Creating Enlightened Society

March 19, 2009 by     Print This Post Print This Post

By Dr. Robin Kornman  

Transcribed by Andrew Safer

Robin Kornman gave four public talks on Creating Enlightened Society in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in February 2007. These can be seen on Google Video.

Talk #1 will appear in three installments on Radio Free Shambhala.

Robin was one of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s first North American students. I didn’t know him well, but when he came to Halifax in 2007 we spoke and I was struck by his honesty, his humour, and his frailty. Robin died shortly after, from complications of the mesothelioma he contracted as a result of working around asbestos as a teenager. 

When I saw him in the crowded vestibule of the Halifax Shambhala Centre, Robin looked at me and said, simply, “I’m dying,” not sadly or with any particular emotion. It was a matter-of-fact statement that struck me as extraordinary in its directness and openness.

Robin was one of the founding members of the Nalanda Translation Committee which is the group of students Trungpa Rinpoche worked with on the translation of Tibetan texts into English. The translation group remains active today. Robin received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. He was a Resident Scholar at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC from 2001 to 2002, and then taught comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  Robin gave this series of talks over a weekend at the Milwaukee Shambhala Centre.

I would like to thank Michael Sullivan for providing the link to Robin’s talk in a comment he posted on Radio Free Shambhala, and for arranging for permission to publish the transcription here.  

 Creating Enlightened Society

Part 1

We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to fix up the centre. We’ve hung a lot of thangkas and a lot of decorations. Each thangka relates to the subject matter of the program and all the decorations connect with the program. We have a display of books in the back of the room. There are a lot of things going on here, things on the walls that don’t usually go on the walls of the Milwaukee Shambhala Centre. What I’m trying to do is just give a little echo of a very elaborate physical environment we had at Kalapa Assembly in the old days. When the Shambhala teachings were first given, they were given at programs called “Kalapa Assembly”. Trungpa Rinpoche’s oldest students were brought to an off-season ski resort, and we fixed up the place. We made it elaborately beautiful. There was art on the walls, we lived a very formal life, we dressed up in suits for every single talk. What we were doing is we were recreating in a Western context a thing that Trungpa Rinpoche called the Court principle. A lot of this weekend, I’m going to talk about what the Court principle is.

When you see a manadala of Tibetan deities, a classical diagram that shows the deity in the middle of a square, there are different colours, and deities in four directions on the face of the square. That complex diagram represents a palace. The palace represents the whole universe, the world as an enlightened being would see it. Actually, it’s a picture of a palace, with a king living in the middle of the palace. The king has ministers, servants, queens, body guards, and all sorts of different principles represented by deities in the mandala. Of course, you memorize these mandalas, and imagine yourself being the king in the middle of the mandala. The idea is to see your world as the court of the king, and to understand that the nature of civilization is somehow involved in this court. If we saw the world the way it truly is, we would see it as the court of a king. Now, when we look at the world, it’s full of countries, disasters, mountains and rivers, cities falling down and being built, wars, animals being born and dying, and forests and streams. It looks like a complicated bunch of biological and sociological things going on. But if you could see it the way it really was, you would see it as innately pure—innately, beyond the dualities of life and death, of winning and losing, of happiness and unhappiness, of good and bad. You would see something magnificently beautiful, with a structure which reflected a profound message, and that would be the world the way an enlightened person would see it. Tibetan Tantric Buddhism has represented the world the way it truly is: as the palace of a king.

And so, at Kalapa Assembly, we tried to create a palace culture. Our teacher, Trungpa Rinpcohe, was the king of the palace, and everybody else was some dignitary in the court of the king. All of our activities became formal and symbolic. They symbolized something about the profound inner nature of reality. When you see the profound inner luminous nature of reality manifest, then you see a world of brilliant displays, of magnificent beauty and goodness. Enlightened society is based upon that principle of the goodness of that Court. Of seeing the world as innately like that Court. In this program, this weekend, I’m going to build up the idea of an enlightened society, from the ground up, in stages, and you’ll see us constructing the notion of the world as a Court. That’s why we fancied up the centre, and why all the staff are wearing suits. That’s why there’s so much formality. Because we’re trying to recreate that atmosphere and that message that was in the atmosphere of the Kalapa Assemblies when we were first taught that the world, the universe, is a court of an all-creating monarch.

[Asks for manuals to be distributed]

In The Golden Sun of the Great East, Trungpa Rinpoche introduced the ideas of the Kingdom of Shambhala and the teachings of the Kingdom of Shambhala. Those ideas were introduced in the book, Shambhala: The Sacred  Path of the Warrior, and were taught at Kalapa Assembly as well. That book is based upon a bunch of books like this: these are terma, or scriptural texts, on the teachings of the Kingdom of Shambhala that the Dorje Dradul, Trungpa Rinpoche, received one by one. He received them in Tibetan, and translated them with the Nalanda Translation Committee. I was on the translation committee when they were translated, and we published them like this, Tibetan on one side and English on the other side. The people who went to Kalapa Assembly got these books. Nowadays, if you take Shambhala Training  all the way up to Warrirors’ Assembly and beyond, you will get one by one all of these books, which were written in a really concentrated way.

