Friday, December 11, 2009

Goodbye Canada - Hello Blighty

Hi Y'All,

My last post saw me about to go into retreat. I very much enjoyed my little 5 day solitary in the "Longevity Cabin". I managed to get in plenty of study and meditation and prepared my talks for the introductory weekend I was to be supporting later in Guelph. The weather was pretty chilly with a light dusting of snow. I really enjoyed the wood burning stove!

snow on the hilltops

Coming out of retreat I was given a surprise farewell rejoicing party - with lashings of ice-cream. What a great way to come out of retreat - I felt completely love bombed! I usually feel rather awkward at these sorts of things, but really enjoyed it all the same.

My last week at Gampo Abbey flew by in a whirl of activity. I had lots of loose ends to tie up and those around me were busy preparing and supporting Shambhala training levels, so it was all a bit of a blur. Being driven out of the Abbey to meet my shuttle bus felt slightly surreal and I felt a lot of sadness to be leaving my Abbey friends.

Twelve hours later I landed in St. John's - the capital city of Newfoundland. My hosts for my two week visit were Les & Lewis Cranford, two old friends from my 2007 visit to the Abbey.

Lewis & Les going walkabout

My first week was spent in solitary retreat at Les & Lewis' cabin in New Harbour. This is a secluded little spot close to the tourist destination of Dildo (no comment). My week was very quiet and I had the opportunity to enjoy meditation, recorded Dharma talks and some study of Madhyamaka, which tied my brain into knots and often left me with headaches. After this, I really enjoyed my pleasant strolls down to the harbour and to the local gas station for a coffee. Before I left the Abbey a nun had mentioned that she had heard stories of this cabin being haunted. I didn't have any experiences while there, but the thought that it might be certainly added an extra edge to my already over active imagination.

A little Home from Home

The Outhouse was ...........well ventilated

My second week in Newfoundland was spent mostly around St. John's. Les and Lewis introduced me to some hikes around the coast of the Avalon peninsular and to the delights of eating wild berries such as partridge berry - a new one for me - and spruce sap, which apparently can be used to make homemade chewing gum - very sticky and an acquired taste!

Looking out to the Atlantic across St. John's Harbour

I loved the Newfoundland culture. We took in a number of local bands, some traditional dancing and some traditional ballad singing. The mixture of Celtic roots and the development of a local folk tradition was fantastic. It would be a great place to visit during the annual music festival. The locals are friendly and very easy going and George Street is a wonderfully condensed party/club/bar district catering to all ages and tastes, it was great to watch little old fellas and teenage girls have a good night out on the same dance floor - I don't think this happens much in England. Nobody in NF seems to go out till 10pm and the place is really kicking at 2am!

The wild and beautiful Avalon Peninsular

I was invited to give a talk to the local Shambhala Buddhism group and decided to lead the evening on Spiritual Friendship. The evening seemed to go well and around 25 people came along. It was a lively and intelligent group with lots of practice experience, I really enjoyed the warmth of hospitality.

From St. John's I jumped on a 3 hour flight to Toronto. Harshaprabha and his mate Kam picked me up and drove me to the charming little city (about 128,000 people) of Guelph. Here another friend of Harshaprabha had loaned me his flat for the weekend and I enjoyed sharing the flat with his long haired and idiosyncratic cat called Mork.

The Guelph Church where Anagarika Dhammapala
gave his public lectures on his tour of Canada

I spent the weekend supporting 4 drop in classes intended for newcomers to Buddhism and Meditation. I think Harshaprabha was a little disappointed at the sizes of the classes, but everyone seemed to get something from it and it was a very friendly weekend. Sunday night we watched the Grays Cup at a friends house. This is the big Canadian football game of the year and I have to say that I really got into it. It helped having lots of people to explain the rules.

The CN Tower is quite big

The last leg of my journey was a Greyhound bus trip into Toronto for 4 days of site seeing. I took in the CN Tower (the worlds tallest building at 555 metres). It seems I am still scared of heights.

It seems bigger close up....

looking down through the glass floor at 450 metres confirms's big

Great views though

I went to a number of museums and art galleries, partly accompanied by Sylvie, the twin sister of my Gampo Abbey friend Tsultrim. The highlights would be the collection of Buddhist Art at the Royal Ontario museum and a small museum of Inuit Arts. I was really impressed by the intimate connection the Inuits have with the natural world, a sort of sacred outlook, and the parallels with Buddhist cultures, particularly the Tibetans. I'd love to learn more about this way of seeing the world, which seems rooted in a deep respect.

