NSS: MSB's Thanksgiving in July

Ambika Samarthya-Howard

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche refers to the Nygima Summer Seminar as Mangala Shri Bhuti’s “Thanksgiving”. While there were tsok feasts and a lively dance party, the true sentiment of the Thanksgiving holiday came through most in the collaboration and gathering that makes NSS possible: the car pooling, lunchtime planning sessions, work period, and spending time. NSS is the time for the MSB Family to come together – see those we haven’t seen all year, to meet others for the first time, and for members from around the world to gather in one place.

Over the course of nine days, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel, and Dungse Jampal Norbu gave dharma talks and instructions outlining the essential teachings of the hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana schools of thought.

Dungse-la asked us to be in touch with how we internalized, witnessed and felt the dharma. The themes of his talks “Freedom Beyond Contradiction” had members turn inwards in self-reflection as they explored how their decisions and reactions were informed by the dharma. The week before NSS Dungse-la lead the annual children’s camp Illustrious Moon, which brought many sangha members’ sons and daughters together. Dungse-la responded to a question during NSS about the possibility of doing a seniors’ version of Illustrious Moon and with a glance around the tent, he said NSS was the adult version, which brought great laughter.

Elizabeth’s talks developed through the themes of Investigation, Insight, and Confidence. She asked us to investigate questions of how we define “real”, and taught us that we can’t blame and practice at the same time. “Every time we feel we are right, those are when the warning bells should go off.” Whatever happens to us, we have to take that as our teacher was the emphasis of her final talk.

In the Mahayana section Dzgiar Kongtrul Rinpoche completed his teachings on Khunu Rinpoche’s Vast as the Heavens, Deep as the Sea, which he began during the 2014 NSS, and which expounds on the joy and wisdom of bodhichitta. Amidst his talks on the importance of being there for the needs of other sentient beings, was practical advice on how we can begin with actions that are appropriate, manageable and that slightly stretch us – but that won’t make us snap. “Emotions are just sensations, but what makes you hold onto reactions is the storyline and scheme.” He urged us to understand the schemes and storylines of our mind as we try to meet our desired outcomes and attachments. 

Special Guest Ani Pema Chodron gave a talk mid-way through NSS on her birthday and received a moving long life prayer written by Rinpoche, as well as birthday wishes and singing from the sangha. She spoke on the importance of arousing bodhichitta and being sensitive to the sense of polarization in the world and within our daily lives. “People are caught up in the cycle of obscuring bodhicitta – so if you can appeal to basic goodness it breaks that cycle.” She urged us to inject something that changes the pattern.

We were once again inspired by our teachers’ ability to balance serious subject matters with humor, and the high energy they showed through the course of the nine days. Elizabeth repeated the phrase “we have to own it” so that it became a MSB cheer.  Rinpoche made it very clear that if we wanted to relax we should sleep or go to the beach, but that meditation was about getting to the essence of our obscurations and the nature of our mind.  Members also had time to share their own stories and ask questions, oftentimes embellishing the talks with anecdotes. My favorite was Ani-la’s nostalgia over losing at Chinese checkers with her brother every time they played.  She talked about how her experience was like winning by losing, because though she really tried every time, and knew she would lose, she played to keep her loving connection. That was just how the dharma worked too, she reflected, you may never have mastered every aspect and therefore feel like you are losing but the connection itself is where the true bodhicitta lies.

This year over twenty new members made their inaugural journey into MSB through the official Sangha Ceremony, as well as many new faces took the refuge and bodhisattva vows. It was an NSS filled with lightning storms, energetic youth in child care, and members invigorated to continue into the Sessions teachings, retreat practices, and other MSB programs.

As my first NSS, I was happy to meet my sangha sisters and brothers from Australia, Europe, and Brazil. This year, the annual party and toasts commemorated the work and growth of MSB Brazil – which provided us with an entertaining performance video of MSB Brazil sangha members singing and an informative slide show documenting the programs and location of the Brazil sangha. But more than that – the presentation illustrated how it only takes a few individuals to make a significant difference.

The spirit of NSS culmintated in a fundraising marathon on the last day where the sangha committed to raising over $300,000 in final funds for the Sangdo Palri Temple construction project. The success of that fundraising let to the official announcement of the consecration on October 16, 2016. As our Thanksgiving, NSS is a time when we can freely feel a deep appreciation for the Three Jewels in our lives – the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.