In today’s talk, taken from their course Beyond the Cushion delivered in the early days of the pandemic, Doug Qapel Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat Sensei explore the idea of the modern monastery. They explain what traditional aspects of the monastic model are being carried forward and what new approaches and structures are being introduced to make the model relevant and effective in these times and beyond.

Qapel and Sensei discuss how they are working with students in community at Clear Sky Center as well as virtually to bring these approaches and structures into focus through the idea of a living lab. They touch on the topics of dharma training, karma yoga, study and other modalities to help support people’s spiritual awakening.

There are many ways to experience this modern formulation of the teachings. Planet Dharma offers a diverse range of in-person and virtual programming to meet spiritual seekers where they are. From online courses and classes to full-length meditation retreats on topics ranging from Buddhadharma to the Western Mysteries, you’ll find an offering that works for your context to speed up your spiritual unfoldment. Visit to see which experience will help you with your awakening this year.     


Podcast Transcription:



Welcome to Dharma if you Dare. I’m Christopher Lawley, Planet Dharma team member and producer of the podcast. In today’s talk taken from their course, “Beyond the Cushion” delivered in the early days of the pandemic, Doug Qapel Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat Sensei explore the idea of the modern monastery. They explain what traditional aspects of the monastic model are being carried forward and what new approaches and structures are being introduced to make the model relevant and effective in these times and beyond. Qapell and Sensei discuss how they are working with students in community at Clear Sky Center as well as virtually bringing these approaches and structures into focus through the idea of a living lab. They touch on the topics of dharma training, karma yoga study, and other modalities to help support people’s spiritual awakening. There are many ways to experience this modern formulation of the teachings.

Planet Dharma offers a diverse range of in person and virtual programming to meet spiritual seekers where they are from online courses and classes to full length meditation retreats on topics ranging from buddha-dharma to the Western Mysteries. You’ll find an offering that works for your context to speed up your spiritual unfoldment. 

Visit to see which experience will help you with your awakening this year.Now here’s today’s recording. 



Welcome to our 3rd online course of 2020 in the year of Clear Vision and what we’re calling the Year of Meditation. I must admit that we couldn’t have made the year of meditation any more appropriate than a pandemic to kind of keep you all in your house. But we did not do that. We take no responsibility for isolating you in your homes!


Sensei: Hopefully that helped everybody to meditate more than usual.  


Qapel: Yeah, so it’s kind of ironic that in the year the Corona Virus where people are being quarantined to prevent illness we’re promoting a kind of quarantine called the meditation session to foster health and unfoldment.

Anyway, We invite you to take advantage of this time, to do more practice and to study and to develop your strength of being alone and comfortable in your own skin, alone, and that will get you ready for death as well. 

The four pillars in a modern monastery.. We’ve talked about traditional buddha-dharma of the sutras, emotional intelligence, astro dharma and other dharma teachings that focus on theory and practice. But how do we live it? How do we embody it? How do we make it reel? How do we make it part of our lives? How do we actualize it? 


Sensei: This was one of the great gifts of buying and developing Clear Sky. Founding and developing Clear Sky, we had a lot of good practice behind us, and we had a lot of great learning behind us. And there were some situations where it just didn’t count for shit in practising and living and working together 24-7, 365. And so it’s really caused us to add these new dimensions to the teachings of how we really bring it to our ongoing life and every kind of situation that comes up. 


Q: Yeah so let’s be clear about it. I guess listening to dharma, trying to apply it in our daily lives is admirable and can create great states, but like any discipline one needs to walk it and be trained in, basically, the great stages. We’ll talk about that more later. So like a doctor or an electrician you have trained. So it’s an apprenticeship model. And so the idea of the modern monastery is also an apprenticeship model.

That’s the idea of getting trained in the discipline as you would, being a doctor or electrician or any other field that is a hands on living thing that you embody. It’s not a college course, particularly, it’s not just knowledge and information, it’s how do you apply it day in and day out in your daily lives? And that’s the idea of the pillars of a modern monastery that we’re going to go into over the next few weeks.


S: You may have heard us talk about this in calling it dharma training. 


