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May 28
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Interview with Debbie Coats, Desung Arm Commander

Being a desung often means choosing to step in to situations that are uncomfortable or perhaps frightening. In our community desung are kasung who focus on issues of health and well-being or conflicts. So if people are in distressing circumstances or conflicts are occurring, for example between members in a Shambhala group, the desung role is to notice what is happening and make sure that the situation is addressed and related to in the most appropriate way.

Desung Arm Commander Debbie Coats

Desung Arm Commander Debbie Coats

Interview by Dan Peterson

I want to start by thanking you for your time in doing this interview for the Shambhala Times. It is a real privilege to discuss the desung path.

You are very welcome. It is a real pleasure, and I feel honored to be invited.

Could you tell us about how you came to be a practitioner and especially how you found your way to Shambhala Buddhism?

I first heard about the Dharmadhatu center in London, as it was called then, from a friend in 1986. He gave me “Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand.” So my first contact actually was through the Vajra Regent. I read the book, but I didn’t go to the Dharmadhatu until late in 1987 because I was visiting America to work at a boys summer camp in North Carolina. The friend who gave me the book suggested that we go to the East Coast early for the cremation of a Tibetan guru in Vermont. At the time my reaction was along the lines of “Why would I want to do that?” And of course ever since I’ve really kicked myself for missing the chance of being at the Vidhyadhara’s cremation. Anyway that is what happened.

So later in 1987 when I got back from America I went to the Dharmadhatu in London, and I was greeted by a kasung. But I was too speedy at that time to notice the uniform. I found the Dharmadhatu really spacious. and I felt completely at home. It felt as though for the first time I had found people who thought along the same lines as I did. I felt free to be myself and could be who I really wanted to be when I was there.

I went to dathun at Karme Choling in 1988 and then to seminary at RMDC in 1990. It was there that I joined the Dorje Kasung. Although I value all the Shambhala and Buddhist practices and really appreciate how much they have enriched my life, my strongest connection has been to the kasung. I feel that it has pushed me into situations that made me open up and experience the world in a more expansive way. It helped me to develop confidence, often by pushing me beyond my comfort zone.

What was your first experience with desung practice?

I attended a desung program in Paris in 2001, led by Dapon H, Simon La Haye. I missed the last day of the program because Irene Vliegenthart became ill and I stayed to look after her. But it was like desung practice because I had the chance to talk to Irene; we could just talk or sit quietly together and that felt really nice. Usually we are both very busy. Then I was asked to be the desung for the Warrior Assembly at Dechen Choling in 2003. I found it very touching. Each day after lunch I would be in the infirmary and people would come in to talk about physical or emotional issues they had. They were so trusting and shared issues very openly because of being in a practice program. It was really wonderful.

I imagine you are sometimes put on the spot to describe what a desung is, what a desung does. How do you respond when such questions come up?

My first thought is that being a desung often means choosing to step in to situations that are uncomfortable or perhaps frightening. In our community desung are kasung who focus on issues of health and well-being or conflicts. So if people are in distressing circumstances or conflicts are occurring, for example between members in a Shambhala group, the desung role is to notice what is happening and make sure that the situation is addressed and related to in the most appropriate way. We especially get called into situations where people are experiencing very heightened psychological reactions, for example having an episode of mental illness, or when situations become very solidified and stuck and it seems as though there is no solution. Sometimes we help in the situations ourselves and sometimes we just bring them to the notice of people who are in the best position to deal with them and support those people if necessary.

Sometimes desung is defined as bliss protector, and sometimes as harmony protector, and both have somewhat different meanings. Do you distinguish between these two definitions or have a preference between the two?

Well, I find that a very interesting question. I think protecting bliss seems to be more about working with our own potential as human beings to live a rich life and to connect with our own wisdom and basic goodness. We can experience joy or bliss through practice, and our ego-centered way of relating to the world begins to drop away a little bit. Then we can just relax with things as they are. When that happens we feel we’ve actually got energy to give to the world. And protecting harmony seems to relate more to working with the community and being willing to pay attention to what is going on and step in and act if necessary. But I feel that the two are completely entwined. When we have the experience of joy or bliss and contentment with our life through practice, that makes us want to open up and offer our help in situations, rather than just focusing on building up our own world, or becoming exhausted by the challenges we might face in daily life.

