Once upon a time at Dechen Choling…
Rarely is there a time when people come to Dechen Choling and think: what a horrible place! People don’t wonder why it is called “Dharma Place of Great Bliss” because of it’s beautiful rolling landscape. And trees…we have the best trees in the world!
But it is not only that. We are, after all, trying to create enlightened society! Right? Well, after this summer, that might not actually be so far from the truth. In fact, people didn’t stop talking about how wonderful it felt here. Yes it was crowded. Yes it was hot. Yes the porta-johns were full. But it was all completely magical.
So what happened? Why did everything work out despite being short-staffed, not having enough beds, meeting rooms, or chairs for dinner, and the occasional reminder that we need a new sewage tank came wafting through the window? How can we do this again? We were left with all of these questions at the end of our summer debrief, and we didn’t have just one answer.
Summer started sometime in the Winter
Last winter we had to make some decisions about how we were going to work with a shorter budget. We had the most minimal number of staff and this meant that some people were doing an extra two jobs in addition to their own (and cooking two meals a week). People worked really, really hard, but instead of frustration, there was a lot of harmony and closeness that developed among the core staff. We had a lot of support from Dechen Choling’s neighbors and in return we invited them to monthly full moon gatherings and enjoyed each other’s company by the fireplace. Then the question was raised: how, with such a small staff, are we going to host a very full summer of programs? We needed to create a strong container for people to volunteer for the summer. Soon after, the Summer Volunteer Program was born.
What does your container look like? What color is it? Is it here? Or is it there?
The previous year, 2008, we experimented with a summer setup program where people could come to work, practice and study together. It was a good start, but what about the rest of the summer? We eventually tailored a summer volunteer program similar to what is done at other Shambhala land centers. There was a beginning, middle and end, including daily required practice, classes twice weekly with Acharya Pongracz and senior students, and parties, trips and other diversions. Applicants to the program were selected based on Dechen Choling’s needs and their own skills.
Then some wonderful people arrived
We heard from more people than we had expected! Our summer volunteers helped out and instantly joined the community. There were music jam sessions in the staff community space, card games, football in the village, dance parties, trips to the river and so on. People cared for each other, in such diverse ways as spontaneous meetings on how to be more earth-friendly, participating (usually!) in ROTA, and most of all, everyone coming to sitting practice.
Not only were the summer volunteers talented and motivated to participate in everything, the genuineness and friendships that quickly developed are something that remained inspirational for a long time. This community bonding strengthened everyone’s connection and people took care of each other genuinely and generously.
People learned to worked with each other
But that sense of coming together was not easy. There were conflicts, difficulties and challenges along the way. Some individuals lost heart, hid from the group, and a couple left early. The one consistent aspect of living at a land center is that one can never really escape. We work, eat, practice, and even shower together! If a person is angry with someone, it is very difficult to avoid seeing him or her again. As a result, a lot of gentleness and understanding develops towards others as well as connecting to one’s own heart if only in order to survive.
Practice makes perfect sense when there is such little space
Normally in summertime the staff shrine room is the emptiest place on the land. Everyone is running around doing anything other than practicing. This year, we made an agreement among the permanent staff, and as part of the summer volunteers program, that sitting was mandatory. In order to facilitate this actually happening, the time for meditation was changed from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Because this was a community decision, staff and volunteers actually made an effort to show up.
Besides regular sitting practice, we had dozens of staff and neighbors preparing for Scorpion Seal program, so the werma shrine room was full of lungta, which radiated beyond its walls. We also made every Tuesday as our fresh beginning of the week and started with the long lhasang out at the flagpoles before practice and then ended the day with a dharma talk.
Conclusion? It was the weather!
As we now settle down into autumn, the tents have come down, and people are gradually departing. Others are participating in dathun, and the air remains warm and sunny. Hundreds of guests have come and gone. We hosted our teachers, and people were blessed by the lineage in many ways. In a sense, there isn’t really that much of a mystery as to what happened this summer: this is Shambhala, and we discovered the truth that enlightened society is not just an idea. So now, my fellow warriors, the question becomes: once we leave our land center communities, how do we take this out into the world?
- Feb 24, 2010: for those interested in filling more long term summer staff positions
- May 25, 2010: for volunteers who are willing to commit to at least two months