Monk(ey) Business Part 12: Shangrila?

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Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!

Crestone, Colorado is a tough place to explain. It’s a boggling confluence of majestic mountains, spiritual communities, and conspiracy theories. It attracts millionaires, monks, and traveling bands of mountain hippies. It has restaurant pop-ups (that weren’t intending to be pop-ups), world class hiking, and beautiful temples filled with Buddhist scriptures. Originally granted as a land trust, Crestone had a short mining boom in the late 1800’s, followed by a period of population decrease. In the early 1970’s a portion of the Baca land grant (a neighbor to the town of Crestone) was purchased and subdivided out. Utilities and roads were installed, but buyers failed to flock to the new development. Considered a liability, the development was sold to Maurice and Hanne Strong, who went on to create a world spiritual center, gifting land to a variety of spiritual groups. By 2006 the population began to increase as new homes were built, and a variety of small spiritual communities took up residence. It was around this time that my teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche purchased a piece of land with the intentions of developing it into a retreat center.

In 2010 I first travelled to Crestone to attend a teaching retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. The two are almost inseparable in my mind, as Crestone’s environment was the perfect backdrop for my first encounter with Rinpoche. I was deeply inspired by both the depth and profundity of Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s command of the Dharma, and the spacious yet powerful qualities that seemed to effortlessly flow from Crestone’s streams and mountains. It was hard to leave Land of Calm Abiding in California, as I had formed a deep bond with the land there, but after spending a month in Crestone, I knew it was my new home. 

Crestone is the seat of Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s organization (Pundarika) in North America. It’s run by a small but vibrant group of dedicated students. Arriving in Crestone, the community kindly welcomed me in, helping me to feel at home. Being the new kid on the block, and especially because I was living in Rinpoche’s house, I got to know everyone pretty quickly. Regular meetings were held at Rinpoche’s house on Sundays, and I slowly got used to a more communal atmosphere on the weekends. Even though the house was located in a subdivision, it kind of felt like being half in the suburbs and half in the wilderness. A car maybe went by once an hour, and I was surrounded by dirt roads and trees. Most days were extremely peaceful and quiet, and I could easily focus on practice and study. I took walks and hitchhiked to where I needed to go. 

Hitchhiking was pretty new to me, and a little scary at first, but I grew to love it. I met so many interesting people through hitchhiking, as Crestone is full of characters. Walking into the post office I would easily run into half the people I knew. Picking up vegetables at the grocery store would often lead to a two hour conversation on UFO sightings, Buddhist middle way philosophy, or some other random topic. I really never knew what adventure I may run into on any given day. Over time, the move turned out to be the right decision for me, as I was less isolated, had more access to goods and services, and could easily go into long term retreat during most of the year. I set up an extensive daily practice schedule, and eventually went into another one hundred day retreat. 

Retreat was quite different in Crestone, as the wide open spaces, altitude, and strong elemental energies added an edge to practice. A friend of mine once called Crestone “space with teeth.” After a few years of living there I began to understand what she actually meant! This comforted me and allowed for more space when difficulties arose in retreat. It also helped to begin to recognize the qualities of different landscapes, and to allow a more interconnected introspection to develop. Of course this is subjective, but little insights over time helped me to quickly adjust to new places and the challenging internal reactions that can often be influenced by them. For the most part, the difficulties that came up in retreat in Crestone were not unlike the ones that came up in California. The lack of external stimulus combined with not seeing or talking to anyone throughout each of my one hundred day retreats almost always brought unique challenges. After about a week into a longer retreat, and once my mind began to settle, all kinds of memories, emotional wounds, and mental habits would begin to surface. At times it felt like a faucet on full blast, just dumping thoughts and emotions. In retrospect, I don’t think this is a phenomena specific to solitary retreat, but feels more heightened due to a lack of outer stimulation. Overall, I still didn’t have much of a framework to deal with these kinds of upheavals, but relying on the practice, I began to find more space within myself to allow, touch, and feel the contents of my thoughts and emotional difficulties when they arose. 

One thing I learned to appreciate over time was the kindness and openness of Rinpoche’s community. I believe that one of the reasons for this was that Rinpoche did not force all of the bells and whistles of Tibetan Buddhism on people as soon as they walked in the door. He also openly shared techniques and approaches to developing more emotional intelligence and well-being that are not necessarily native to Tibetan Buddhism. By directly addressing emotional issues that I had pushed aside for most of my life, he made it safe and available for me to look at the parts of my experience that were preventing me from making further progress on the Buddhist path. How could I open my heart to others if it wasn’t open towards myself? This wasn’t an issue that Tibetans had to deal with prior to the occupation of Tibet. When the current Dalai Lama first started traveling to Western countries, he was shocked to hear about how common it was for people to feel unlovable and unworthy. Despite this, very few Tibetan lamas openly discuss it, as more traditional approaches focus mainly on the path of liberation, and often warn against the dangers of one’s Dharma practice being derailed by obsessing over this life alone. Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s message is to address both, and to know the difference between the intentions and motivations involved in a path of healing vs. a path of liberation. 

While living in Crestone, I began to have much more exposure to the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Besides self-study, I would visit local Dharma centers, and study with a variety of teachers in Colorado and New Mexico. In 2011 I made my first trip to Nepal, spending three months in intensive study, pilgrimage, and practice. Like India, Nepal has also been a major hub for Buddhist study and practice, as the Buddha was actually born in present day Nepal. The Kathmandu valley has also been a long time hub for Himalayan Buddhists, and the valley is filled with monasteries, stupas, and pilgrimage sites. With the help of a few sponsors, and with a goal to study more practices connected to the Chokling Tersar (a Nyingma lineage directly connected to Tsoknyi Rinpoche), I set off for an extended trip. Having never been to Nepal, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but was really looking forward to visiting both of my main teacher’s monasteries, and diving deeper into study and practice.