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Apr 16
Opinion Pieces
Living at Dechen Choling
The entrance at Dechen Choling

The entrance to Dechen Choling's shrine hall

Dechen Choling, the European land center, is a magical place, sometimes full of great bliss as its name indicates (dechen = great bliss, choling = dharma place). At other times, it may be full of the storms that the collective and individual minds there create. 

Dechen Chöling is located outside of Limoges, France. There is a grand old chateau, some old stone structures and a new shrine hall, all surrounded by a gorgeous countryside of rolling fields, cows, walking trails and beautiful trees. And there are people, hundreds of people, always coming and going, a new range of faces every year. In 2008, I was one of those faces.

Moving to Dechen Chöling was both a difficult decision and an easy one to make. It was easy because I had so much longing to be there: to work, to practice and to attempt to join and help in the creation of enlightened society. It was a difficult decision because of more material reasons, such as “Can I take a 90% pay cut for two years?”, “How will this affect my career?”, “How will I get a job when I leave?”, “How am I going to support myself when I leave?” and so on.

The chateau, Dechen Choling

The chateau, Dechen Choling

I had come to Dechen Choling for the winter ngondro retreat in December 2007. While consulting with Acharya Mathias Pongracz who had been encouraging me to move there, we threw the I Ching. The image given by the I Ching was to “join the way” or “continue to limp along”. That was it: I decided to step off into groundlessness. I said, “Yes,” and arrived in April 2008, full of happiness and a desire to serve the sangha in whatever capacity I could. But stepping off that figurative cliff, I fell long and hard during my year at Dechen Choling.

The first few months were absolutely blissful. Many people had worked hard for months preparing for the Gesar Festival. This was the largest program that Dechen Choling had ever hosted and the Sakyong, His Eminence Namkha Drimed Rinpoche, Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche and the future Sakyong Wangmo were all in attendance. It was an extraordinary time to be there!

The author's home for a few weeks

The author's home for a few weeks

Even when I was a bit worried myself, the people around me were very confident in my abilities as a personnel manager. I had no experience managing groups of volunteers, and so to have the reins handed over to me when Dechen Choling was at it’s most chaotic with almost 80 volunteers on the land, was really something. I also fell in love at this time, but that’s another story. My first few months at Dechen Choling were truly the most delightful time of my entire life. Then, the big dharma bombs began to fall.

I remember reading something in which Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche discusses placing into leadership positions people who might not be ready as a method of processing the student. What happened at Dechen Choling over this last year is that I jumped into that blender, not as prepared as others or I had thought. Things fell apart, my neurosis came out with a vengeance, and the speed and chaos of Dechen Choling put the blender on full speed. And then the plug was pulled out halfway.

Dechen Choling staff meeting

Dechen Choling staff meeting

I sometimes wonder if it is my turn to take on the title of “worst Buddhist in the world”, because I did not take to the blender. I wonder if I needed more time, more support, more patience. Just days ago, I left Dechen Choling (March 2009), feeling raw, tender and unhinged. Yet I know that I’ve come a long way, too, in terms of self-awareness and in processing the effects of this last year.

My experience at Dechen Choling was intense: a period of intense bliss and then a period of intense loneliness, pain and loss of confidence. When I reflect on what happened, my mind is drawn to the word “blame”. People are always looking – constantly – at whom to assign blame. And in my mind, or maybe because things are heightened at a meditation center, blame is always being assigned at a dharma center, constantly, everyday, more so than in normal life. I felt blamed a lot and saw where blame was being unfairly pointed towards others, too. At the very time when I was the most overwhelmed, I didn’t know how to work with the blame that was assigned to me, so I started to withdraw and close in on myself.

In expounding on lojong teachings, Ani Pema Chodron has written (for complete text, please go to Shambhala Sun article),

“Drive all blames into one. This is advice on how to work with your fellow beings. Everyone is looking for someone to blame and therefore aggression and neurosis keep expanding. Instead, pause and look at what’s happening with you. When you hold on so tightly to your view of what they did, you get hooked. Your own self-righteousness causes you to get all worked up and to suffer. So work on cooling that reactivity rather than escalating it. This approach reduces suffering – yours and everyone else’s.”

Why didn’t people know this at a dharma center!? Well, why didn’t I know it too?

Also from Ani Pema Chodron (for complete text, please go to Shambhala Sun article),

“Be grateful to everyone. Others will always show you exactly where you are stuck. They say or do something and you automatically get hooked into a familiar way of reacting—shutting down, speeding up or getting all worked up. When you react in the habitual way, with anger, greed and so forth, it gives you a chance to see your patterns and work with them honestly and compassionately. Without others provoking you, you remain ignorant of your painful habits and cannot train in transforming them into the path of awakening.”

Oh, yeah.

The Dechen Choling administrative office

The Dechen Choling administrative office

On some days I am much more grateful for my Dechen Choling experience than other days. But I know from living at Dechen Choling, that I was given a great teaching, one I have yet to truly learn. My view on life is that whatever comes into one’s life brings love or joy, or brings a teaching that one needs to learn: karma in a nutshell. I am pretty sure that I did not yet learn all that I needed to learn at Dechen Choling; I am confident that the teachings of feeling stuck will return again and again, until I really get it. Oh dear.

And so, would I recommend living at a meditation center?  Yes, and no.

For me, living at a dharma center is about losing your cocoon, losing comfort, dropping expectations and wants, and working with mind. It can be intense and painful, and wonderful, too. The happiest people on staff were those who came for short periods of time (one to three months), and who didn’t have many needs (i.e., happy to sleep in a tent all summer and comfortable sharing their space, having no privacy or needing to move tents at the last minute). These people seemed happy to do any assigned job, were committed to daily meditation practice and did not have too much responsibility.

Confolens, Limousin - 135 km southwest of Dechen Choling

Confolens, Limousin - 135 km southwest of Dechen Choling

If this describes how you might volunteer at a practice center, you will most likely enjoy your time as long as you are practicing every day. For anyone coming for longer than six months, this is when things seem to change, with irritations and neurosis coming up no matter if they are the best Buddhist practitioner in the world. The people who did not seem to work out so well were those who did not want to practice, whether they were joining for a few days or a few months. Therefore, my best recommendation for living at practice center is to practice every day. And my recommendation for staying longer than six months is to make a commitment to stay. Things will become irritating and uncomfortable, but it’s better to work with the situation than to run. If you have the impulse, I do recommend living at a practice center; but if you would like to avoid pain, discomfort and irritability, and if you value comfort, it’s definitely best to avoid this experience. Good luck!

The author is former Head of Personnel at Dechen Choling. Photos by the author.

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2 responses to “ Living at Dechen Choling ”
  1. Hi Phyllis,

    The author is Kathy Southard – look to the right of the title, just like on your article, “The Impact of the Economy: Shambhalians in Financial Distress .”

  2. phyllis segura
    May 2, 2009

    Why is this article anonymous?

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