Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Hall of Mirrors
Exploring Life at Gampo Abbey

One of the most common misconceptions about living at a monastery is that it’s an attempt to evade our lives and the world we live in, a convenient escape plan. In fact, Gampo Abbey has been described as a hall of mirrors, a place where the simplicity of life and the intensity of practice demand that we look more closely at ourselves. Taking the leap to spend a significant amount of time here is an intentional commitment to waking up.

There are various components that make up the precious container of Gampo Abbey. The most obvious one is the location itself. The landscape of Cape Breton exudes drala energy and the vastness of the ocean is a constant reminder for the mind and heart to expand. This setting offers enough isolation so that all of life’s rhythms are arranged around practice. It’s the ideal environment to lead a simplified existence, regulated by the natural cycle of the seasons and with minimal distractions.

Director Richard Haspray describes: “Following the patterns of a monastic schedule reveals a healthy rhythm of life that allows time and space for practice, study, food, work, socializing, and rest. The schedule creates the boundaries necessary to experience the space of meditation and the contrast of everyday activity. As the Abbey's director, I hold this sacred space by enjoying this life and by helping to set boundaries for everyone.”

If you’re picturing a strict disciplinarian environment full of restrictions where people put themselves through some sort of trial of endurance, think again. First and foremost, the container at Gampo Abbey is full of gentleness and care. There’s a strong sense of being on the same boat. Whether we have just arrived or we've been on the monastic path for many years, we follow a culture of support, practicing loving-kindness in our day-to-day communal living. “Discipline is necessary, but kindness has to go with the discipline,” explains our elder Ani Migme Chodron. “So that means that the disciplinarian has to feel good about themselves. If you feel good about yourself, then you can transmit discipline to others in a clear-cut but gentle way that other people can accept. But if I’m feeling rotten about myself, that’s transmitted to the people I’m trying to discipline.”

The Five Precepts
The central component, in which Gampo Abbey stands out from the land centers, is adhering to the five Buddhist precepts: not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual activity, not lying, and not consuming intoxicants. Everyone, including the householders, abides by these precepts. Keeping the precepts collectively creates an invisible but powerful container in and of itself, offering a profound way of looking into our habitual patterns.

The precepts can be understood from a coarse outer level and from a more refined level of practice, where we take the opportunity to work with their inner meaning. As Ani Migme puts it: “Not to kill, that’s easy.” The tricky part is seeing the subtleties as a way to sharpen your mindfulness. It’s not just about respecting the rules for the rules’ sake. Working with the precepts is a great practice in being aware of your intentions. When you’re not quite breaking a precept, but perhaps slightly bending it, you’re constantly viewing what’s going on in your mind.

Karma and Discernment
In these first months, the curriculum for the Warriors Who Are Meek, the One Year Monastic Training Program, has focused on foundational principles from the teachings on Tiger such as basic goodness, friendliness to self, and discernment based on study of the laws of karma. Understanding the twelve nidanas can make us more inquisitive about how we apply the precepts and orient our body, speech, and mind. Accepting that we are constantly planting karmic seeds, we can take the opportunity to use this particular container to train in loosening our habitual patterns and cultivating positive momentum in our practice.

This is one of the ways that life at the monastery is a training ground for discipline of mind. In a way, discipline involves fearlessness: by observing the way your mind engages with the structure of the container, precepts in particular, we might find aspects of ourselves that we hadn’t noticed before, and sometimes that’s not very pleasant. So it takes fearlessness to be willing to discover your naked mind, all the recesses that you might wish weren’t there. From that, we might also be surprised to uncover the great potential near at hand. On this subject, Ani Migme says: “You have to be willing to accept change and then again when you feel the rubbing: ‘Oh I don’t like this, I don’t want to change’, that’s where you have something to learn about yourself.”

Enlightened Society
How the process of inner transformation is held and supported by the community is part of how we put into practice the vision of enlightened society at Gampo Abbey. The monastery is by design going to bring up core habitual patterns in our minds and at the same time give us the space and tools to transform them in a positive or even liberating way. That’s a rare combination and an intensely vulnerable process. The key element in terms of community practice is how we work with that vulnerability. Vulnerability isn’t something we have to hide; rather, it’s what allows us to connect as people. It’s what shows us our common humanity and our common sense of path.

On an individual level, it’s what cuts through our slickness and makes the dharma real. One example of how we work with this is that every two weeks we formally meet with our peers to share our deep self-reflections on our process, laying aside our mistakes, and reconnecting with our aspirations. It’s a safe space where one person at a time speaks and the others just listen, showing up for each other without judgment. “Over the years we know each other’s struggles, know each other’s breakthroughs, know each other’s secrets - and it’s all allowed,” says Loden Nyima, Head of Education, “It’s all regarded as the path of liberation and the whole point altogether.”