The desung arm has developed rapidly in the last several years – perhaps because it is meeting a genuine need in the Shambhala community. What factors have contributed to this growth and have influenced the form that desung practice is taking?

I think Dennis Southward, Dapon M, started a really good model in Boulder, showing how desung can function in the community and actually care for people. And then Simon La Haye, the desung general, took over from him in 1995 and started to create a mandala-wide organizational structure for the desung. When I became the desung arm commander in 2005, I was amazed at how much interest there was in desungship in the community; it seemed that everyone I spoke to felt that it was a really important component and needed to be developed and strengthened. That felt like quite a responsibility, and it was an encouragement as well to go forward. The issues that people talked about most often were how to help and support people with mental illness or addiction, or who have chronic illness or are dying. The desung training programs have focused on those and other issues.

We are also starting to look at how to help people who have experienced abuse of any kind. We now have desung in every region of the mandala, but I want to have desung in every center who work with the civilian aspects of the community as members of local care groups or councils, so there can be a team of people working together on these issues. For the past few years there has been a lot of focus on developing community care, and the desung is one aspect of that. I am very glad that the Shambhala Community Care Council was recently formed under the chairpersonship of Mary Whetsell. That council can bring together all the different aspects of the mandala to focus on community issues.

I feel that the role of the desung is becoming clearer in some ways, but there is still a lot to do to develop that further. In 2006, during a meeting, the Sakyong said that the civilian aspects of the mandala have the main responsibility for health and well-being, and the desung should be called in when the situation escalates or there is a crisis. He called this the “code red” situation and said we have to figure out what constitutes a “code red.” So I think we are beginning to work this out and to function in that way. In a recent interview in the Dot, the Sakyong mentioned the importance of delegs in building community, and I hope that desung can play a part in supporting them. The Community Care Council is starting to look into that.

“Enriching our thoughts and actions with love and compassion releases tremendous positive energy, as if our windhorse has been liberated. Like churning milk into butter, there is alchemy involved. When we churn “What about me?” into “What about you?” we are consciously changing our molecular structure by engaging the big-mind chromosome. The result is ziji — radiant, inner confidence. As we turn our energy outward, we are present for the world in the wholehearted manner of a child offering a gift. There are no politics involved, no scheming, no manipulation. Our compassion beams outward in delight at the happiness of others.” – Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

In the last year or so there has been a discussion about the three pillars of Shambhala – the church, the state and the military. Clearly the desung arm is part of the military, but it has a lot of interactions with the state, particularly as described in the care and conduct policy. Could you say something about how that policy informs the relationship between the military and the state?

The care and conduct policy is Shambhala’s version of a complaint policy, and it aims to protect members of Shambhala by making sure that if some members of the community or of the leadership are behaving in a way that harms or could cause harm to others, that can be addressed effectively and in an enlightened way. The policy can be invoked by any member of Shambhala or by anyone attending a Shambhala Center who sees behavior that concerns them. When a complaint is made and can’t be easily resolved, a panel is usually be formed to explore what happened and make recommendations about how to deal with the situation in the best way. The panel would usually include a senior teacher, a kasung and a member of the administrative area of Shambhala, thus involving the three pillars.

My experience has been that having these three perspectives is really helpful in exploring situations fully and in an open, nonjudgmental way. All meetings are confidential so that the people involved can talk freely. It is very important for the three pillars to work together in all structures of the mandala, and another example of this is the Kalapa Council.

To go back to the care and conduct policy, it is important that people know about it, and a copy should be posted in every Shambhala Center, with names of people to contact if there are concerns. I would encourage people to ask the director of their center to put a copy of the policy in a public place if it is not posted already. It is also available online here.

Could you describe what your responsibilities are as the desung arm commander – the committees you attend, the situations that fall into your lap, the tasks you are apt to encounter when you read your e-mail?

