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.”
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.”
“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
Photos by Emma Cataford
This post was previously published in the Shambhala Times in two parts: