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Journey into Shambhala Monasticism

photo by Adrian Thesalinos Haley

photo by Adrian Thalasinos Haley

A Year at Gampo Abbey
Arrival and Adjustment

article by Emma Cataford, Shambhala Times Correspondant
and Loden Nyima, Gampo Abbey Monastic

On October 2nd, a new group of practitioners joined the community at Gampo Abbey for a one year training program in the Shambhala Monastic Order. Ten people, two ladies and eight gentlemen, from across the globe committed to a year of residency at the monastery which will include receiving temporary ordination. While temporary ordination has long been offered at Gampo Abbey as part of the Vidyadhara’s vision, this year marks its first residential offering since the establishment of the Shambhala Monastic Order.

The program follows a curriculum based on the principles of Tiger – friendliness, mindfulness, discernment, renunciation, selflessness, exertion, contentment, and confidence. Training methods include frequent practice of Shambhala Meditation in addition to regular practices, interpersonal exploration, weekly classes, monastic training, and guided study from the teachings of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and the Druk Sakyong Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. “The aspiration is that taking a year or more to train in the monastery is an opportunity for participants to deepen and strengthen their understanding, practice, and embodiment of these core teachings. Whether one then returns to householder life or goes further as a monastic, a journey has taken place and that is an offering to enlightened society” says Loden Nyima, Head of Education.

photo by Emma Cataford

photo by Emma Cataford

For many the journey leading here started long before the actual travelling that took them to Canada and then across Nova Scotia finally ‘landing’ on the rugged cliff of Cape Breton where Gampo Abbey sits unruffled by the northern winds.

As new arrival Daniel Baker explains: “Coming to Gampo Abbey was a result of a consistent longing to deepen my connection to practice, insight and lineage. Not to mention, practice that is consistent and deep profoundly shifts my heart in (positive) ways I felt a sincere need for. Also, Acharya Cashman told me to go or else; she didn’t elaborate on the else, so I booked the ticket.”

For another participant the seeds for monastic life were sowed in previous stays: “When I first visited Gampo Abbey”, says Josh Clarke, “I had a very deep feeling that living here would be in my future. Now, as a resident, I can happily say that this continues to be the most helpful thing that I have ever experienced. Overall, I feel strongly that my time spent here will put workable ground under my feet for the rest of my life so that I can be there for others.”

Thubten Tingdzen, a new temporary monastic, reflects on his decision as an exploration of human nature: “I came to Gampo Abbey with a question about humanity’s basic nature. I had started questioning fundamental aspects of my reality: if my basic nature is deeper than good or bad, then my own ability to choose one is more of a responsibility than a luxury.”

photo by Emma Cataford

photo by Emma Cataford

Whether the reaction upon arrival was a sense of “I have arrived, I am home” or “What was I thinking and how do I get out of here?”, the time of adjustment had begun.

The staff graciously welcomed the new arrivals and left them three open days to settle down before jumping into the routine of monastic life. Most people took the opportunity to explore the land. The first walk up to the Stupa of Enlightenment is something to remember. One has to stop to take in the jaw dropping beauty of it all. The pure energy of nature manifests itself wherever the gaze sets.

Another nice little trek to take is the one that leads up to Gampo Lhatse. It’s a little steep, but quite rewarding. The view from up there is absolutely stunning, giving a panoramic scene of the Abbey’s estate. The feeling of lha, nyen and lu is palpable. One feels the height of the mountain and the richness of the woodlands, the vastness of the ocean and the force of the wind.

Gampo Lhatse is the protector whom the Abbot of Gampo Abbey, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, designated for the land and it’s connected to Gampopa’s monasteries. A lhatse (Tibetan for ‘divine peak’) traditionally was a stack of rocks on a mountain that indicated a place to leave offerings to a deity to secure safe passage. On the mountain adjacent to the Abbey there is a small structure that marks the heart of the land, so to speak, where you can find offerings and prayer flags.

photo by Emma Cataford

photo by Emma Cataford

At last, after the first weekend, came the ‘real thing’: adjusting to the daily schedule. Wake up ‘clacks’ are sounded through the hallways at 5:30 am. First meditation session with morning chants and taking of precepts at 6. Before breakfast is served, the house gets a good scrub and straightening out. This is a time where the sense of community is strongest: everyone has their assignment and takes responsibility for a little piece of the Abbey. All are equal in housework. Same goes for dishes after meal times.

The main meditation practice happens in the morning 8 to 11, unless a class is scheduled. Before lunch, one hour and a half is dedicated to mind/body time, which can mean studying or exercising (or taking a nap!). After lunch comes a four hour work period which ends with evening chants. Dinner is called ‘medicine meal’ as traditionally monastics wouldn’t eat after lunch for two reasons: to not burden their benefactors that offered alms and to rise fresher the next morning. At Gampo Abbey this principle is observed by cooking a soup with the day’s leftovers.

All through the morning until lunch, the whole house is in silence, which resumes at 8 pm. The practice of silence, also observed all day on specific occasions is an important one in a contemplative environment. It creates a spaciousness in the mind where one can observe the thought processes that occur in and around communication. Through silence, a lot is learned about the use of speech and mindful, effective communication.

By following a daily schedule and other forms, residents are presented with a unique opportunity to work with mind patterns. As Josh Clarke puts it: “Abbey life offers something different in every moment, because there is definitely nowhere to hide or escape from your feelings. This can be challenging, but at the same time, it is without question the most beneficial teacher.”

Group Picture of the Householders, photo by Lodro Kalsang

Group Picture of the Householders, photo by Lodro Kalsang

At the end of this month of transition, the new residents were given householder vows, a formal commitment to abide by the five basic precepts which all Abbey residents take. Preceptor Lodro Kalsang led the simple ceremony which concluded with the new arrivals receiving their dzens, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist piece of clothing which householders wear in the shrineroom.

During this first period the participants have been practicing Shambhala meditation and the Shambhala Sadhana, receiving teachings on basic goodness and friendliness to self, exploring these topics with one another and beginning study from seminary teachings of the Sakyong. The schedule is gearing up and the participants are enthusiastic about delving into deep study of the dharma.

In the months ahead, through study and meditation, we will continue to explore our motivations for choosing to live at the monastery and how this can benefit people in the wider community.
Thubten Tingdzen expressed this intention as such: “As a member of society and as a human being I care deeply about the state of the world. If I can contribute anything to humanity’s ability to self-reflect and heal, it will be through investigating my mind, and trusting in my own wisdom, kindness, and strength.”

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Emma Cataford, photo by Sarah Lipton

Emma Cataford, photo by Sarah Lipton

For the full article and more pictures visit Gampo Abbey’s new Blog here.

Emma Cataford grew up in Italy and studied Journalism in London, UK. She has been in Shambhala for about three years, is a bartender by trade, and loves dogs and diving. She is currently residing at Gampo Abbey for a year of monastic training.

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