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Apr 13
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The Night Prajna Burned Down
Fire at Prajna, Residence of the Sakyong at Shambhala Mountain Center (Photo by Denise Wuensch). Steps leading to the front entrance are still evident, and the flagpoles remain standing in what was once the back of the house.

Fire at Prajna, Retreat of the Sakyong at Shambhala Mountain Center (Photo by Denise Wuensch). Steps leading to the front entrance are still evident, and the flagpoles remain standing at what was once the back of the residence.

The fire that set Prajna ablaze on April 7th has shocked and saddened the Shambhala community worldwide. A modest wooden cabin, Prajna was the summer retreat of the Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche at Shambhala Mountain Center.

What happened in the early hours of April 7th? How extensive was the damage? Did anything survive in the smoldering rubble? Shambhala Times presents an account of the early hours of April 7th from Shambhala Mountain Center volunteer fire fighters, Dorje Kasung, and staff on the scene at Prajna.

The Call to 911

Rusung Nick Profaizer received the call at 2:05am. A dathun participant, staying at the Ridgen Lodge, had woken up in the middle of the night and seen a glow off to the east, visible from his second-floor window. The participant called the internal 911 at Shambhala Mountain Center. Nick scrambled out of his bed in Manjushri, a residence near Vajra campground, and headed down the hill in his car.

As he came around the bend, he saw the eastern side of the land aglow. At the trailer park, he picked up Sergeant Craig Morman and Faith Killough who both received the radio call. John Ohm, head of the Shambhala Mountain Center volunteer fire team, also heard the call. He was already at the shop, preparing the fire truck which was standing by with 100 gallons of water.

By the time they convened at the shop to put on their fire gear, Nick could see flames shooting twenty feet into the air. It was 2:10am. Only five minutes had passed since the call came in. When he first saw the glow, it was hard to tell the location of the fire. But with flames jumping into the sky, it was clear: Prajna was burning.

The Officer of the Day, Sarah Anderson, had dispatched the outside 911 as soon as she heard the call. Meanwhile, Nick had ordered the evacuation of residents near to Prajna, which includes the trailer park and Gita, an A-frame next to the Dome. Once the fire team was assembled at the Shop, Nick went ahead to scope out the situation.

Fighting the Fire

Shambhala Mountain Center’s volunteer fire fighters—who are part of the Glacier View Volunteer Fire Department—clambered in the fire truck and drove to Prajna ready for action. They were joined by Glacier View volunteers at 2:30am and professionals from the Poudre Valley Fire Department arrived shortly thereafter. Jon and Adana Barbieri arrived on the scene around the same time.

Rusung Nick Profaizer commented, “The response time was phenomenal. In only ten minutes, the fire team was assembled and we had evacuated the surrounding area. Within 30 minutes, we had two fire departments on the site. In a fire, it’s easy to lose your mind and get into panic mode. This was the first fire for many of the volunteers. But everyone held their minds.”

By 2:40am, there were five trucks fighting the fire. As professionals began to spray water on the fire, the roof of Prajna collapsed.

The Shambhala Mountain Center volunteer fire fighters handled spot fires that broke out in the surrounding trees. Kate Baker, one of the volunteer fire fighters on the scene, commented on the mix of “grief in watching the guru’s cabin burn down” and “the clear task of controlling the fire.” The roots of several trees had to be chopped and pulled out of the ground to prevent the fire from spreading. Baker reports, “There was so much smoke and steam, it was hard to see.”

Thanks to the quick response time of the fire crew and fortunate weather conditions, the fire was contained. It had taken only minutes for the building to be engulfed in flames, but it took 18 hours to completely put out the fire. At 5:30am, there were still flames jumping out of the smoldering rubble. A headcount was taken; no one was injured.

The Poudre Valley and Glacier View fire teams left in the morning around 7:00am, once the fire was under control. Shambhala Mountain Center’s volunteer fire fighters monitored the site for the next 24 hours because the coals were still red hot even by mid-afternoon. Then, the Dorje Kasung took over and stood guard for another 24 hours.

Just one week prior, there had been an extreme fire warning (the red zone) because of the dry winter and high winds. Had the fire occurred then, it could have been devastating. But the snow fell and left about eight inches on the ground. Snow prevented the fire from spreading, even though there was wind in the early hours of April 7th.

