Friday, May 14, 2010

Sleepless in Krakow or This is the Life

I am writing to you today from a train bound for Krakow from Wroclaw. Krakow, it turns out, is actually pronounced “crack-off” while Wroclaw does not sound like the first two syllables of Rock Lobster but instead is pronounced something like “vrotz-love.” So if you love your vrotz, you’re gonna love Wroclaw! Why the Poles spell things so weird is anybody’s guess.

Anyway, at the bottom of this page is actual video footage of when the people of Wroclaw broke the world's record for the number of guitarists simultaneously playing Hey Joe. No joke!

I’ve done two talks in Poland so far. The first was in Opole University. Unfortunately the fliers were not delivered to the organizers until the day after the talk, so pretty much nobody but the people who set up the talk even knew it was happening. Even so it was a fun small group discussion. At the end of the talk I improvised a theory as to why the original Japanese Godzilla represents the Buddhist view of nature while the lousy American remake in 1998 represented the American view. This theory also explains why the American Godzilla sucked pachycephalosaurus ass. Remind me and I’ll tell you about it one of these days.

The following day I did a book signing at the Narlanda bookstore in Wroclaw. My appearance there had gotten a nice write-up in the entertainment section of the city’s largest newspaper, right below an article about an upcoming concert by Bobby McFarren. Subsequently the turn-out was far better. The place was pretty much packed.

It’s interesting trying to answer questions that are relayed to you through an interpreter. Sometimes the kind of questions I get asked in English are very difficult for me to make much sense out of. I could tell my long suffering Polish translator Kasia was having trouble with some of them. One guy seemed to want to know about predictions of future Buddhas. I did the best I could with that one. I couldn’t tell if he was one of the followers of one of the many supposed future Buddhas working the spiritual scene or if maybe he was trying to connect the approach I advocate with what he’d heard from those guys. I don’t think he liked it much when I compared waiting for the next Buddha to trying to figure out which contemporary sugar-pop band was going to be the next Beatles.

One of my hosts asked me for my one-sentence summary of my feelings about Poland. But I couldn’t give him anything. There are lots of funny things nobody ever tells you about a foreign country. Like how the Polish language sounds exactly like what you get if you tape record someone speaking English and then play the tape backwards. I keep wanting to record people’s voices and then replay them in reverse to check for Satanic messages. Also no one ever tells you that Wi-Fi is pronounced "whiffy" all across Europe.

The people I stayed with in Wroclaw had a 6 month old kitten named Bazilla. Or, anyway, that’s what I named him. His name was actually Bazili. He enjoyed attacking my hands at every opportunity. Unlike the cat I wrote about in Zen Wrapped in Karma, fortunately, he wasn’t actually trying to draw blood.

So far in Europe I have eaten more cheese than any human should ever eat. It’s difficult sometimes to find vegetarian food here that’s not loaded up with the stuff. And while I do like cheese quite a lot, I have had quite too much of a lot of it and shall be endeavoring heretofore to avoid cheese wherever possible. Unless it’s really delicious cheese, of course.

So far Poland kind of looks to me like picture postcards of Poland. Lots of medieval castles and archaic buildings. Rolling hills with ancient barns on top under endless gray skies. They tell me it’s not always this gloomy, and maybe it’s that Icelandic ash cloud still messing up the weather. But it’s been raining the entire time I’ve been here. This my first visit to a former Iron Curtain nation. My family went to Czechoslovakia back somewhere around 1974 when it was still a communist country. But this is the first time I’ve been to Eastern Europe since the fall of communism.

I’ve spent ten hours of my stay so far on trains. So I feel like much of my impression of the country is actually my impression of its railway system, which appears little changed since the days of the Cold War. The toilets are best left undescribed. Kasia told me to avoid the one with vomit all over the floor and instead use the one with no light and a heater stuck on scorch. You had to sort of take aim carefully and then close the door and hope for the best. I could see a lot of others before me had failed.

We’re now stopping at Trzebenia. I have no idea how you pronounce that.

Anyway, in some ways non-communist Poland resembles communist China, which I visited a few times while I was living in Japan. There are McDonaldses and KFC’s wherever you go. There are massive department stores full of consumer goods. There are froofy grocery stores that sell expensive imported foods. Not so different from anywhere else in Europe.

But I get a sense that people here are still adjusting to all this. It’s been 20 years since Solidarity and the fall of the Soviet empire, which means there are people in college who weren’t even born yet when the change happened. But most of the population still remembers.

