The Shambhala Monastic Order: An Interview with Ani Pema Chödrön and Acharya Adam Lobel

Acharya Adam Lobel (AAL): So, hello to everyone who is listening. It is my great pleasure to have Ani Pema Chödrön with us today to talk about the exciting and new emergence of the Shambhala Monastic Order, so welcome Ani Pema Chödrön.

Ani Pema: Thank you very much, I’m delighted to be able to talk about this.

AAL: Well we’re glad to have you and just to let everyone reading this know, this is Acharya Adam Lobel.  The Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Ani Pema, Ashe Acharya John Rockwell, Barbara Badessi (Barbara was the Director of Gampo Abbey at the time of the meeting) and myself all had a chance to meet in April 2013 to talk and ask questions about the Shambhala Monastic Order. Out of that meeting, the Sakyong asked me to interview Ani Pema to bring more clarity and inspiration about this exciting news.  I thought we could begin today Ani Pema by speaking a little bit about your own experience as a nun and as a monastic Buddhist practitioner. Could you say a little bit about your decision to become a nun, what was going on in your life and your path, and how that set in motion a brilliant teaching career?  So, say a little bit about what it was like to become a nun and the story behind that.

Ani Pema: Well this was some years ago now, it was in the ‘70s, I think it was 1974 or 1975, and I was living in a small (not monastic) meditation center in England under the direction of Lama Chime Rinpoche. The 16th Karmapa came to England and he was giving the ordination: novice ordination, and in some cases the full ordination, at Samye Ling in Scotland. Literally everyone in the whole center where I was living was considering this ordination, and for me it was very interesting.  I was in my mid-thirties at the time, and I had been married twice and divorced twice.  I had two children who were young teenagers, and they were at that point living with their father while I was living in England.  When I thought about becoming a nun, I was quite surprised that I had such a strong desire to do it.  You might say what was the desire based on?  It was interesting, I had read some Thomas Merton, and I had been very inspired by something I’d read of his which said the job of a monk (or nun) is to love the world. He himself had a very strong social activist part of his nature as well as a deeply contemplative part. 

I was somehow very drawn to that model, and for me the word renunciation actually didn’t come into the picture initially. Becoming a nun had to do with what I felt was going forward, and what I really had to do was to immerse myself in life fully. For me that meant trying to wake up and letting go of all my old habits, anything that was holding me back, any blind spots, any fears, in order to be of use to other people. My profession had been as a school teacher, and with that limited experience of working with other people, I knew already that only to the degree that I was free of my own habits and fears was I open and right there for another person who needed my help, needed my attention, needed anything that I could give.  Also, only to the degree that I had let go of old habits and fears was I open and able to receive information and learn from my experience. 

So, that’s why I became a nun, actually.  It was like a passion, and some people ask me, “you were young still, what about sexuality?” I think I at that point I felt like I appreciated sexuality, I had enjoyed sexuality—but my main passion at that point in my life was to wake up in order to benefit other people. That’s why I took those vows from the 16th Karmapa all the way back in the 70s.  I’ve found through all these years that it’s been an immensely supportive container for me even though for years I didn’t have a monastery, didn’t have Gampo Abbey. I was just on my own, sometimes with no other monastics, sometimes with one or two. Nevertheless, those vows were like a container for me that really supported deep practice and taking deeply everything I learned—all those teachings I’d heard from the Vidyadhara Trungpa Rinpoche, and applying them to my life.  I felt like it kept me from getting distracted and off course from what I really wanted to do which was wake up in order to help other people.

AAL: At that time, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the Shambhala tradition in the modern world, was your primary teacher, and during that phase of his life Trungpa Rinpoche was famously or infamously certainly not a monastic.  Could you say a little bit about what he thought of your decision to become a nun and take the monastic route?

Ani Pema: I was already a nun when I became his student, but just barely.  I had met him before becoming a monastic at a commune in Northern New Mexico called the Lama Foundation. He was really supportive of what I was doing and he kept saying “at some point we’ll have more monks and nuns and this would be like a dream come true.”  I remember him saying that, and he said various things, but the main thing he said was “don’t be uptight”, “don’t be too religious”.  He used to say that to me a lot.  Just out of the blue he would say “don’t be too religious” but on the other hand he was very strong about “always keep your vows very purely” and “don’t break your vows”.  So, it was an interesting tension or even paradox between being alive and in the middle of that sangha. I have to say I often wonder how I survived, but at the time, it was no problem at all because I didn’t have any desire to break my vows.  I was really clear about what I was doing. That kind of intention and commitment was very powerful, and then he did nothing but support me.  And when it came time, when Tsultrim Thondrup, the very first monastic in the Shambhala community was looking for a place, Trungpa Rinpoche said it should be in Nova Scotia, specifically Cape Breton Island. Then, he appointed me the director and gave me a lot of instructions about how to run the community and what the intention of it was.

