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 www.aro-ling.org/meditation-space.html.] 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. . .