Dispatches from the Front
As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche spent time in Brazil, members of the Chilean sangha prepared for his arrival in Santiago, a city of six million located deep in the Andes. Founded 20 years ago during the "dark years" of dictatorship, the Shambhala community grew slowly until the Sakyong's visit in 1993. Today, Santiago is considered the epicenter of Shambhala in South America. On Wednesday, March 20, the Sakyong and his entourage landed in Chile.
Magali Meneses and Teresa Gotlieb, members of the local sangha, offered their experience of the visit. Richard John also contributed.
When it was confirmed that the Sakyong was indeed coming to Santiago, we realized that we had a lot of preparation to do. Angelica Bachelet, who had taken the Kasung oath in 2001, took on the task of training a group of kasung. Richard John traveled from Canada weeks in advance to help us prepare. We transformed an apartment into a Court with paint and decorations. The house that serves as our Shambhala center was cleaned, painted, and given a simpler, fresher look. Richard helped us set up the new Shambhala Buddhist shrine, offered a shamatha meditation weekend, and gave a series of talks on lineage and protocol. He even presented a slide show on the Sakyong's life. We accepted the arrival of Dorje Kasung practice and Court Service wholeheartedly, despite resistance due to our country's history. During the "dark days," a fair number of sangha members were exiled or imprisoned, and military uniforms still incite fear. Free expression has been dangerous. People of wealth or power have been suspect. For this reason, our embrace of these Shambhalian practices brings change of epic proportions-change we are ready for!
When Wednesday evening finally arrived, a group of fifteen greeted Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche with katas and Chilean flags. Center Director Verónica Guzmán, the Santiago Shambhala Center Board of Directors, our new and nervous kasung, and a photographer were present. With them were several representatives from Shambhala International who had arrived in the days before, including, John Sennhauser; as secretary to the Sakyong; Julia Sagebien, who serves as liaison with the Ibero-American sanghas; and Liz Richardson. The Sakyong arrived in a city ringed by mountains and as modern as any in North America. Everything was ready for the Sakyong when he arrived. Our welcome was simple and informal: we toasted him with a thick red Chilean wine and he spoke kindly with the household staff before everyone turned in for the night.
On Thursday, real life began. No more rehearsals. Servers had to start serving, and they arrived perfectly on time and ready to do their jobs. During the afternoon, one server was even found ironing the Sakyong's robes with great attention and precision, which is extraordinary for a Chilean man! At the Court, the working attitude was joyful throughout the two-week visit. That evening, we prepared a formal reception at the Center. It was the end of summer here, and the night was warm. All the council members, program coordinators, and volunteers stood before the front gate, elegantly dressed and cheerful. The long-awaited visit was finally happening! The entrance to the center was shining with candles. Inside, Rinpoche blessed the community, the shrine, and the center. He offered a short talk, in which he movingly emphasized the importance of friendship and collaboration among the members of the sangha. He also spoke of the need for translations of dharma texts that offer explanations of the meaning and essence of the texts alongside the words. Afterwards, we retired to the backyard for a cocktail party. In an abundance of torchlight, we introduced ourselves to Rinpoche, one by one.
On Friday evening, a full half hour before the Sakyong's public talk was due to start, the hall of the Telefónica building was completely full. Even with room for 300 people, every seat was taken and people crowded the aisles. There was an unusual silence in the hall, full of expectation. Rinpoche walked onto the stage with his interpreters and took his seat. He spoke for two hours, and the audience didn't move or make a noise. Rinpoche introduced the Shambhala dharma to the Chilean mind. He spoke about Buddhism and Shambhala, about practice in daily life, and the nature of mind, life, and death. There were several questions, and the Sakyong emphasized that what matters is what we do in this life, and that the most important thing is to have compassion for ourselves and for others. After the talk, many people were inspired to register for Saturday's program, and all 150 spaces were filled.