Extent of the Damage

Nothing remains of Prajna. The building was totally consumed. Now there is only a footprint where the building once existed. The last thing standing, before being consumed by flames, was the Tory Gate.

Remarkably, the forest was spared and the surrounded area had little damage from the flames. Only a few trees next to the building were burned. While the wire racks in the kitchen could be seen twisting from the flames, the tent platform for the Tenno Tent just beside Prajna was only scorched. The flagpoles and fire pit outside the house remain as if nothing had happened. The propane tank, which stands just 30 feet away from Prajna, thankfully did not explode.

While there were a number of precious rupas (statues) and thangkas (scroll paintings) lost to the fire, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s ritual implements, the most important artifacts and texts, and other heirlooms such as the Shambhala Noritake China are safely stored at the Sakyong’s home in Boulder or elsewhere offsite.

What caused the fire at Prajna?

No one knows. The insurance company has already conducted two investigations, and the Poudre Valley Fire Department plans one as well. Such investigations are a routine process to establish the cause of fire. But with the house burnt to the ground, it must difficult to learn much.

When contacted by the Shambhala Times, Makpon Jesse Grimes discounted the possibility of arson or hanky panky. The area was searched first by Rusung Nick Profaizer and later by Don Mitchell, and there were no footprints in the snow. Recalling his days working as a First Respondent on ambulances, he averred: “It happens all the time in Colorado. Cabins that are shut down for the winter routinely catch fire. Rodents chew through the wires and damage the circuits, causing an electrical fire. Wood burns quickly in this dry climate.” Director Jon Barbieri indicated that the electrical power was checked on a nearby pole after the fire had been put out. Electrical power had indeed been going into the house.

Rusung Nick Profaizer confirmed that he was the first person to the scene. There was a four inch drift of snow in the Prajna driveway, after it had been recently plowed. No one had been down that road that night. Later he scouted the trails in the area, looking for tracks. With recent snow on the ground, any foot traffic would have been visible. But there was no sign that anyone had been near Prajna.

The Morning After

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche was informed of the fire by David Brown in the early hours of the morning, Halifax time. Rinpoche conveyed a message to the Shambhala Mountain Center staff via Director Jon Barbieri, expressing appreciation for the measures that had been taken to control the fire and offering guidance on how the community could gather for practice and discussion.

At 11:30am, the Shambhala Mountain Center staff gathered at Sacred Studies for meditation and opening chants, joined by participants in the spring dathun. From there, the whole group moved in silent walking meditation to the site chosen for the Gesar Palace, the future residence of the Sakyong and Sakyong Wangmo. To reach the site, the group walked along the trail past Shotoku, toward Red Feather, and then up the hill.

At the site, the Shambhala Mountain Center staff began the ceremony by chanting “Great Clouds of Blessings: Magnetizing the Phenomenal World” and “The Verses of the Eight Noble Auspicious Ones” by Mipham the Great. Then they performed the long lhasang and recited all of the protector chants. Acting Head of Practice of Study, Jeff Scott, called the ceremony “bittersweet,” an occasion that was “poignant and awake” for the Shambhala Mountain Center staff and dathun participants.

As Jefff poignantly observed, “Crisis—this is what all of our training is for. This is who we are and what we do. The path works.” After the ceremony, the group returned to Sacred Studies in silence for a period of sitting and discussion. The event lasted two and a half hours.

A Shambhala News Service announcement went out to the sangha at 9:36am Mountain Standard Time with reflections from the Sakyong, highlighting the “valiant efforts through the night” and “the potent truth of impermanence.” Here is a link to the SNS announcement.

The Road Ahead

Connie Brock, the Chagdzo Kyi Khyap of Shambhala, stated to the Shambhala Times: “Prajna was insured. Preliminary review of the policy details and technicalities indicates the coverage would be replacement value and contents. Of course what we will do is very much an open question, but it is not likely to be a simple replacement.”

Director Jon Barbieri commented that Shambhala Mountain Center leadership must consider the total picture before deciding how to proceed. Is it worthwhile to construct an interim residence? Are we ready to invest in constructing the Gesar Palace residence for the Sakyong and Sakyong Wangmo? In pragmatic terms, Barbieri noted, the road ahead is complicated by water and waste issues, which need to be resolved before any new building occurs on the land.