Q: So there’s no real training going on in dharma outside of the traditional monasteries and most people don’t want to basically live in traditional monasteries for obvious reasons; It is too narrow a life. And so we are in the process of adapting a more open view of a monastery so that you can get the same kind of monastic training, but in a more open form that appeals and suits a more modern sensibility, particularly Western.

And so it involves a lot of karma yoga, a lot of study, a lot of dharma training, a lot of meditation and a lot of service. In order to strengthen the muscles and build the muscles you need to embody it beyond just intellectual knowledge. And so it’s our offering that helps lead that discussion forward. And of course it’s always subject to revision. 


S: Right. So this is an important point. This is very living, constantly evolving and when challenges crop up, then we have to figure out a way to adapt how we practise and live and work together in order to learn how to transcend these challenges. So, always a work in progress and that’s what makes it sometimes frustrating, like, “ why can’t we just figure it out?” But it also makes it very exciting.

 Okay, so what is a modern monastery? What do we mean when we talk about a modern monastery?  Well, we’re embodying that concept here at Clear Sky together with everybody who’s living on site and people who come and stay with us for extended periods of time.


Q: So we consider that there are four pillars to a modern monastery and we’ll talk about those in a minute. But first of all, what makes a modern monastery modern? 


S: Well, we may still have a career, 


Q: we may still have a personal life, 


S: that touches intimate relationships. We have an interactive, supportive community which is, some in person, and some long distance, some virtual.


Q: We can have an interactive and supportive community that might also involve going dancing, having a glass of wine, watching the odd movie. Starts to sound like, “ what do you mean by monastery?” 


S: Singing karaoke 


Q: singing karaoke, charades. The modern monastery is more about how you engage in your life more than the rules that you’re following. 


S: So what is it that qualifies it as a monastery? It is that everybody who is together on site is dedicated to awakening and in our case awakening in this lifetime.


Q:  or virtual. So it’s about a community of people dedicated to awakening first and foremost and sharing and practising and living in relationship to other people that are doing the same thing with the same intensity or the same focus, whether they’re in a physical situation like Clear Sky or whether they’re joining virtually through online classes, online study online practices and even online retreats, which is a new twist in the pretzel.


S: In the Mandala. The pretzel, right.

This is an important point. We talk about Clear Sky is a physical place and a physical modern monastery and we’ve also talked a lot about developing a virtual monastery because we know that not everybody can or wants to live here and that’s a different kettle of fish. The idea is that at Clear Sky, we try to develop it so that we create a culture, we create a container, and our desire is that when people come here, they can be immersed in that and then take that back to where you live and the sanga where you are and spread the benefits of what you’ve learned and experienced here.  They’re kind of like a yoghurt culture or a keifer culture.


Q: Again, it’s basically a training, what a monastery provides in the same way a university or apprenticeship provides, as training. So the training is, how do we train virtually and how do we train online and how do we train in person?

Well the first thing you have to know is what your goal is. So if you’re apprenticing as a doctor as an electrician you know your goal, you want to be a licensed electrician or a licensed doctor. So when you train in a monastery you need to know what your goal is as well. And from our point of view, that goal is awakening. It’s that transcendent state that the Buddha and Christ and everybody trained to do through their various associations and have developed that over time. So from our point of view, the training is for the purpose of getting your papers for being an awakened being.

And that’s not just knowledge based, it is experientially based of course. This will be the aim or intent of a living monastery. So we can talk about different kinds of training. Traditionally, the training in North America and Europe in the last 60 years since the 1950s or 40s has been what we would call drive-by training. You have a teacher, you see them occasionally and they point out to you not only the teaching in terms of its theory and practice, but also they point out personal or individual characteristics that are tripping you up, sometimes known as conflicting emotions or primitive views in the sense that views, they get you in trouble with yourself in terms of being in a good state.


S: That’s spontaneous and that’s periodic when you’re with your teacher or Sangha members and when it arises. People can help that arise by, for example, having an interview with teachers. 