I am responsible for appointing desung and making sure that they have appropriate training and support. I also am responsible for making sure that the desung know whom to contact when conflicts or problems with health and well-being occur. It is my aim that effective communication occurs between the desung and all the other aspects of the community. Every year we have a conference attended by all the desung in leadership positions to talk about developments in the community and situations that have been dealt with and what we can learn from those. We are currently preparing for this year’s conference, which will be held in Halifax in May.

You also asked about the committees that I attend. I am a member of the Council of the Makkyi Rabjam, which is the Dorje Kasung command group, and the newly formed Community Care Council. Also on that council is Irene Vliegenthart – the desung care and conduct officer. I am also a member of the Shambhala Europe Council, the European Dorje Kasung command group and the Dorje Kasung Uniform Committee. That last one is very interesting. I kind of insisted that I be on that committee, as I thought that there should be a European woman. So even though I am not Italian or French and I don’t have their sense of style, I am on that one.

My role at times involves a lot of travel to meetings or to teach kasung programs, and that is the best part of the job in a way, meeting people in all the different situations in the mandala. The meetings feel like gatherings of like-minded friends, and it always feels very productive. Recently within the Dorje Kasung we’ve been looking at realigning the command structure in line with changes in the mandala, and that has been very interesting.

Mainly when I get e-mails or phone calls they are from regional desung officers or other people in leadership positions contacting me to tell me what they have been doing to address issues in their area or maybe to ask for advice or support. So that is a really important part of the job, to have contact with people in different situations and know what is actually going on.

It sounds like a lot!

I know. [Laughter] It doesn’t leave much time for TV, except “Doctor Who,” which I highly recommend.

Are there any particular goals or objectives you are working on that you would like to share regarding the direction forward for the desung arm?

My main aim at the moment is to raise awareness of the role of the desung throughout the Shambhala community. I hope this interview will play a part in doing that. And as I mentioned before, I hope to have desung in every Shambhala Center and have them be part of local community care groups so that people work with issues as a group. Each person can then bring in his or her own perspective. I also want to do whatever I can as part of the Council of the Makkyi Rabjam to help implement the Sakyong’s vision of creating an enlightened society. That feels really important in this dark time in the world.

Is there anything else of special interest to you as the desung arm commander that you want to share with us?

I just would like to say that because I did not meet the Vidyadhara in person, I always appreciate hearing or reading stories about him and having teachings from the people who were around him. It is such a gift when people share those experiences. I also feel honored and privileged to have met Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and to be a part of this community. I see people who have grown up in Shambhala and are so open and confident due to their practice and the way they have been brought up. They can offer the world so much, and that feels really good and quite heartbreaking. Particularly in London things can feel pretty grim and aggressive sometimes because people are under so much pressure. Shambhala can do a lot to enrich the world, and I am grateful to be able to be part of that.

Thank you very much for generously sharing your time and for providing such a clear vision of desungship.

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3 responses to “ Interview with Debbie Coats, Desung Arm Commander ”
  1. Mrs. Hunter kindly please find the inspiration to contemplate the Care and Conduct Initiative and to make the Care and Conduct Document itself freely accessible at the Houston Shambhala Center in accordance with such policy as widely promulgated by Shambhala International (Vajradhatu) then.

  2. Lee Weingrad
    Jun 9, 2009

    I understand the good intentions of Debbie. I just wonder: if this program and its standards had been in place –in Samye Ling, in 1968 and applied to the bizarre behavior of the Vidyadhara or
    –at Surmang Dutsi til in 1958 and applied to Khenpo Gangshar
    –or to the Regent in 1988

    how Debbie would see the desung in working with those situations. My meaning is that in strengthening the systems-persistence elements of the mandala, it does not guarantee any greater buy-in or input from the community, but contributes to the mandala’s command structure and gives the military a far greater and a far more stabilizing role in a spiritual organization than we would think is likely given the history of our lineage from Tilopa down to the present.

  3. Celeste Budwit-Hunter
    May 29, 2009

    Thank you so much for this illuminating and inspiring discussion!

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

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