Sunday 31 July 2011

Drala Jong will be a creative space

Drala Jong is intended to be a space supportive of creativity and invention. With that in mind, I thought (albeit somewhat self indulgently) to post the first piece of creative narration by my son who is 4 - as relayed by his nursery teachers.

I went with mummy and daddy, we flew like dragons to the castle. I saw a green dragonfly. There were 3 dinosaurs in the castle, they were big and tried to eat us with their big jaws. They had chips with tomato sauce.

Then we went to my house and played with my toys.

And I think we can all learn something from that. . .

Friday 29 July 2011

Humble Beginnings

Looks like Kate Humble thinks Drala Jong is such a good idea she is going to copy it (sort of!):​ales-south-east-wales-14330147. Nice to see support for rural skills from some imaginative councillors and a TV celeb! It is interesting to read the headline that Kate and her husband are looking to invest around £500,000 in the project - as that coincidentally is how much we are looking for to establish Drala Jong on a firm footing.

The local press have presented the idea as being like 'Monmouthshire's answer to River Cottage'. They appear to have missed the fact though that River Cottage has gone through some shaky times recently, including job losses. Whilst local, rural, green, organic matters are still fashionable, that doesn't necessarily mean they are automatically sustainable on a financial front - even when there is a celebrity (be it Hugh Fernley Whittingstall, or Kate Humble) heading up the operation. It's going to be interesting watching how how Kate Humble's project develops over coming months. I certainly plan to pay a visit once the doors open and see what we can learn that can be applied back into Drala Jong - just as we did down at River Cottage HQ in Dorset.

BTW The Forest of Dean Review (yes, THE Forest of Dean Review) has their own article here:

The Drala Jong Interview - Part II

Q: What sorts of teachings would a residential centre allow – would there be something new that isn’t currently possible to teach to the public at present?

NCR: It is not so much about providing something new, as being something that gives enough time for certain practices. There are things you cannot teach in an evening, or day – or even over a weekend. gCod, for example, needs an extra full day dedicated to the teaching – beyond a single weekend – and hence there have hardly ever been the right circumstances where I’ve been able to teach that.

There is also the issue of giving the best opportunity to get something from a practice – of being able to have the chance to practise together, for a sustained period of time. On a residential retreat, after an evening empowerment for example, everyone practises together at the end of the dBang. Then they go to sleep in their rooms – without leaving the space in which the empowerment was given. When we wake on residential retreats we remain in silence and then practise together before having breakfast as a group. There is continuity there. On a non-residential event, after the dBang people go out into a high street, and are faced with – the bus ride, the drunk in the street – or whatever. Not that this should make a difference, but if you don’t get the chance for that intensity of practice it can be more challenging.

Q: And how about teachings for apprentices and disciples, like the moving element practices?

NCR: Certainly yes – there can be longer retreats. What I envisage in the end is a summer encampment every year that lasts for maybe a month. All the Lamas of the Aro Tradition would come and teach. Students from all the sanghas would be able to attend, and people could elect to attend sections of it. It would also be especially good for things like the vajra dances, because you need time for that. For example we’ve been teaching the Vulture Dances for years, in tiny blocks. We can teach parts over the years, but you need time and space to do that, otherwise each time you gather again to learn something new, you have to revisit what has been learned before. There is limited time available to add to what is known.

There are also larger scale projects like the creation of appliqué thangkas, or monumental phurbas. Appliqué is best made all at once, and not left hanging around – well not until the thangka has been completed anyway [laughs].

Q: Do you have any sense about what Drala Jong would ideally be like?

NCR: Well, it would be nothing like a hippo [laughs]. I suppose my ideal place would be something that would lend itself to our own work. It can’t afford to be too big for cost reasons, but it needs to be expandable. There was a farm near Llantrisant in South Wales that we used for a while. It had a whole space the owner didn’t use; the attic was the entire extent of the house and was suitable for a shrine room. It also had a lot of outhouses – one of these sprawling Welsh farms, that stretched all over the place. And somewhere with a bit of its own land which it would be possible to stretch using tents, and yurts. There were all sorts of wonderful semi-permanent structures at Pennant Valley where we used to hold the summer yogic encampment retreats. It needs to be a little bit elastic like that.

It would be lovely if it had some woodlands and fields for the outdoor practices we have. It would be really great if it had one of these long rambling drives, so you were a decent distance from other people and didn’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbours.

Sunday 24 July 2011

The Drala Jong Interview - Part 1

Q: What will Drala Jong be used for?

Ngak’chang Chögyam Rinpoche [NCR]: Buddhism!

Q: [Laughs] Sorry, silly question. What I really meant was that we already hire venues for both non-residential, and residential retreats. Why is buying our own place better than hiring places?

NCR: Well, there’s simple pragmatics for a start. If we added up how much money we’d spent hiring venues – just paying someone else to use their space – over the years it would be a scary number. . .

Q: We spend £12,000 a year just for apprentice retreats in the UK, Rinpoche. . .