Q: My teacher taught about 90% drive-by training, you got the training when you were with them and then you went home and you applied it as best you can without any real structure except your practice or your study to do that. But there was no real feedback in the community because there wasn’t any community. So you never really got called on where your underwear was showing in terms of your dharma practice. 


S: By your sangha members?


Q: By your sangha members.


S: Rinpoche was not really strong on questions and answers. Not a lot of elaboration if you didn’t understand.


Q:  He left it to you to figure it out. and that was the time he lived in, and that’s the time Chogyam Trungpa lived in. Chogyam Trungpa worked a little bit more at community, but he died awfully young. 


S: he was 49 when he died.


Q: So it has its issues today because of that. Then there’s another kind of training. 


S: Another kind of training works very well together with karma yoga. Karma Yoga is also a service. So if someone is doing service or karma yoga for either for the teachers or for a sangha member over a period of time, as an ongoing project, then that creates a container for the different patterns and views to arise in and for them to be addressed on an ongoing basis. And that’s what we call dharma training. 


Q: This is kind of how we’re working it at the moment, you come in for a few months and so various people have spent time here in this sort of organisational new training of karma yoga and service, which we consider to be fundamental to maturing the dharma in the 21st century, it’s the missing piece that hasn’t showed up till now.


Q: And so here we go. So, you know, you go, “why do I need dharma training?” Well, you remember the day not so long ago, when you say, why do I need to recycle? So, I don’t think we need to go much further than that. It wasn’t so long ago that, “recycling? why bother!” You know, just throw it away. Now with the world being the way it is, you say, well recycling is really necessary. 

From our point of view, dharma training is important, more important than recycling. Using scarce resources carefully, and basically limiting the extent of your appetites by way of consumerism and overpopulation to try to create a healthy balance on the earth ecologically, but also to create a healthy relationship between people in terms of our social structures, which needs fast help because of capitalism, which has basically fractured them.


S: We have a leg up because we have all taken the Bodhisattva vow and I think one of the key lines in the Bodhisattva vow is: I dedicate all my life energy to the benefit of all beings.And so what does that look like? It’s such a nice concept, but what does that really look like on a day to day basis? And that’s what we experiment with here. And that’s when community becomes really important because we can sort of sharpen our swords or temper our steel in answering that question better and better all the time. 


Q: So the idea in this spiritual monastery, we don’t really have a name for it, because it’s both virtual and in place, this new collective monastery. You can still have a personal life, but the idea that makes what makes it the monastery is that the spiritual aspiration for awakening is the horse in front of the card of your personal life.Insofar as you put your spiritual eyes in front of your personal life, then you are, in a sense, halfway to living in a spiritual monastery. But if your personal life is in front of your spiritual life, then I guess you’d be called a layperson, historically. You might still have aspirations to want to grow, but the idea is that you’re not ready for the training because it’s either not for you or it’s not your time or it’s not your interest and that’s okay too.


S: I just like to clarify here, the horse is our spiritual life, our spiritual practice, and the cart is the rest of our life, our, our personal life, our careers and our relationships and so on. So as long as the horse, the spiritual life, is leading the rest of our lives, then things should work out well.


Q: So this doesn’t mean you can’t have personal ambition, but the idea of your personal ambition is, it is in the service of the Bodhisattva vow. It is in service of trying to make the world a better place and working in such a way that it has a framework and a structure to make that happen.


The problem right now is that everybody is fractured in their own corners and we can’t really bring that power together because there’s no structure to hold it, the framework. So the purpose of the monastery is to get people being able to function as a group of people with a strong base, like the catholic church was, or like the buddhist church was in the days to transform the society towards those goals. But if everybody’s out on their own doing their own thing, it doesn’t have enough stickiness or cohesion to counterbalance the downsides of capitalism. So this is why we’re pushing this one so much. 


S:That’s right. 


Q: So what does this mean? Historically, when you joined a monastery, you gave up earning your individualistic money, you gave up nuclear family, you gave up children, you gave up a personal life, you withdrew from the world. You didn’t go to shows or entertainment or festivals. You worked on a schedule determined by the organization. 


S: You gave up your hobbies. 


Q: Hobbies came second.


