Life in Gampo Abbey - Western Style
by Bhikshuni Tsultrim
a living place for monastics in the West is challenging and
rewarding. Our community, Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada,
has gone through many changes over the years. It was founded
by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who escaped to India after the
abortive Tibetan uprising against the Chinese communists in
1959. By appointment of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he became
spiritual advisor to the young lama's school which trained
the young reincarnate lamas in India. Rinpoche received a
khenpo degree, the highest scholarly degree. He then received
a Spaulding scholarship and attended Oxford University, where
he studied comparative religion, philosophy, and fine arts.
He also studied flower arranging and received a degree in
it from Sogetsu School. In England, Trungpa Rinpoche started
to teach Dharma to Westerners, co-founded the Samye Ling Meditation
Center, and learned to speak English fluently. After a car
accident, he gave up his monastic robes to avoid Tibetan cultural
trappings and the religious fascination of Westerners. He
married an English woman and, at the invitation of his Western
students, moved to the United States, where he taught at the
University of Colorado and developed a friendship with the
well-known Zen master Suzuki Roshi. He began to teach widely,
establishing the Vajradhatu, Shambhala, and Nalanda organizations,
which will be explained later.
In 1983, Trungpa Rinpoche decided to establish
a monastic setting for his students and asked people to move
to Nova Scotia from Boulder, Colorado. We found a farmhouse
and barn on 220 acres on Cape Breton Island, a remote and
quiet place. The closest village was a one-hour drive over
a mountain. Ane Pema Chodron was asked to lead the abbey,
and in 1984, a small group of us, ordained and lay, went to
live there. By 1985, the property was paid for in full, freeing
us from the burden of a mortgage. Also in 1985, Ven. Thrangu
Rinpoche agreed to be our abbot, a position that Trungpa Rinpoche
could not take because he was not a monastic. In our name,
"Gampo" stands for Gampopa, the student of Milarepa
who established monasticism in the Karma Kagyu lineage in
the eleventh century and combined the yogic and monastic paths.
"Abbey" indicates that it is not a monastery or
a nunnery, for monks, nuns, and lay people live there. The
nuns and monks practice, study, work, and eat together, although
we live in two separate buildings.
Our first monastic program was led by
a Chinese bhikshuni, Venerable Yuen Yi, who trained us strictly,
but with humor. In subsequent years we were taught by a Western
bhikshu, Lama Droupgyu; our abbot, Trangu Rinpoche; the German
Theravada nun, Ayya Khema; the scholar, Dr. Herbert Guenther;
Jamgon Kongrul Rinpoche; and Ponlop Rinpoche. In 1986, we
had our first varsa (Pali: vassa, Tibetan: yarney), the rainy
season retreat, and in 1987 we had training in playing Tibetan
musical instruments, making tormas (ritual cakes), and creating
sand mandalas. Since we learned these skills early on and
we teach them, we no longer depend on Tibetan lamas to do
this. In 1990, the first English language three-year retreat
at our retreat center, Sopa Choling, began.
Since 1989, twice a year we have published
The Profound Path of Peace
(PPP), the journal of the International Kagyu Sangha Association
of Buddhist monks and nuns. Copies are sent to Kagyu centers
worldwide and are positively received.
Our monastic community has grown slowly
but steadily over the years. By 1996, we had five bhikshus
and four bhikshunis, plus others with lower ordinations. Every
year some people take either permanent or temporary ordination.
Twenty-four people finished the first three-year retreat (which
actually lasted six years because people alternated six-month
periods of being in and out of retreat!) in 1996, and the
second three-year retreat at Sopa Choling began in 1997. All
the Sopa Choling retreatants are ordained for the duration
of their retreat. They are in strict retreat and literally
separated from the world, including Gampo Abbey, by a fence.
The only people authorized to enter the retreat area are the
cooks, druppon or one who guides the retreat, and maintenance
Bhikshus and bhikshunis, novices, people
who are parmarabjungs (pre-novices with life-long ordination),
and those with temporary ordination all live at Gampo Abbey.