A small selection of the treasures at the ROM

Today, I am sitting in my good friend John's comfortable house in Thundridge (near Hertford, UK). I have been getting re-acquainted with English culture over the last week - particularly enjoying the English phenomena of the Indian Restaurant! There are some great little walks around here, one going through the neighbouring village of Cold Christmas. In two days I return to my community in Cambridge.


Monday, November 2, 2009

September and October at Gampo Abbey

Hi you All,

As summer becomes a fast fading memory, things have taken on a quieter aspect at the Abbey. Our program has settled back into it's usual gentle routine with less of the activities seen over the summertime.

The trees and bushes have their Autumnal colours and we saw our first light snow fall on the 15th October – it didn't settle at the Abbey, but the trees on the hills behind us looked like a Christmas postcard. The little mountain road between us and our main shopping town of Cheticamp had 10cm of snow.

The View from my desk of Gampo Lhatse (the hill of the Abbey Protector Deity) & Ani Palmo's Cottage

In September we had our annual visit from Shibata Sensei. The Sensei is a Kyudo (Japanese archery) master in the Zenko lineage and a 20th generation master bowmaker. He is also a third generation “Bowmaker to the Emperor of Japan” (although now retired).

Shibata Sensei was a close personal friend of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and maintains close links with the Shambhala community and retreat centres where Kyudo is taught and practised.

On this visit we were treated to a demonstration of Kyudo by two of Sensei's students and several days of instruction were also given to a class of Abbey participants. The numbers for the class were limited and I did not put myself forward for the program as it seemed only fair to give Shambhala practitioners the opportunity train.

Shibata Sensei is regarded in Japan as a “Living Treasure”. Nice for a country to count individuals along side buildings and works of art. This was the second opportunity I have had to see Shibata Sensei as I had previously been his Abbey attendant in 2007. He certainly demonstrates a strong presence and personal dignity.

More recently we enjoyed an Open Day. This was an opportunity for anyone who is interested in the Abbey to pop in and have look around. We laid on tea and cake and there were a couple of talks. The day was a great success and we had about 135 people drop in to say hello. I might a nice lady and her family from Guelph and it looks like she might come to the retreat that Harshaprabha and I are doing there in November.

Last week we had some tragic news of a young Toronto woman killed on the local Skyline Trail by Coyote. The 19 year old was hiking alone when attacked by two coyote. Some hikers came upon the attack and called the emergency services. One of the coyote was shot at the scene but seems to have wandered off wounded. The young woman died later in hospital.

This has been a real shock to the Abbey and to the local community. It is very rare for coyote to attack humans and this trail is well known to all of us an outstanding place of natural beauty. We are bringing the young woman and her family into our practice and will do a Sukhavati ceremony for her later in the month.

This week we had an ordination of the latest batch of temporary monastics. Ani Migme did the honours with her usual panache, welcoming (from the left) Ananda, Ziji and Chongchup. We celbrate in the traditional manner - chocolate cake!

My time at Gampo Abbey is now coming to a close. I have decided to leave earlier than initially planned. My reason for coming to the Abbey was to experiment with a monastic lifestyle for a second time and I feel I have accomplished what I set out to do. Practicing in a Shambhala environment has been a interesting and broadening experience, but I now feel the need to be back with my own practice community, the FWBO.

I have a 5 day solitary starting today and then one week back in the Abbey community. After that I fly to Newfoundland to meet up with Les and Lewis Cranford (old Abbey pals), to do some sight seeing and a short solitary retreat. From Newfoundland I fly to Toronto to put on a weekend retreat for beginners in Guelph with my pal Harshaprabha. After a couple of days of sight seeing in Toronto I will fly back to the UK at the beginning of December.

Above a rare photograph of Monk Wrestling. Although technically prohibited by the Vinaya (monastic code) it does provide a good form of indoor exercise in the chilly Nova Scotian winter. Monks have to keep fit somehow - meditation just doesn't burn the calories. The Texan Mawler, aka Karma Chogyal (in red and yellow) is a compact but powerful opponent and difficult to lift above knee height - thus making deck slams somewhat difficult.



Tuesday, September 8, 2009

August at Gampo Abbey

Hello me Ducks,

I hope you are all well and happy.

At the beginning of this month we had the arrival of 12 ladies for the latest stage of the 3 year retreat program in the Sopa Choling Retreat Centre (adjacent to Gampo Abbey). One of these was my old mate Christine Behrens so it was lovely to have a chance to catch up with her.