Ultimately, the practice container is defined by the people in it. How we react to other people’s behavior can be as clear a mirror of our state of mind as sitting meditation. Our fellow practitioners, just as most people have discovered in every sangha, can be our greatest teachers. Depending on our frame of mind, we can experience this environment as a “cool clay pot, a pressure cooker, or a hermetically sealed Tupperware,” as one of our householders, Adrian Thalasinos, describes it. All the uncomfortable aspects of community life are still present here, but it’s the commitment to no escape that makes the monastery unique.

Another element of this container is the practice of silence, which in similar fashion to the five precepts, makes us more clearly aware of our mind patterns. At Gampo Abbey, silence is observed from 8pm to lunch time and it provides an open space for practitioners to work with habitual tendencies that revolve around speech. One can then more easily see the motivations behind the urge to communicate. Just like with the precepts, looking into our motivations can provide insight into how our mindless actions lead us to unnecessary suffering.

Regarding how to relate to silence, Adrian says: “It is our refuge, a place to notice thoughts and emotions. Within it there is room to cultivate an awareness. Some days it's a reminder to look out the window during breakfast, the space to appreciate the outer world. Other times it's the stark sound of our agitated mind that takes the stage. Within a vacuum can rush in the cacophonous chatter of our minds. To me silence at the Abbey is as golden as a shining seated Buddha.”

Sense of Humor
In a context defined by such a structure, it can be easy to become rigid in following all the rules. That uptightness is resolved by keeping a sense of humor. Lightheartedness is often a gateway to gentleness and discovering an open space where the joy of discipline can flourish.
“Trungpa Rinpoche, my teacher for fourteen years, said laughter is very close to shunyata,” recalls Ani Migme, “and the reason for that is that you’re going along and there’s a break. Laughter means something is surprising, something is absolutely new at that moment. That brings laughter. Shunyata is not empty, ultimately shunyata is the fullness of possibilities.”

One might wonder about the effects of living in such a container where the forms, the discipline, and the practice are so repetitive and constant. Often residents over time describe a process of softening, opening, coming into themselves, releasing entrapping patterns, and kneading the dharma into their minds at a deeper level.

“Sometimes people look at monastics and think we must be seeking some profound spiritual realization”, says Loden, “in the long run that’s definitely what we wish for everyone, but at the same time, when I honestly self-reflect after five years in the monastery I’d say it’s been a process of slowly becoming a dharmic person. It’s been about getting up in the morning and being happy to practice because it becomes a source of strength and joy. It’s been about the teachings becoming guiding principles for life. Other people become more and more important, especially their paths. In fact, supporting other people’s paths is pretty much the vocation of our life monastics and the motivation for going further in our own. There’s little if any realization for me to speak of and it’s only a very basic level of taming that I’ve worked with. But at the same time, the dharma becomes a way of life and the problem is that it works.”

Written by Emma Cataford, Gampo Abbey resident
with Loden Nyima, Gampo Abbey Head of Education
Photos by Emma Cataford

This post was previously published in the Shambhala Times in two parts:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Recent Events at Gampo Abbey

December was a joyous albeit busy month at Gampo Abbey. In the midst of all the preparations leading up to Yarne, the monastic winter retreat, there have been some community events we would like to share. 

On December 13th a group of Abbey residents participated in Pleasant Bay's United Church annual fundraiser. Our gracious choir performed two pieces for the local community. One was a rendition of a Bach chorale with original lyrics by Ani Dechen entitled "This World Is Like a Dream"; the other was a traditional "Metta Prayer" that involved the whole community following along. 

The Gampo Abbey Choir
Photo by Emma Cataford

Our director Richard Haspray was recruited to manifest as Santa Clause for the children. He played the part with enthusiasm and was very credible in the role. 

Richard aka Santa
Photo by Alice Haspray
It was an occasion for the Abbey to connect with the people of Pleasant Bay, continuing to nourish a relationship of mutual respect and kinship that has been present for thirty years.
We also contributed to the cake auction and potluck. 

On December 22nd we marked the Winter Solstice with a lhasang before dawn. We gathered around the fire to offer juniper smoke in order to purify and dispel neuroses ahead of the darkest part of the year. 

Photo by Soledad Gonzalez
Photo by S.G.
  On December 25th we celebrated Bodhisattva Day with a special meal offered by volunteer cooks. 

