Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cheerful Year of the Wood Sheep!
All of us at Gampo Abbey wish you a 
cheerful Shambhala Day and a joyful 
and auspicious New Year!


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Shape of Awake

Ani Pema Chodron with Hope Martin.
Photo by Soledad Gonzales
During this year's Yarne Hope Martin, a Master Teacher of the Alexander Technique, was invited by Ani Pema to work with the community to help us improve our meditation posture. This body/mind discipline was developed in the late 1800's by F.M. Alexander, a stage actor with voice problems who studied himself in a three-way mirror to discover how the way he used his body was affecting his performance. He observed his tendency to unconsciously interfere with the natural expansive organization of his system, and developed a practice whereby efficient functioning could be restored. This process brings awareness to postural and movement patterns, focusing on the relationship between neck, head and spine to the rest of the body. Similar to working with the habitual patterns of our mind through meditation, this approach is an active exploration of how we show up in our body.

During silent week Hope did hands-on work in the shrine room twice a day, quietly tweaking our position on the cushion, to help us find more ease, mobility, breath and grounding in our practice. Experiencing Hope's gentle adjustments, a contrast develops between our usual way of living in our bodies and a new place that is lighter, more supportive and alive. Inevitably we revert back to our habits but her touch helps us move out of them again. In this way, we gain insight into how we formed ourselves, the qualities of our responses that are held in the body and how we physically display our world and state of mind.

One of our temporary monastics, Padma Rinchen, shares her experience as: "It seems to me the A.T. is a practical way of connecting with oneself for a process of physical and psychological transformation. The good news is that my lifelong wilted flower stance no longer need define me."

It is fitting to have the opportunity to investigate the relationship between mind, body and identity while Ani Pema has been teaching on ego and selflessness. As she said in one of her talks: "One of the main qualities of ego or grasping is contracting and tensing, based on fear."

Hope's practical guidance on letting go of constriction is "a gateway to access these teachings in a very personal way and apply them in our practice and daily life", says Rigpa Lhatso, temporary monastic. Ani Dechen articulates her own experience: "There is no way to ultimately separate body and mind, so recognizing subtle habitual patterns in my posture has allowed me to see more clearly certain deeply held beliefs I've had all my life that have kept a lid on my heeart and life-force energy."

Another participant who has connected with this discipline in a powerful way is volunteer Sharon Meadows: "As a singer, dancer, teacher and administrator, I have spent all my life standing tall, shoulders back, head up, belly clenched, facing the world like a warrior. It took the gentle touch of Hope to release years of tension in my body. As she moved my head and neck ever so slightly forward and down, she whispered "soften, just soften" and I began to weep". Years of guardedness fell away. My heart opened. My neck relaxed. My head felt as if it was floating at the top of my spine. My body settled into the cushion with a sigh of relief."

Following the first silent week, Hope conducted bi-weekly group classes, exploring the application of the Alexander Technique to sitting meditation as well as other activities such as walking, bending and even running. After experiencing the hands-on work, we were invited to think of awareness as a form of touch. 

Bonapart, Hope's teaching assistant.
Photo by Tharpa Chodron
This empowering approach is not about imposing or striving for an ideal posture (or, as Alexander called this, end-gaining), it’s about honoring our natural structure - our birthright - and learning to stop interfering with it through excessive muscular tension and holding patterns. Then a balance of support and relaxation can come into play that invites our own aliveness to show up. As Holly Chute, a lay resident of the Abbey puts it: "With a more relaxed posture my mind has been less agitated and more in tune with softer, lighter sensations in my body."

Padma continues: "From the first class I immediately had a direct sense of what it means to contact my body using its natural intelligence and magnificent structure. The blind spot of not knowing how to relate to my body is beginning to disappear as I now feel I have a sense of how to both use my body and rest within it the way it was designed to."

Echoing one of Ani Pema's book titles, Start where you are, Hope encouraged us to get to know our habits. By not immediately trying to fix them, we can become intimate with them and they can be an opportunity to practice loving-kindness for ourselves. Holly observes: "Learning to relax habits in my posture has become a kind message to myself.

Ani Dechen explains it this way: "This work allows me to practice a more refined way of inhabiting this human body: not simply correcting the body according to whatever my ideas of an ideal posture are, but developing a deep listening and trust of the body, allowing it to come alive and undo its knots with its own particular wisdom."   

