By Llew Watkins
We arrived at Dechen Chöling on February the 5th with very little planned. We had instead just a few vague ideas of things we would like to do in the time we had: Lia was keen that we begin by listening together to the talk the Sakyong gave at the first Ziji Summit in San Francisco 2014; we had some meetings arranged with key members of Dechen Chöling staff; and we had set a date and time to have an online Zoom meeting with the rest of the Ziji Gar team. Beyond that was open space.
When I had the initial idea for the Gar one of the things that gave me confidence that it would be possible was the relationship that has developed over the past few years with Dechen Chöling. Konstanze Brockhurst, the current Director, has been a powerful supporter of youth activities in the sangha for many years. Furthermore, two of the key staff members at Dechen Chöling, Francois Grimbert (then Operations Manager) and Aurelie Hirtzel (Head of Programmes), both attended the Ziji Summit in Berlin as participants. Lia and I met with Konstanze and Aurelie on the first morning to explain further the vision for the Gar, to give an update on where we had gotten to, and most importantly to give them both the opportunity to raise any potential obstacles or difficulties they foresaw with us. The meeting was hugely encouraging and, knowing the amount of work it takes to make one programme happen, it was amazing to consider the magnitude of what they take on at a Land Centre, effectively orchestrating over 50 programmes in a year!
We listened to the address that the Sakyong gave at the San Francisco Summit on our second evening, sat in a circle on the couches in the Marpa Room. Currently the talk is only publicly available for groups that listen to it together. I was extremely happy that Lia pushed hard to make this happen as I hadn’t heard the talk before and I found it extremely moving. For those who know the shape and work of the Ziji Collective over the past few years it was fascinating for me to discover so much of what we are doing is pre-empted in this talk. I don’t want to say too much about that now, as it’s important that those who are inspired track down a copy and make the chance to listen to it themselves, however a couple of the prescient things that have stayed with me are firstly the Sakyong’s encouragement that young people take it upon themselves to be mentors for others and secondly his assertion that the Ziji Collective is the future of Shambhala – that we must fashion the kind of Shambhala we would like it to be rather than choose to reject it as archaic.
Our all-staff Zoom meetings, happening every month or so, have been crucial to a project such as this, involving a team split over so many countries, allowing a continuing sense of connection and reinvigorating the project as we get to see each other again face to face. We all have hectic lives and each of us have to tap in or tap out of a voluntary project like this at times in order to look after ourselves properly, so the idea of us all meeting together is more that the invite is open to everyone, not necessarily that everyone will be able to attend the call. Zoom is the next best thing to meeting in real life and it was really good to make that connection with the others involved while we were at Dechen Chöling. Having this many minds working together allows you to see a project from many angles, which is so useful when trying to foresee possible obstacles or when trying to come up with good solutions
For those who know it the Marpa room became our base for the three days. One of the guiding principles for Open Space Technology says ‘whoever comes are the right people’. As the days went by this certainly seemed to be the case. In particular, with hindsight, it seems especially precious that all four of the streams that have led to the creation of the Zii Gar – Forest School Camps, the Ziji Summits, Sun Camp and the Summer Youth Retreats – were represented by myself, Oli, Lia and the two Simons (B&E).
In particular it became clear to us that the Ziji Gar on some levels is actually a real departure from the Summer Youth Retreats, and yet it is taking place in the same slot, so to speak, and many of the people attending the Gar with be alumni of the Summer Youth Retreats and therefore have some expectation of continuity. I was very grateful to have Simon Engelke present who flagged this strongly at one point and really stood up for the Summer Youth Retreat. This is something we have to be quite delicate and careful with, especially to be clear to participants that our program will be quite different, particularly from a physical point of view, and not to upset people by this sudden change but to instead communicate clearly our reasons for this.
It is worth saying at this point that if there is the interest from people to take on the challenge of being coordinators, it is feasible that next year we could run both the Summer Youth Retreat and the Ziji Gar. I have been extremely happy to hear about our sister project led by Susanne Becker and her team – the SITA Summer Youth Retreat in Germany. Collectively what we have to offer – the simple but profound meditation instruction, as well as the peer support that comes from practising together – is so valuable and so needed that I think we must not have a small mindset around this.
