Diary Of A Retreat Manager In A Pandemic by Jonathan Chambers

8 March: Our 5th Annual Dzogchen retreat appears to be coming together ‘according to plan’. A vague sense however that the process has been a little too smooth so far…

9 March: In discussion with Amber, we decide to email retreatants about COVID-19, requesting them not to come if they are high risk.

11 March: WHO declares a pandemic.

16 March: As the COVID-19 situation continues to escalate, Wangapeka BOT advise that they are meeting to pull together a risk management plan. There is a possibility they may close the doors if health and safety risks are considered too great. We begin to adapt to this possibility while carrying on our set course – the intention to practice Dharma has a powerful momentum.

17 March: Lama Mark advises that he hasn’t boarded his flight
from Queenstown to Nelson. Making plans to head back to Canada instead! He says he’s happy for me to lead the retreat in his absence. At times like these, one is glad to have formed a habit of placing the Lama above one’s head and in one’s heart.

18 March: Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. And as the intended shape of the retreat dissolves, a new one emerges, supported by the thrust of wholesome aspiration. 6 of us altogether. 4 experienced Dzogchen practitioners. 2 new to these teachings. 2 have driven down all the way from Auckland. 1 has flown up from Queenstown. We bring enough food to self- cater for a couple of days as we are not sure if we have a cook. We also bring 400 latex gloves and 50 rolls of paper towels, because our bodies can still fall prey to disease, even if they don’t exist in an ultimate sense.

19 March: After an evening of settling in, we get to work. We immerse ourselves in contemplation of Bodhicitta and the View of Dharma, enveloped in the wholesome potency of Vajrayana prayer. We begin practicing Qigong to settle the energies and Anapanasati to serve as a foundation for the Dzogchen practices to follow.

20 March: As NZ moves to impose travel restrictions, we practice the Preliminary Liberating Instructions, with a focus on Vajrasattva. Zoe leads us in some wonderfully supportive Tai Chi & Qigong explorations. I’m in regular contact Kath from the Board. Our clear and open communication reveals we are all facets of one heart-mind. There is magic happening up here at the Wang and we are all very grateful for the continued support of the full Wangapeka crew. The Kereru asks to join the party. Brooke comes up and cooks up several pots of deliciousness, enough to feed us for days.

21 March: Wangapeka BOT send through their comprehensive Risk Management Plan and we tweak our hygiene practices accordingly. Our PM outlines the 4 stage alert system and NZ steps up to Level 2, my partner informs me. There is a pull to head home, but a clear sense we are not yet done here. We begin to practice Chenresig. It’s somehow easier to expand one’s heart to all beings in an uncontrived way when the widespread suffering of humankind resounds. Namgyal Rinpoche makes his presence felt.

22 March: Lama Mark requests that we begin practicing Guru Rinpoche in the form of Medicine Buddha, for the benefit of all beings. He is embarking on the same from the Gompa on Galliano, as are his other students around the world. We enter the elaborate practice, it is a natural expansion of the practices we have worked with to date, and a wonderful way of joining hearts with Lama and Sangha across the planet. That afternoon we break our ‘silence’ and invite the reality of the global situation more definitively into our group awareness. We form a circle and agree to each take responsibility for preparing to leave at short notice, when the time is right. Linda charges her Tesla ready for a quick getaway.

23 March: The fantails tell us, in their playful manner, that change is upon us. We decide to huddle around my laptop at the entrance to the main hall and tune into the 1:30pm update. NZ has 48 hours to prepare for lockdown. Time to pack our bags. We let the BOT know we are preparing to leave.
They concur. We give the centre a thorough clean and then regroup at the Whare for one last group soak in the practice of Medicine Buddha. The purpose of our coming together has become clear. We are all now much better equipped to serve the collective in this unusual time. We dissolve our elaborate shrine and set up a something simple. We place a photo of Namgyal Rinpoche at its centre and recite his invocation to bring protection for Wangapeka and all those who are connected. A token gesture perhaps, us calling him to this place, when he has clearly never left.