Monk(ey) Business Part 8: Rocky Mountain High

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

Leaving my retreat cabin to travel was often bitter sweet, as although it was always nice to get a break, take teachings, and to get a little social time in, the opportunity to practice intensively under very conducive retreat conditions was and is rare. This particular time away was also unique in that I was consciously making an effort to connect with Tibetan Buddhist teachers outside of my chosen lineage. I had also heard a lot over the years about a little mountain town in Colorado called Crestone, and was looking forward to visiting and exploring the spiritual centers and wilderness surrounding it. 

Deciding to explore additional Buddhist training in another lineage brought up some anxiety for me, as the deep connection I had formed with the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism did not come easy. It was mostly through my connection to Lama Zopa Rinpoche that I put in the effort to understand the specific qualities of the lineage and to open my heart to it. The Gelugpa tradition is often misunderstood in the West as primarily a scholastic Buddhist lineage. Though it specializes in debate, and has an incredibly in depth emphasis on scholarship, the founder Lama Tsong Khapa was also a great yogi and practitioner. His immediate disciples were also incredibly realized Buddhist practitioners. As is the case with many Tibetan yogi/scholars, the combination and sheer amount of Lama Tsong Khapa’s writings, teachings, and practice could easily have spanned a few lifetimes. What is not often talked about is that he also spent a considerable amount of time in solitary retreat. As I continued to study Lama Tsong Khapa’s works and life, I slowly gained more faith in the tradition. Unfortunately I had also succumbed to sectarianism, as my pride had led me to believe that other Tibetan Buddhist lineages had wrong and/or inadequate philosophical understandings of the Buddha’s middle way teachings. Studying other lineages more deeply, I began to see that this was simply not true, and that although there can be philosophical differences, the intent and process of these wisdom traditions still culminates in the same liberative qualities. This understanding and approach not only opened my mind to the vastness of what Buddhadharma can offer, but also began to benefit my personal meditation practice in unexpected ways.

My first time traveling to Crestone felt like a waking dream. I had never been to Colorado, and as we drove, it’s mountains, rivers and landscapes filled me with wonder and awe. Blue sky would give way to intense rain, sharp mountains to jaw dropping valleys, and calm lakes to raging rivers, as my nun friend and I chatted away the hours driving from Denver. As we approached Crestone, pulling into the San Luis Valley, lightning and rain storms shot across the road almost hitting the car. I wasn’t sure if we were being welcomed or turned away! I had never seen a valley so large, wild, and magical. At an elevation of around 7,500 feet, the valley is one of the largest in the world at that altitude. Turning down the highway to Crestone, it’s 14,000 foot peaks extended into the sky, and as we approached they just seemed to get taller and taller. 

Crestone and it’s surrounding area are home to more than twenty unique spiritual centers ranging from Hindu Ashrams to Carmelite Monasteries. Over the years it has become a destination for international pilgrims, mountaineers, and nature lovers. I had been wanting to visit Crestone for a while as it has a large concentration of Tibetan Buddhist centers and an environment that is very conducive to meditation retreat. After sending a letter of inquiry, Tsoknyi Rinpoche very graciously allowed me to attend a six day teaching retreat that normally required attendance at a previous course with him. Arriving at the teaching venue I very quickly realized why there was a pre-requisite, as although I was familiar with overall Buddhist jargon and Tibetan Buddhist terms, the teachings on this retreat sounded almost completely foreign to me. During the course of the week I listened, reflected, and asked way too many questions. Tsoknyi Rinpoche very kindly humored me, and eventually pointed out that I would need to receive some preliminary teachings on Dzogchen before I would be able to understand what he was talking about more deeply. With this carrot, my interests were peeked, and I requested him to provide me with the exact instructions he referred to. With an ease and a smile he invited me to join him and his community for a month long teaching retreat that was starting one week after the one I was attending finished. After giving it some thought, and feeling into how powerful the week had been for me, I decided to make the travel arrangements and stay in Crestone for another month of teachings. In between I attended a set of beautiful empowerments and teachings with the tulku of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Boulder, Colorado. This was a large and lavish event, as it was his first time visiting the United States. Tsoknyi Rinpoche was also attending, as he is both a student of the previous incarnation of Dilgo Khyentse, and an uncle to the present one. It was a rich few days for me, as it offered a chance to get to know another Tibetan Buddhist community, and an opportunity to meet more Western Buddhist monastics who were in attendance.  

Returning to Crestone, and after some house shuffling, I ended up staying in a yurt at one of the retreat centers. The retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche was incredible. Every morning about one hundred and fifty of us would meet in a large tent to receive teachings. We would then disperse to our homes to spend the rest of the day practicing. Tsoknyi Rinpoche really encouraged an environment of dedicated practice and mutual respect. He shared his vision and wish of carrying on the teaching/practice encampment tradition of great Tibetan masters like Shakya Shri. It was inspiring, grounded, and completely nurturing. It was also challenging, as whenever one engages in deep Dharma practice, the obstacles and upheavals of the mind follow closely behind. As each week went on like this I was also falling deeper in love with the landscape of Crestone. Although it is not the most hospitable environment, there is something about it’s elemental energy that really drew me in. Exploring it’s mountains, creeks, and arroyos brought me a lot of joy during that month. I would often spend a good chunk of the day meditating outside, tuning into the pulse of the land.

As the retreat wound down it was time for me to move on to another teaching retreat with Lama Zopa Rinpoche in North Carolina. It was the second in an ongoing annual teaching series Lama Zopa had started the previous year on a famous text by the Indian master Atisha Dipamkara. At the time it was like moving from one world into another. Something had really opened up for me during the monthlong retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, as he had simultaneously provided both an environment of spacious allowing and a vision of where I might need some work. While I was with him I briefly came into contact with a way of being that was much more at ease and connected to my body. I started to question the rigid and myopic way I was holding my Buddhist view and practice up to that point. A connection to the Dharma started to open up that was not exclusively cognitive, and I was beginning to feel more and worry less.