Embodying Basic Goodness at the Ziji Gar

The last few years have definitely not been easy. I have been going through an exhausting process characterized by anxiety, fear and chaos. In the midst of this strong confusion and pain, my brother, a Shambhalian practitioner since 8 years, advised me to do the first level of the Shambhala training. At that time there was not much to lose: I had already abandoned the idea of living a meaningful life. Given this radical state of hopelessness, I decided to try out this “spiritual thing” that my brother had been so committed to.

Pilgrimage to Vienna

Back then, my anxiety levels were so high that a simple train ride from Innsbruck, the city where I was living in Austria, to Vienna seemed to me like a sort of eternal pilgrimage into the unknown. It was by no means a pleasant journey. That cold autumn happened to be the time in which the so-called “refugee crisis” reached its highest point. The train stations between Innsbruck and Vienna were full of refugees queuing to get into a train and armed soldiers trying to give some order to that chaos. And there I was, a self-identified male, homosexual and non-white Chilean traveling to the old capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire to try out that “spiritual thing” that my brother had recommended to me.

I can still see myself entering into the Viennese Shambhala center, a gorgeous three-story house downtown with a huge Great Eastern Sun at the entrance. The change was radical. After 4 hours of witnessing the suffering of thousand refugees, I came into a space in which peace and warmth could be felt in each corner of the building. After going through the front door, two young people approached me to expressed how happy they were for my presence there. Given the fact that in our society (at least in Austria) it is not a regular practice to express feeling of honest welcoming, my mind already began to produce skeptical thoughts about these weirdly happy warm people.

Encountering Basic Goodness

The whole weekend was kind of surreal. First, the organizers offered for me to sleep at the center. Without questioning it, they gave me the keys of the whole space. Later they prepared food for all the participants without asking for any help. The strangest part came when the teacher of the level, another peaceful older man, begun to talk about something called “basic goodness.”

This was definitely something that I was not expecting. At that time, I was doing my Master’s degree in gender and migration studies; my whole life was moving around power relations and how destructive these are. Before this weekend, I had spent years trying to analyze and comprehend the complexities of western, racist, heteronormative, patriarchal, neoliberal capitalism. Also as an artist, my work had been mainly focused on exposing the power relations that create the suffering of human beings around the world. After so many years denouncing the “bad guys” and aligning myself in parallel with the “good guys,” I was hopeless: society was doomed to fail.

Despite the undeniable world’s turmoil, in the first talk of that weekend I had to hear a white man talking about the basically good nature of all sentient beings and society. Basically good? What should that mean? The teacher did not stop there—he also argued that with a committed meditation practice, this basic goodness could be experienced. Although I could not believe a single word of what he was saying, I found it profoundly radical and revolutionary to believe that humans are somehow basically good despite their questionable actions. That weekend I meditated for the first for time many hours in a row. I sat on the cushion and observed my thoughts. It was terrifying. My idea of the weekend had been that I would stop thinking and have a break; however, what I got was a clearer picture of my overactive mind. I thought that I was failing, that there was now another thing to be bad at. Fortunately, in the group discussion I realized that all the participants were going through a similar process; furthermore, the experienced practitioners expressed that their minds were still characterized by overactivity.

Shambhala Wisdom and Social Reality

So, what was all this about? We sit for hours and then we just accept that we are bad at meditation? Wasn’t I always told that my eternal goal in life is to be better, to be good at what I do, to fix myself, to right my wrongs? I thought that these people were just crazy, it was a community based on imperfection, on failure, on not being good at things. Even worse, despite all of this they kept being supportive, good-hearted and warm to me. Although I was still skeptical, I continued with my levels, I wanted to figure out what this basic goodness meant and why these Shambhala-people had such a strong conviction in it. Things got even weirder—other strange (and in my opinion revolutionary) insights came: you are already enough, there is nothing to fix, you are a warrior, it is okay to have a broken heart, neurosis is both the illness and the medicine, etc. Shambhala definitely became one of the most important bodies of wisdom I had ever encountered in my life and I was doubtless willing to continue my path. Sadly, the social reality was, despite my spiritual process, still my reality.

Thanks to Shambhala I could experience how nonexistent and constructed race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and class are; but they were still there, still limiting millions of human lives, including my own.

I am a non-white migrant artist, I make less than 1.000€ (1.140 USD) a month. I work hard and for many hours, but the world I happened to be born into has its rules and structures. Although I know that on an absolute level we are all the same, all basically good, on a more relative level that is just not the case. Thanks to Shambhala I could experience how nonexistent and constructed race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and class are; however, and despite this incredible realization, race, gender, class, religion and sexual orientation were still there, still limiting the lives of millions of human beings around the globe, including my own. Due to the fact that I earn less than the minimum wage as an artist, the possibility of continuing my spiritual path in Shambhala was joylessly impossible.