AAL: Now there’s this exciting moment in the story when you and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche have been having ongoing conversations about a Shambhala Monastic Order. This is really noteworthy in a number of ways obviously for the Shambhala community and the possibility of Shambhala monasticism, and also for the traditional institution of Buddhist monasticism.  Buddhist monasticism is really one of the oldest surviving forms of monasticism on the planet in an ongoing way, and it’s significant to think about a Shambhala Monastic Order.  Could you say a little bit about how this has arisen, the comments the Sakyong has made, and your own understanding of how a Shambhala Monastic Order is meaningful at this moment.

Ani Pema:  I think that what this will actually be and how it will emerge and develop remains to be seen.  You know it’s like giving birth to a child: it tends to have a life of its own once it’s out there.  The Sakyong talked with me first about this about five years ago, and at that time it didn’t go any further. The idea of it in my mind was sort of twofold: one was to provide an umbrella organization I guess you could say, that would contain not only Gampo Abbey but also any future monasteries in the Shambhala community that might develop. The other part of the idea is to provide a deep monastic training within Shambhala.  The reason it’s coming up now is because several monastics will be starting a pilot community in Halifax called Lion House at some time in the future.  Gampo Abbey and Lion House will both be part of the Shambhala Monastic Order. 

Now, with monastics at Lion House, this is what I mean about it’s going to have a life of it’s own. The idea is they’ll be involved in some combination of continuing their own inner work in order to go into the community and be of service as monastics have done for centuries.  So, they’ll be doing some combination of deepening their own training and working with others. The Sakyong has especially been emphasizing encouraging young people to try this.  The monastics themselves will be well-trained in how to work with their own emotions using the Buddhist and the Shambhala teachings and then putting this training into action very much along the lines of what in Shambhala we call warriorship training and in the Buddhist tradition we call the training of the bodhisattva.  You awaken this longing to be of help and to be as awake and as available as you possibly can with the idea that you want to go into increasingly more difficult situations and be of some help.  And what the monastic has to offer is a deep training in meditation, a deep training in Shambhala principles, and the ability to work with their own mind and emotions without escalating aggression.

So the training of a Shambhala Monastic whether they’re at Gampo Abbey, which is a place well suited to a deep training and retreat atmosphere or any future monasteries which might develop close to Halifax or elsewhere, or whether we’re a monastic on our own such as Ani Lodrö in Montreal, we would all be part of this umbrella situation called Shambhala Monastic Order. The basic thrust of it would be a training based on the Shambhala principles of Tiger, Lion, Garuda, Dragon and how that could be a deep support for monastic life, whether life-long or temporary, and for coming into the world.  Actually this is how Trungpa Rinpoche used to talk about it to me.  He said it would be ideal to have a situation where there are temporary monastics and then from that experience, there would always be some who would make it their vocation to become life monastics.  In any case, the temporary monastics would come, ideally he said after high school before college or after college before they have a family or career or something like that, and they’d use, as a foundation for their life, this deep training within an excellent container of keeping the precepts.  They’d train deeply in working with their minds and their emotions so that they could go out into the world and be of some help.  I know that’s a little vague but that’s the general idea.

AAL: That sounds really inspiring and like it’ll be an amazing support for future generations of practitioners. I’m wondering how the community at Gampo Abbey and especially the Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche, the abbot of Gampo Abbey, how they feel about the step of moving towards a Shambhala Monastic Order?

Ani Pema: In general there’s support for it and there is also some resistance, but the very good news, which I rejoice in tremendously, is that Thrangu Rinpoche himself is 100% supportive of this.  He was at the Abbey two summers ago and we specifically asked him about this, how he felt about the monastic community moving more and more towards training in the Shambhala principles and warriorship. He was just 100% supportive, and said it was excellent, what Trungpa Rinpoche would have wanted, that we should follow the Sakyong’s directions, and he was completely behind it. 

And here’s an interesting question that has come up already, a couple of times people have asked me about it, and it’s come up at the Abbey as well: in the monastic lineage you have to have an ordination lineage, you have to have somebody who ordains the monks and nuns.  At the level of temporary I can do it, and there are two other life monastics at the Abbey (Ani Migme and Gelong Lodrö Sangpo) who can do it.  However, as soon as you get to the level of novice or full ordination then you need to have an ordination lineage of someone who’s been ordained for many, many years.  There is no such thing in Shambhala, but currently our lineage of monastic ordination comes from the Karma Kagyu through our Abbot Thrangu Rinpoche who has ordained every life monastic at the Abbey. 