Dawa, Nordzing and Rigpa preparing the meal for Bodhisattva Day.
Photo by S.G.

Another one of our Bodhisattva Day cooks: Ani Dechen.
Photo by S.G.

Offering the food.
Photo by S.G.

Enjoying the food and the company.
Photo by S.G.

We hope our followers have spent a wonderful holiday season as well! 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Introducing Cornelius
Photo by Adrian Thalasinos Haley 

Meet Cornelius, the bird of nowness. It unfortunately slammed into one of the windows of the main shrineroom during a meditation session, making some people jump out of their skin. Adrian Thalasinos Haley, our Head of Facilities, retrieved it and it was taken in to recover. 

Cornelius resting on Adrian's head. Photo by Sharon Meadows

It was quite disoriented and it’s missing a chunk of tail feathers. The theory is that it might have had an encounter with a hawk. After a few days, it appears to be more confident and has taken a liking to its new quarters. It actually enjoys its own room in Adrian and Tingdzen’s cabin and even had its own cage custom build, although it prefers to roam around, and sleep on Tingdzen’s bed.
Thubten Tingdzen with Cornelius. Photo by A.T.H.

Cornelius enjoying her room. Photo by A.T.H.

A quick research revealed that it’s a female specimen of the Pine Grosbeak, native to Canada. However, it is still going by the name Cornelius.

Cornelius outside her cage. Photo by S.M.
Photo by A.T.H.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Journey in Shambhala Monasticism: A Year at Gampo Abbey
Arrival and Adjustment

Photo by Lodro Kalsang
   On October 2nd, a new group of practitioners joined the community at Gampo Abbey for a one year training program in the Shambhala Monastic Order. Ten people, two ladies and eight gentlemen, from across the globe committed to a year of residency at the monastery which will include receiving temporary ordination. 
   Temporary ordination has long been offered at Gampo Abbey as part of the Vidyadhara's vision for how monasticism can impact and benefit the larger society. In continuing to uphold and develop the monastic path, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has established the Shambhala Monastic Order and this year marks its first residential offering. The year follows a curriculum based on the principles of Tiger - friendliness, mindfulness, discernment, renunciation, selflessness, exertion, contentment, and confidence. Training methods include frequent practice of Shambhala Meditation in addition to regular practices, interpersonal exploration, weekly classes, monastic training, and guided study from the teachings of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and the Druk Sakyong Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. "The aspiration is that taking a year or more to train in the monastery is an opportunity for participants to deepen and strengthen their understanding, practice, and embodiment of these core teachings. Whether one then returns to householder life or goes further as a monastic, a journey has taken place and that is an offering to enlightened society" says Loden Nyima, Head of Education.  

The entrance to Gampo Abbey
Photo by Emma Cataford
 For many the journey leading here started long before the actual travelling that took them to Canada and then across Nova Scotia finally ‘landing’ on the rugged cliff of Cape Breton where Gampo Abbey sits unruffled by the northern winds. 
   As new arrival Daniel Baker explains: “Coming to Gampo Abbey was a result of a consistent longing to deepen my connection to practice, insight and lineage. Not to mention, practice that is consistent and deep profoundly shifts my heart in (positive) ways I felt a sincere need for. Also, Acharya Cashman told me to go or else; she didn’t elaborate on the else, so I booked the ticket.”
   For another participant the seeds for monastic life were sowed in previous stays: "When I first visited Gampo Abbey”, says Josh Clarke, “I had a very deep feeling that living here would be in my future. Now, as a resident, I can happily say that this continues to be the most helpful thing that I have ever experienced. Every day I learn something new about myself and the wisdom, within that, is very profound and beneficial. Having those sorts of experiences really helps me touch into and feel my innate goodness. Overall, I feel strongly that my time spent here will put workable ground under my feet for the rest of my life so that I can be there for others."
   Thubten Tingdzen, a new temporary monastic, reflects on his decision as an exploration of human nature: “I came to Gampo Abbey with a question about humanity’s basic nature. It’s been a question that continually comes back to me as I work with my path and move forward in my life. About five years ago I began to see that there was something I shared with all human beings. I realized that it was possible to sympathize and see in myself the same intentions, motivations, longings, desires and frustrations of all beings, even those who I had previously dismissed as evil or cruel. This was a big shock to me because I began to realize that the narrative I had been continually trusted of good guys and bad guys didn’t seem congruent with this new understanding of my capacity for empathy. I had started questioning fundamental aspects of my reality: if my basic nature is deeper than good or bad, then my own ability to choose one is more of a responsibility than a luxury.”  