S: you gave up coming and going as you like. You gave up a lot of control in a traditional monastery. 


Q: So what do we say the modern monastery might look like?


S: The sanga becomes more like a family, as well as friendships and sometimes intimate relationships. In terms of loving kindness, we may have special relationships with people that were closest to or most intimate with. But in terms of our loving kindness practice, loving kindness extends to everyone equally, and that is a practice.


Q: And so no one person is more important or more valuable than another. That’s central to a monastic tradition.


S: We also really practise that it just doesn’t work for us to put refuge in another person, whether that person is our partner or our teacher even, because our refuge needs to be in the triple gem, in the enlightened mind itself.


The teacher might be a representative for that. But having refuge in the person of the teacher is really a mistake. Our refuge needs to be in the enlightened mind which is just kind of renting space in a person’s body. You know, it doesn’t belong to any person. It’s everywhere.

Q: I  like that, renting space in a person’s body. I’ve got a house for rent. Maybe we could put a sign in your head saying, “house for rent.” Buddhas Welcome. Or, Fully Awakened Beings, Welcome or something.


 Anyway, entertainment becomes infrequent, rather than the appetite. Your entertainment becomes occasional rather than your entertainment being a major part of your life when you’re not working. We work for a common good and a goal and a common schedule. But your career path, whatever that is, feeds and supports that rather than being in conflict with that.

This will take years to develop. But we start now. 

S: Yeah, it does take years to reconcile that. But it works and it’s exciting to see it working.


Q: Then personal interests become part of the path. So if you have a particular interest in, say, macrame, then macrame becomes a craft that serves the monastic community. Or maybe you have an interest in golf, for example. Then you use golf, if you happen to be a teacher, as a teaching vehicle more than you use it as a game. I can prove to you that my game does much worse when it’s a teaching vehicle than it does when it’s an entertainment. But we’ll leave that aside. 

And time away is scheduled. In other words, it’s not like you have time scheduled to come to dharma and participate. Your time away is scheduled so that the dharma life is again the horse. Your time away is the scheduled part where you take that into the world and share. Remember that when the Buddha taught, they wandered for nine months and sat still for three. So, for three months they really focused on their practice and develop and then the rest of the time they wandered out in the world and taught. Well, we can’t really do that anymore because the society is in such a degree of fracture, we need to spend more time together and less time apart for the next period of time, probably the next 20 years. We have a serious ongoing crisis that’s going to last from about 2015 to 2050. And so this is the time we really need to develop the strength of the community.


S:Crisis? You mean just, everything? 


Q:  Everything.


S: We don’t need to go into that because everyone’s living it.We used to have to explain that to people. 

We’re in the process of developing this modern monastery and it’s really exciting to be a part of this, especially since it’s our 15th anniversary. 


Q: We were gonna have a big anniversary party party this summer, but covid kind of kawashed that. 


S: We can have it by ourselves. 


Q; We’ll have a Sweet 16 next year.


S: The point is, after 15 years we can see very clear progress and that is exciting. So what we’ve done is to maintain the commitment of a traditional monastery but adapted to modern times and modern interests and modern needs, as we’ve been describing. 


Q: And of course the key part of all this will be the manifestation. It’s very hard to see the manifestation of it at this time other than in genesis form, because it’s going to take many years to develop, past my lifetime, for sure, to develop this new monastery idea that can embody personal interest and a personal life, yet at the same time, the dharma and the community being foremost. 


Host: We hope you enjoyed this episode. Please rate and review Dharma if you Dare on your favourite podcast app to help more people find and benefit from these teachings. And don’t forget to subscribe to get episodes and bonus contents sent directly to your device.

It is the beginning of the year, so I thought it was appropriate to begin by reconnecting with the guiding approach that Planet Dharma takes in forwarding the goal of spreading spiritual awakening in this lifetime. We will hear more in future episodes about the specific practices and frameworks that make up the Planet Dharma pillars. In the meantime, you can always learn more about Planet Dharma’s approach by visiting and clicking on the “first time here” button. See you next time, and may all our efforts benefit all beings.