explains that the real ground of Gelugpa is knowledge of suffering. Only when a person is fully convinced of the immensity of suffering can enlightenment follow."

"Oh," Antoine said.

"This suffering," Sering continued, "must be recognized as a universal condition, and the monk or nun must want deliverance for all beings from this suffering. Only then can enlightenment, or sunyata, be experienced."

"Really," Antoine said.

They had reached a picket fence, and Antoine opened the gate for the wheelbarrow. After they had passed through, he turned back to check the latch, just above a yellow sign that read MONASTIC ENCLOSURE in black letters. Cello had finished speaking, and she pulled from her felt bag the old, discolored rosary. The road ran ahead of them into cool shadows of elm and ash trees, and just beyond that was the gatehouse. When they arrived there, Brother Henri was waiting for them on the screened porch. Rubbing his purple-veined nose, he offered no words, not even to the abbess, who seemed to be a man even yet, the same person as when she had arrived, bald and stooped with years. Henri came down the steps to collect her little bag, and the two of them disappeared into the gatehouse.

"Is she upset?" Antoine asked.

"Upset?"

"At being moved," Antoine said. "Is Cello upset inside?"

"Oh, no," Sering answered. "She is perfectly healthy."

"I mean, is she angry, about being put out?"

Sering laughed and said something in Tibetan to Tenzin. The blush on Sering's face was of unmistakable innocence. "Cello would sleep on the sidewalk without hesitation," he said.

Brother Henri appeared on the porch with a rubber ball. "Eh?" he said to the Tibetans, and before he got an answer, he threw it out at Tenzin. The boy was delighted, and the ball was soon going back and forth in a wide arc between Sering and Tenzin. The teenagers whooped and laughed, and Henri, without so much as a grin, turned and re-entered the gatehouse. Just as I expected, he seemed to be thinking. Boys are the same everywhere.

Antoine caught the ball once, but then waved himself out of the game. The Tibetans ran down the road on which they had come, looking spry in the late-afternoon light. Antoine followed them as far as the crab-apple orchard. He felt sad that they would leave tomorrow, to travel on to Saskatchewan. He wished that he were taking Father Léon's place, but he had to admit that he knew next to nothing about airports -- probably less than the Tibetans -- and besides, Brother Gennade depended on his help in the barn.

With the Tibetans gone, Antoine knew, he would no longer be official East-West Dialogue Contact Person. Life would sink to the ordinary again.

He opened the gate in the picket fence and went inside the monastic enclosure to the orchard. Sitting beneath an apple tree, he asked himself what he had learned from his contact with Buddhists. The first thing that came into his head was how little he had learned from books. "People are far more complicated than books!" he said aloud.

The short, twisted trees in the orchard offered their tiny crab apples. The fruit was plentiful even as the branches were losing their leaves. From where he sat he could see the white seminary house, flanked by several yellow elms. The air was cool and thick with the odor of pumpkins that grew just over a hedge and down by the river.

Antoine felt on the cusp of grasping something important about monasticism, some common thread between East and West that he could identify and present to the abbot, who would be suitably impressed with his insight. And then perhaps Antoine would discuss it with the Tibetans before they left in the morning. Yes, but he could not quite name it, the lofty idea he was after, and he decided that what he needed was a bit of meditation to shake the thought loose.

THOUGH he sat for some time under the tree, no profound thoughts occurred to him. The sun was not visible behind the abbey, to the west, but the evening sky was bathed with its scarlet influence. Birds sang across the fields up and down the river, their chorus resonating sweetly.

He pulled out his rosary and made the sign of the cross. Antoine said his prayers in a whisper. Wrapping his feet beneath him, he attempted to be very solemn. He wanted to banish all bad thoughts and put his mind perfectly at peace.

His prayer went well. He imagined that he looked like the Buddha himself, under a flowering lotus tree, serene in meditation. He imagined himself to be Saint Benedict or Saint Bernard, caught up in tender and undisturbed prayer.

On a nearby tree a flock of cedar waxwings pecked at the shiny crab apples. They exhibited identical rose plumage, with tiny crests of feathers. Suddenly they all flew at the same instant.

A gentle breeze played at Antoine's ears. He closed his eyes to the birds. His mind was nearly empty of distractions when he heard something peculiar: a dull repeated noise. It would not go away. Antoine whispered his rosary louder, but the noise continued. It sounded like heavy apples falling on the ground, one by one, methodically. He struggled to put the noise out of his mind, but he could not, and the more he tried, the more exasperated he became.

The rhythmic thuds persisted. Antoine ground his teeth. Sweat rolled down his forehead. He simply had to know the cause of the noise.

He opened his eyes. Slowly he got to his feet and began to walk toward the sound, hunched and stalking. Over the short grass, a few trees away, he saw the small, bent figure of Cello in her oxblood robes. With her bare feet she was stomping on fallen crab apples, one after another, breaking them open, beating them with her heel into a pulp. This done, she would bend low and pick at them, putting bits of apple paste into her mouth.

From a distance she looked like an abandoned and hungry child. Antoine was transfixed. He had never seen anything so peculiar: there she was, the Venerable Cello, spiritual mother to 6,000 nuns, eating crab apples from the grass.

As sunlight drew away from the orchard, it came to him: the thread that bound their lives together. Cello was abandoned by society. She was marginal. Antoine realized that the abbess was as defenseless and as irrelevant to the world as an orphan. And being a monk, so was he.

The experience of many days clicked into a clear order in his head. Antoine saw before him a Cello who had survived immense suffering in the Himalayas to offer a living witness to anyone interested: nothing less than the reversal of world order. Weak as she was -- weak as all human beings are -- she had found freedom from pain, which was the same as freedom from the desire for fame and fortune.

Cello seemed unaware of Antoine's flabbergasted stare. She straightened her rounded back. She looked at the crab-apple tree. Then, brushing her knotted fingers back and forth over its trunk, she appeared to thank a perfect living creature for its fruit. And when the wind died and the birds stopped singing, Cello walked back toward the gatehouse, making her way to bed.

 

 

 


Rémy Rougeau is a monk and a beekeeper in the upper Midwest. His first novel, All We Know of Heaven, will be published next spring.
Illustrations by David Johnson.

The Atlantic Monthly; November 2000; Cello - 00.11 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 5; page 93-102.