This current session includes study and practice of the 6 Yogas of Naropa, one of which is Tsumo or production of inner heat. Should save a bit on the heating bills this winter.

We prepared the retreat centre for them prior to their arrival and said our goodbyes at the official Gate Closing ceremony.

This included circumambulating the retreat centre with flags and trumpet blowing,

a Lasang (fire puja/offering)

and the gate closing itself with offerings to the protector deities

concluding with posting pictures of the 4 Kings on the retreat centre gates.

The retreatants are now confined to the retreat centre and it's grounds for around 9 months.

Farm Visit

The Abbey has an ongoing relationship with a local man called Brook who runs a small sustainable organic farm. He visits us on occasion and has supplied some fresh vegetables and goat yoghurt to us in the past. The kitchen manager Trime Lhagtong is keen to extend our relationship and on this pretext a car load of us set off with our packed lunches and swimming costumes to pay a visit to Brook and his family.

It was lovely to meet his wife, children, dogs, goats, chickens, cows, pigs and ducks. Here is a man who really loves what he does and he is passionate about sustainability. He says on a good day he can see that he is not just growing vegetables but can see his whole family rising up through the soil. I for one believe him.

It was great to get a tour of the veggie patch, everything mixed in together to confuse the bugs and reduce the impact of disease and good to try the produce straight from the vine. The highlight for me was meeting Brook's rare Scottish breed Bull with his harem of cows.

Brook and his remarkably friendly Bull

I have never been this close to a Bull before and doubt that I ever will again. You could definitely see him sizing us up, but he remained calm and the presence of Brook helped to diffuse any perceived threat (from us!).

It was great to see a free range family of cows just wandering around and enjoying the the shady trees and mud. Very natural.

The day was particularly hot and after visiting the cows we got to play in our own watering hole in the local river. The river was very cooling and we swam by a small rapid which made a great hot tub, with salmon joining in the fun.

Birthday Gal

Ani Palmo celebrated her 76th Birthday this month. We had a wee party in her little cottage with some sweets and a truly excellent Boston Cream Pie (courtesy of Dechen). Ani Palmo treated us to a run through of her life story which is really quite fascinating. Originating in Poland, she was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and one of the early founders of Gampo Abbey.

Ani Palmo and me have a Birthday hug

Brannon hides behind Ani Palmo's Orchid

We said goodbyes to Brannon who returned to the Nyingma Institute in California (hope it's going well!), to Ani Lodro who returned to her home Sangha in Montreal and to Choshin who's taking up a new post in Washington. I will miss you all.

Two Order Members at Gampo Abbey

Bodhidaka paid a flying visit at the end of the month, staying for just three nights. It was lovely to see another Order Member and to catch up a bit on mutual friends.

Bodhidaka was here in time for Ani Lodro and Choshin's leaving party, and along with FWBO mitra Saskia aka Zangmo (pictured above) we offered the chanting of the Dhammapam Gatha, a little gift from the FWBO mini Sangha.

Death of a Han

The Han is a very important part of Abbey Life. It comes from the Zen tradition and is used to signal the start of a monastery activity such as chanting, meditation (or lunch!). There are two distinctive ways to hit the Han, one for shrineroom activities and one for everything else.

Karma Chogyal warms up the shiny new hardwood Han

The practice with the Han is to drop what you are doing straight away, as soon as you hear the distinctive "clack, clack, clack" and move onto the next activity. This helps to overcome attachment to our own way of doing things and is a reminder of the choicelessness of the moment of death. Neither the Han nor the Grim Reaper are prepared to wait while you finish your coffee.

and here's one we prepared earlier

The story of the Han (and nobody knows where this originated - it's not a Zen thing) is that when the Han finally breaks the kindly folks of the Abbey get to enjoy an extra open day (i.e. a free day off). Some folks have been excited about this for a while (I remember people predicting it's imminent demise in 2007). The Han is estimated to be 10 years old. But it finally gave up the ghost this month. We didn't manage to knock a whole all the way through, as once the back cracked it sounded just awful and had to be replaced - but we got our day off anyway!

Love to All,

Thursday, August 6, 2009

July at Gampo Abbey

Prayer flags at sunset
Hi y'all,

Another full and action packed month as summer rolls into Cape Bretton island. We have just recently said goodbye to the last batch of In House Retreatants who have been staying with us over a period of 5 weeks. This has been an opportunity for people to stay for one or two weeks and get a taste of Abbey life. They all seemed to enjoy themselves and it adds a different flavour to the Abbey having new faces appearing every seven days or so.