Some staff members come for six months or one year to work,
practice, and study. In addition, there are program participants
and visitors who stay for brief periods of time. Every lay
person who comes to Gampo Abbey must take the five precepts,
adhere to Gampo Abbey rules, and follow our daily schedule,
which includes meditation. Everyone meets regularly with a
We usually conduct four programs yearly
for the general public-three for beginners and one for advanced
students. In addition to teachings by Ane Pema Chodron and
senior monastics, we invite visiting lamas and other teachers.
We do varsa, the rainy season retreat, and two one-month dathuns
each year. During these we meditate for nine or ten hours
a day. In 1997, we began a one-month temporary monastic training
for young adults ages seventeen to twenty-five. This gives
them an alternative to music and drugs by providing intensive
training in the Dharma in a monastic setting before they go
to college or have a family. We adopted the idea of temporary
ordination from the Theravada tradition, and Thrangu Rinpoche
gave his consent and began to give temporary vows. Although
temporary ordination is common in Theravada countries, it
has not been given in the Tibetan tradition before. But we
have found that it has a beneficial effect on those who take
it, especially the young adults.
Our daily schedule begins with an hour
of morning chanting-which includes the Four
Dharmas of Gampopa, requests to the lineage, and the
Heart Sutra-and silent meditation at 6:30 A.M. Except for
chanting the five precepts in Sanskrit, all other chants and
practices are done in English. After breakfast we meditate,
either as a group in the shrine room or individually in our
room. At 11:00 A.M. there is a optional study period. Everyone
keeps silence until noon, when we have lunch. After lunch
we work for four hours, and then gather for an hour of meditation
and evening chanting. After supper there is a class or silent
meditation. Lights go out at 10:00 P.M. Saturday is an unscheduled
day, so we can sleep in and do whatever we want. Everyone,
including the cook, has the day off. Sunday is all-day practice,
and many people meet with their meditation instructor then.
We keep silence all day and practice together in the shrine
room. Often there is a talk in the afternoon.
Three of our monks are passionate about
Dharma study, so our study department is strong and vital.
We offer ongoing courses for shamatha (the practice to develop
concentration) and ngondro (preliminary practices), often
taught by Pema Chodron. Thrangu Rinpoche visits and teaches
at Gampo Abbey about twice a year, and Ponlop Rinpoche and
other teachers also instruct us. In 1996, Nythartha Institute,
inspired by the monastic colleges, or shedra, in Tibetan monasteries,
began. Its goal is to transmit the teachings of the Kagyu
and Nyingma lineages to advanced Western students.
Gampo Abbey provides an environment and
training for people who wish to explore the monastic path.
The training has four stages. First one is a candidate. Men
or women who are interested in becoming monks or nuns are
asked to live in Gampo Abbey for a trial period of at least
six months as staff members or as paying guests. Second is
pre-novice-parmarabjung in Tibetan-a lifetime commitment in
which one takes the five precepts: to avoid killing, stealing,
unwise sexual behavior, lying, and intoxicants. The parmarabjung
precept to avoid unwise sexual behavior includes being celibate.
Instead of becoming a pre-novice, many people instead take
temporary ordination, given for six months to one year, after
which they usually leave the abbey and return to lay life.
The third stage is being a novice-a sramanera or sramanerika.
This ordination is given after the person has been a pre-novice
for a year. Taking the novice vow is a lifetime commitment
to monastic life. It is held at least three years before progressing
to the fourth step, the full ordination as a bhikshu or bhikshuni.
When Thrangu Rinpoche gives monastic ordination, the bhikshunis,
along with the bhikshus, act as witnesses, a practice not
found in the Tibetan community.
As we learn in the Vinaya, there are three
important monastic rituals: posadha, varsa, and pravarana.
Since 1984, we have done all of these at Gampo Abbey, and
now we use the English translations of these rituals. Posadha
is done bimonthly, on the new and full moon, and its purpose
is to revive virtue and purify whatever non-virtue has been
created in connection with our precepts. Because it is a purification
rite, posadha is done in the morning before eating. It proceeds
as follows: the ghandi, a wooden instrument used since ancient
times to call the sangha for posadha, is sounded. We take
purification water before entering the shrine room, and then
prostrate, recite sutras, and offer tormas. The lay people
leave the room and contemplate their five precepts in another
room. In the shrine room, the monastic leader reads the sutra
of discipline, and the parmarabjungs and temporary ordained
lay people do their confession. They then leave the shrine
room and join the lay people. Next, the novices do their confession
together and leave. Finally, the bhikshus and bhikshunis perform
their confession, after which the Pratimoksa Sutra is read.