Something we talked about connected to this in our discussions at Dechen Chöling was the right number of participants for a programme, and in this case for the Gar. A more naive view I used to hold is that programmes should always be as big as possible, as that way many people are able to practice, which is surely a good thing! However I now see that there is tremendous wisdom in small programs which can be less overwhelming and potentially help foster stronger bonds between the community of participants. After much discussion we decided that 60 people would be the right number for the Gar: 18 staff including the mentors and camp elder, and 42 participants, 6 of which will be Shambhala Guides or young Meditation Instructors.
A final thing that I’d like to mention is that part of mine and Lia’s vision for the Gar is that in future years it could move, like the true nomadic meditation camps of the Tibetan plains! We have begun to speak tentatively about holding a Gar in Wales, or even holding Gars simultaneously, or in separate locations over the course of a summer. I think it is important to keep our vision vast at the same time as being mindful of the practicalities and creating something sustainable without overstretching. If we do find that 60 is the right number for a Gar then running Gars in tandem in different places is the best way to expand and allow more people to experience that magic.
The chaordic model
The chaordic model is a rather wonderful chart that has been presented by Marguerite Drescher at both of the Ziji Summits that I have attended. At one point during our time at Dechen Choling it suddenly became particularly pertinent to the conversation. We were talking a great deal back and forth about how much structure we would need for our retreat and where we should leave space for other things to shine through. This applied to many things from how the showering system could work to what the physical and psychological boundaries of the camp would be.
The chaordic model is essentially an extended Venn diagram or a kind of spectrum. On one side you have chaos and on the other order. The term ‘chaordic’ designates the often desirable and fruitful area between these two, it is a space where there is some order but not too much, and some chaos but not too much. On the outer sides of chaos and order are far more dangerous zones: chamos and control respectively. As I was bringing these thoughts into our conversation Simon Bertin left suddenly to get something and returned, to our delight, with the large sheet of paper Marguerite had drawn on to present these ideas at the Berlin summit. The charodic model became a reference for us throughout the rest of our discussion and it was really touching to see how, without being contrived, it had spontaneously and deeply influenced our decision making process.
Walking the land
The next section I had planned for this article was a description of us walking the land where the Gar would be with Francois, Head of Operations at Dechen Choling. Indeed this happened and was a very joyful experience, as the field we walked to was completely perfect in every way! Secluded and verdant; vast enough to contain all the elements of the camp with a great deal of space between; flat areas for camping and kitchen; enormous oak trees providing shade; and a small wood at the back where we could set up our toilets. We left feeling extremely excited that we had found our home. However a month or so later, in early March, we received news of our first and thus far only set-back with the Gar: the farmer who rents the field from Dechen Choling throughout the year was not prepared to let us use it! I was too busy with other things in my life at the time to be as upset about this as I might otherwise have been however with a further month or so to reflect back, as is so often the case, it seems that what seemed to be a blow is actually an opportunity in disguise. Guided by Lia we have remained flexible and are now using the lower part of the field where Sun Camp is held each year. Slightly less secluded, there are however other huge advantages including water connected in three places. I remain confident that it will work out for the best.
Our days together were filled with tendrel. At our first meeting there was a rainbow in the sky and the morning we left, the staff of Dechen Choling held a beautiful lhasang which we were able to join. Moving forward I have a deep sense of trust in our project and especially in the extraordinary capabilities of the people I am so fortunate to be working with. I am confident that we are creating something very precious and needed.
There is a tremendous amount of work still to do, from further funding applications to designing the shower structures. Our trip to Dechen Choling was only a small part of this process, it was deeply inspiring to meet and talk about this in person but now the work continues for all of us divided across at least five countries. On the plus side we are beginning to hear back from the various bodies to whom we applied for funding and there has been some very good news in that direction – it seems people are inspired by our idea! Our registration opened on the 4th of April and many of the places have already been taken. We are about to launch our kickstarter that Bart Bergman has been building for us and if that is successful I feel sure that the Gar is really going to happen with grace and brilliance! I hope see you there or perhaps at some other Ziji Gar in the not too distant future.