October 10, 2006

Trip One, Day One

I had never gone to a Buddhist center before. I had never spent time in the Colorado mountains. I had never ridden on a train before. In early August, 2004, I did all of that and found myself at Shambhala Mountain Center as a participant in the Shambhala Training Level 1: The Art of Being Human workshop.

The bus which took me from Denver to Fort Collins traveled on the flat plain of eastern Colorado, with the mountains just visible in the western distance. The interstate we traveled looked much like Nebraska and the development bordering it was much the same. The bus driver who dropped me at the Hilton hotel in Fort Collins took one look at my backpack and rolled sleeping bag.

“Going to Shambhala, huh? I can always tell.”

I waited at the hotel with another lady bound in the same direction. She had come all the way from New Mexico. After a bit, a girl about my age wearing a yellow name badge around her neck found us chatting in the lobby. She was our transportation, with her beat up little hatchback, to the mountain center. She said she had lucked out by agreeing to come in and pick us up, she was able to make a town trip and get reimbursed for the gas. She was working up at the center for the summer. After that she didn’t know where she’d go.

We traveled on roads which became more and more twisting and climbed almost 3,000 feet into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. There where grey cliffs and places where red earth had been thrust up at an angle, all covered with scrub grass and short pine trees. Farther into the mountains the trees got larger, the hills rounded and hugged closer together, and the air dried out. The dirt county road in to the mountain center was even more crooked, but well maintained. It became pitted with pot holes past the front gate, but I half think that is intentional to prevent fast driving.

There was a little guard shed, unmanned, and an old log cabin with an open sided white tent next to it. We registered in the tent and got our white name badges. They had fruit and tea waiting for us. Our guide took us to our tents, or as close as she could get. First we went to Red Feather, where the other lady was staying and where we would eat dinner and participate in the workshop. Then we followed the pitted dirt road along the high ground ringing the valley to the Ratna bathhouse, a large brown wood structure set on stilts on the mountain slope with a porch rapping around three sides.

She couldn’t get there in her car, but if I walked the path leading east from the bathhouse, past all the Ratna tents, I should find my own tent: Vajra number 4. Sure enough, it was there, set a little apart from the other tents, a hundred feet off the path, and down the hill from a large lonely ponderosa pine, which would become my landmark and nighttime friend.

It was a tall green tent, about fourteen feet on a side, set on a green wooden platform with a little awning and a porch painted with V04 in tall white letters. Inside I could stand without hitting my head unless I was right next to a wall. It had windows on three sides and a door on the fourth, facing south back up the hill. There were two beds, two hanging racks, and two shelves all made of raw lumber. The beds each had a six inch foam mattresses on them and nothing else. I chose the one on the east side. Unzipping the back window, I could see across the valley, down to the meadow and the shrubs growing along the creek, up the other side the a cluster of buildings our guide had called ‘Downtown.’

I unpacked most of my things, slung my pack with my copy of Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa in it over my shoulder and headed back the way we had come. The clouds were so big and close overhead, as though I could reach my hand and run my fingers through their soft undersides. I could hear the wind roaring and rushing, but rarely felt it in the protected valley. Otherwise it was quiet and I counted only two birds on the mile or so hike back to Red Feather.

The road to Red Feather gradually sloped up and my footsteps became slower and slower as my heart beat unexpectedly loud. I stopped for a bit, to look back down the valley at a cream colored building with a green metal roof and a two story tower on the southeast corner. I thought it was a nice looking building. When I reached Red Feather, I let myself into the dining hall, a long one story building set along the road with a full length porch facing east. There was a group of young people hanging out on a couple of soft couches. They were staff members and were friendly and happy to let me join them.

In moments a man a few years older than they can and rousted them out and put them back to work. At first, I think he wasn’t sure if I was one of them or not, but then he spotted my white name tag clearly marking me as a guest. I was early. Most of the participants would be arriving in the next few hours, but I was welcome to make myself at home.

I read a little of the book by the person whose name I still could not pronounce and napped on the couch. The train trip to Denver had been overnight and I hadn’t slept very much, being unused to the swaying motion of the tall train cars. People started to wander in. They were young and older, some well dressed, some casual like me, men and womean alike. Some joined me on the couches. The atmosphere was very relaxed and friendly.

Dinner was served at 6:30 p.m. I was hungry and the food was good. They served roasted chicken breast as well as marinated tofu, which much to my surprise I enjoyed. I ate at a table with a group of retired middle school teachers from Denver. After dinner, we made our way down a short path to a very large, very white tent. Following the lead of those in front of us, we removed our shoes and stowed them in the cubbies which walled off the entry. The remainder of the tent was a large open room filled with orderly rows of blue cushions which were quickly filling up.