Barbieri also indicated that the Sakyong’s wishes on how to proceed were not yet known, though it is clear how important the Sakyong feels about having a proper Court established at Shambhala Mountain Center. In his message on April 7th, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche asked the community to “reflect on how we move forward from here” and “turn our minds to what is now needed to provide an appropriate lineage seat at this vital centre in our mandala.” A proper Court is part of a broader vision for Shambhala Mountain Center to engage global issues and provide a training ground to propagate sanity in the world.

Fortunately, there is substantial documentation of valuable items in the household. A number of years ago, Denise Wuensch took photographs of the shrine objects, artwork, furniture, and other items at Prajna in order to retrieve any items borrowed when other Tibetan teachers visited the land. These photographs can provide the necessary documentation for insurance claims.

Of course, sacred art and gifts from other Tibetan teachers are irreplaceable. But in the days since the fire, two rupas have been retrieved from the rubble: a medicine buddha and stupa.

Reminiscences of Prajna

Many sangha members have visited and spent time in service at Prajna over the past decades. Do you have a story or experience at Prajna you would like to share?  Share it with our readers in the ‘Post a Comment’ box below.

Also, be sure to visit the Chronicles for a tribute, “Recalling Prajna” with reminiscences of moments with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche at Prajna.

On learning of the fire, the Sakyong spoke for many when he said, as reported by the Shambhala News Service, “This fire, and the complete devastation of the residence, has come as a shock to us all. Many practitioners have come to Prajna to serve in the court, to meet me, to attend special events and to be part of the many celebrations that have been hosted there. So it is associated with many fond and moving memories in all our minds. Both Khandro-la and I have the community at Shambhala Mountain Center very much in our hearts at this time, and appreciate their valiant efforts through the night. At the same time, this is a moment to reflect on how we move forward from here, recognizing the potent truth of impermanence, and turning our minds to what is now needed to provide an appropriate lineage seat at this vital centre in our mandala.” Read the SNS announcement.

Readers may also be interested in Director Jon Barbieri’s letter to the community, “Understanding Shambhala Mountain Center“, providing an overview of the challenges and opportunities currently faced by SMC.

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8 responses to “ The Night Prajna Burned Down ”
  1. Divine website.
    The feeling of old age can be avoided by loving all without expectations, keeping alive curiosity, acquiring wisdom, keeping balance in life, discharging duties and responsibilities, enjoying the present as it is, be active, accept everything cheerfully, face all problems peacefully and lead a life of yogi.
    Ten stages of aging are:
    1. Up to ten years children get love from everywhere.
    2. During ten to twenty years one will have curiosity of everything to study and understand.
    3. From twenty to thirty years one should settle in life with a job and family life independently.
    4. From thirty to forty years one should be mature foe balanced use of acquired knowledge with challenge and problems of day today life. Its value lies in accepting challenges and finding solutions.
    5. From forty and fifty years one should take the responsibility to fulfil family and social obligations with self confidence and should achieve good name and reputation.
    6. Fifty to sixty years is the period of anxiety regarding children? Its value lies in forbearance and fortitude.
    7. Sixty to seventy years is the period of self auditing and reflection of assessing retrospectively about the past failures and achievements and of acquisition and transmission of wisdom to others. This entails giving one’s best for the benefit of others and relaxing. Its value lies in adjusting with changing scenario personal, social and declining energy and with dignity and patience.
    8. Seventy to eighty is the period of health problems and may be neglected by close relative and friends. One should adjust to live as a guest forgiving all ill-treatment by others.
    9. Eighty to ninety is the period of suffering with diseases. Spiritual life is good by controlling food, thoughts and work. Always keep body clean and turn mind for an inward journey.
    10. Ninety to hundred years is the most dependable period to adjust with all surroundings and circumstances, better to spend time in prayer in silence, solitude and peace. Try to renounce everything and be free from all possessions, desires and worries to have a peaceful life.

  2. Sue Gilman
    Apr 17, 2009

    Taming the barbarians. Thanks so much Craig. How wonderful it is.

  3. I would hope that our focus would be first and foremost on spreading the dharma – rather than raising funds to build a palace.