NCR: Whoa, so over the last ten years, with all the other venues too, that must be maybe £150,000 that we could have spent on our own space.

Well, aside from all the financial reasons the key thing is if you own a space you can actually create an environment. Given the limitations of hired venues, we’ve actually done well in the past doing this by creating something wherever we go. It starts with the clothes people wear – with people prioritising the yogic colours of red, white and blue – because this creates an atmosphere. The sangha has always been good at that. It creates a sense that people are doing something together, and creating something. This also includes the emphasis on people owning their own practice equipment. I’ve been to an awful lot of centres in the West where people have nothing that is theirs; perhaps that is because all their money is sunk into the costs of keeping the centre open! In our sangha, every apprentice has a shawl, bell and drum, and can have many other things too. It is great because what is owned becomes part of the environment. But still, with a hired place it is someone else’s place, and, well, in our current venue there is a bar at the other end of the main shrine room. Elsewhere there will be something else. We had a place once that had a wonderful space to use as a shrine room, with lovely light blue walls. Then one day the owners decided to get into organic paint, and they repainted it the colour of a discarded nappy – it was horrible. Wherever we go, the owners have to hire the space out to lots of other people, so the space is never designed for us. We make the best of what we can, but we could make so much more if it was our own place.

In terms of my memory of where I’ve lived in the past it doesn’t cost a lot to transform a place – such as painting a room the shrine room colours. It has always had a powerful effect to do this. From the very first time we created a shrine room in our home, every visitor has always been struck by it. Journalists are always stunned by the effect, and there have been articles about our shrine rooms in the British and Welsh press over the years. If you describe the colours we use it just sounds dreadful, but when people see it for the first time they say ‘You know this really works’. [You can see this style of shrine room at Aro Ling] And when you practise in such a space you find out it is supportive in its own right. I don’t particularly want to get esoteric about this, or fanciful, but people certainly get something from it. Our own shrine room colour scheme comes from Ögyen Tobgyal. He was Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche thangka painter and is the source of this scheme. It was first used in the Ögyen Chöling Centre in London, and we’ve used it within the Aro Tradition ever since.

Of course we’ve got a fair few things to put into a shrine. Some are on display, for example at the Aro Ling centre, but others are stored because there is no space for them. In terms of thangkas alone we have enough to cover three times the amount of wall space we have at Aro Ling. And in terms of travelling to hired centres, we just can’t carry the amount of items we own to every residential retreat. We’d need one vehicle for the people, and another for the luggage. We’ve built up a lot over the years that could be placed in a permanent home, so many things that we’ve managed to save from being lost into private collections, or preserved, or commissioned from Nepalese craftsmen over the years.

In addition to the space itself, there is also the time that having our own space would free up. When you hire a place the cost is so great that you have to make full use of the time available for everyone who is there – there is never space and time to stay on an extra day and give interviews to people. We could just remain at our own place and have chats and give interviews to people at the end of an event – to be of value to those especially who have travelled a long way. People used to like that opportunity in the early days when we had retreats in private homes, and that was possible. The possibility is there also to be a lot more flexible such as having much longer retreats. . .

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Book Review - Planet as Self - An Earthen Spirituality

Sky McCain is a long-time supporter of the Drala Jong project. Later this year his work Planet as Self - An Earthen Spirituality will be launched.

Having had sight of a sneak preview of the text, herewith is a review of his work.

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One definition of stupidity is 'Doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different result'. Sky McCain explains how we participate in a form of cultural stupidity by believing that our thoughts and ideas about the planet upon which we live are truly our own. In reality - he demonstrates - they are the result of a philosophical shaping that has been driven for centuries by the thinkers and spiritual traditions that have come before us. In taking us through a literature review that spans more than two millenia of thought, Sky demonstrates that this process is a natural one - a cultural, societal process - yet one that can lead to the most unnatural of conclusions. The conclusions that we accept, unchallenged, have resulted in a disharmonious way of being - a dissonance - a persistent act of mass stupidity in which we all participate, that fails to appreciate the poetry of being. Recognising that we are unconscious slaves to the ideas of others is a vital first step if we are to break free of preconception, and develop a real, open, communicative relationship with the world around us and the very earth upon which we walk. As Sky puts it '. . . out-dated beliefs can linger. . . if they are not consciously examined'. Planet as Self makes that challenge, and suggests some steps that can be used to sustain that challenge and avoid falling back into inherited ways of thinking.

It is important to be clear - this is not a Buddhist book. The conclusions drawn from Sky's challenge lead him to what he describes as an Earthen Spirituality. Readers will find that spiritual view compelling - or not - depending on their personal proclivities and passions. However the deconstruction of the cultural processes that have driven our corrosive effect on the environment is something valuable for everyone to understand. The author's passion for his subject sings out of the pages.

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Planet as Self - An Earthen Spirituality is published by O-Books (http://www.o-books-com/) and will be out 27th January 2012. You can learn more on this subject at