Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Gampo Abbey Welcomes a New Life Monastic

The life monastic community, with Thubten Tingdzen bottom left.

On April 9th, one of Gampo Abbey’s temporary monks, Thubten Tingdzen, took the brave leap of Parma Rabjung ordination. In the Tibetan tradition, this is a first step in the path of life monasticism, an entry period before taking novice vows.
After the ceremony, with Gampo Acharya Pema Chodron as preceptor, the whole community gathered for a celebration, in which we shared our appreciation for the courageous choice Tingdzen has made. Director Richard Haspray and Shastri Alice Haspray say: “We are honored to be supporting Tingdzen’s journey at the Abbey. His ziji is contagious!”

Acharya Chodron and Thubten Tingdzen during the hair cutting rite
of the ordination ceremony
Many community members celebrated Tingdzen’s kindness, thoughtfulness, humor, intellect, and natural monastic leanings. We are very proud to welcome such a valuable member of the community into the Shambhala Monastic Order. We all now look forward to continuing the journey together.  

“I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to make a connection to the Buddha’s monastic lineage at Gampo Abbey,” says Tingdzen “It is humbling to think that so many inspiring practitioners have worked so hard in order for me to be able to take this step. The ceremony was brief but I feel like surrendering in this way has taken a lifetime of preparation. I now feel deeply protected and nurtured by the Buddha who has accepted me just as I am, my wisdom and confusion neatly wrapped in maroon robes, a basically good human being. Through surrendering I have made a commitment to see myself as a Buddha would see me: perfectly capable of realizing the nature of my own mind, worthy of the robes I now wear, a perfectly imperfect monk.”

Written by Tharpa Chodron and Gelong Loden Nyima
Pictures by Lodro Kalsang

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Powerful Protector Finds Its Home

Ani Pema Chodron with the Mahakala painting.

On February 8, Gampo Acharya Pema Chodron presided over a ceremony to install Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s original painting of the Four-Armed Mahakala on the protector shrine in Gampo Abbey’s main shrine room. According to the Nalanda Translation Committee, the Four Armed Mahakala is said to be a dharmapala (protector) predicted by the Buddha, and he is a particular protector of the madhyamaka teachings and of the Chakrasamvara tantra. He was also a special protector of Surmang, and his symbolism is based on vajra anger and compassion. The Vidyadhara painted this in the early 60s, and it isn’t known if he created it in India or during his time in England at Oxford University. For many years he kept this protector close, and he had it hanging on the wall of his residence in Boulder—the Kalapa Court. The Shambhala Archives has now entrusted care of this powerful image to the Abbey.

Written by Alice Haspray with information from the Nalanda Translation Committee  
Photos by Maria Losurdo

Friday, March 13, 2015

Yarne: the Heart of Gampo Abbey

Gampo Abbey in early January
Photo by Maria Losurdo
The community at Gampo Abbey ushered in 2015 by starting their annual winter retreat, called Yarne. Entering the retreat involves formally committing to remain within both the physical boundaries of the land as well as the spiritual boundaries of our intention and according conduct. Yarne is one of three essential practices for all Buddhist monastic communities since the time of the historical Buddha, the other two being the Sojong practice of laying aside misdeeds and renewing our vows, and the Gagye lifting of the Yarne restrictions. This means we actually have to leave the monastery!

"Sticks of the way", which count the monastics participating in the retreat,
and a lock and key symbolizing the closed retreat.
Photo by Tharpa Chodron
The Yarne retreat was established as a natural response to the Indian summer’s monsoon weather: during the rainy season, it was not advisable to travel and therefore an ideal time for the sangha to practice together. At Gampo Abbey, the most logical time for this is during the winter, which in Cape Breton can be quite harsh and hinder travel. It includes spending upwards of eight hours a day on the cushion engaged in meditation, contemplation, and liturgy within the tight container of monastic discipline. As Genyen Thubten Tingdzen points out, it’s a wonderful way for our community “to enrich the Shambhala                                                                                                       mandala with the blessings of this                                                                                                             2,600 year old tradition.”

This year, Gampo Acharya Pema Chodron gave a series of talks titled Making Friends with Yourself: Exploring Self, Selflessness, and the Roots of Attachment, which will be edited in an online course. Based on the Buddha’s expositions of the Five Skandhas, the Eight Consciousnesses and the Twelve Nidanas, they draw from a variety of teachers, including Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, HH the Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche and Thich Nhat Han and Ken McCleod

Ani Pema during the biweekly circumambulation 
of the shrineroom during Sojong. 
Photo by Soledad Gonzales
Through Ani Pema’s classes, followed by Q&A sessions, readings, group discussions, and guided contemplations, the participants had the opportunity to explore the concept and their experience of the illusion of self and the freedom of selflessness. It was a rich investigation into how we view ourselves as separate from others, consequently bringing insight into how we relate to the world and our society. “We have come to a place where we cannot escape from the vividness of reality,” says Tingdzen, “This was an important lesson for me: I either struggle with reality or I can relax into it. What I learned is that we share reality. And how we work with our mind affects that shared reality. The way we perceive reality can mesh with reality itself. This is inescapable at the monastery. The method that we learned from Acharya Pema Chodron has to do with being able to relax into our own basic goodness.”

