Bodhicharya Summer Camp
14-20 July 2014
Casa da Torre, Braga, Portugal
The Camp was hosted for the third year running by Bodhicharya Portugal at Casa da Torre, near Braga, from 14 to 21 July. With around 110 participants from 20 different countries, mainly European, the atmosphere was lively, the discussion animated, a chance to renew old friendships and make new ones.
Ringu Tulku’s teachings continued and concluded the study of Dakpo Tashi Namgyal’s magisterial text, Mahᾱmudrᾱ, The Moonlight: Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, which he had started four years previously in Lusse, France. He made it clear from the outset, however, that study of a text is only the beginning: we must use this study to work on ourselves, which is the main meditation. Ultimately it is our practice and we must integrate the teaching at the level on which we find ourselves. Throughout the week’s teachings, he stressed the Dharma as a living reality, and this somewhat forbidding text was made accessible to us by our knowledge that our teacher had been there himself and was reporting back from the land of realisation for samsaric beings at an earlier stage on the Path. And yet he managed, consistently, but without any diminution of the text’s austere wisdom, to open it up to our understanding.
Recalling the basics of Buddhist practice, Rinpoche outlined the fundamental causes of suffering – the kleshas: that is, the negative emotions that keep us in the samsaric state of mind. It is on these that we have to work, and the actual practice we employ does not matter: it is a question of what we as individuals can identify with. When we come to the end of the kleshas, the practice, too, is finished.
Life is full of problems for everyone, Rinpoche insisted, but concentrating on these becomes a habit, and causes negativity. If I emphasise the positive, I become more joyful, and through this transformation of my mind-state, I change my karma.
We should work therefore on wisdom and compassion. Of these two, compassion is the easier to make progress with, involving letting go of hatred and anger and cultivating an attitude of benevolence towards other beings, since all beings want the happiness that I crave, and all are beset with the sort of obstacles that I experience. How to carry these negative experiences onto the path formed a substantial and illuminating part of the teachings: an experience is only negative because my mind makes it so, Rinpoche emphasised. We should learn simply to be with thoughts, positive or negative, without judgment, with the mind clear and spacious. Little by little, we can learn that happiness is not a matter of what happens to us, but how we deal with it. Every problem or negative situation can be seen as an opportunity; the obstacles are the meditation.
Concerning the meditation instructions, Rinpoche’s commentary stressed the insubstantiality that we should seek in our experiences. Calming the mind, shamata, is essential as a preliminary, but cannot of itself uproot our negative emotions. These have to be met and analysed at the insight stage, where we learn to see things as they really are and understand that there is nothing to hold on to. Our thoughts and emotions, however solid they may seem, lack substance and independent existence, and to insist to the contrary is to prolong our suffering. To demonstrate the unreality of phenomena, Rinpoche pointed out the contradictory nature of definitions: regarding the extremes of ‘this is’, ‘this is not’, or ‘both are true’, ‘neither is true’, no firm conclusion can be reached, since the reality of things is on another level altogether.
The quadrangle at Casa da Torre with a statue of Saint Mary
In this radical re-thinking of the way we look at phenomena, thinking itself is shown to be a major element in chaining us to the samsaric way of being. In fact, we find it impossible just to ‘be’, as our minds oscillate continually between past and present. Meditation, insofar as it involves contemplation of an object, visualisation, meditator and meditation-state, is shown to have the same dualistic limitations, provoking the thought that the ultimate aim of meditation is non-meditation. Heady stuff, indeed. But Ringu Tulku has the art of unpicking, with great good humour, the frequently abstruse language of the translation of the text under discussion and its commentary, to get at the core meaning, simplicity itself in its expression, but the work of many lifetimes to realise in one’s own being. At every point, we feel the authenticity of Ringu Tulku’s teaching: in his commentary on this profound text we know that he has been there, and is reporting back from the land of realisation for samsaric beings at an earlier stage on the Path. And yet he manages, always, but without any diminution of the text’s austere wisdom, to make it accessible to us. Rinpoche’s positive energy, warmth and engagement at every level, brought out similar if less realised attributes in the group, creating an ambiance that was ideal for both study of the Dharma and interpersonal relationships. This was a teaching in itself: the way in which the mood of one influences the whole, individuals returning and reinforcing the positive that is communicated to them.
Two days into the Camp, as last year, we once again celebrated Ringu Tulku’s birthday, with great good humour, specially made cards and the inevitable chocolate cake to be enjoyed by all! Especially in the light of the children who were present, the ‘time out’ atmosphere was continued by trips to the nearby river beach, the most enjoyable way of ‘cooling off’.
