The combined years of experience in Dharma centres must have been near enough to 400 years of working for the sentient beings!
The theme of the meeting was Dharma in Action. The first three days were skilfully facilitated by Hilary Clarke (Karuna Hospice), Marie-Anne (Cittamani Hospice), and Alison Cavaye (Tsechen Buddhist Centre). Over the six days we covered topics as large as the mission of the FPMT, as vital as how to be polite on three hours sleep, as distasteful as how to make money and as inspiring as Rinpoche's many and marvellous projects.
As a second generation Buddhist, and probably the only SPC to have inherited the job (from my dead mum) it was somewhat daunting to be in such esteemed company. Sitting in the gompa on the first day, I surveyed the scene and thought what a rag-tag bunch we are. The greats of the Western Sangha, some of the first ordained westerners, were spread casually throughout the gompa, there were chairs and bags everywhere, accompanied by the pleasant sounds of many different accents and languages.
In fact the whole gompa was whirring and beeping. Phones were going off in presentations and watches were beeping on the hour (although everyone seemed to have their own unique time for this). I suffered the embarrassing experience of having to stuff a meditation cushion into my bag because I didn't know how to answer my (borrowed) mobile phone.
Still, it was wonderful to be up on ‘the hill' sitting in the beautiful gompa, with the life size statues of Chenrezig and Tara -surroundings that reflect the beautiful and profound philosophy that is Buddhism.
Rinpoche explained to us on the first morning that the purpose of the FPMT was "to serve the kind teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni. The purpose of life is to benefit others, offer service for others. Giving shelter or food, giving comfort, one can do, but it is not always successful. Education, economics, feng shui -without the karma the result doesn't come out. By participating in a Dharma centre, we can offer the opportunity to others to purify karma and make merit. We start with the happiness in this life, but more important, in the long run is the happiness of all future lives."
"The centre offers something to the sentient beings that can actually liberate them. Remember this in our daily lives; remember to enjoy the hardships of this greatest benefit job."
At this point, I must admit that I initially approached this meeting with a feeling of trepidation. Previous meetings that I've attended proved to be very frustrating; being asked what I needed help with, and then at the end of the day being delegated to solve the very thing I did not know how to do!!
But any recalcitrance I had evaporated completely on seeing Rinpoche seated humbly at his desk in the gompa, filling out his questionnaire just like the rest of us. And any thought of ratbaggery I had came immediately to heel.
It was an extraordinary experience being in a working group with Rinpoche. Our task was to brainstorm the qualities and skills that a director needs. Some of us were new struggling directors on the brink of tears, others were old hands, fresh and confident and full of beans. I joined this group was because our director, like many others, has a full time job and couldn't be there for the whole meeting.
The most important we thought, was to follow the guru's wishes. Although Lama Yeshe said that to be a director is to "be an object of criticism", we shouldn't loose courage because of problems. There will always be problems. Just let go, and when ‘the fear' comes, look after your own mind. Unlike a company who doesn't know how, a director can create the causes for success by studying the lam rim and putting it into practice.
Rinpoche said all the decisions should be made on the basis of Dharma. And that directors should go on holidays when they get burnt out. He suggested "go to Tahiti or go to a pure land!" But the most important quality is to have a good heart, a warm heart, to be a kind person.
Rinpoche let on that some directors can't wait even one a second to resign, they can't wait for that bliss! For example, Ven. Massimo, director of Lama Tsong Khapa Institute in Italy for eight years now, resigns every year, and as Roger says, "it's an endearing habit." What sort of culture we would like to develop in the centres? Rinpoche wanted to see more kind heart, more tolerance, more western translators, more skills in making money, an authentic understanding of Dharma on the basis of lam rim, and more support for the Sangha.
In answer to the question ‘what would you like to see operating less in the centres?' he said "less sleep!" (And added less laziness, less ignorance in running the centre, less self-centred mind.) By now, I am beginning to get a sense of what it means to liberate all sentient beings by oneself alone.
We also had an entertaining visit from a PR officer for Noosa Shire. Slightly breathless, aware that he was speaking in front of a very special being (Rinpoche), he apologised profusely saying "this may all sound like a cliché, but it is my life!" Actually, he was a sincere and funny man. Much of what he had to say echoed Buddhist advice, but somehow it didn't go far enough.
What did impress me though was the way he took professionalism for granted. This, strange as as it may seem, is not necessarily the case in some centres. He actually advised us to learn the fundamentals of being polite! Professionalism, I was beginning to think (when you act nice even when you don't feel it) is the secular version of deity practice. You don't have to wait until you feel sincere -it's a ‘fake it ‘til you make it' strategy. We can practice the deity even though we don't completely believe it at first.
Ven. Roger impressed upon us that it's important for the centres to have someone there to greet us (and not in any rush), so that the opportunity to meet the Dharma and completely change a person's life is there. Roger pointed out that "it seems difficult for many of us, even though simple. It comes down to this: to develop the concern for others, not thinking about ourselves. Our motivating force is not money, but concern for other people. Wanting to help others is our culture. This comes from our gurus, it is their whole meaning of life."
"Rinpoche is very inspiring, endless working night and day" Roger said. "I'm convinced after many years that the thought for himself is no-where in his mind. Our dilemma is not local politics, but the internal politics of the self-cherishing mind versus concern for others. Who are we going to serve? The old ingrained habit or serving others? The success of the organisation depends on how much we can put this into practice."
Ven. Roger continued "this sort of organisation is quite unique in the world today, because of individuals who have put others before themselves and made incredible sacrifices to establish the centres. This is what our culture is: this is our gurus, how they live, this is the very essence. Not just making cups of tea and being at the front door. It must come from the attitude of really wanting to help others, thinking of them more than ourselves".
With a twinkle in his eye and his characteristic humour, Rinpoche summarised the workshops, "How to make all these things become a success at the centre? om mani padme hum to summarise! This contains everything -finance, communication!"
Geshe Tashi Tsering charmed us all with a short talk, spontaneously breaking into English with his enthusiasm. He was asked by Rinpoche to talk on the Buddhist Studies Program (Basic Program), a subject very dear to his heart. "We need the two wings - the money and the teachings. Like the two wings of a bird, one is the Dharma, the other is the conditions. If one wing has a problem, then we cannot fly. So we need the union of study and practice. And in the BSP at Chenrezig Institute there is this union."
In conjunction with this, the Dharma Educator Skills Training (DEST) created an avenue where teachers could be developed through the existing program in a natural way. To empower the residents and the senior students so they could start giving back. "Everyone who works here is actually an educator in their own right," Ven. Dekyi-Lee explained, "from the coffee shop up to tutorials and courses".
And then, after many days of workshops developing skills and strategies, in his most humble and moving way Rinpoche summed up the entire meeting. "Even to generate one virtuous thought in the mind of one sentient being, even if it takes aeons, the bodhisattva still does this, because without the cause of happiness the sentient beings cannot receive enlightenment". And added "anyway, one has to give up everything, so the best way is to give up for sentient beings."