The tourist season is now in full swing. At times we must have 20 or more tourists a day visiting the Abbey. I have enjoyed giving afternoon tours to groups around the Abbey, explaining about Tibetan Buddhism, the historical Buddha, protector deities, the history of the Abbey, why I am the only one dressed in blue and so on.

The latest batch of recruits took temporary monastic ordination this month. This begins with a hair cutting ceremony the night before. Two of us were doing the barbering. Dennis was my first vistim. Before:

and after:

Trime Lhagtong, Serri, Choshin, Zopa, Rinchen and Chotso with Ani Migme

The following day Ani Migme lead a simple ceremony and delicately cut of the remaining lock of hair from the crown of their heads. A very festive occasion with some very nervous peeps getting used to wearing robes for the first time.

Canada Day rolled in and we joined the Pleasant Bay community for their parade and our Annual Softball Game against the local Fire Department.

Triple trouble at the Parade

Choshin tries to negotiate a cheaper fare, but the punk has beaten him to it

As is traditional - we lost the softball (29 to 10 I think). Given the fact that we had a half decent team this year, we lost worse than ever. Hey ho, we drowned our sorrows with fries and ice cream at the local diner: The Rusty Anchor. Guess what it has in the car park?

Going all to Sea

July also saw the annual Lobster Release. The Abbey bought up Captain Mark's last catch of the season and released them back to the sea (cue theme to "Born Free"). This follows the Eastern tradition of Buddhists buying and releasing caged birds, but with a distinctly Nova Scotian twist.

Paula gets to grips with a dissatisfied customer

I had my first swim of the year at Red River beach. A beautifully sunny day and the beach was quite busy with local kids buidling a dam in Red River. A few of us from the Abbey swam and sunbathed. We swam in the River rather than the sea and that was still cold enough. A nosey seal was checking us out.

Later, Choshin, Tsultrim and myself walked into town for a well deserved maple and walnut ice cream. It was much further than I remembered (maybe 2 to 2 and a half hours in total from the Abbey), but on the way we saw a very cheeky red fox, a bald eagle and later on, at the restaurant two beautiful hummingbirds.

In between all this galavanting around I am getting on with plenty of meditation and study. My current themes are Gelug Madhyamika and a class on the Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra (or Buddha Nature for short).

I hope you are all having a great summer.

Love to All,


Torma Night

Just one of the many and varied community activities we take part in at Gampo Abbey. Torma Night is a winner with all the monastics - well, it is compulsory, but I like to think we'd all go anyway.

Torma is an offering gift in Tibetan Buddhism. The Tormas we make on Torma night are used in our main shrine room and presented to the local protector deities by being flung into the garden at appropriate moments during our chants.

These are made from barley flour dough and butter. The central pinacle represents Mount Meru - the centre of the Buddhist cosmos and the four points on the base represent the four continents - one of which is our home - Jambudvipa. Hence we offer up the whole universe for the benefit of practicing Dharma.

When sticking the continents onto Mount Meru it is important to get them on the right way up - with a flat side on the top - otherwise all the people are liable to fall off. It also makes the job of building Ikea even more difficult for the people of Jambudvipa.

Here are some images of a recent Torma night

Choshin looks very pleased with himself. Did you make all those? No - thought not. Nice pinny though!

Continents are carefully molded

Tsultrim puts the finishing touches to Jambudvipa

Hmm.. this one might need some structural underpinning

Here's one I made earlier - I'm sooo proud

Serri, Kalsang, Tenzin and Jinpa make butter wheels in iced water to stop them melting

Dechen adds a butter glaze before the butter wheels are added

Rows of finished Torma ready for the freezer until their eventual use - the squirrels love 'em!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

June at Gampo Abbey

Hi All,

Wow, how time flies! The weeks just fly by here – it’s the minutes that can kill you. Particularly the last three minutes at the end of a three hour period meditation session, you are at the front and it’s your job to ring the gong at the end. The digital clock is in front of you and you have to keep an eye on it, the numbers slow, slow some more and……freeze, the clock goes into stasis – you have entered the twilight zone!

This last month has been action packed. The latest group of Three year retreatants finished their current period in the Sopa Choling retreat centre. They have been practicing hard, 7 days a week for about 10 months, meditating and sleeping upright in their Tibetan box thrones (like a wing armchair, but different). The retreat centre is “sealed off” except for a few essential persons and the retreatants are not allowed outside of their fenced area during their stay. We had an official gate opening ceremony led by Bhiksu Lodro Sangpo and a Lasang (a kind of Windhorse raising fire puja), great fun, very Tibetan and very smoky if you stand in the wrong place. Everywhere I stood seemed to be the wrong place! I smelled as if I had been barbequed.