At this point, everybody returns to the shrine room, and we
recite the refuge and bodhisattva vows together and take the
eight precepts for the day. Next we circumambulate the building-outside
or inside depending on the weather-while playing musical instruments,
and then return to the shrine room to dedicate the merit.
Varsa is the rains retreat instituted
by Buddha Shakyamuni. During monsoon season, to avoid harming
the crops and the many insects that grow at that time, monastics
did not walk to the villages to collect alms or to teach.
Instead, they studied and meditated in one place, usually
a garden donated by one of the Buddha's wealthy lay disciples.
In this way monasteries or viharas slowly evolved. After the
rains retreat, some monks stayed in the dwellings to maintain
them until the next monsoon, and with time these gatherings
grew into communities. In India, the rains retreat lasts three
months and is held during monsoon time, in the summer months.
In the Karma Kagyu tradition in Tibet, it lasts seven weeks,
so at Gampo Abbey we also do it for seven weeks. Initially,
our rains retreat was in the summer. However since 1997, it
has been in the winter, which is the natural season for retreat
in Canada. This is a strict retreat so boundaries are established,
and except for people who shop for us, there is no coming
and going. There are no telephone calls, no projects, and
no work, except for maintaining the abbey. We keep silence
and focus on our meditation practice and the study of Vinaya.
The third ritual, pravarana is held the
last day of the rains retreat. It involves lifting this retreat's
special restrictions. Traditionally in Tibet, the nearby villagers
came to the monastery the evening before pravarana, and the
senior monastics gave Dharma talks throughout the night. In
the abbey, all the ordained people give talks on the eve of
pravarana. This is a wonderful opportunity for all monastics
to give what is often their first Dharma talk in a friendly,
non-critical atmosphere. We are very happy to keep the three
essential monastic rituals at our abbey in the West.
Practicing the Dharma
Our training is both in the Karma Kagyu
and Nyingma lineages, and our main meditation practices are
shamatha and vipashyana, or calm abiding and special insight.
At Gampo Abbey and Sopa Choling we follow Trungpa Rinpoche's
guidelines, designed for Western students. He observed that
Westerners need a solid base of shamatha, the calm abiding
or tranquillity sitting practice, before starting other meditations.
This practice is somewhere between the Theravada-style vipassana
and sitting zazen, and we do it with eyes open. As our main
practice, we do it for a minimum of four hours a day.
At Gampo Abbey, as at other Shambhala
centers, people do this sitting practice for two or three
years. After that, on the recommendation of their meditation
instructor, every student attends a three-month course called
Vajradhatu seminary. During this course, we study the three
vehicles-the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana-and do shamatha
practice. At the end, we are given permission to start the
first of the Karma Kagyu preliminary practices, prostrations.
Each of the ngondro, or preliminary practices, is done after
finishing the previous one and each practice requires an oral
transmission. Three people in our sangha are authorized to
give such permission. After finishing the preliminary practices,
a person can receive the Annutara Yoga Tantra transmission
of Vajrayogini, which was initially given by Trungpa Rinpoche
and is now given by his son, Mipham Rinpoche. After finishing
the mantras for Vajra Yogini, we can receive Chakrasamvhara
empowerment. At this point, we have been practicing meditation
for a minimum of six years and are qualified to participate
in the three-year retreat at Sopa Choling.
The most wonderful, and most difficult
practice, is living in a monastery. For ordained people and
those interested in a monastic life, the practice of living
a communal life is very powerful. By taking vows we simplify
our lives, and this allows us to direct all our energy to
the practice of waking up from the sleep of ignorance. The
environment and the strict schedule support this, and in that
sense, it is easy to live in the abbey. On the other hand,
it is very difficult, because we receive instant feedback
and see our habitual patterns so clearly. In a monastery there
is nowhere to run away, so we must work with our own minds.
