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.