At nine thirty in the morning, there was a line of people waiting to enter the gardens of the Cultural Center, where the program was to take place. Most of the participants had never practiced before. Rinpoche gave his instruction in a simple, warm, and clear way. He corrected posture, answered questions, and gave humorous examples that helped everyone understand the profound teachings they were receiving for the first time. He invited us into the garden and led a series of yoga exercises under a splendid blue sky. The Chileans who participated said that they felt very inspired, because the teachings and the practice offered a spiritual path that is compatible with everyday life. They described the Sakyong as having a clear and simple teaching style, and also as being warm and handsome. After the program ended, the Sakyong and staff ate dinner at a typical Chilean restaurant. Rinpoche was absolutely ratna that night. He tasted everything, ordering different hors d'oeuvres and desserts, which he shared with everybody, and in turn taking bites from everybody's plates.
On Sunday, in a wonderful valley an hour and a half from Santiago, sangha members and their families gathered to enjoy a day in the country with the Sakyong, his party, and people who had come on their own from Brazil, Canada, Spain, Peru and the U.S. In the garden of an old country house, people cooked and shared each other's company under the trees, on the lawn, in the swimming pool. At one point, the Sakyong asked all the children to gather near him, and he performed the Children's Blessing Ceremony. Later, he joined several children who were painting and executed several calligraphies. He listened to folk music and even sang along, to the amazement of his closest attendants. The Sakyong spoke with the many people who asked for interviews, and walked around the land to look at the crops and pick out the cob of corn he would later eat.
On Monday, Rinpoche met with the older children of sangha members, who ranged from 15 to 25 years old. Later on in the day, in a small private movie theatre, the Sakyong presented Journey to Tibet, the movie about his visit to Tibet last summer. Fifty people listened to anecdotes about the places he visited and his many meaningful encounters with members of his family, villagers, monks, and great teachers. Watching the video with the Sakyong was very impressive. It gave us a first-hand experience of the veneration and love people feel for him in Tibet, and of the vibrancy of the lineage.
Visit to a Retreat Center
After a few days off, on another bright, sunny day in Santiago, the Sakyong and a group of 12 people traveled to the land that has been chosen as a site for retreat cabins. After two hours of driving, the country road leading to the site became so steep and rough that two cars had to stay behind. We jumped in the back of an open pick-up truck, happily enduring the dirt and the bumps. When we arrived, the owner of the land was waiting for us at a gazebo with fresh grape juice. The site is on a hill, in the middle of a mountain range, with a stream running across the entire property. Rinpoche walked around the garden and in the hills, talking to everybody and asking about the landscape.
Lunch gave Rinpoche the opportunity to meet with representatives from Argentina (Eduardo Carabelli), Brazil (York Stillman), Chile (Verónica Guzmán), and Julia Sagebien. They talked about the future and the tasks that we must accomplish. They discussed the need for us to work as a unit to invite teachers, coordinate programs, and support each other by sharing resources. In typical country style, the food was abundant: huge steaks, big humitas (Chilean tamales) and salads, all bigger than the plates. Rinpoche said it was the best meal he had eaten in a long time.
On a three-day holiday weekend, eighty members of our sangha from Santiago and other cities just outside Chile, plus five practitioners from other countries, gathered in a school hall that sat at the foot of the Andes. On the first day, Rinpoche offered an all-encompassing talk that, according to older students, covered all the teachings he's been giving during the last five years. Some community members were confused by the new teachings combining Shambhala and Buddhism, but everybody acknowledged a deep connection with the Sakyong and a strong sense of community. We did yoga, and lots of sitting meditation. Rinpoche offered personal interviews. The program ended with a Shambhala vow ceremony and oaths taken by the first five Latin American Shambhala Directors. We then feasted with music, empanadas, and wine to celebrate this joyful weekend of practice and study. Everyone felt open-heartedness, joy, and gratitude towards Rinpoche, who was able to reach through cultural differences and offer us the heart of the teachings. He held a long reception line for people who had not met him personally, and many who just wanted to say goodbye and kiss him.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche's visit ended with a dinner that machen Kevin Hoagland prepared for a group of guests at a sangha member's house. He promised he will return to Chile soon, and we hope it will be so. The next day, Rinpoche left Santiago and headed for the beach to rides horses, write poetry, and rest. And on the Monday and Wednesday evenings that followed the visit, when we held our regular open house events, 40 curious people walked through the Shambhala Center doors for the first time!