Photo by E.C.
   On the importance of meditation practice and community, he says: “Furthermore I saw, as I began to work with meditation, that my capacity to choose to harm or help beings including myself was thoroughly mucked by my own bewilderment and self-doubt. I needed support. Deepening my understanding and ability to work with this confusion, and learning how to trust my basic nature are the reasons I came to a monastery. The daily schedule, ceremonies, and monastic forms are a perfect mirror that reveals my own aggression and confusion. They also provide an incredible avenue to experiencing basic goodness and drala.”

   Whether the reaction upon arrival was a sense of ‘I have arrived, I am home’ or ‘What was I thinking and how do I get out of here?’, the time of adjustment had begun.

Photo by E.C.

   The staff graciously welcomed the new arrivals and left them three open days to settle down before jumping into the routine of monastic life. Most people took the opportunity to explore the land.
   The first walk up to the Stupa of Enlightenment is something to remember. It’s a short pleasant stroll where you are immersed in the woods and have to cross a little wooden bridge over a stream that flows down from the steep slope of the mountain. Various Buddha statues sit around the rocks. One has to stop to take in the jaw dropping beauty of it all. The pure energy of nature manifests itself wherever the gaze sets.
Photo by E.C.
   The Stupa of Enlightenment reminds passersby that this is a place dedicated to world peace and the benefit of all beings. The site contains relics of the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and was consecrated in 2001 by the Abbot Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche. Weapons were buried in the ground under the stupa, (including a World War I rifle donated by a Cape Breton neighbor of the Abbey), symbolizing the overcoming of aggression.

Lojon slogans. Photo by E.C.

   All around it are plaques engraved with the fifty-nine lojong slogans of mind training, which can be read while circumambulating the Stupa.
   Another nice little trek to take is the one that leads up to Gampo Lhatse. It’s a little steep, but quite rewarding. The view from up there is absolutely stunning, giving a panoramic scene of the Abbey’s estate. The feeling of lha, nyen and lu is palpable. One feels the height of the mountain and the richness of the woodlands, the vastness of the ocean and the force of the wind. 

The view from Gampo Lhatse. Photo by E.C.
Gampo Lhatse. Photo by E.C.
   Gampo Lhatse is the protector whom the Abbot of Gampo Abbey, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, designated for the land and it’s connected to Gampopa’s monasteries. A lhatse (Tibetan for “divine peak”) traditionally was a stack of rocks on a mountain that indicated a place to leave offerings to a deity to secure safe passage. On the mountain adjacent to the Abbey there is a small structure that marks the heart of the land, so to speak, where you can find offerings and prayer flags.

   At last, after the first weekend, came the 'real thing': adjusting to the daily schedule. Wake up 'clacks' are sounded through the hallways at 5:30 am. First meditation session with morning chants and taking of precepts at 6. Before breakfast is served, the house gets a good scrub and straightening out. This is a time where the sense of community is strongest: everyone has their assignment and takes responsibility for a little piece of the Abbey. All are equal in housework. Same goes for dishes after meal times.
The han, used to call residents to practice.
Photo by E.C.

   The main meditation practice happens in the morning 8 to 11, unless a class is scheduled. Before lunch, one hour and a half is dedicated to mind/body time, which can mean studying or exercising (or taking a nap!). After lunch comes a four hour work period which ends with evening chants. Dinner is called ‘medicine meal’ as traditionally monastics wouldn’t eat after lunch for two reasons: to not burden their benefactors that offered alms and to rise fresher the next morning. At Gampo Abbey this principle is observed by cooking a soup with the day’s leftovers.

   All through the morning until lunch, the whole house is in silence, which resumes at 8 pm. The practice of silence, also observed all day on specific occasions is an important one in a contemplative environment. It creates a spaciousness in the mind where one can observe the thought process that occur in and around communication. Through silence, a lot is learned about the use of speech and mindful, effective communication.

   The new residents also participated in some community events. On October 16th, in accordance with the view of the monastery being part of a village, the residents of Gampo Abbey volunteered to clean up a spectacular stretch of Cape Breton. 
The shoreline near the Abbey. Photo by Lodro Kalsang.

   Having joined forces with local legend Captain Mark Timmons, they fared the sea to bring back piles of garbage left behind by the summer tourists. 