Ani Pema Chodron delivered a further three talks (I think) during her one month stay and covered a lot of ground in meetings on the new monastic code for Gampo Abbey. Just before she left we had a whistle stop visit from the Sakyong (Chogyam Trungpa’s son and Dharma heir) and his wife, the Sakyong Wangmo. The Sakyong and the Sakyong Wangmo are at the head of the Shambhala sangha and represent the masculine and feminine principal in Shambhala Buddhism.

Photo by Kalsang

The Sakyong and the Sakyong Wangmo were received in royal style. I helped to bolt together the teaching throne in the shrine room and weeded flower beds and garden paths. We were all very busy. This was a big event for the Abbey and for the local Nova Scotia sangha who turned out for the occasion. We had a celebratory feast with lots of lovely goodies donated by the local sangha, including some excellent scones and clotted cream – I love that British influence in Nova Scotia. The local sangha are a very friendly bunch and appreciative of the Abbey, I got to chat with a quite a few of them.

The Sakyong led a Lasang (fire puja) just before his departure. I knew I should have waited before washing the smoke out of my robes from the last one!. He presented us all with blessing cords to be worn around the neck. The Sakyong Wangmo kindly gave out Tibetan style cookies she had baked herself – and very tasty too.

The Sakyong also presented the Abbey with a wonderful Padmasambhava rupa, which is currently enthroned on our main shrine.

Wesak was celebrated in June (a little later than in the FWBO calendar). The atmosphere in the Abbey was quite wonderful – it felt a little like Christmas! We started the day in our usual way, chanting the liturgy, meditation, housework and breakfast, then we started to prepare a feast for later in the day. Some local sangha members joined us for a Sakyamuni Buddha sadhana and combined feast, held in the main shrine room. Several people made feast offerings of readings and I read Pinghiya’s Praises. We even had a folk music offering from two of our guests.

Ani Migme celebrated her 85th Birthday. We had a wonderful rejoicing and storytelling session and celebratory lunch. People recalled their experiences of Ani Migme and some of these were very funny. Zen Priest Ryumon sang and ballad and got Ani Migme up to dance which was very entertaining. Ani Migme fell over at one point (too much twirling about) but was quickly up on her feet again. That new pacemaker is marvelous.

The Relay for Life sponsored walk went very well. The weather was awful but fortunately the organizers decided that we would walk inside the arena rather than outside on the track.

Photo by Kalsang

I exceeded my sponsorship target of $100 by raising $195. Thank you all for your support! The Abbey Team raised over $1500 in total and our man Rick won a voucher from a local restaurant as the largest single fundraiser. Way to go Rick! The weather seemed too windy for camping (our tent blew away twice), so I decided to stay up through the night. We had live music till around 2am and plenty of coffee and flap jacks.

This week Lhagtong, one of our nuns had her graduation ceremony for completing the three year monastic study course called Shedra.

photo by Kalsang

She gave an excellent talk outlining the principles of Yogachara Buddhist philosophy in a very light hearted and pleasing way. She was then awarded her certificate by Bhiksu Lodro Sangpo.

After a wet and windy week, summer has reasserted itself and we are enjoying some beautiful summer days with refreshing cool breezes. I am spending my work afternoons mostly in the garden cutting our vast oceans of grass. I am starting to develop a slight tan and quite a number of very itchy black fly bites.

The Abbey has just started its’ five week open retreat program. This week we welcomed three new faces. Some people will be staying for one week, others for two weeks. The retreatants live in a separate building but join us in our daily program. Towards the end of this period the number of “in house” retreatants will rise to 13 – lots of new names to remember.

I have just finished reading the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. This is my first venture into the Russian novelists, I was a little apprehensive at fist, but thoroughly enjoyed it. Around nine hundred pages, it was a two month read, but really worthwhile, emotionally moving, intellectually stimulating, spiritual and very human.

The next event on the horizon is the very important softball game against the local volunteer fire service. This takes place on Canada day (July 1st). We have had some practice and we have a very promising team (and then there’s me). Will it be enough though? We have only won once in the games history – and that was with the help of some local schoolboys.

Love to All,


Reporting in from the Hermitage

Here is a copy of a reporting in that I prepared for our AHS Quarterly Journal (called Tendrel). As the journal is only available to member...