Fireside View from Shambhala Mountain Center
On November 3rd, Shambhala Mountain Center will be hosting a Coming Home Celebration. Because of the High Park Fire this summer, many people were unable to visit SMC. Join them as a guest for a day of community celebration and healing practices recommended by the Sakyong. Find more information here.
And now, the fireside view from the people that protected Shambhala Mountain Center from this summer’s High Park Fire….
by Fay Octavia Elliott
Fall in the mountains around Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC) has been glorious. The shimmering gold of the acacia leaves is breath-taking.
Back in the summer, I returned to SMC in July right after the fires that threatened the center. The drive was as beautiful as ever. The first evidence I saw of the fire was a giant boulder painted white with huge red letters that seemed to shout, “Thank you firefighters.”
Then passing the Glacier View development very near to SMC, I finally saw small swaths of burned-out trees on the hills. It stopped my heart for a moment. I turned off the radio as I drove along the dirt road that leads to the center and felt gratitude welling up as I neared the gate. There was a big sign indicating that the center was closed to the public, the first sign that something was somehow different this visit. Downtown was deserted. There was one lone person leaning against a wall. This was a special day. Only a few days after the staff had returned to the center, it was to be the first day of a three-day retreat and day of rest. The retreat opened with a lhasang with Acharya Lyon and the staff. On the rest day, the kitchen staff prepared a wonderful brunch and a formal sit-down dinner for the staff. The next morning everyone returned to the new world of SMC after the near-disaster called the High Park Fire.The day the fire began, the staff were in a meeting preparing for the upcoming summer programs when Rusung Zane Edwards heard a message on his radio and left the room. When asked what was going on, he pointed to the smoke looming over the ridge above Marpa Point. In that moment, fear and uncertainty rippled through the community. The fire appeared to be very close. This is the story of the fire seen through the eyes of Zane and two other participants in the events following that day.
As a Rusung, Zane is responsible for the military pillar of protection for SMC, and the kasung staff report to him. When you talk with Zane, it is clear that he loves being a kasung and takes his role as Rusung very seriously. This is his second term as a land-center Rusung. He was Rusung at Dechen Choling for three years and has committed to another three-year term at SMC.
Jackie Chavarria is a summer kasung volunteer. She took her one-year oath on Shambhala Day this year and arrived at SMC just seven days before the fire evacuation. She is a full-time Naropa student in the Transpersonal Psychology program.Yuko Barringer is a program coordinator at SMC. She has worked at SMC for 2 ½ of the last four years but had only been in her current coordinator position for a month when the fire broke out. When asked why she keeps coming back, she said, “It’s the only place that feels like home.” She talked about the personal transformation she experienced through the land, the teachings, the community and the unique life at SMC. She and her partner, Dave Lawrence, headed off to India in September for new adventures.
It so happened that Zane reviewed the fire evacuation plan with his squad of 16 just a few days before the fire. SMC had four staff members who had emergency preparedness training including Zane, Fire Marshall John Ohm, Dickie Swaback and Austin Hennigan. Those plus Annie Cox, Ian Sheppard and Sylvan Blaise were volunteers in the Poudre Canyon Fire Department.
The first day of the fire the air was filled with smoke, people were panicking and things were somewhat chaotic. As the fire continued its incessant march forward and the smoke wafted throughout SMC, they decided to move the coming weekend programs to the Boulder Center. Yuko was to assist the lead program coordinator, Annie Cox. The following day the local fire department issued the recommendation to evacuate SMC. The staff was asked to take an hour to pack and return to the Sacred Studies Hall to arrange transportation. The work of the kasung was to provide a container of sanity to allow the staff to leave in a sane way.
Annie decided to stay at SMC (because she was a volunteer firefighter) and Yuko was sent to coordinate the programs. She recalls being grateful that there wasn’t much time to think about what to take as she prepared to leave SMC maybe for the last time. She quickly packed some clothes, her shrine box and sacred texts, sewing machine and a special item from her shrine. She felt fear and uncertainty about the unknown mingled with a sense of heightened excitement and energy. Later watching the unfolding of the fire from afar in Boulder, her moment of greatest fear was the day the fire crossed the Poudre River and burned 10,000 acres overnight. She said what bothered her was thinking about the land burning. She says, “My stuff and the structures didn’t scare me as much as that valley, the land is so sacred. If all the structures burned down it would be sad, but to see everything dead and gone, the aliveness gone – that would be very sad.”
