[photo by Jacqueline Gens, spring 2013 preparing the soil for planting
with Joe Zurylo, Yuchen Namkhai and Nary Mitchell]
Yuchen Namkhai: Luigi and I lived in Castel del Piano, a small village close to Merigar West, for over three years. Luigi had been working as a director for Shang Shung Institute/Italy for five years and in 2009 we realized we had to leave Italy in order to fulfill one of our own priorities: our family. It was time to make important decisions about our daughters’ future education and how to provide the best care for them. We always valued an English based education and the possibility of living abroad to expand our horizons. Initially we looked into moving to Australia, since it is a great place for young ones, as it still seems to provide a sense of ‘future’. Pretty soon some coincidences and favorable conditions showed us a different path. At that time we realized we could help SSI USA and give our girls an English based education at the same time! What more could we ask for? As we began to consider moving, I started to remember my first visits to the US in the ‘80s. The very first time in Conway was my first experience of the dark retreat, of truly vegan food, amusement parks, and even West Coast nudism. I was amazed how different this country could be from Italy! This is one of the reasons why I considered traveling with Rinpoche, the greatest opportunity of my life; there was always a lot to learn, understand and assimilate wherever we headed for! We chose to move specifically to the Tsegyalgar East area because we wanted to leave close to Community people in a rural area. It is also very important for us to be able to raise our family in the countryside in close contact with nature. Some aspects I always respected and much valued about this area are the pioneering spirit and the work ethic. I think these aspects, along with the closeness to nature, provide us the lifestyle we’re enjoying up to now. Living in touch with nature can be a little hard at first, especially at our latitude and for Mediterranean people, but it teaches us to rethink how we live our ‘modern’ lives and to be more responsible in how we
manage our natural resources. Following the seasons and dealing with the natural elements teaches us how to endure and appreciate the good time, the need for enduring and collaboration. And most of all, the gift of connection!
Joe Zurylo: Now that you’re here, what do you see as the biggest difference between the USA and Europe?
Yuchen Namkhai: There are many differences… maybe the very first difference that strikes me is open space. There is a lot of open space here! Space means less tension, less crowding and less pressure. It is not as secondary as many people might think, since even if we humans are a social breed, we don’t cope very well with tight quarters and crowds. That is because we also are a predatory species. And the more I age, the more I appreciate open space and silence. The second big difference I see is the sense of community up here in the hill towns. It’s a kind of culture I never experienced in Italy. Because nature is strong, every year I witness this community’s resilience in action in finding solutions and collaboration when and where it’s needed. Whenever there is an emergency, someone in need, a threat for the population, people and entire villages here activate in many different ways… The schools act as a magnet in every village; it provides information, education, socialization, outreach and good memories. The collaboration in every neighborhood is also another local example of this. The third difference I see here is about law and politics; it is very straightforward, anyone can understand and navigate it easily. There is a high level of respect for the law and the legislation system is very fast and efficient compared to Europe. American politics looks easier to me compared to European; especially less complicated to reach agreements. Europeans tend to be more liberal regarding soft drugs, prostitution, alcohol, abortion, or cloning (but not so for GM food). Americans grant greater freedoms when it comes to gun possession, driving a car from a relatively young age (the norm is eighteen years old in Europe). Though the laws differ in each state, American teenagers can start driving with an adult as early as fourteen years and nine months old!!
Joe Zurylo: What do you see as the difference between Merigar West and Tsegyalgar East?
Yuchen Namkhai: Merigar West plays a very institutional role in the IDC context. It is the very first Gar Rinpoche founded and since then it connected thousands of practitioners at different levels. Over the years Merigar West has hosted hundreds of practice retreats and initiations, many guests and many events. We can easily say that the place has been empowered for over thirty years! Tsegyalgar East resembles Merigar West at the beginning in some ways, but the culture here is different and so are the people. Like Merigar West there are sacred locations and retreat cabins for personal retreats, but there are less people and we lack Rinpoche’s presence. Tsegyalgar East is still defining itself as a Gar and Community, I think. I find this aspect very inspiring and enjoyable as people can contribute in many different ways. When you see few people and lots of development to do, it can be discouraging at first. But consider this: the small number of members allows individual participation to have greater impact!
Joe Zurylo: Last year you decided to reopen the old farm, which we know as Lower Khandroling. Why did you decide to do this?