The Gampo Abbey crew with Captain Mark. Photo by Les St Marie

   After gathering all the trash bags, plastic material and waste of all sorts, the group gathered to sing the Shambhala Anthem. During that, a seal curiously observed from the water before splashing its tail and disappearing into the waves. 
Director Richard Haspray (left) with two Abbey residents.
Photo by Les St Marie
   On October 26th the annual Open House occurred. The Abbey welcomed around 85 people from the nearby towns and from further away. The visitors were given a tour of the house, listened to a talk by one of our nuns and received meditation instruction, while the children were busy with arts and crafts.

   Last but not least, they were treated to a feast of offerings prepared by residents and friends of the Abbey. The mood was friendly and uplifted. Everybody worked hard in the days leading up to the event in a concerted effort to offer our best. Many people were regular features of the Open House, others were drawn to visit by curiosity.

The kids' contributions. Photo by E.C.

Director Richard Haspray and Shastri Alice Haspray. Photo by E.C.

   At the end of this month of transition, the new residents were given householder vows, a formal commitment to abide by the five basic precepts which all Abbey residents take. Preceptor Lodro Kalsang led the simple ceremony which concluded with the new arrivals receiving their dzens, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist piece of clothing which householders wear in the shrineroom. 
   During this first period the participants have been practicing Shambhala meditation and the Shambhala Sadhana, receiving teachings on basic goodness and friendliness to self, exploring these topics with one another and beginning study from seminary teachings of the Sakyong. The schedule is gearing up and the participants are mostly enthusiastic about delving into deep study of the dharma.
   In the months ahead, through study and meditation, we will continue to explore our motivations for choosing to live at the monastery and how this can benefit people in the wider community.

Thubten Tingdzen expressed this intention as such: “As a member of society and as a human being I care deeply about the state of the world. If I can contribute anything to humanity’s ability to self-reflect and heal, it will be through investigating my mind, and trusting in my own wisdom, kindness, and strength.”

Photo by Thubten Tingdzen.
Written by Emma Cataford and Loden Nyima

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Gampo Abbey is Looking to Hire a Full Charge Bookkeeper/Head of Finance

Gampo Abbey is looking for a full charge Bookkeeper/Head of Finance who will be responsible for handling all the accounting needs of the organization. This position processes and tracks all financial transactions, maintains the chart of accounts, and processes financial reports.  The Abbey has just undergone a comprehensive one-year review and restructuring of its accounting systems and practises.  The successful applicant will be motivated to continue working with the community on the implementation of these new practices and also be willing to maintain good bookkeeping protocol for the clear understanding and tracking in approximately 300 chart of accounts.
Reporting to the Director, the Bookkeeper/Head of Finance is a member of staff who while working with other staff and members of the community maintains the integrity and transparency of the financial services of Gampo Abbey.
The preferred candidate will have 3 to 5 years bookkeeping experience, intermediate to advanced knowledge of Quickbooks, experience processing payroll, be familiar with donations and charity financial guidelines, ability to self-manage and provide supervision to a part-time assistant.
We are looking for someone with excellent attention to detail, strong problem solving skills, is effective at planning and organizing their own workload, and can communicate effectively with a diverse community.
The position provides a monthly salary based upon an average 37.5 hour work-week.  It includes two weeks paid vacation per year, along with one week of retreat time provided in one of Gampo Abbey's retreat cabins.
As a member of the Abbey community, you will be expected to abide by the five Buddhist precepts.
Our preference is for someone who can make a two-year commitment beginning June 15, 2014.
For more details, contact Richard Haspray, Gampo Abbey’s director, at or call 902-224-1517

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Celebrating 30 Years of Life and Friendship at Gampo Abbey

Click on the YouTube link below for a slide show of 30 years at Gampo Abbey. Enjoy!

Looking for 3 Volunteers for Gampo Abbey's Kitchen

Warm greetings from Gampo Abbey! As the days lengthen and the first warm breezes and spring rainshowers melt the long winter's snow and ice, we are beginning to plan the summer season at the Abbey, with its increased activities and visitors.

This is an invitation for 3 volunteers to work in the kitchen: 2 people to serve as cooks from 

May 15 - September 15 and 1 person to serve as cook for the month of June.

Volunteers get free room and board and are expected to take part in the Abbey's schedule, which includes, among other things, about 4-5 hours of meditation practice per day, and about 4 hours of work per day. We ask that applicants have basic cooking skills/knowledge/interest, as well as a willingness to commit to the Abbey's way of life, which includes living in community, focused practice, silence, and much more. Also, as a summer cook, you can look forward to enjoying some of our wind-swept garden's produce, herbs, and flowers.

For more information on life at Gampo Abbey, please visit

For more information on this volunteering opportunity or to apply, please contact:

We look forward to sharing the summer with you!