Photo by S.G.
Due to the number of residents who joined the Abbey for the The Warriors Who Are Meek year of monastic training in October, the monastery was filled near capacity and we were only able to invite a very limited number of guests into a well settled container. The demands of the schedule were strongly felt, but a culture of support was ever present. Held together by the life monastics, along with the Abbey Director and Shastri in residence, who provide the ground and guidance for the whole sangha to delve into practice, there was a sense of commitment, yet with a certain lightheartedness. “Going quite deeply into our neurosis can make for some funny yet tender scenarios in the monastery,” Tingdzen explains, “I think there were moments for everyone where we caught ourselves thinking about packing our bags, and maybe even got to the point where we were looking at our empty suitcase on our bed, ready to be filled, before being able to smile at ourselves, seeing how far we had gone into our escape plan.”

During her first address, Ani Pema made an invitation to reflect on why each individual was undertaking the retreat and to make a dedication to a specific person or group of people. In this way, practicing takes on a stronger significance, implying that all the effort made is not just for oneself, but so that one can raise bodhichitta for the benefit of others. Of course, there are also personal benefits in going through an intense closed retreat such as this. As any long term meditator will tell you, dedicating a period of time to deepen one’s practice is a precious opportunity.

Winter view from the Abbey.
Photo by S.G.
Doing this in a monastery, given the nature of the container, can be challenging, but also somewhat liberating. One of the lay participants, Rebeccas Eldridge, shares: "There's space to unravel at Gampo Abbey, which can be so freeing but also takes a lot of courage. I'm grateful for my fellow unravelers on this journey. And with Ani Pema at the helm, what an amazing journey it's been."

This was an occasion to rest fully with mind, its workings and potential. Discussing the eight types of consciousness can be an entryway to observing the patterns of thoughts, emotions and reactions in daily life. This is a process, not a quick fix solution. Rebecca adds: “There's been a keen sense of comings and goings during the Yarne retreat—calm arises; it moves off. Frustration comes on, then it leaves. A main practice for me has been staying with all the comings and goings without beating myself up when I think I'm failing and without puffing myself up when I think I'm finally getting somewhere.”

The Yarne shrine.
 Photo by T.C.
Starting from contemplating our understanding of self by looking at our habitual tendencies, Ani Pema encouraged people to get intimate with what it means to be human, as opposed of trying to get rid of ego. Tharpa Lodro, a temporary monastic, paints a colorful picture of what it’s like to get familiar with ourselves: “It was like a huge gigantic empty pot and inside of that is plenty of water in which your little pea-body is floating and here comes Ani Pema with her teachings on selflessness to turn on the heat and get the water boiling. A very powerful, beautiful and demanding experience.”

One of the instructions given by the teacher was to rest in the raw energy of our emotions in order to find a space to pause between thought and action. This gives us a chance to see clearly our entanglement in reactivity and interrupt the momentum of our usual unhelpful inclinations. By contacting the energy of being hooked we can also recognize how others experience the same suffering: “Our intimacy in this community dictates that we see the results of our unhelpful actions sooner than we normally would,” says Tingdzen.

During the seven weeks of retreat, participants also had the fortune of connecting to their body through the work of two gifted instructors: Hope Martin with the Alexander Technique (see our previous post), and Rebecca Eldridge with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Both their work appropriately coincided with the instructions given by Ani Pema. Maria Losurdo, a lay practitioner notes: "The experiential work that has been presented by Hope and Rebecca has supercharged the retreat by magnifying Pema’s teachings and infusing them into felt experience.”

While Hope concentrated on our posture, Rebecca led the group once a week in various MBSR exercises, such as a body scan which provided a gateway to awareness of self through our most direct vehicle, our physical sensations. Getsulma Lodro Dechen explains: “In particular, we often discussed the nervous system (which Ani Pema brought up a few times in her talks) and how, through training in mindfulness, we can enlarge the space in which we have the freedom to choose our response, rather than being blindly led by involuntary reactions. Furthermore, our nervous system could be trained to tolerate, even embrace, painful or difficult situations, thus allowing us to be of greater benefit to others.”
Winter sunset.
Photo by M.L.

After 45 days of retreat we celebrated Gagye, the lifting of the restrictions. Each monastic (and a few lay participants) gave a brief talk, an occasion for the community to share how they joined the teachings they received during Yarne with their practice and daily lives. “Yarne is a source of strength and training for the rest of the year, and cumulatively for our monastic life,” explains Gelong Loden Nyima, who just completed his sixth, “It’s when we put in the cushion time and the training, which allows the teachings to affect us in a powerful way. It’s the heart of Gampo Abbey”.

Written by Genyen Tharpa Chodron and Gelong Loden Nyima
Edited by Shastri Alice Haspray

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.

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 group classes twice a week, 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. 

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."

Bonapart, Hope's teaching assistant.
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.

Written by Tharpa Chodron
Photos by Soledad Gonzales

This post was later published in the Shambhala Times

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: