A City Encampment: Can we really do this?
During Memorial Day weekend, the Northern California Lhasang Regiment of Dorje Kasung hosted a program at Sharchen Dzong, the San Francisco Shambhala Center, that was entitled: “Dorje Kasung Leadership Training and Celebration of Kasungship.” It was a lot like a “city encampment.” We wore khaki, ate one-bowl meals, and did drill practice right in the heart of the city. We also learned many skills appropriate for city kasung duty, such as motorcade and “scenario training.” But mostly, we enjoyed clan camaraderie and nurtured our heart connection to kasung practice.
I helped plan and organize this regional event as Rusung of San Francisco. As we worked on the planning for the event, there were moments of doubt in which I thought to myself, “Can we really do this?”. Encampment makes sense when you are in a land center retreat context. You already have the encampment grounds: the dirt, the trees, and most everyone around is already familiar with kasung practice. Therefore, holding an encampment-style program in the middle of a bustling city seemed both daunting and exciting. Instead of dirt we would have pavement, and instead of trees – cars. Yet we knew this was exactly the type of program that would give our region a big jolt of energy and enthusiasm for the practice of Dorje Kasungship. I began to realize that my sense of doubt was stemming from uncertainty as to how this outrageous practice would be interpreted by our neighborhood, our city-dwelling sangha, and even the people passing by on the street. Could we fully manifest as Dorje Kasung in the middle of a cosmopolitan city, even one as progressive as San Francisco?
We invited Will Ryken, Rupon and Sargent Major Lennart Krogell to lead the program. People came from all over the region, from as far north as Juneau, Alaska, and as far south as Los Angeles. We did drill practice in the parking lot. In between drill sessions, I wondered what everyone was thinking – the neighbors and the people who stopped to stare. Prior to the program, I called our building’s landlord to describe the reason we needed to use the parking lot for the weekend. I indicated to him that we would be doing a meditation-in-action practice of drilling in military form. “Oh,” he said, and then there was silence. After a few moments, as he let this information find a corresponding schema to connect to in his mind, he replied, “Okay, no problem.”
I wondered if our crazy neighbor was filming us from his second-story apartment. He had been in the habit of doing this over the past few months, posting videos of people drinking in front of our building (not sangha members) and posting them to our neighborhood listserv and YouTube, blaming Shambhala for attracting them and not doing anything to prevent people from sleeping on our sidewalk. What kind of fuel would our outrageous manifestation give him now?
Maybe it was only in my mind that people would take this military-style practice the wrong way. Would they think we were an aggressive army plotting to overthrow the government? Yet, as I stood outside the center with my kasung comrades in full barrack uniform one afternoon, a woman passed by and asked, “Are you in the military?”. “Yes,” I said proudly, “we are in the Shambhala military.” She smiled and walked on, and it occurred to me that many people somehow get it. I remembered being in Halifax at the 2008 Command Conference and going as a group to Starbucks in full uniform. One day, a woman stopped me and said, “oh hey, you’re one of those peaceful warriors aren’t you?”. I wondered if it wouldn’t be long before this happened in San Francisco.
It is a dis-service to feel that what we do is strange or embarrassing. It’s like a story that the Sakyong tells about being referred to as the “King of Shambhala” by a university president in New York at a dinner full of academics and scholars. No-one batted an eyelash. We can not be afraid of who we are, but we also need to be genuine, confident, and skillful in how we communicate about kasung practice to the outside world. How can we do this? I think that we need to be discerning about how, when, and how much we communicate about kasung. We are not just going to walk into every situation in full uniform and say, “We’re here, now accept us.” But we can communicate so much just by showing up and being fully awake, ready to be of service in any situation. Whether we are in uniform or not, we are always kasung.
The city encampment felt just as powerful and transforming as an encampment at a land center, if not more so. Right in the center of our busy lives, we were full of the stress of getting from point A to B in the midst of this hectic city, so the practices and teachings were potent and immediately applicable. We practiced slogan contemplations in the shrine room, practiced drill outside, enjoyed mess, and sat around experiencing space.
Will Ryken helped us remember that the whole practice is about going from “here to here,” from the present moment to our hearts in the present moment. There is nowhere else to be, it turns out. On the last day of the program, we practiced doing a motorcade and drove down to Crissy Fields underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. We drilled in a beautiful open field full of wild flowers, the choppy bay water and wind blowing through our ranks. The sounds of a cannon would periodically penetrate our minds from the military cemetery across the road, as a commemoration for Memorial Day. There was nowhere else we should have been. We were exactly where we needed to be. We went from here, to here.
In the film “Crazy Wisdom” by Johanna Demetrakas, someone says (I can’t remember who) that when an ordinary citizen sees a kasung walking down the street in full uniform, and smiles, some fundamental aggression in our society will have been healed. I think that may have already happened.