Yuchen Namkhai: The main reason is to give people access to positive energy and support to the Gar for the long term. A place like a Gar needs human presence, so that it doesn’t turn into a museum, and constant maintenance. A place like a community needs skills to foster connections and a certain level of trust to be at peace. Apparently, people too need a constant ‘maintenance’ in order to experience connection, compassion and peace. So I simply thought that the old farm could bring benefit in both these aspects; we can learn how to
relate ourselves in a respectful and nurturing way, meet our human needs for connection and, in the meantime, work sustainable solutions for the Gar. As human beings, we inherently enjoy contributing to others when we have connected with our own and others’ needs and can experience our giving as coming from choice. In order to live in a flow of authentic self-connection, and deep connection with others, self-responsibility is the key. I am responsible for my intentions, my actions, my ability to stay connected to others and myself, and for the choices I make. When we’re not ‘aligned’ internally so, we feel depressed, angry and unsatisfied. We all have the same needs; although the strategies we use to meet these needs may differ. Conflict occurs at the level of strategies, not at the level of needs. We all have an innate capacity for compassion, though not always the knowledge of how to access it. Growing compassion contributes directly to our capacity to meet needs peacefully. I consider myself very lucky to live close to Khandroling, a very special place for many reasons; not only we have upper Khandroling with its sacred sites and cabins, which is already in itself a very empowered and terma place. On the lower part stands a cute little farm in need of restoration that’s been successfully run in the past. That means there is enough space for practicing, hosting retreats and events, growing our own food and making specialty products, while experiencing the connection with the Land of the Dakinis.
Joe Zurylo: Since then Lower Khandroling has been referred to as the farm or the coop. Why did you choose the organizational structure of a workers cooperative to run the farm?
Yuchen Namkhai: When you think about it, the very idea of community comes into being because people like to cooperate with each other. The sense of cooperation begins at home and it leads to a strong feeling of international brotherhood. Knowing that, what I tried to do was simply to turn it into a strategy. Let me share personal considerations about this cooperative project:
1. I think we need the simplest and more efficient form of organization to run the farm. Workers cooperatives have been around for decades and proved to be efficient organizational structures.
2. We need to work with what we have now, not in twenty years, and with the first generation of Rinpoche’ s students so that we’ll build a bridge for future generations and a true legacy.
Joe Zurylo: At present, the coop is agricultural. Will it remain so or do you plan on incorporating other activities under the coop structure?
3. We need to support a culture of commitment and service. I truly believe the most unexpected joys come in serving others and the greater good. A worker cooperative simply gives access to those people willing to commit to some projects aimed to sustain the Gar in the long term. It is a way to organize ourselves as an independent team from the DCA in our own decisions and responsibilities, yet still being part of the same Mandala. To the public it is a practical organizational structure that dignifies human work, allows self-management and promotes community and local development. I believe that would be a great presentation and integration for our Community!
Yuchen Namkhai: I have no particular attachment to the coop structure in itself, but I do care about the team members and what we are accomplishing. That is because I see commitment and teamwork heading in the right direction. Even if we change the term and the activities, I believe the substance would remain the same. Agricultural activities are at the core of the cooperative because we need to preserve our natural resources if we want to be sustainable in the long term. Activities that are not harmful for the environment and don’t unbalance the relationship between man and nature are all welcome. We need profits, but we also have a land to protect and steward responsibly. Activities I planned to incorporate in the future, if possible, are to include informal education and workshops. It is important to offer education and hands on workshops to interested people and local people before we lose our existing knowledge and life skills. We need mentors for the young ones, we need to be the living examples of what we learned and walk the walk together. A community is not a solitary path. I think soon enough all Gars will need to become more self-sustainable by promoting small working groups and activities that bring benefit and profits to the Gars and local people. I don’t see big numbers in the future, but rather small local resilient communities. The education I see is towards a slower, more sustainable (frugal), and more self-sufficient lifestyle that’s focused on the home. The home represents our own authenticity, our spiritual life dimension. It is where we practice with an open hearted and minded attitude self discovery and self-connection. I believe the future is in pushing small communities to become units of production (raising/growing/making their own food, sewing their own clothes, trading skills and homemade goods with other people, etc.) instead of units of consumption. It all depends on what will manifest in the near future.