Lama Tsultrim, who created and hosted the first Summer Camps in France around ten years ago, added several positive dimensions to this year’s camp, leading the early morning meditation, acting as impromptu translator, giving a session on meditation to less experienced participants. In the late afternoon, he led us in walking meditation in the cloister. Soft shuffle on the stone for those walking at a normal pace, soundless cat-like advance of those adopting the Theravadin technique of lifting one mindful foot at a time. A different focus, too: broad and all-compassing for the former, a narrowing down for the latter to the minute movements of the foot’s articulations. Relief in both instances from the Portuguese summer sun in the relative cool of the cloister, its regularity lending a harmony to the whole, bordered on each side by a profusion of roses, studded symmetrically with citrus-trees and variegated holly. Then again, crossing it diagonally to experience on bare feet the lingering warmth in the stone of the intense heat of the day.
A view of the entrance to the Monastery complex
One evening we watched a film with an urgent ecological message, The Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning, based on Alan Ereira’s book of that name, and filmed twenty years ago for the BBC. In it, members of the Kogi tribe, who are themselves descendants of the Tairona people who retreated 400 years ago to the remote mountains of Northern Colombia to escape the despoilment of their heartlands by the advancing exploitation of the natural resources on which their age-old civilization depends, send out a message, as ‘Elder Brothers’, to the ‘Younger Brothers’ – us – who are slowly killing Mother Earth. The urgent question left hanging at the end: is anyone listening?
A second film, Whale Rider, also dealt with the theme of tradition, but in a more negative way, demonstrating the human suffering that results when individuals with power choose to cling to the past, refusing the change that would liberate a whole section of society, in this case, women, represented by a young girl (played by the highly gifted actor Keisha Castle Hughes), whose desire to play a full part in Maori life was thwarted at every turn by her tradition-bound father. The high drama of her disappearance into the sea astride a stranded whale made the subsequent modestly happy ending something of an anti-climax, and did not entirely convince at least this viewer.
Our thanks to Annie Dibble for organizing these two films.
On the Saturday, there was a refuge ceremony for a number of participants. Rinpoche was at pains to explain its significance, emphasizing that you don’t take refuge in the lama, but before him. It’s your own decision to take your life in a certain direction. The presence of the sangha as witness signifies that the person taking refuge acknowledges his or her openness to learning from the experience of the sangha.
On the last day, there was the traditional entertainment session, compèred by the ebullient Peter from Germany who, as ‘Mr Mind’, gave a send-up commentary of the recent infamous final of the football World Cup between Germany and Argentina. This was followed by rather more serious but nonetheless lively musical contributions from Portugal; the US; the entire motley assembly of Anglophones; France and Ireland – a solo by Maeve of traditional songs in both the Irish and English languages.
After this enjoyable cultural event, Kumunga Adrannadhi, a Sri Lankan participant, presented a visual proposal for a retreat in Sri Lanka next January, prior to hopefully setting up Bodhicharya Sri Lanka. Both proposals were warmly welcomed by the assembled sangha. Watch out for further details on the Bodhicharya website!
All in all, another very successful Summer Camp, as beneficial as it was enjoyable. Our heartfelt thanks go to Bodhicharya Portugal, in particular Carmo and Tsering, for once again performing their duties as hosts with such grace and efficiency, and to the personnel of Casa da Torre for their helpfulness at all times. Most of all, of course, we thank our dear teacher, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, for his skill and compassion in the transmission of the Dharma and for his radiant presence among us.
May he have long life and happiness.
An Tobar, Ireland, 5 August 2014
Pat Little, a member of Bodhicharya Ireland, has been a student of Ringu Tulku for a number of years, and has received teachings from him on many occasions, in Ireland, in Scotland, in France and in his Bodhicharya Retreat Centre in Sikkim. She has also been a regular participant in Dόnal Creedon’s Irish retreats in Co. Meath, and took part in the 2012 Sikkim retreat. In 2005 she made her first visit to India to work as a volunteer with adults with learning difficulties, and has returned three times since for other projects. In the course of her career she has taught, mainly French, in colleges and institutions in Ireland, England, Ghana and Sierra Leone and, now retired, divides her time, with her husband, between rural Ireland and the South of France.
(For another take on the Summer camp in Portugal, see Annie Dibble’s article, A Short Reflection on Bodhicharya Summer Camp 2014)