Dorje Kasung: Protecting the Space

by Larry Steele

Essential Heart of Kasungship

John Gilvar, commander of Seattle Shambhala’s Dorje Kasung, recently was telling me about the Container Principle. It’s the Buddhist idea that people meditating together naturally create a zone of heightened awareness…a container.

As he talked, Gilvar’s container was a rain-swept highway in western Washington. He was driving with his son Ben in the passenger seat; father and son, heading up to Mt. Baker to ski the expected 9 inches of new powder snow.

Gilvar was explaining how the Dorje Kasung protect a container such as a meditation room or a public event by holding the space in their own awareness.

Most everyone who visits Shambhala eventually notices the Dorje Kasung. They often sit on the margins or at the corners of the group, wearing blue sport coats and lapel pins. The Kasung are Shambhala meditators who are trained to protect our meditative space. They’re kind of like Shambhala’s Secret Service. Sometimes they even wear paramilitary uniforms.

Whoa!!! What? Paramilitary guards in a meditation hall? Why?

For me and many others, military uniforms and meditation just don’t go together. I mentioned this uneasy feeling to Gilvar.

“Chogyam Trungpa liked to use a kind of natural dissonance to wake people up to their own experience,” he said. “The dissonance between gentleness and paramilitary forms is a good example.”

The Kasung motto, stitched in patches on their uniforms, is “Victory Over War.” It’s a very energetic concept.

As he talked, John Gilvar’s container was shrinking to the space of his rain-drenched windshield. The wipers beat crazily as Canada-bound semi trucks lifted curtains of white water. His voice was calm and gentle as he adjusted to the situation.

“Larry, I’m driving and the rain is getting worse. I’m going to call you back when we get clear.”
(Gilvar had been explaining the Kasung to me via hands-free cell communication.)

He told me that a good description of the Dorje Kasung is on the introductory page of their web site, Kasung.org, which describes the group wonderfully:

“The Dorje Kasung is modeled on the ancient tradition of dharma protectors. Its members are trained in protecting the space in which practitioners are able to hear and practice the teachings. The protection extends to the teacher who presents the teachings, the teachings themselves, and the community who practice the teachings.”

Gilvar listed the following practical considerations involved in protecting the container.

“The Kasung are a service organization,” he said. “We take responsibility for knowing what to do in any situation, from an elderly meditator who needs a chair to an electrical fire under the teapot. We know where the fire extinguisher is.”

“It allows participants and teachers to relax because someone is keeping an eye on things. It is a generosity practice because above our own interest in taking notes to remember what was said in a talk or otherwise being engaged in a way that might further our own understanding or satisfy some other need, we offer service to the group,” Gilvar had said.

As soon as his rain-obscured windshield cleared, Gilvar called back as promised. He and his son, Ben, had been talking about the Kasung’s paramilitary style.

Ben Gilvar-Parke, a Comparative Literature major at Oberlin College, has attended the Dorje Kasung’s Sun Camp for young meditators at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. He explained that the Kasung’s military bearing is not too tight and not too loose.

“It’s somewhere in between. There’s a relaxed, letting-your-arms-relax-at-your-sides kind of stance,” he said. Marching and drill are “an interesting kind of meditative practice, especially for some people who don’t want to sit still.”

“It’s a meditation that allows you to focus on something and lose yourself in something as part of a group,” said Gilvar-Parke.

Several Seattle Shambhala members have taken the Dorje Kasung’s lifetime oath. Anyone interested in exploring Kasung membership could register for an upcoming introductory course, The Essential Heart of Kasungship I, with no need to make such a commitment. It begins February 15, 2018, at the Seattle Shambhala Center and will explore the basic practices of the Dorje Kasung.

The Kasung tradition comes from the ancient monasteries of Tibet, where unruly monks sometimes “got drunk, wrestled, and caused trouble”, according to Dan Peterson, an experienced Kasung and former commander who studied directly under Chogyam Trungpa.

“The conventional method would be to defeat trouble with aggression,” Peterson said. Shambhala practitioners, including the Dorje Kasung, learn to defeat trouble with skills that are “informed by the genius of basic goodness.”

“Protecting space actually has a provocative quality,” Peterson said. “It wakes us up to the vividness of our world and creates a vibrant opportunity to notice the potency of basic goodness.”

When meditation helps us gain awareness of the passions, aggressions, and ignorance flickering through our own minds, we can become increasingly self-liberated from those thoughts.

John Gilvar and his son made it through the storm and finally arrived at their rented condo in Glacier, where Ben secured the container by cooking a generous spaghetti dinner for his dad.

Next time when you see a member of the Kasung sitting in the meditation hall, rouse your appreciation for their protection as you settle into your practice.

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