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No Turning Back

Gampo Abbey, playing the gyaling

Revealing the Life at Gampo Abbey
by Dawa Lhatso (Jade Meunier)

“I am so lucky to be here!” and “Get me outta here!” are my two most common thoughts at Gampo Abbey. Such is the nature of this place: a magically vast and open world in which there is no exit. Gampo Abbey is no different than any other place where two or more humans live. The only difference here is that you can’t get away from the truth of your world. I’ve been living here for a mere six months, yet my life feels blessed beyond what seems reasonable and so I feel inspired to share my experience of Abbey life with you.

A year before I became a resident, I visited the area and came to watch the all-famous Canada Day softball game between the Gampo Abbey monks and nuns and the Pleasant Bay volunteer firefighters. After the game (which the Abbey lost…), I walked along the beach and noticed the countless smooth, polished pebbles on the shore, washed a million times by the sea. Over the next few months I had the chance of meeting several people who had lived at the Abbey for some time and I saw the same smooth quality in them: a ripened wisdom noticeable in the twinkling of their kind gaze, a suppleness and strength in their words and gestures. These people had clearly been shinjanged (means: thoroughly processed), and I wanted some of that too. So my curiosity towards Gampo Abbey naturally led me to apply and finally to move here.

On my very first day of living here, I could tell there was something different in the air… as I went exploring along the shore, stunned by the vast, powerful rhythm of the ocean, I suddenly thought: “May all beings benefit from the fact that I am at Gampo Abbey for these next two years.” I had said these words, may all beings benefit, many times before, but never had they arisen as spontaneously and genuinely as this. Since that first day, my connection to the power of aspiration has only deepened and I feel continuously blessed, quite mysteriously, yet unmistakably. I’ve been pondering this notion of blessings quite a bit. What are blessings, exactly? Where do they come from? This confused being has no answer, but I can tell you that this place is overflowing with them, if one dares to ask for assistance.

Gampo Abbey: Snow Buddha

One of the main things that drew me to the Abbey is its rigorous schedule. Before I came, a friend who used to live here had told me, with a perplexing sigh: “You’ll see, it’s a lot like Groundhog Day…”. Indeed, except for some variations here and there, the daily schedule remains mostly the same, which is both extremely helpful and often boring, as you can imagine. Over and over we sit and practice, over and over we chant, we work, we go for a walk, we eat, we sleep, again and again, through the good days and the bad days. As it’s often remarked about Gampo Abbey, there is no escape, and the schedule is an accomplice, leaving little room for indulging in our usual distractions. Another accomplice is the physical container: firstly, being so remotely located; and secondly, the fact that within the Abbey there are no hidey-holes in which to feed our neuroses in the privacy of our own cocoon. If somebody irritates you, he or she is most likely always around. If you fall in love with someone, there’s no place to be alone with him or her. It’s sort of sweetly painful. More than once I have met my edge realizing there’s nowhere to hide my embarrassment, my anger, my desire, and all the things I’ve been so neatly hiding my whole life. We may be alone on this journey, but without others along the way to push our buttons and show us our true face, I think the road would be much longer.

Then, of course, there are the precepts and the monastic way of life, which on most days are just a little too tight for comfort. First we get our head shaved which, no matter how prepared you are, is quite shocking! And we give up our usual garb for monastic robes. On top of that, we go by another name at the Abbey: our Refuge name. I must admit that one gets used to it all quickly, but at first I felt very naked without the familiarity of my hair, my clothes, and my name. Part of me is gone, yet here I am, still whole. After a little while, one starts to wonder, “Who am I?”

The precepts, I would say, are what have been most helpful to me, in particular the ones to which I have the most resistance. The five precepts (or more for life monastics) that we take are actually quite hard to break, because they are major transgressions. But what is more interesting to me is to notice the very subtle ways I tend to break those precepts. For example, I always thought that I was a completely truthful person, but more and more I see how often I lie in exaggerating facts to make myself look good. I see how I sneakily try to seduce others, and so on. It’s not that these actions are bad in themselves, but the constraint of the precepts allow us to take a look at the intention that fuels our actions, the underlying motivations that usually prefer to hide in the shadows…