As with meditation practice, it takes time to change and, most importantly, to find the willingness to change. Facing our habitual patterns, whether in mind or body, can be challenging. "At first, I was very skeptical. It felt like I had spent a long time trying to perfect a comfortable posture, so I did not want to change it", says Kunga Rangdrol, another temporary monastic, "The willingness to look at and change my posture was the doorway to deepening the whole experience."

For some people it can also be painful. The adjustment requires certain muscles to work harder than they're used to, so an accompanying tightness can be a necessary part of the method, until the musculature gets used to working efficiently. Hope encouraged us to be gentle with the process. She taught a lying down technique called Constructive Rest to help us let go and allow the floor to support us. 

Rigpa, who has dealt with pain in her sitting practice with many years, discovered a gentler and almost painless way to sit: "Now without the struggle aspect, I began to really wake up and move through sleepiness and distraction which was often the result of avoiding pain in my body."

Kunga adds: "When Hope corrected my posture, she put me in a position that allowed my breathing to flow completely naturally. It felt like I wasn't forcing myself to sit up, rather the earth was supporting my body. This simple yet profound correction has allowed me to be less focused on the tension in  my body and more engaged in my actual practice."

It's a learning curve, but the results come along not only in the body, but also in the mind. As Dawa, another temporary monastic puts it: "It slowly sank in, leaving me with a sense of natural elegance, more energy in the body and with a more spacious and relaxed mind."

Jonathan Green, a participant, finds motivation to go forward with this technique:"Since Hope helped me into the right meditation posture and I experienced how relaxed and awake it makes me feel, I never want to go back to my habitual way of sitting."

Gampo Abbey Director Richard Haspray concludes: "It freshens practice, giving one ease and mobility (instead of bracing and holding to maintain stability). Sensory experiences are brigther, mind clearer, and you can genuinely relax with whatever arises because you are sitting with your shape of awake."

Hope will be returning to Atlanta March 22-28 to lead her sixth annual weekthun there called The Shape of Awake. All are welcome to attend this unique and beneficial program.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Once for a Lifetime
On Temporary Monastic Ordination

Someone once asked one of the great monastics and teachers of the Tibetan community in exile why he ordained so many tens of thousands of young monastics knowing full well that many of them would grow up in the monastery, receive an education, and then eventually give back their robes and return to the alluring household world of modern India. His answer was simple, profound, and touching. He said: “They’ll make better parents”.

In the Tibetan tradition, temporary ordination was not practiced intentionally: all monastic vows were given as life ordinations. However, in many other dharmic societies, a variety of forms of temporary ordinations have been practiced as an immersion in the dharma and a source of processing and merit for oneself and one’s society. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche felt that just such a temporary ordination would be of great benefit in our own society and was part of his founding intention for Gampo Abbey.

As the forces of speed, polarization, and frenetic consumption increase in our global society, so too does our need for inner strength, tranquility, and integrity. As it becomes harder to find an hour a day to meditate, it may become more helpful to take a year instead. As endless entertainment for the mind abounds, all the more precious is the opportunity to strip it away and let the mind meet itself. Ironically, the less monastic life may appear relevant to the modern world, the more relevant than ever it becomes.  

“That is the method”
It is for this reason that the tradition of temporary ordination has been practiced at Gampo Abbey for over twenty years by hundreds of individuals from nearly every continent. It is for this purpose of offering places of peace in the world that monasteries continue to exist. It is for this offering to enlightened society that temporary ordination continues to be upheld in the Shambhala Monastic Order. And so, it was with great joy that ten participants from as far as New Zealand and as close as Sydney, Nova Scotia received temporary ordination on 12 December, 2014, on a sunny winter day.

Group picture after ordination.
This ordination not only marked the first since the establishment of the Shambhala Monastic Order, but was also the first given by preceptor Gelong Lodro Kalsang. Before giving the ordination Kalsang invoked the memories and qualities of the many Abbey monastics who have made it possible and aspired that their accomplishments continue on through us. He spoke of the monastic life being a constant practice of the paramitas, a widening of the heart which will radiate out to whatever life brings next. In this light he spoke of enlightened society being revealed within the pratimoksha, the monastic code.

The rite for ordination involves receiving and agreeing to keep the Upasaka/Upasika Bramacharya precepts (the five precepts with celibacy) and to conduct oneself as a monastic while practicing four hours a day, engaging in a course of study, and working closely with others.