As far as Buddhism is concerned, from my little perusal of the bookshops I’ve been in, it seems to be pretty much the same as the rest of the Western world. The store I spoke at last night had everything Osho ever wrote, a few Ken Wilber books, plus some Zen stuff by Taizen Maezumi and a few Polish authors whose names I did not recognize. Those were on the very bottom shelf.

Tibetan Buddhism is strong, like it is all over the West. Perhaps that’s the form of Buddhism that most appeals to people steeped in the Christian worldview. I’ve been told that Philip Kapleau established some centers here. Kwan Um is represented as well. There are posters all over town announcing talks by some chubby Eastern European Zen Master in a nice set of robes. Sometimes you even see a poster for me, with a view down the hole of an outhouse where a monster is crawling up out of the muck to bite your butt. But there aren’t too many of those.

... It’s now a day after I began this piece and I’m writing from a Buddhist center in Krakow. I had just gathered up my stuff to go and take a shower when, at that very nanosecond, two Polish workman guys appeared out of nowhere, went straight for the shower and started taking it apart. So here I am writing this.

They put me up here for the night. It’s on the fourth floor of a building they told me is 200 years old. It looks and feels to be about 500. The fourth floor in Europe, by the way, is what we in the US call the fifth floor. No elevators, but I need the exercise so that’s fine.

There is a wood burning cooking stove in the kitchen. And not one of those rustic, artsy-fartsy ones either. More like something a bunch of Polish peasants cooked their kielbasas on in 1571. This place is the home of seven local Buddhist groups of various denominations. There’s a Tibetan room for the folks from Karmakamtzang and then there’s a Zen room dominated mostly be Kwan Um inspired decorations, but apparently used by a number of other groups.

Oh! The workman guys left, just as mysteriously as they came. I’m gonna go get a shower before they come back!

... (twenty minutes later) I cannot figure out the showers here. They’re all hand held and the bathtubs are really deep like in Japan. I’m not sure if I’m meant to kneel down and spray myself or if I’m meant to take a bath and use the hand held shower to rinse off. In any case, I was unable to make the hand held shower here work at all. I couldn’t find any sort of button thingy or pull-up push-down thingy or knob or anything of that nature that would make it work. So I washed my hair by craning my neck such that it was under the faucet. Maybe I should’ve asked the workman guys before they left. Or maybe that’s what they were fixing. Only Jesus knows and he’s not telling me.

I have gone full circle at this point in my life. From touring with punkrock bands and sleeping on people’s floors is squats where nothing works, I am now touring behind punkzen books and sleeping on the floors of Buddhist centers where nothing works. Or at least I can’t figure out how anything works, which is the same in the end. I guarantee you the Dalai Lama does not travel like this. Are you sure Thich Nhat Hanh started out this way?

You probably think I’m complaining, but I’m not. It’s really fun doing this and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I went out last night with some students from the local university to a place called the Sacred Cow where they play loud Indian-inspired dance rock and make coffee with caramel in it. Got an interview and a book signing today and then another long trip through the Polish countryside to the next town. This is the life!


Anonymous said...

Are the ice and water two or one? It doesn't matter. I am #1

Harry said...

Which came first, the dog or the pooh? I'm in it anyway, cos I'm no. 2.


Anonymous said...

ferrners shur do speek fonny.

Anonymous said...

"Easter European Zen Master". Did you see any for Christmas European or maybe even Halloween European Zen Masters?

anon #108 said...

And -


That's better.

Anonymous Bob said...

Brad: you should think about writing travel books too. It is a respected genre and your always traveling. I'd buy em.

CAPTCHA : subsel : I kid you not

Anonymous said...

A Zen Travel Guide:

There is nowhere to go to.
Here is just great.
There is great.

It's all good baby.

k said...

You are awesome, Brad.

By the way, what do you think of the Maitreya project, that aims to build a giant Maitreya statue along with some schools using a communist-sounding citation from the Pali Canon to back it up?

Sebouh said...

There's a thing in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about how once a time machine is invented, all of time will become homogenized and you'll find things like McDonalds and KFC in like medieval Japan.

Seagal Rinpoche said...

Birth and death are not two different states, but they are different aspects of the same state. There is as little reason to deplore the one as there is to be pleased over the other.

Anonymous said...

Good words Steve!

Anonymous said...

Cool dragon, did you slay it?

Pity about your showers, but then north americans always did have this crazy obsession with showers.

Damion said...