Gampo Abbey summer

Of course, we have all heard of Gampo Abbey as this house of mirrors, this rigorous training ground. But the refrain less often heard is that the Abbey is also a place of deep kindness where the simple joys of community life are braided into the challenges mentioned above. I personally enjoy mealtimes quite a bit, when the sense of friendliness and celebration is most apparent. Daily silence is lifted right before lunch, and we eat and chat casually, happy like buzzing bees out in the sun after a quiet spell of rain. In the afternoon, I usually get my daily dose of laughter during the work period. Though our workload is considerable, somehow there is a lightness and a humor to it all. The Abbey has its own organic pace and cannot be forced. Indeed, out of nowhere, I have found my work habits to change suddenly, going from overly-organized, rigid to-do lists, to more mellow, intuitive ways. Even though I make mistakes and forget things, somehow, everything always works out perfectly. Then there is the infamous weekly movie night, where the intricate voting process (a festival of kleshas) is half the fun. Open day, the one unscheduled day per week, contrasting greatly to our usually tight schedule, has been for me either a source of anxiety (“I’ve been waiting for open day all week, it better be good! What if it’s not good??”) or a blank canvas allowing a spontaneous and surprising turn of events, depending on my openness…

In the kind of world we live in today, one could ask, “Why go to this place at the end of the world and become a monastic? How helpful is that to society, really?” Well, that’s a very necessary question, especially within our Shambhala tradition. I mean, what is a Shambhala monastic anyway? Isn’t that an oxymoron? I have no clean-cut answer, but I had these very concerns when deciding if I wanted to apply for temporary ordination and having now lived here for a little while has clarified some issues about being truly helpful to society. Because of the intense practice at the Abbey and the honesty that results, I’m coming to the humbling realization that, “Boy, I am confused. I am not free. I am bewildered.” And let’s be truthful, being a confused and somewhat cowardly cocoon-er, there’s only so much I can do at that stage to help others because I’m always trying to protect myself.

Jade Meunier - Dawa Lhatso

Of course, we are all somewhat beneficial to others, but are we living up to our full potential? I had a nagging feeling that I was not, and that was the insistent inspiration that brought me to the Abbey. And I’m so glad I had the guts to follow my heart, because though I am physically removed from the mainstream world, I know I’ve found appropriate conditions for me to do the real work of being of benefit: waking up. Whether we are here for a year or our whole life, the environment created at the Abbey has everything we need to progress along the path, if we give up our resistance to discipline. And give in we must: it’s not because we’re at a monastery that we’re necessarily waking up. This is as good a place as any to fall asleep. But if our purpose is clear, if we apply ourselves to discover at all costs our true nature, basic goodness, in order to blossom and ripen exquisitely like we know we are meant to, and in order to simply help other beings do the same, then Gampo Abbey, I feel, is an excellent place to train. If you feel the same inspiration as I did, I invite you to take the leap! But be warned: there’s no turning back.

~~
Dawa Lhatso (Jade Meunier) is a temporary nun at Gampo Abbey. Hailing from Quebec, she moved to Nova Scotia in 2010 to be closer to the Shambhala community after she spent time as a Mukpo student at Karme Choling.

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5 responses to “ No Turning Back ”
  1. John Stott
    Feb 29, 2012
    Reply

    Dear Dawa Lhatso,

    Somehow bodhicitta has been born in you. May all beings benefit. Miss you!

    Every best wish,
    John

  2. Christine Allan
    Feb 17, 2012
    Reply

    Dear Dawa Lhatso, dear Jade,
    It is so nice to hear from you in this way. I also have inclination to make a part of my life at the Abbey. You make it sound very much as I imagine it to be. Not too tight and certainly not too loose. I am happy for you to be in this magical place!
    Lots of love,
    Christine

  3. Cary Weiner
    Feb 16, 2012
    Reply

    Thank you Dawa Lhatso for bringing the Abbey experience to life in such an accessible way.

    And Greg if you happen to read this I hope you are well wherever you are – from your old friend in the Dana “monastery” at Shambhala Mountain! I hope we meet up again one of these days!

  4. Lisa Aweida Ross
    Feb 16, 2012
    Reply

    Dear Dawa Lhatso,

    Thanks you so much for your article. I have always had a longing to come to Gampo Abbey and I love hearing about life within the community. Maybe some day it will be the right time for me as well. I appreciate your offering of sharing your experience.

    warmly, Lisa

  5. Gregory Bronswinkel
    Feb 16, 2012
    Reply

    Dear Dawa Lhatso,

    I haven’t had the good fortune to immerse myself in such a container yet.
    But on the question “How helpful is that to society, really?”
    Your genuinely kind and honest words resonate profoundly and are truly inspirational.

    Thank you for sharing your experience of Abbey life with us.

    Best regards,

    Gregory Bronswinkel


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