Joe Zurylo: Your statement that community is not a solitary path is very interesting, sometimes it seems that we behave as if it was a solitary path, can you comment on that?
Yuchen Namkhai: Generally speaking, we humans couldn’t evolve that far simply on a solitary path. A solitary path has a short lifespan by definition. We live in a very limited condition. Not only our time is limited, also our capacities and resources are, too. No wonder in Eastern Buddhist traditions you find one of the three jewels be the Sangha, and in Western cultures one of the foundation of civilization be the community. A community is the combination of ‘common’ and ‘unity’, and it represents a social unit that shares common values. We know that we consider ourselves not an ordinary community nor a traditional Dharma sangha (monastic community of Buddhist monks or nuns). We claim we don’t need ‘formal’ definition since we consider ourselves connected to each other and to the Master by having received His Transmission. But what does that mean? It means we are in a relationship. And, as in all relationships, it requires from our part to work on different levels at the same time (we may be spouses, fathers, brothers, teachers, friends, and neighbors). In our case, we are individuals and community members at the same time. As individuals we’re in a lifelong journey to discover ourselves, our limits, our potentialities, to develop clarity and cultivate compassion. As human beings we try to meet our basic
needs: a sense of security, a sense of connection, and a sense of meaning. Sometimes we like to skip the basic and wish to jump directly to transcendence. But then our actions reflect this solitary path pattern. No chance we can meet these needs on a solitary path. As Community members we stand to serve our Vajra brothers and sisters and the Community needs, since that is foundation for the continuation of the Transmission. There is no continuation of the Transmission without a Sangha. Today, as a Community, we face some challenges since intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and other important aspects are not clear enough to people. Unfortunately these aspects not only affect the identity of ANY community members but above all their degree of belonging and cohesiveness. If sometimes it seems that we behave as if community means solitary path, I think that is because we need to better clarify our culture of values and have it become alive and shared. I believe our very own human nature is a communitarian nature, not a solitary one. A sense of community is not defined by membership (sense of loyalty), influence (a reactive performance), or fulfillment of individuals’ goals, but by sharing quality time (stories of events) with emotional connections. In other words, it is not like being part of a club, rather being part of a family, a Vajra family. For years we heard the terms Vajra brothers and sisters not accidentally. For years we‘ve been practicing good intention for others; let’s not forget an intention is an action statement, not a ritual. An organization doesn’t replace a community; all it does is setting a system of accountability in place in a leaderless group. The more we learn, accept and share the same culture of values, the higher our sense of belonging will be. We’ve been requested many times to collaborate between each other…and amazingly enough one of the most basic values of ANY community is cooperation! And one of the very first forms of community we experience is family; so it should be easy enough for us to get the picture… all we need is to care enough. If we wish to continue collectively as a community, we need to accept and serve as a community. Not only it will bring benefits for us as individuals, but also it will put a seed for next generations.
Joe Zurylo: What is you motivation for starting this enterprise?
Yuchen Namkhai: The motivation is to help people realize their potential. As soon as we realize our potential, we feel empowered and willing to participate and contribute. Hopefully and eventually, a culture of self-less service might emerge and spread worldwide. To get there I think someone needs to set up an example; a simple organization that can be replicated in any Gar to help sustain the local Community. I think it’s important to give a concrete example on what can be accomplished, at a material level. It is my little contribution to the DCA. I saw a potential and I decided to commit.
Joe Zurylo: To become a member of the coop requires that one puts in 12 hours of work a month. Why did you set it up that way?
Yuchen Namkhai: I believe if you start a cooperative and set it well, the rest will follow naturally. Knowing our core beliefs (responsibility for self-management) and values, (common purpose, integrity, respect and self-responsibility), our actions will follow naturally. Perceiving the 12 hours like a duty or a fixed rule, it means we still didn’t get the right spirit of the cooperative. It’s not a matter of the amount of hours, but rather to show real commitment through actions, not just in words. We look for team players. Teams can accomplish tasks that individuals alone cannot, which is why teamwork is so valued in many communities. Teamwork requires actual work, shared experience and personal commitment. The reward that will naturally flourish is patience, compassion and understanding. If we wish to bring actual benefit to our Community we need, as The King (Elvis Presley) sang: “a little less conversation, a little more action” (1968, by Mac Davis and Billy Strange - A Little Less Conversation).
[all photos by Jacqueline Gens, 2013/14]