How the Ziji Gar was born (2/3)

By Llew Watkins

 “You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.”
– Black Elk, Oglala Sioux Holy Man

It was at the Winter Youth Retreat at Schloss Heinsheim in Germany, in January this year, that making this programme a reality really came together. While we were there, the discussions we were having about Ziji evolved into the formation of a group, now 10 of us, committed to making the Gar happen. I cannot begin to say how proud I am to be working with each of these people, it truly makes me believe in the possibility of natural hierarchy and enlightened society. It was also during these conversations at the Schloss that after months of deliberating we finally came unequivocally to the title for our program: the Ziji Gar.

In the first part of this essay I outlined the four traditions that have been a powerful influence on us as we have co-created the Gar. In this, the second part, I wish to investigate a few of the things that have arisen from these various traditions, both things unique to those traditions and also areas where they overlap.


I have long loved the Black Elk quotation that I opened this part of the essay with, and if you don’t know it already, it is well worth looking up the extended version of Black Elk’s speech. Looking carefully we can see that circles are already an integral part of all four of the traditions we are drawing on.

Inspired by Forest School Camps, we are recognising the importance of circles in the way we organise the practicalities of the Gar. As a community it’s important that there are times we can gather and have a sense of equal voice. We will eat in a circle, around the fire we will sit in a circle, and we will meditate together in a circle. Obviously there is a strong connection here with social meditation which is linked to the Ziji Summits; as this also utilises a circle and will be one of the key forms of meditation we practice together during the retreat.

To share a personal anecdote, it was very beautiful to attend the young Leadership retreat at Casa Werma in Mexico which followed on from the Ziji Summit in Mexico City two years ago. The whole retreat was permeated by an awareness of some of the more indigenous traditions of Mexico, as the Shambhala sangha there has traditionally had a strong connection with one tradition in particular that holds fire as very sacred. Each evening at the Leadership retreat we met around the fire and often sang with each other. This was a powerful and important part of the programme as it offered us a great opportunity to unwind and relax together. I hope this appreciation of fire as a space to gather will stick with the Ziji Collective. Because of the city setting we couldn’t repeat this at the Summit in Berlin, however I am very much looking forward to gathering in a circle around the fire in the evenings at the Gar.

The Summer Youth Retreat at Dechen Choling traditionally has always began with an opening circle and ended with a closing circle. We will be keeping this form as I feel it is the best possible way to begin together and end together as a group. Circles are central to the Art of Hosting tradition and this is part of the way they have become such an important feature of the Ziji Summits. Much of our time together will be permeated by ideas gleaned from Art of Hosting.

Earthy Practicality

Many of the hardcore practicalities of our retreat come from the wisdom that Lia and Oli have gleaned from being a part of Sun Camp and FSC respectively. To watch these discussions has been very delightful as they compare and contrast the various ways the two traditions approach key things such as cooking and kitchen or how the toilets will be built and if we will have showers!

Much of our staffing structure is based on things that have worked for Sun Camp. In particular there is a sense of making enough structure and support while also encouraging participant involvement as much as possible so that we are really working together as a collective and in order to dissolve any rigid sense of staff and participants. For example, although we will have the key physical structures such as kitchen or toilets built before the bulk of people arrive, we will spend the first day together finishing off the camp, led in this by our engineering team. Similarly as we debated the possible way the kitchen could run we decided that we didn’t want it to be the case that a small group of people would be doing nothing but cooking for the whole retreat. Therefore, again borrowed from Sun Camp, we will have our head cook and assistant cook design a series of simple recipes for each meal and groups of participants will then take the responsibility of preparing that meal.

I guess the basic daily schedule also comes under the theme of earthy practicality and in essence we are retaining the basic structure that has always been used for the Summer Youth Retreat. There will be the emphasis on the morning as the time for meditation practice and dharma talks, and then the afternoons will be much looser, with participant led workshops or open space.

The final thing to say about earthy practicality, which again links back to FSC and Sun Camp is that parts of the camp will be extremely challenging for all of us. For example there will be no internet, for anyone, for the whole retreat, which means for instance we need to make a decision about whether we want to hear any news through that time. The whole thing is an experiment and as it is the first year we are really leaping into the unknown. I foresee all sorts of gripes for all of us as we relinquish some of the comforts that we are so used to!

Natural Hierarchy

Natural Hierarchy is a phrase that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche coined for systems and organisations where the people in the organisation are not repressed or held back by hierarchy but instead lifted up and supported to find positions in which they can give fully of their talent. For more on this there is an excellent talk entitled ‘Lids and flowers’ which you can find here. ‘Lids’ refers to being pressed down by negative hierarchy and ‘flowers’ refers to being given the space, autonomy and nourishment needed to develop fully.

Many ideas for the Gar come from the Ziji Summits. As well as the aforementioned social meditation, our hope is to bring in the tremendous and daring sense of empowerment the summits have given to the participants, in particular finding ways to enable everyone to bring their intelligence and creativity into the program. Art of Hosting methods such as Open Space Technology or World Cafe are primary ways this has been done in the past, or for example, in Mexico we were led in Mudra Space Awareness exercises, a profound physical theatre practice devised by Trungpa Rinpoche and his students.

The planned teaching structure for the Ziji Gar has been hotly debated by myself and Lia and others over the past six months, and at this stage in time has been through many revisions. Our starting point was the teaching team model used for the Ziji Summits. To this end our thinking process was deeply influenced by the online debriefs for people involved in organising the Berlin Ziji Summit following the event. I had one particularly inspiring conversation with Alex Rodriguez in which he said to me something to the effect of: you should first create a model and then invite teachers for those particular roles. This was in contrast to what we were originally intending to do which was to invite teachers to be a part of the process from the beginning, and it allowed us to step up and really think hard about what it was we wanted to create with this programme.

Over the months we have refined this further until we reached the current model: For the Gar we will have three mentors. These mentors will be people from our own peer group who are at a point where they have received a great deal of training in various disciplines and are ready to impart that knowledge to others. We will have a Process Mentor who is trained in the Art of Hosting to guide the group through the journey we will take together, with especial emphasis on transitions during the retreat. We will have a Dharma Mentor who will present key Buddhist concepts to the group so that we have some sense of view. And we will have a Meditation Mentor who will present meditation instruction to the group as well as mentoring a small team of young meditation instructors and guides. When we made the key decision that these positions of responsibility would be held by people from our own peer group, we also saw the need to have one person to mentor the mentors so to speak and to look after the overarching view. This will be the camp elder who will be a very experienced Shambhala teacher. I want to thank Ali Warner who is one of the people we consulted in this process for opening my eyes to this possibility of encouraging our own peers to step up!

Finally Natural Hierarchy has been an absolutely crucial touchstone for the team of us working on the Gar right from the beginning. I hope to say a little more about this in the final part of this series, where I will talk especially about our time at Dechen Choling in February. I suspect our camp will succeed or fail depending on how able we are to bring this sense of collaborative praxis into the Gar.

Sky-like version

The central inspiration for Ziji in general and for the Ziji Gar in particular is to create a space where meditation and action can be joined. It no longer really needs to be said but the world desperately needs our help. As fledgling meditators we are uniquely positioned to give aid and importantly to look after ourselves and each other as we do so. The vision for the Gar is to create space that we can recharge, re-energise and re-inspire each other in order that we can return with this sense of ziji to our communities. Here I mean the traditional, literal sense of ziji – bright shining confidence.

By Llew Watkins

In part three I will talk more about our visit to Dechen Choling to see the land and more about the actual collaborative process that we have brought into the creation of the Gar.


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