September 16, 2011

Buddhism in America: the Origin of the Delek System.

Around 1981, the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche initiated what he called the Delek System in Boulder, Colorado.

The Tibetan word delek roughly translates as “excellent bliss.”  The city of Boulder was divided into 37 neighborhoods or deleks consisting of at least 25 people each. The delek I fell into was bordered by Canyon, Broadway, Bluff, and Folsom and had way more than 25 sangha members, as it also contained the Dorje Dzong building in the heart of Boulder.

We were instructed to meet to select a dekyong or, “protector of the bliss” by spontaneous insight, and to continue to meet once a month. This spontaneous insight was to arise not via election or voting, but by unanimous decision. The only criteria for electing such a dekyong was that the candidate be an active practitioner of the buddhadharma and Shambhala teachings and that she or he be open and generous.

This was a great experiment. 

Our sangha community had grown large and Rinpoche wanted that early sense of friendship and community to continue at a domestic level. Boulder was to be the model for what was to be introduced in the other large city centers like New York and Chicago, where the sangha had also grown large and had expanded.

Rinpoche said that if a dekyong did the job properly, each delek would be a joyful neighborhood committed to practice. The dekyong had the further responsibility of meeting four times a year as a Dekyong Council, but since this usually meant meeting also with Rinpoche, this was much more of a pleasure and incentive than a burden.  He was so encouraging, saying things like, “All of you are worthy of being statesmen.” At another point he said,

“The main point is to have a heart!”

Occasionally he’d praise and pressure us, saying, “All of you should regard yourselves in some sense as “elders” of the sangha and have confidence that the significance of the delek system and the health of the sangha is in your hands.”

Suddenly sangha neighborhoods were getting together for barbecues. There was an enthusiastic response in Boulder to the delek system, and attendance was high, reflecting a yearning to connect with each other in an organic way. Rinpoche had tapped into our silent desire to expand bodhicitta beyond the confines of family and we opened our doors to new friends and neighbors.

The first Wednesday of each month was designated Delek Day, and Karma Dzong made every effort not to have community related events scheduled on that one day a month. Furthermore, Rinpoche encouraged us to be welcoming beyond the confines of sangha. Deleks were not to be exclusive neighborhood clubs. And indeed, soon friends of friends, non-sangha boyfriends and girlfriends, parents and grandparents and all neighbors in general were welcomed. But the majority of those who attended were always sangha.

Dekyongs were soon asked to take an oath—which was similar to the bodhisattva vow.

We basically pledged ourselves, commited ourselves to working with people without creating “any form of separateness.”

I was not the first chosen dekyong of our Tsondru or Exertion Delek, but the second. Since our neighborhood was one of the most densely populated with sangha, just walking the streets one could see prayer flags or dream flags on almost every other house or apartment. Yet it was also populated not only by many families, but by many single parents and bachelors.

I remember many weekend lawn sales as well as barbecues as we got to know each other better. The monthly meetings included children of all ages hanging out and playing together in other rooms. During the meetings the adults would discuss dharma and sangha issues after the announcements of upcoming events. We always had delicious treats or snacks and various drinks for everyone. And when the food came out, so did the kids! We not only met faithfully, but networked—in the old fashioned sense of the word– very well.  Attendance was always strong and we helped each other with babysitting and other domestic issues, even crisis situations. Whenever heavy lifting was needed, at least one of our valiant bachelors would step up and come to the rescue.

We had become like an extended family in many ways.

One of my fondest memories was Mid Summer’s Day, when we entered the grounds of the ranch south of Boulder where we usually held the big event. We would enter the parade as the Tsondru Delek with banners flying in the midst of other deleks with Rinpoche and Lady Diana leading on beautiful horses, Rinpoche on his favorite mount, prancing white Drala.

In 1984, Rinpoche wanted to hold a delek conference of dekyongs in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At that point the delek system had taken hold in many American cities, yet most dekyongs did not respond, so the conference turned into a “Sangha Conference” open to anyone in the community. But my generous, hard-working delek was one of the few that actually sent me, paid for me to be a representative to this conference. And as it was my first time in Nova Scotia, it was quite special.  This was the time when Rinpoche was actively propagating the idea of an enlightened society.

In 1985, at a Dekyong Council Retreat, Rinpoche explained,

“We are trying to develop an enlightened parliamentary system, through which we will have good relationships with each other and also take careof ourselves and our community at large.”

Since that time the delek system has had its ups and downs. So much depends on the dekyong to magnetize and invite the delekpas or those in any given neighborhood so that a local feeling of community is established and ongoing.

In Nova Scotia, not including Cape Breton, there are at least 18 deleks. Since I moved here in 1992 deleks have divided and merged and been created. Depending on the delek, they have met often or rarely. They are run by both “elders” and newly married second generation Shambhala buddhists alike. The most successful are always enjoyable social events with great potluck spreads, out of which various concerns are addressed.

For example, I remember a few years back in the still thriving Peace-Juniper (South-End) delek, we were concerned about the nearby hospital spewing out toxic smoke from the incineration of bio-parts from surgery. We protested, talked to the hospital administration, and the hospital at significant expense amended its ways.

On Shambhala Day here, each delek gets together and puts out a potluck feast. On Midsummer’s Day all the deleks still get together—usually at St. Mary’s Boat Club—beginning with a lhasang and ending with canoe or kayak rides on the North West Arm. There are always picnics, and cakewalks and various games for the children—but I have to say nothing as grand or as spectacular as those huge displays out south of Boulder several decades ago.

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