Lodro getting his hair cut.

The ceremony itself is simple and involves cutting one’s hair, donning robes, and adopting a Buddhist name as signals of an inner release into freedom. After aspiring to undertake the training in order to cultivate the enlightenment of all beings, a formula is repeated three times. After the final repetition the preceptor snaps their fingers and says: “That is the method”, and the newly ordained reply: “It is excellent”. And just like that the vows have been received warm hands to warm hands all the way back to the Buddha.

As Dawa Chodzo, a current temporary monk from Romania via London says: “The highlight, so far, has been our ordination day. It's a bit hard to describe it in words. I had a sense of lightness and being uplifted. The ceremony, the community's support, the elegant new robes, nature being part of our celebration. All these elements came together into an experience that was exhilarating and flowing for me.”

No community is an island
Society begins one mind, one conversation, one relationship, one community at a time. Tharpa Lodro, one of the new temporary monks from Washington D.C. expounds: “Being even a temporarily ordained monastic means taking the time to truly embrace the activity of enlightened society on a consistent basis. The monastic life is built for and of enlightened society and the more fully it manifests, the deeper and stronger the manifestation of enlightened society will be in this world. It also means an honored connection to a very direct lineage of blessings from the Buddha in his flesh and blood.”

In the monastery the heaven of bodhicitta and the earth of close community are joined by spending hours each day in meditation, and still more working with and surrounded by others - both “friends” and “difficult people”. It is a place whose inescapably close corners dissolve the boundary between personal practice and community life, and where the impurities of our own motivations become as obvious as burnt bits of food. Gradually, the basic goodness of ourselves and others becomes more and more obvious because there’s simply no turning away.

As Dawa said: “It feels like this is an important, precious and fortunate time in my life that the Abbey is offering support for. We're being held in a space where discipline and decorum are emphasized. We receive subtle compassion through the teachings of Ani Pema and her and the Sakyong's direct overall involvement.”

A Process of Reflection
One may wonder what would draw someone to such an endeavor. Often our stories are as diverse as the individuals, the only universal thread being the desire to practice. Usually, this has come from a process of self-reflection and deliberate orientation in a helpful direction.    

Dawa on the day of ordination.
“My living in the world, engaged in a life that society approves and deems as valuable, went on with some success”, says Dawa reflecting on his decision, “Yet there was also a sense of pain and dissatisfaction. I was not liking the way I was interacting with people and the world and I had a sense of creating more pain than happiness and relaxation. Or, in Buddhist terms that are becoming more familiar, I was engaging more in non-virtue than in virtue. So coming to the Abbey has been a natural transition fuelled by a desire to tame my mind in order to have less suffering, to be able to enter a role in society with a more generous intention and to hold a larger view of contributing and extending out to as many people as possible.”

With the Court on Our Heels
The ordination was given shortly after returning from a weekend of teachings from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. The weekend generously included an audience for the Abbey residents with the opportunity to ask the Sakyong questions about their upcoming venture.   

After wondering about missing a year in the household world, Lodro expressed his concerns to the Sakyong and asked for his guidance. Lodro recalls: “The Sakyong said he was rather certain the world would be there regardless of whether I was at the Abbey or not and that it should be considered deeply how often one has the chance to take an extended period of time to deepen their engagement with meditation?” Lodro then had to contemplate his doubt and decide what would be of most benefit.

Upon pondering this, Lodro explains: “I have concluded that the world is still indeed out there and it seems as if it will continue to be so. My time here will help build the momentum in regards to the monastic path and those who support it. That truly I cannot think of what I could do right now that would be of more benefit to the world and society and it would be quite sad to miss such a blessed opportunity”. 

Onward and outward

An auspicious rainbow appeared after the ordination ceremony.
A monastery is a community that understands interdependence. It is sustained by offerings, and understands that by helping a person deepen their practice for a year and sending them out a little softer, it too is making an offering. It takes pride in being an ever-changing river of people from around the world, returning to the ocean with a slightly warmer current. A monastery does not reject the larger world; rather, it invites it in a few people at a time and tries to make a difference.   

What kind of difference does it make?

“Temporary Ordination has been the best decision of my life at this point,” Lodro concludes, “it will be in my heartsblood for as long as I have a heart.”

Written by Gelong Loden Nyima, Head of Education at Gampo Abbey
Edited by Tharpa Chodron 

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