So I asked the Sakyong about this and he said the ordination lineage will stay exactly as it is, and we’ll see how it develops in the future. It will always have to be connected with some ordination lineage, and that is absolutely fine, good, and as it should be.  At the same time I asked him how he felt about the Abbey remaining open to monastics outside of our own community.  In the past we’ve had monastics from the four Tibetan lineages as well as Theravadin monastics and Zen male and female priests, as well as Catholic nuns.  The Sakyong said that that’s what Trungpa Rinpoche had wanted, and that would continue, and that sense of being welcomed in would enrich our community and be good for us. However, now they would have a much clearer sense of what they were entering into in terms of a deep training based on the Buddhist and Shambhala principles, specifically the Tiger Lion Garuda Dragon principles that would be preparing people not to leave the world, but to enter the world as warriors.  So, the concern that there will be no more Nyingma, Kagyu, Theravadin or Zen practitioners at the monastery is unfounded.  They’ll still be very welcome, but we want it to be very inviting to people who want short-term intensive periods of renunciation where they can work hard. Then, as they develop in their training— if they stay on a second or third year— then they may be in Lion House or closer to Halifax and maybe other cities in the world too, where they would start to teach meditation or be of benefit in other ways.

You see it’s so obvious that this is a time that calls for monastics to be able to be of benefit to the larger world because the suffering is so intense and so wide spread and so much help is needed.   We need monastics that are well trained in meditation and in working with their own emotions and in the Buddhist and Shambhala principles.  A person can come into the monastic situation and get this kind of deep training in a year, or the Sakyong was suggesting shorter periods, but with the idea that they train so that they can go out and be of benefit to others.   

It would be excellent training for them to develop their skills and go outside of any cocoon-ing they may do in their monastic vows and be excellent benefit to the community as well.  That’s how I see the whole thing.  Not everybody buys this but I sure do, and we’re going to go ahead with it and see where it goes.  I think it’s a wonderful thing, and I think it’s in accord with the times.

AAL: It sounds like you mentioned a few times this moment in human history, and as a final question I know from hearing many of your teachings over the last few years, especially at the sangha retreats and other events, that you are as concerned as anyone about the direction our civilization is going, especially with climate change, warfare and injustice in our political and economic worlds.  I’m just wondering if you see any connection between monasticism and creating enlightened society, this vision for a sustainable and just future? How do those two support each other?

Ani Pema: I’ve always thought ever since Trungpa Rinpoche introduced the notion of enlightened society long, long ago, I’ve always thought of it myself in terms of small societies like beacons, so to say.  And what small means would of course be relative.  So, small groups that aspire to be enlightened societies, which doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have any problems and everything would be smooth. It would have more to do with how the individuals in the society work with their hearts and minds around the ordinary and nitty-gritty details of life. 

A family can aspire to be an enlightened society, very much so, and the Sakyong has a big emphasis on this, and I’ve always thought that the monastery was the ideal place to aspire to create mini-enlightened societies.  At the monastery we’ve worked with this already as a model.  A group comes together with their ordinary difficulties and delights of getting along and the benefits of deep study and deep practice as well as challenges in doing their work, their everyday chores and their relationships with people, etc., and governance, all the challenges and delights, and they make this their path of awakening.  I’ve always thought that to take this ordinary stuff, but have as the vision to create a really sane society at Gampo Abbey, at Lion House, wherever we might be, was the main point.  That’s how I see it; I see the monastery as so ideal because people don’t come and go in a weekend—the shortest program we have is six weeks.  Mostly people are there for at least a year, and there’s the opportunity to really work, not just on themselves, but to realize how working on themselves impacts the society.  We have a lot of work to do in that area, but I feel quite optimistic that we can do it.

AAL:  Well that sounds like an amazing step forward and a tremendous amount of possibility and inspiration and fresh thinking connected with an ancient, ancient tradition of monasticism. It’s inspiring for all people in the Shambhala community and beyond to hear that this is developing and especially with your support and leadership and everything that you bring to it in connection with the Sakyong and Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche, it’s a very powerful body.  So, thank you very much for taking this time, and we wish you a tremendous amount of good fortune.  We’re really looking forward to hearing more about how it all unfolds.

Ani Pema:  I’m very interested to see how it all unfolds myself, and the Sakyong has said with great enthusiasm that he wants to start talking about this more in general as part of someone’s path as they develop in the Shambhala community.  Lots of love and thank you very much Adam, and my best wishes to everybody reading.

Ani Pema is currently leading the annual Yarne retreat (January 15 to March 2) at Gampo Abbey, which includes her teachings on the Four Dignities and instruction in Shambhala Meditation by Shastri-in-Residence Alice Haspray.  Some Yarne participants are also involved in Vajryayogini and Chakrasamvara sadhana training for the three-year-retreat, Scorpion Seal practices, Rigden ngondro, and the Shambhala Sadhana.  Following completion of Yarne, Abbey residents will have the opportunity to study the Basic Goodness Series of classes and continue deepening their training. The Lion House community mentioned in this interview is only now in the early planning stages.  If you have questions about the development and emergence of the Shambhala Monastic Order and/or Lion House, contact Gelong Loden Nyima, Monastic Secretary to the Sakyong at loden.nyima@gmail.com

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