Hey Brad. The trip sounds like a blast, despite the amenities. I would love to see the landscapes in Poland as you described them. Do the people there seem to be pretty receptive to the Zen flavor?
Also, is that really Mr. Steven Seagal that posted earlier?!

Harry said...

Nah, that's some imposter with dyed hair.



Anonymous said...

Good words Harry!

PhillySteveInLA said...

Told ya Kwan Um was big in Poland...Though I have to say I'm rather disappointed that none of them got back in touch about booking you. Guess they were busy with their big wig. Enjoy the rest of your stay!

Damion said...

I figured it was Harry. Ninjas are always rampant in modern times. Them and their sneaky imposter ways! I love ninjas. Especially those with dyed hair.

Mumon said...

So far Poland kind of looks to me like picture postcards of Poland. Lots of medieval castles and archaic buildings. Rolling hills with ancient barns on top under endless gray skies.

Wait til you get to Warsaw. You will love Warsaw. It looks like the crumbling Stalinist city with wide avenues (with new skyscrapers)...but with clearly funky Bohemian overtones...darkened by the knowledge that the Nazis destroyed the place, and there's monuments all over the place to that effect.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Gudo would know why Kamikaze pilots wore helmets?

Rich said...

Because they held the radio earphones.

Char said...

I second the travel commentator idea. Would love to read it - especially interested in how to eat vegetarian in eastern europe and how to do zazen properly on a moving train.

By the way, ninjas are a lot of fun until you have to fight one. They cheat...always!

Gudo said...

Anon-san, They were not really helmets, they were head warmers. Therefore, they were worn for comfort rather than protection.

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite vegan / veggie restaurants is in Krakow..."Momo". Excellent food... if it´s not too late Brad, check it out!


Brad Warner said...

I ate at Momo. It was delicious!

And Steve, what's up with those Plsh Kwan Ums anyway?

Brad Warner said...

I mean Polish, not Plish.

Anonymous said...

Shower : Hard to tell without a picture but...

Maybe there is a small thing near the knobs. Open the knobs, and pull the thing _after_ water is flowing. Water is then redirected to the handheld shower

(sorry for my inappropriate plumbery english)

Hope it helps,

anon #108 said...

BW: "I mean Polish, not Plish"...


Saliva which while talking, exits the talker's mouth and comes to rest on the face of the listener. The listener is then obigated to make no remarks or gestures in reference to the plish.

"Christ, he plished all over me...and I couldn't wipe it off until he left the room."
(Urban Dictionary)

Perhaps, Brad, having eaten at delicious Momo's, you ran into a wandering Kwan um type and engaged in a brief exchange of views - in your best pidgen Polish? That would explain the plish.

Seagal Rinpoche said...

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Mysterion said...

The fliers weren't available until the day AFTER the event?

How Polish.

Or there may have been a catholoholic bishop (or pawn) behind [OUCH] it... no buns intended.

Mysterion said...


DKL said...

Sounds like you are enjoying the trip. It is funny...just I started reading the part about the Godzilla movies, the American version came on TV. I have had friends that traveled in Europe and said some of the same things about the showers and train episodes, but none of them would trade that experience for anything else.
I was a shame that the fliers got there late, as I am sure that you would have had a better crowd. I agree with some of the other comments, in that you should write some travel books while doing all of this traveling. Your descriptions of the people and places have made me want to visit (even with the shower problems).
The video of the guitarists playing together for the record was pretty cool too, that had to have been pretty neat. I bet it was a lot more obvious when someone didn't know what they were playing though!

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Billie said...

I really want to hear about Godzilla's Buddha nature how it relates to the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla sucking pachycephalosaurus ass.

I'm also loving the travel posts. Keep wandering the earth like Kwai Chang Caine..

Anonymous said...

Everyone needs their own little fictions to cope with the harshness of life. I do feel that it's a grim, pitiful, nightmarish, meaningless experience. The only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself, and I'm not the first person to say this or the most articulate person on it. It was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, it was said by Eugene O'Neill. One must have one's delusions to live. You look at life too honestly and clearly, life does become unbearable, because it's a pretty grim enterprise, you must admit. - Woody Allen 2010

anon #108 said...

You look at life too honestly and clearly, life does become unbearable, because it's a pretty grim enterprise, you must admit.

Good one Woody!...You're a funny guy, that's for sure.

Dan_Brodribb said...

I'm jealous. Touring is so much fun.

I don't care where I go as long as I'm on the road.

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