Buddhism finds a home in Cape Breton


Strict practices are a force for good, adherents believe

Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (Canada) -- A murmur moves through the quiet, like the fading song of a church bell. Echoes of the metal gong dissolve and incense smoke floats over a golden Buddha. Voices slowly rise, drifting as one into haunting hymns of an otherworldly air.

The monks and nuns of Gampo Abbey chant in perfect unison — for happiness, for freedom from suffering, for the spiritual leaders who paved the way to this isolated Buddhist monastery on the edge of Cape Breton's craggy coast.

The voices fall away and silence softly cloaks the meditating monastics sitting crossed-legged on large red pillows, on a hardwood floor inside their haven on this jagged island cliff.

Thirty minutes slip by in breaths. Then, men and women with bald heads, in bare feet or socks, file out into what will be a morning of silence.

These have been morning rituals for the past 22 years among those who have braved rugged roads to this place of higher calling.

A Tibetan llama — a monk who later gave up his monastic vows — travelled along the winding Cabot Trail in the early 1980s, searching for the perfect place for a full-time Buddhist monastery in the West.

As the story goes, the late Chogyam Trunga Rinpoche, widely credited with bringing Tibetan Buddhism to North America after leading followers out of Communist-occupied Tibet in 1959, saw a double rainbow on the way.

And rainbows are "a good sign," says Jerry Chapman, the monastery's lay meditation instructor, sometime interim director and head of practice and study. "Something is here that draws people."

The monastery includes the main monastic residence, a school and solitary or group retreat cabins on more than 80 hectares just past Pleasant Bay.

Eighty-two-year-old Ani Migme, a small woman who speaks softly and smiles often, felt something 22 years ago when she first visited the newly opened abbey.

"I realized this is the right place for me but it took me about four years in order to (say) this is where I'm going," says the nun, sitting on her bed surrounded by Buddhist books, pictures of Buddhist teachers and a miniature shrine to Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha.

"There's something...spiritual here. Very palpable. I can't put it into words."

Walking through the mountains when he came to Gampo Abbey five years ago, Karma Jinpa, sensed a rugged peace in the land above a lush, cavernous valley almost hidden from the world.

"There is just something very inviting — rough, difficult, but inviting — about the place....I really felt at ease," says the 29-year-old Quebec native who has made a commitment to be a lifelong monk.

"There's this impression that the land has been respected — no strong development projects, no disfiguration." No hunting or killing are allowed on the grounds, which are home to moose, eagles and foxes.

People who stay here agree to abstain from stealing, sex, alcohol or drugs, harsh words and harsh deeds.

Taming the mind, they say, is the core of Buddhism.

"One has to be healthy in order to be of benefit to others....I don't mean just in body, I mean in mind," says Ani Migme, who has laid out candy kisses, little cloth flowers, incense and other tiny offerings before a small Buddha statue on her private shrine.

"The problem is that if you don't have a healthy, clear mind, you may do harm...intentionally or unintentionally to others. So what taming the mind means is that you begin to...get rid of these unwholesome, habitual (thought) patterns. Then you can see the world more clearly."

The abbey residents — lifelong monks and nuns, as well as the temporary monastics who usually stay for nine months to a year — practise 4 1/2 hours of meditation daily. Most of the week is spent in silence, except for chants..

"You discover, because you can't just blurt out everything that comes to mind, that most of what you'd like to blurt out is unnecessary," Chapman says.

"In a three-year retreat, there's a period of time where people don't speak to each other for six months. They will write out notes, but you think twice about doing that because then it gets just tedious."

This so-called "mindful speech" — thinking before speaking — can transform lives and the world, adherents believe. But it's no blanket cure for human nature.

"This idea that people become holy and...bad thoughts never enter their mind again is a misperception," Chapman says.

Still, Ani Migme believes the abbey is a force for good.

"There's a radiation of a healthy state of mind which will tend to pacify people around — even the animals around are pacified — and that's sort of in the environment here," she says.

"So people who come here take away a little bit of that and maybe, in turn, they can spread that out into the world."