Vajradhara Gonpa: dissolving a mandala

Published on 17 June 2015

When I think of the people who built Vajradhara Gonpa, the thing that impresses me most is that they let it go. That, I think, is what really shows the Gonpa nurtured genuine dharma practice.

It began with Ratto Chuwar Rinpoche’s 1979 prophecy that Kathie Chodron would build a Gonpa on her share of the 1,000 acre Clear Springs (later Gesar Springs) property near Kyogle, in the stunningly beautiful Border Ranges of Northern New South Wales. Building started in 1980 and a community of shareholders formed to support it. A small Lama House had just been finished when Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche came during his first visit to Australia in 1984. The Gonpa then was just a corrugated iron roof resting on six tree trunk pillars representing the six paramitas.

Construction of the gonpa in 1980 

From 1986 Rinpoche elucidated the entire Buddhist path at the Gonpa, giving empowerments and leading residential retreats. He introduced teachers from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism to Australia, beginning with the lineage heads His Holiness Sakya Trizin and His Holiness The Drukchen. Sogyal Rinpoche gave the first teaching, during Losar in 1986, to 80 participants from all over Australia, an amazing turn out for those early days. The Gonpa became part of the international dharma circuit when His Holiness Sakya Trizin bestowed both Lam Dre Tsog Shey and Lam Dre Lob Shey to participants from more than 25 countries, many of whom returned home to establish dharma groups and centres. Some teachers like Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul and Changling Rinpoche came regularly. Others included Her Eminence Jetsun Kusha-la, who gave the Vajra Yogini empowerment and seven day teaching twice, Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, Chadud Tulku Rinpoche, Beru Khyentse, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche with Matthieu Ricard, Pema Wangyal Rinpoche, and Tenzin Palmo. It was a unique time when students had intimate access to incredible teachers.

Rinpoche at the gonpa in 1986

Guided by Rinpoche, the Gonpa grew through an immense investment of time, resources, energy and love by many people, and with the support of the wider community. The Kyogle mayor personally welcomed Lam Dre Lob Shey participants and had a banner placed across the main street of town. A dining hall with commercial kitchen was donated, and a large accommodation block built with a loan from a benefactor and government funding. A local craftsman made beautiful red cedar shrine furniture and Loppon Karma sculpted an exquisite life-sized Buddha statue on site. Over the years aspiring retreatants built cabins, and the entire Gonpa facility was supplied with spring water and 240V power from a large solar system and generator.

Front view of the gonpa (photo Arne Schelling)

In 2003 Rinpoche announced plans for a three year group retreat, the first in Australia, and closed the retreat boundary on 28 participants in January 2005. When the retreat boundary opened in April 2008 (with the first Chime Phagma Drubchen to be performed in English) it made national and international news. The second group to undertake three year retreat at the Gonpa, between 2009-2012, owed a lot to the lessons learned from the first. Sadly it was to be the last.

End of the second three year retreat (photo Jerry Epps)

The Gonpa was established at a moment in history when Tibetan Buddhism was first coming to Australia and there was great enthusiasm to establish facilities for teaching and practice. Overt ime these conditions have changed. The pace of life has increased, and work keeps many people in the city. Rinpoche now teaches widely on line and students are often unable to take time out to attend residential retreats.

In 2008 when Rinpoche appointed Paula Raymond-Yacoub as director of Vajradhara Gonpa and Siddhartha’s Intent Australia, he asked her to investigate whether the Gonpa would be viable into the future. Among other things, it became clear that many of the volunteers who had sustained the Gonpa for up to thirty years were ageing, and no young people in the sangha were in a position to take over their roles. Rinpoche decided that the Gonpa should be sold.

Vajradhara Gonpa was put up for sale in 2010. It took some time to find the right buyer. The deal was closed in November 2014 with Living Arc, a group of enthusiastic young proponents of harmonic existence, who plan to apply permaculture principles to begin food production and sustainable agroforestry in collaboration with the Gesar Springs community. They have made a commitment to respect the sacredness of the land and invited Rinpoche to return to perform Gesar Pujas, which he has promised to do.

Sang Gesar Puja at the Gonpa

There was a certain synchronicity in the timing of the sale 30 years after Rinpoche first came. It was the completion of a cycle. It took time, not just to find the right people to fit in with the community and honour what had come before, but also to let go. It is not easy to pour yourself into something heart and soul and then allow it to go. Just as people worked on the Gonpa, it also worked on them. To the end it was a support to realising all that is born inevitably dissolves.

Fond memories remain and the benefits will never diminish. Some of the money from the sale has been invested in a new place in Sydney for sangha to gather and grow. Rinpoche instructed that it should have commercial value, something that can be easily dissolved and reborn.

I was a small contributor but a big beneficiary of the Gonpa. I am humbled by and grateful for what others did to make it a reality. I share the wish of the Gonpa’s founder: “May all who have been involved in the creation stage of Vajradhara Gonpa be completely liberated through its dissolution and completion stage and continue working compassionately for the benefit of all living beings”.


... Continue below for more pictures ...

Rinpoche in front of the Buddha statue in the gonpa (photo by Kamala Kennedy)

HH Sakya Trizin

Chagdud Rinpoche looking at koala in gumtree

Changling Rinpoche and retreatants

Namakai Nyingpo Rinpoche

View by the dam