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Aug 08
Scene and Heard
Polishing Boots, Hauling Rocks

Tori-GateReflections on Magyal Pomra Encampment

article by Matthew Parkinson
photos by Brigit R-S

After experiencing the earthy and raw encampment grounds at Shambhala Mountain Center, the transition back to modern life is abrupt, to say the least.

Last month, seven bay area sangha members gathered with over 100 members of the Dorje Kasung for the annual Magyal Pomra Encampment, a gritty and bare-bones retreat that at its heart is about experiencing egolessness through discipline and working with discomfort, a departure from the more known experience of touching awakenment through relaxation in sitting meditation.

In encountering Camp, the (very few) passers-by would ask, “what is this?” It was often difficult to explain the presence of Dorje Kasung, in khaki uniforms tucked into highly polished black boots and army tents erected barracks-style. What is this all doing at a Buddhist retreat center?

Here is my snapshot of an answer to these questions, as paraphrased from our discussions of this during Camp:
As the Shambhala community explores society, and touches in to what an awake society is or could be, the Shambhala view is to hold all and see all as it is, and not to reject or idealize. In doing this, all aspects of society must be included — even the existence of military, since this plays a central role in conventional society and our global culture. In order to explore this notion of military, and to cultivate strength through compassionate and non-aggressive means, the Dorje Kasung adopts military forms and acts as the “protector pillar” of Shambhala society.

Shortly after I arrived at MPE, I was told that the retreat would be mainly focused on working with my own discomfort, and testing my own limitations to push myself further than I thought that I would be able to stretch. Here at Camp, we were often said to be naked and exposed. Not in the literal sense, but in the sense that every opportunity to express “I”, or to express any sense of ego, was stripped away again and again.

Dharma-Sky-by-Brigit-R-SThis happened though wearing khaki uniforms, and having to ensure on a continual basis that every aspect of this uniform was impeccable — pins straight, boots polished, lines clean. There was always a sergeant close by giving loving and forceful reminders if this was not the case. It came from maintaining an impossible schedule, early wake-up, marching drill all day long in the hot sun (which is a remarkable vehicle for remaining in the present moment during this meditation-in-action), work detail which included scrubbing pots, digging holes, and hauling dirt and rocks. Incredibly, mixed with a fair share of frustration was a pervasive sense of delight in this routine. Of course there were complaints here and there of a blistered toe or of having to run to formation for yet another “awake” (a call to attention), but Kasung young and old embraced these forms willingly, and with an energy of perseverance.

This schedule often went into the night, concluding with taking shifts one-by-one holding a post at the gate to our camp, the Torii, a 40 foot tall wooden entryway built in the Japanese Shinto style. The practice of holding this post, the “left out” practice, created an experience of sacred loneliness considered to be quite powerful in the Dorje Kasung.

For me, this stripping away of ego, of “me” was irritating, enraging at times, and I searched for intellectual storylines to prove how unjust and unfair the whole situation was. But as it happened, my “spinning out” spun itself out, and I was left with my bare experience of being — being present, being at Camp, being with whatever was happening moment to moment.

This is exactly what makes MPE the foundational program for the Dorje Kasung. Our role is in profoundly being, being with the present moment and with whatever arises, phenomena, emotions, aggression, or peace. By being this flagpole of strength and compassion, practice can be cultivated and dharma propagated, and our military of non-aggression can act as a reference point of wakefulness for all practice and teaching in the Shambhala community.

Eventually, Camp was struck and the encampment grounds were returned to the bare earth from which it has been built for the past 36 years. Uniforms were packed away and Dorje Kasung got much-needed showers. In departing, I remain hopeful that the strength and presence of basic being remains in my daily life as the experience of Encampment fades into a dream-like memory.

Matthew Parkinson
is a psychotherapist working in community mental health in San Francisco. He is a member of the San Francisco Shambhala Center, and is active with the Northern California regiment of the Dorje Kasung.

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