  4. Craig Bledsoe
    Apr 15, 2009

    While attending the 1986 Vajradhatu Seminary I had the opportunity to do a Kasung shift guarding the perimeter of Chateau Prajna. I was stationed just beyond the edge of the back porch, facing the trees. My Kasung superior had admonished me to not “stare at the guru” in the event that he should happen to come outside to sit.Shortly after taking my post the Vidyadhara did indeed come outside to sit on the porch. Intent upon doing my duty properly, I resisted the urge to spy on him. Suddenly I heard a squeaky voice and decided to investigate. Trungpa Rinpoche was talking to me! I said, “Excuse me, Sir?”, as I had not heard what he had said. “I said you should cut your hair”, which really angered me. I asked him why, and he replied, “Because you would look better.” That made me even angrier, but I thanked him, saluted, and sat back down to resume guard duty. I decided that I would not comply with his wishes, and was reveling in my sense of self-autonomy, when I realized that I had not yet received Vajrayana transmission. Suddenly, my self-autonomy didn’t feel like such a good bet, so I decided to investigate a bit further before blowing him off. I cautiously peered over at him as he looked in another direction. “Excuse me, Sir”, I said. “Yes?”, he said as he turned to look at me over his glass, smiling like he had been expecting me to address him again. After standing and facing him, I stated that I did not wish to cut my hair, and asked that if I did not do so was I any less worthy of being a Vajrayana student. He immediately replied, “Yes”, smiling sweetly and mischievously. Not getting the answer that I wanted, I was even more furious. I saluted again, thanked him again, and sat down to sulk some more. Within a very short time after ending my shift, I found an older student who kindly agreed to cut my hair. Later, when I had the opportunity to show Rinpoche my haircut, he smiled a broad, very pleased, smile. That was the only conversation I ever had with my root guru.

  5. Just before VCTR’s last Seminary in 1986, I arrived early. They were desperately short of kasung and I had signed up so I was thrown in the deep end — at Prajna for my first shift. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing and stood outside — protecting Rinpoche from the enemy? Bears? I felt the fool although I didn’t know about that slogan yet. After several very long hours the end was near. I was so relieved until I was told that we had to all line up at the flag pole. The flag was coming down and we had to sing. None of us knew the anthem but some of us knew the tune. Naturally Rinpoche was on the deck, watching us. We started out like the dying moose we were…”In heaven the dum, dum, dum, dum..” and finished at a limping screech. I wished I had taken a peek at Rinpoche’s reaction. In my mind, he would have been a thundercloud…but much later I thought, maybe he was grinning. Needless to say I learned the anthem that night and have belted it out ever since. That was the only time I was at Prajna and although it is now physically gone, it will never be gone from our hearts and minds.

  6. Keith Daly
    Apr 13, 2009

    Great story Cameron, thank you. I still feel awkward about the anthem. I would have shrunk into my pocket if, like you, I had to sing it with Rinpoche so close!

  7. Very sorry to hear of this loss.

    Deep Peace and Renewal

  8. Cameron Wenaus
    Apr 13, 2009

    In July 2005 I was on shift – personal guard – on a hot summer day during the time when all the suncampers were doing the death march – a dignified march filled with lungta from their meager tents to visit the Sakyong.

    40+ kids all tremendously excited to see Rinpoche waited for him in the back terrace. When he emerged he told a few jokes, gave teachings, offered lemonade and brownies, and asked them if they wanted to receive blessings. Of course, the Sakyong has many ways of offering blessings and promptly pulled out a water hose and soaked them all down head to toe. They screamed with delight; I have never seen such happy kids.

    It was extremely hot and I had the privilege to hold the umbrella over Rinpoche so he didn’t get a sun burn. Rinpoche thought it would be a good idea to sing the anthem with the kids. I was having such a hard time with the Anthem at that time. I really hated it. It felt so awkwardly Christian hymn-like to me. But here I was standing only 1 foot away from the Guru and no where to hide. I recall actually calculating the distance between my mouth and his ear. Ahh we long to be so close, but when it happens it is terrifying – nowhere to run. Just sing. I belted that anthem out – tremendously out of tune, but singing anyway. I realized in that moment what it was like to sing beyond fear – what true fearlessness meant. And then of course, I got the joke.

    letting go of fear, letting go of wooded Prajna.

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