The Berlin Summit

To realize and accept the fact that Shambhala was for middle-high class and mostly white people was extremely sad; it felt like an amorous deception. It was in this moment in which my good friend Lia Duggan of the Belgium Sangha told me about Ziji, a global network of inspired young people, dedicated to the vision of basic goodness. Surprisingly the Ziji summit of 2016 was about to happen in Berlin, my city, and it cost 180€ for a whole week of program. For my budget was still a lot of money, but after reading the intention of the summit I realized that the effort was worth it.

The summit was mind-blowing. For the first time, I was in a Shambhala context where I also felt that my urgent questions about the need of radical social change in this world were welcomed.

The summit was mind-blowing. For the first time, I was in a Shambhala context where I also felt that my urgent questions about the need of radical social change in this world were welcomed. Throughout the whole week one could feel simultaneously the enormous respect for the Shambhala teachings and the burning need to make the teachings available to more people. It was a week without secrets: we talked about the reproduction of power relations within our sanghas and the extremely high prices of the Shambhala programs. We talked about love, drugs, sex, and US-American imperialism within Shambhala. We meditated and practiced the art of creating and holding a space together. The week was a sort of non-dual confrontation with reality: there was no need to take stances or defend personal positions, but there was also no need to ignore how unjust the world is. It was a confusing and chaotic, loving and inspiring week.

At the Ziji Gar

As a result of this energy, the incredible and hardworking Llew Watkins and Lia Duggan decided to go one step further and organize the first Ziji Gar at Dechen Chöling. This program cost 360€ (I paid only 200€) with everything included. For 8 days we camped on one of the fields of this Shambhala land center. Under the hot sun, things magically began to happen. A group of amazing “engineers” built dry toilets and showers, an incredible Kitchen was set up and with the money raised through a Kickstarter an elegant, humble and dignified meditation tent was erected in the center of the field.

When we, the unknown 25 participants arrived, the organization team divided us into working groups: breakfast, lunch, dinner, space keeping, toilets and showers. Afterwards we dug a fire pit, built benches, hung hammocks—even a plastic swimming pool emerged on one side of the field. Every day there was meditation at 7 am and at 7:30 am begun the Lu Jong practice with Shastri Catherine Eveillard-Elsky. The days passed by practicing more meditation, exploring the art of living together, learning how to talk from and through the heart.

I could spend pages and pages going into the details of this retreat, but words would not do justice to the embodied experience of sharing with 35 human beings ready to take the risk of being open and present.

I could spend pages and pages going into the details of this retreat, but words would not do justice to the embodied experience of sharing with 35 human beings ready to take the risk of being open and present. After 5 days of retreat, I realized that I had not once thought of any power relation—I felt that I could see these people beyond their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language and nationality. Even more important, I could see myself beyond my gayness and nonwhiteness. Is not this an embodied experience of basic goodness? Is not Ziji an attempt—a dream—of creating accessible spaces in which basic goodness becomes a lived reality available to others that connects us in a more direct way with the world that we live in?

Looking Forward

The next Enlightened Society Assembly at Karme Chöling costs US$1,555, an impossible price for most of the people in this world. Without trying to find necessarily satisfying answers, I dare to pose questions to the global Shambhala community and to my fellows of the Ziji collective: is the experience of basic goodness reserved to a certain group of people? what kind of spaces are we willing to create? who is invited to them? Since I could experience people beyond class, gender, race, nationality and sexual orientation, after the Ziji Gar I feel the impulse of giving up the fight against racism, homophobia, nationalism and patriarchy. However, my wisdom tells me that taking the role of the “Buddhist-beyond-our-embodied-realities“ is maybe not the way of engaging authentically with the world that surrounds me.

Following the teachings of Pema Chödron, for now I decide to stay in the middle, holding my dreams of a more accessible spiritual community without forcing my desire upon anyone. Maybe that community is Ziji, a new branch of the Shambhala Mandala where prices become accessible without losing the deepness of the dharma. Who knows? For now I am going to keep enjoying the warmth and openness of my heart after the Ziji Gar with the unconditional confidence that these urgent questions are also basically good.

  • Benjamin Braun

    Wonderful account! Thank you so much for your depth and honesty. It integrates a lot of facets of my own experience. It makes me curious again to check out if I can reconnect with Ziji/Shambhala again. Benjamin, Freiburg Germany