Travel Stories

Meeting Djordje – Pine Hills, NY

Early in 2008 I have the irrefutably brilliant idea that I will go on a silent meditation retreat, something I have never done before (or since), and being the cautious conservative fellow I am I sign up at a Chan Zen center in upstate NY for a ten day session.  The meditation sessions master is a ruggedly handsome 50ish looking man who speaks very firmly with a heavy accent that I instantly recognize as Serbo-Croatian.  It is possible to speak with the master or the abbot only at specified brief times on alternate days.  When my opportunity arises to speak with the meditation session master I trot out the three or four Serbo-Croatian phrases I still remember, tell the man that I lived in Bosnia in 1964 and that I was an anthropologist and he takes an instant interest in me. This is Djordje. 

Over the course of the next few days Djordje sees that I am having an immensely difficult time sitting, which has become quite obvious to him because of my relentless fidgeting, sleeping, falling over, and snoring.  Have I done a silent retreat before Djordje wants to know.  And given my answer, why ten days to start rather than one or two.  I'd like to tell him it's because I'm trying to get over a broken heart but it is beyond our linguistic capacities, so I just shrug.  "Listen," Djordje advises, "you don't have to sit for each whole session, but each session you must begin, try, and be present at the end.  If you are restless just walk slowly in nature and meditate. And you must maintain silence!"  Did I say I instantly loved Djordje?

The ashram is located in a spectacularly beautiful setting in Pine Bush, NY.  Very remote, mountainous, watery.  The snow is melting and there are deer herds everywhere.  My days are blissful.  The crows my companions.  One day, instead of just walking in nature meditatively as Djordje has recommended I even dare get in my car and drive off the grounds – something clearly not permitted – just to get away and get a better sense of where I am.  I pause for a while on a fairly deserted muddy dirt road in the woods some miles from the ashram within sight of a farmhouse, get out of the driver's side of the car, get back in the passenger side, take out my laptop, do some writing without interference from the steering wheel, write maybe twenty minutes or so, realize I have to get back to the ashram and back into the meditation session before it ends, get back out of the car, back in the driver's side, drive to the ashram, and have been sitting for a while in what I imagine is the remainder of the morning session when I notice Djordje has been called out of the session by the ashram director, something I have not seen happen before.

Before long Djordje is back in the meditation hall and I see he is signaling for me to come outside, which I'm only too happy to do, until I get there and see the abbot, the director, Djordje, and two of New York State's finest highway patrol officers, who have been called by someone presumably in the farmhouse about a suspicious, unfamiliar car parked outside her house, the license plate number of which has been reported to the police who have deduced the vehicle belongs to someone at the ashram, have found the vehicle in the ashram parking lot, have the name and a description of a possible suspect of something, are there to investigate, and will not be thwarted or delayed.  I learn later in fact that they demanded to come into the meditation hall to drag me out and that the ashram authorities explained why that would be impossible, an incredible violation of the entire sacred meditation space, and a gross tarnishing of the ashram's reputation, to which the police responded that they were going in anyway, only until Djordje prevailed upon them not to do so and that he would bring me out.

"And how do you know who we want, there are 60 people in that room," the police ask Djordje and Djordje says he said, "Why do you think they keep me here?  I know things."

Anyhow, the long and the short of this part of the story is that the police believe I am who I say I am, that I was doing more or less what I told them I was doing, for the innocent reasons I said I was doing it, that there were no outstanding warrants for my arrest, and they drive away.  Easy for me, but not for the abbot and the ashram director who are aghast, there have never been police on their premises ever, I am clearly not ashram appropriate material, and that Djordje is to instruct me that I must leave immediately, that my fees will be refunded, and that I am no longer welcome.  Which Djordje actually refuses to do.  Tells them it would be wrong to ask me to leave, that they may deny me admission any time in the future they so wish, but that he will not ask me to leave in the midst of a session.  "Fine," the director says.  "But be assured we will never permit him to return."

On the last day of the session everyone gathers in the morning to formally break our silence and share some words reflecting on our experience.  The abbot and the director are present.  When it is my turn to speak I say I have written a poem about my experience that I would like to read.  (It can be found here -  After hearing the poem the director tells Djordje that if I wish to return I will be welcomed.  Would that all my poetry served me that well. 

I say goodbye to the director with apologies for any unwanted attention I may have brought upon the ashram.  The director says to me, "Do you think there is any rule of ours you haven't broken?" 

I say goodbye to Djordje and tell him I hope to return one day to visit "my" village of Lijesnica in Bosnia and Djordje says that if I do I come I should visit him in Croatia as well.  And here I am.  With now far more to tell.