In the center of the long north wall was an alter of sorts which I had never seen before. There was a large reddish orange box with gold trim of about counter height. It had many things set on it, golden bowls holding objects, oil filled candles, and a large calligraphy painting which seemed to depict nothing so much as the number one. Later I would learn this symbol was called ashre (ah-sh-ray) and did not stand for any specific number or letter, but rather a concept. Beside the alter, or shrine I learned later, was a beautiful, but simple, black chair, a small table with flowers on it, and a clear glass of water.

I hunkered down on my cushion close to the front on the right side of the teacher’s chair. The sun had gone down by then and I was glad I had not left my coat in my tent. When the tent was full, and the audience of over seventy sat quietly even though no one had told us not to speak, a lady entered the room followed by a younger man and woman. The young woman was dressed in a fashion I tend to think of as bohemian, not mainstream fashion, but much too nice to be hippie. She was my age and pretty with beautiful chestnut hair, immaculate makeup, and trendy librarian style glasses perched on her nose. Her name was Farradee.

She introduced the man with her. He had short dark hair and reminded me of a track runner. He wore an improbable looking khaki military uniform with odd looking badges and a green beret tucked over one shoulder. He was Ian, head of the Dorje Kasung, whatever that was, and proceeded to give us a lecture about bears, mice, birds, water, flashlights, hats, and the color of our urine. He was personable enough, but obviously had given this lecture many times before and also obviously took it just as seriously this time.

Then the lovely Farradee introduced the woman in the teacher’s chair as Cynthia Kneen. She was about my mother’s age and smartly dressed in a business suite with her brown hair artfully styled and makeup done. She was someone I expected in a board room, not a tent in the middle of the mountains, but she had something about her that seemed to make her perfectly at home and perfectly suited to this time and this place. She had a softness I had never seen before in another human being.

That evening she explained with a soft voice and a gentle laugh about basic goodness and how wonderful it is to be a human being. I confess I didn’t understand it all, but most of it made sense, and something in her manner told me I would come to understand it in short order, even if I didn’t tonight. She told of her own journey through the winter snow of Vermont when she was just a bit younger than I to meet the man whose name she pronounced as Choge-yahm Trung-pa Rin-poe-shay, the last word meaning teacher. He became her mentor. She told the story of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala, said to have existed in Tibet many thousand years ago. It did not really matter if it ever existed or not because it stood for a principle or ideal or how human beings can live when they recognize their own basic goodness.

After a couple of hours and a very sore back from sitting on the meditation cushions, called a gomden and a zabuton, my head felt full and soft. I was still slightly skeptical, but happy. We adjourned for the night and the large group left almost as quietly as we had come. Some stopped at the entrance to bow to the shrine. I did not.

People set off with their bobbing flashlights, free to chatter beyond the confines of the shrine tent, and I did likewise. Or tried to at least. Their were no stars or moon and a hundred paces from the dining hall I couldn’t see anything, not my hands, not my feet, not the trees or mountains, and certainly not the path I was trying to follow by the feel of the ground alone. I have been to'Middle-of-Nowhere' Nebraska and I never could have believed anywhere under the open sky could have been darker. I was wrong. I was also starting to get just a little bit panicky. All of the other guests seemed to be staying in Red Feather and I had no idea how I was going to get all the way across the valley to Vajra.

After a few moments of indecision, swinging my head back and forth from the dark path to the lit dining hall behind me, my rescue crunched up the path to me. Two staff members, a couple, were heading back to their own tent in Padma, wherever that was. If I followed them to Downtown, they would give me a flashlight and set me on the right path for the Ratna bathhouse. I was shaky and scared and very, very relieved. They set off confidently down the hill in the pitch black and I followed. Every so often a little solar garden light would pop up on the side of the path, be visible for about ten feet, then disappear in the darkness.

We made it to Downtown and a mud room attached to a larger building. The young man rummaged around in a backpack hanging in the row of pegs and came up with a small penlight. They led me through downtown to the edge of the meadow, where I could see the Ratna bathhouse glowing halfway up the hill. We said goodnight and I made my way, with my little penlight to keep me from stumbling on the boardwalk which crosses the wet meadow. After a quick, and cold, stop in the bathhouse (prompting a quick decision to shower during the day instead), I was on the path to my tent.

The little penlight didn’t shed enough light to see my tent from the path, but after a bit of uncertainty, I found my friendly tree. Turning from the tree at a right angle and heading down the hill brought me to my tent in short order. My roommate had moved in sometime during the day and was now curled securely in her own bunk. I shed my boots, coat, and pants, kept my sweatshirt on, shivered, and crawled into my own sleeping bag. I slept fairly well, though I did keep one ear open for bears.

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