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Fiction Cello

Illustration by David Johnson

Brother 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

by Rémy Rougeau

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."

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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.

DEAR 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."


"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 online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2000; Cello - 00.11; Volume 286, No. 5; page 93-102.