Our usual habit of blaming others for our pain does not work
for long here, because this place is for meditation practice
and Dharma study. We are constantly brought back to examine
ourselves. When people hear the words "monastery,"
"abbey," or "nunnery," they often have
either a romantic image of a perfect, harmonious, saintly
place, or a horrible image of an austere, joyless prison.
Gampo Abbey, in reality, is neither. The physical environment
is very beautiful, and the people come from different backgrounds
and have different personalities. However, they share a common
commitment and willingness to work on themselves in order
to wake up.
For a while, I was the director of the
community. This is also a great practice of serving others
and of taking criticism gracefully and responding to it with
wisdom. As in all Dharma centers, finding skillful means to
communicate is a challenge, as is finding a balance between
being too lenient and too strict, between letting people do
what they are passionate about and having a real community.
Giving commands with "shoulds" and "should
nots" does not work with Westerners. They become unhappy
and depressed. A leader is challenged to become skillful with
people and to help them grow and become softer and less self-centered.
There is no general prescription for this; each person has
to be dealt with in a different way.
Shambhala is the umbrella organization
founded by Trungpa Rinpoche and now led by his son Mipham
Rinpoche. It contains three branches: Shambhala training teaches
a secular path of spiritual training; Vajradhatu is the Buddhist
branch of the organization, in which Gampo Abbey is included;
and Nalanda is the branch that brings a contemplative perspective
to the arts, health, education, and business. This includes
Naropa Institute and the Nalanda Translation Committee.
Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche is the abbot
of Gampo Abbey, and we receive instructions, ordinations,
and empowerments from him. Similarly, the residents of Sopa
Choling receive empowerments for the three-year retreat
from him. Senior bhikshunis and bhikshus are authorized to
give temporary ordination. Bhikshuni Pema Chodron is our spiritual
director and main resident teacher. Beginning in 1997, we
hired a Sopa Choling graduate to be the administrator.
The monastic council and the department
heads aid in the administration of the abbey. The monastic
council consists of all nuns and monks living at the abbey,
including those temporarily ordained. It meets on posadha
days and makes general decisions about policy and view. Twice
a month the department heads gather to discuss finance and
construction and to make day-to-day decisions to assure the
smooth running of the abbey. Every Monday in a house meeting
of all residents, everyone is informed about short- and long-term
plans. We exchange opinions and information, introduce new
residents, and say good-bye to old residents.
Gampo Abbey is a non-profit organization
in Canada and the United States. Our income comes from three
sources: 1) donations; 2) programs, visitor fees, and residents'
contributions; and 3) royalties from Ane Pema Chodron's books
and recordings, fundraising done by monastics, and offerings
received from teaching. All monastics live free at the abbey.
It is their home and they govern it. Monks and nuns who do
not have any income receive a $35 monthly stipend for personal
needs. All non-monastic staff are asked to contribute at least
$5 daily, if they are able, to help with the food bill.
Our main expenses are food, maintenance,
and construction. We have a large garden that supplements
our food during the summer. We are vegetarian, but occasionally
eat fish. We use wood for heating, and in the near future
we will generate our own electricity from a stream on our
We plan for monks and nuns to stay, practice,
study, and work at Gampo Abbey for hundreds of years. Meanwhile,
in the immediate future we will stop the physical expansion
and modernization of Gampo Abbey for a few years and concentrate
on monastic activities and programs. We will also organize
a yearly program for temporary monastics and will continue
to study the Vinaya. The three-year retreats at Sopa Choling
will continue, as will the Nythartha Institute. We would like
to make Ane Pema Chodron's teaching more accessible to the
general public by hosting more programs each year, and to
propagate the Dharma outside of the Abbey by making ourselves
more available for teachings. There is interest in teaching
meditation in prisons and working with the dying, as well
as in inter-religious dialogue.
Gampo Abbey has a slogan: "Projects
are not important-people are." This reminds us that we
are here to serve and to practice waking up, not to make an
ideal abbey. Living at the abbey brings us down to earth and
blows away any sand castles we may have in our minds. Gampo
Abbey is a friendly place that has helped many people. We
take pride in what has occurred thus far and are extremely
grateful for all the wise teachers who have helped us to evolve.
Now we look forward with confidence, but also with the knowledge
that we have just begun and have a long way to go.