As the people left in waves, some headed for Fort Collins and others for Boulder, and a kasung at the gate documented everyone as they left. There were 85 people in 45 cars. The Rusung recalled that it was an organic trickle.
Zane said that the choice of who stayed was an auspicious coincidence. The crew started off as 16 gradually alternating and shrinking according to who was available and who was needed in Boulder. They reorganized into an Incident Command System that was headed by John Ohm and worked as teams under the leadership of Austin Hennigan clearing the land and storing artifacts. Artifacts and sacred objects were moved from all around the center to the Stupa. Josh Mulder and Greg Smith came up to work on preserving artifacts from SMC and the Stupa, and they had expert advise from John Perkins for how to protect the Stupa.
For each person I interviewed, whether they were at SMC or somewhere else during the fire, there were two moments that stood out as the most frightening. The one Yuko mentioned when the fire crossed the Poudre River and the second when the fire jumped into Glacier View – the neighboring development – and spread south. Zane described the moment when dozens of helicopters started taking water from Lake Shunyata on the SMC land. He said to himself, “I need to think about what to put in my escape vehicle.” He went on saying, “My mind was frozen. It was too overwhelming and there was nothing more I could do. People were calling from Boulder and other places, and I couldn’t speak to them.”
“I felt like I was preparing for war. It was a life-changing experience and the most intense practice container I have ever been in. Finally I appreciate my kasung practice. It wasn’t real until this moment.” Zane went on to say that he had always wanted to find a way to get people to fall in love with kasung practice as he had done. He is always thinking about working with the squad. “People ask me how I developed this love affair with kasung practice, connecting with the land and the world physically?” The kinship and closeness his team developed from this experience was all that he ever wanted to have happen for his squad. By the end, they all understood his love.
If SMC was ultimately endangered, the seven firefighters on the team would have remained behind and the rest would have left. Jackie recalls the moment when that eventuality seemed real. “I felt my heart race. We had been on hyper-alert the whole time. I might really have to evacuate… I cannot leave these seven people behind. I know they have training, and I love them. They might get hurt. I didn’t want that to happen. It was heartbreaking. We had such a tight container.”Jackie came to SMC for the view of kasungship and got the epiphany of the view. “This is protection of the people and the land. We were protecting people’s minds too. We do our best to make sure the land is safe. That’s what we do in the kasung and what I want to do in my path and why I serve.” I asked Jackie would she be taking her lifetime vow and got a resounding: “Yes! I feel committed, and I know I am Dorje Kasung.”
While Zane and his crew were at SMC, Yuko and others were in Boulder and Fort Collins dealing with issues of their own. Yuko observed that, “the most interesting piece about this experience has been seeing how the SMC community has dealt with the situation and the resurrection that is possible, to see people rising to the occasion. Also to see on a larger scale the sangha in Fort Collins and Boulder opening their doors and hearts to the SMC staff. It was really moving and inspiring to see.” Whether at SMC, in Boulder, or Fort Collins, wherever they were, people just fell in and did what needed to be done. As Zane said, “Everyone gave up the ‘me plan’.”
When I asked Yuko what she would share with the community, her words were very touching, “It’s been really amazing to see how deeply loved SMC is to the greater community and how so many people who have only been here a few times feel it is a home. It felt like in the situation and the struggle, the smaller SMC community was not alone, it was not just our struggle. So many people were so heart-felt, so genuine and showed so much love for the place and for all of us.”
During the Being Brave Sangha Retreat, the Sakyong said, “The more difficult things are, the more the brave person rises higher.” In a time when it would have only been natural to fall apart, the sangha pulled together and collectively rose higher than anyone would have ever imagined possible.
For more information about Shambhala Mountain Center, please click here.