Dzogchen Meditation Center

The Dzogchen Meditation Center in Bath, Maine was founded in 2006 in the home of its founder, Tashi Armstrong. Armstrong was a student of both Trungpa Rinpoche and his Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin, beginning his instruction in Buddhism at the age of 21. In 1994, he returned to Maine in order to begin his own Buddhist center, which became the Dzogchen Meditation Center or DMC (“About Us,” DMC website). The DMC is part of the Kagyu tradition, and Armstrong traces the DMC’s Tibetan teachings back to Marpa and Milarepa. Specifically this temple is part of the Surmang Kagyu Order, a “contemplative order” of lay practitioners founded by Tashi Armstrong. The teachings of the DMC note the Buddha nature that is already inside of each person and must only be discovered through a practice of quiet, mind-clearing meditation. Dzogchen meditation, the meditation practice taught by the DMC, is laid out on a page of the DMC website written by Armstrong in which he discusses the four yogas. The meditation practice described by Armstrong includes unbiased observation of the world and of the thoughts that arise in the mind. In the teachings of the DMC, we can see that the goal of meditation is a state of peaceful awareness and acceptance of one’s surroundings. The DMC’s practice also includes deity yoga, though there is not much detailed information on this (“Dzogchen Meditation,” DMC website).

The DMC seems to be focused on the transmission and preservation of teachings from Tibetan masters to western lay practitioners, rather than directing their services mainly to an Asian immigrant community; it appears to be more centered on converts and individuals coming into the sangha rather than a particular preexisting cultural community. The center is heavily focused on retreats and residential programs, as well as intensive meditation practice, as opposed to regular services for the general community, and seems to be structured in imitation of a traditional monastery. In fact, their website asserts that the decrease in residentially-based Buddhist centers in the US “represents a weakening of the Dharma in the west,” and that “authentic” teachings can only be passed on in a residential or retreat context (“Surmang Kagyu Order,” DMC website). The DMC includes housing for residents and offers residential training in which students may pay to reside at the center for one month or a full year. They also offer solitary cabin retreats in which students may rent a cabin for a minimum of one week. Prices for the various types of retreats are listed right in their descriptions, and fall around $700 per month or $50 per night at the center. The website includes a detailed schedule for residents, each hour of the day regimented from wake-up at 6am to lights-out at 10pm. Each day, residents are scheduled for five to seven hours of meditation practice and four hours of work maintaining the center; meals and short periods of free time are also schedules. Residents are expected to leave the center only on days off (“Residential Programs,” DMC website).

Due to their focus on the transmission and preservation of Tibetan teachings, great importance is placed by the DMC upon lineage and the passage of enlightenment from teacher to student throughout time. The DMC emphasizes the teacher/student dynamic and the direct transmission of teachings from an enlightened master to his pupils in the context of a sangha that resides together as a community. Armstrong encourages the notion that the enlightened master is essentially an infallible figure; his argument seems to be that an enlightened Buddhist master is not a moral agent but simply a vessel for wisdom and truth, a holder of enlightenment who must be respected due to the fact that they embody the traditional teachings. This view influences the temple’s response to a scandal that occurred in the late 1980s; the DMC website devotes a significant amount of space to addressing this incident, in which one of Tashi Armstrong’s enlightened teachers, the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin, contracted AIDS and was accused of infecting a young man within his sangha through unprotected sex without disclosing his diagnosis (“Our Lineage,” Dzogchen Meditation Center website). This resulted in scandal and controversy throughout the Tibetan Buddhist community in the US, creating confusion and stress about how to handle the misconduct of a master. Some chose to disengage themselves from Vajradhatu International due to the actions of the Vajra Regent and some continued to support him (New York Times). The DMC represents the latter position, maintaining that the Vajra Regent is free of blame for the incident and should still be honored as an enlightened master, and that his teachings should still be preserved and passed along. The statement on the matter that is given on the Center’s website claims that they do not believe that it was Tendzin who infected the young man in the sangha. The website also contains a transcript of Kalu Rinpoche’s comments and instructions regarding the incident, a record of students’ questions about the incident and his answers to them. In this record, Kalu Rinpoche, a master from Tibet who spoke on the incident (New York Times) essentially states that Tendzin is not to be held accountable for the incident and that the students should still treat him with the respect afforded to an enlightened master. Armstrong himself claims that “no matter what the conventional appearance may seem the lineage holder is manifesting coemergent wisdom” (“Our Lineage,” Dzogchen Meditation Center website). Armstrong references the deceptive and unreal nature of appearances, using the concept of emptiness to suggest that the actions of Tendzin cannot necessarily be morally judged, and what really matters is the wisdom and teachings held by the enlightened master, who is the source of this wisdom for his students and the vessel through which it is preserved and transmitted across time.

The Dozogchen Meditation Center is an interesting example of a western Buddhist temple that is primarily focused on retreats and residential instruction in meditative practices, and on direct transmission of Tibetan teachings from the earliest days of the tradition, providing opportunities for western practitioners seeking a traditional form of Tibetan Buddhist experience and practice. It is also an intriguing example of one possible way a Buddhist community could respond to allegations of morally questionable behavior on the part of one of the respected leaders within their lineage.

 

Sources

DMC website: http://www.dzogchenmeditation.com/

Zaslowsky, Dyan. “Buddhists in U.S. Agonize on AIDS Issue.” New York Times 21 Feb. 1989 (https://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/21/us/buddhists-in-us-agonize-on-aids-issue.html?module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=U.S.&action=keypress&region=FixedLeft&pgtype=article)