But the first teaching is given on the first page of Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. We’re going to start out with an exceptionally deep, difficult to understand teaching. I’m going to teach it tonight and you’ll have to think about it as time goes on. It’s the basis for the idea of an enlightened society. Before I go into the text, what do we mean by an enlightened society? I mean that the way we live in our society is reorganized so that our whole life is a path that leads to enlightenment. Right now, most people live a life which is, from my point of view, arbitrary. Their aim is to do the next step in life: to go to school, to get a degree, to have kids, to grow older, and to die. But people who are on the Buddhist path, their aim is to gain enlightenment. Their life has more focus. The Shambhala and Buddhist paths are both paths which have that focus. Enlightened society refers to the notion of reorganizing our society so that everything you do—from going to school, to getting married, to getting a job, to buying your clothes, to taking a vacation in Hawaii—everything you do is reorganized so that it advances you along the path. It speeds you towards enlightenment.

Eventually, because of the way that society is organized, and the way you are taught to live in the world, you could achieve meditation in action; you can manage to meditate all the time. Everybody knows the image of the Buddhist monk or the Buddhist nun who spends all of his or her time in a monastery or in retreat meditating. If this person meditates eight or ten hours a day, for 30 or 40 years, they will become an enlightened person—some level of Buddha, or a bodhisattva at one of the higher levels.  All that meditation is necessary to gradually transform your mind—from the mind of an ordinary person into the mind of an enlightened being. To transform your mind from the confused mind we have, into the unconfused, wise, penetrating compassionate mind of an enlightened being. The way you do it is to meditate 10 hours a day for your whole life. There are lots and lots of Tibetans who when they hit the age of 30 or 40 go into life-long retreat, try to gain enlightenment in one lifetime and plan on being reincarnated enlightened and helping the world. But our teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, when he came to the West, he had another approach to introduce to us. It wasn’t that you spend your life in retreat in order to gain enlightenment. It was that you transform your world and the way that you live in the world, so that eventually you are meditating eight or ten hours, well, you’re meditating 24 hours a day because everything you do is part of your meditation. Your whole life is a meditation practice. He called that Meditation In Action, and it was the name of his first book.

For five years, he taught the Tantric Buddhist path, which is, step by step, how to do meditation in action and gain enlightenment in one lifetime. Then he introduced the Shambhala teachings and enlightened society. It’s a Buddhist tantric idea, but it was introduced to us through the Shambhala teachings. And we rely on the Shambhala texts he wrote to introduce it today.

(To be continued)

Published by permission, Cam Kornman.


Creating Enlightened Society, Talk 1: Part 2 | Part 3

The transcription of “Creating Enlightened Society” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Tribute to Robin  |  Robin Kornman – A Work in Progress | The Scholar Who Got the Highest Teachings


8 Responses to “Creating Enlightened Society”

  1. Ginny Lipson on March 22nd, 2009 12:50 pm

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for bringing these precious talks to the ” top of the front page ” and so available and easy to access. How wonderful!!!!

  2. rita ashworth on March 23rd, 2009 12:49 pm

    Great, great. great……….if at all possible it would be brilliant if you could publish these talks in a pamphlet format that way you could make some money and also disperse the talks even further in the world.


    rita ashworth

  3. Edward on March 23rd, 2009 1:43 pm

    There was art on the walls, we lived a very formal life, we dressed up in suits for every single talk. What we were doing is we were recreating in a Western context a thing that Trungpa Rinpoche called the Court principle.

    I still find this so interesting… if I can comment on one small aspect of this presentation.

    “Recreating in a Western context… the Court principle”…

    I don’t really know too many teachers who try to translate uplifted cultural principles into a Western context. So many people assume that being spiritual or being Buddhist means becoming a foreigner, dressing up in foreign costumes, forgetting who you are and your own roots in order to become something better.

    I wonder what Padmasambhava did when he went to Tibet. According to legend, did he try to live like a foreigner among the Tibetans? Or did he transmit the dharma to them as something native to them and their existing culture? I know that he took a Tibetan consort, so that seems significant.

    Whatever he did, I don’t see Tibetans today going around worshiping Indian culture and feeling poverty stricken that they come from a barbaric background. “What a gift to meet so many Aryans! Did you know English is descended from Sanskrit?!” So something seems to have worked in the transmission of the dharma to Tibet.

    There’s a funny scene in The Onion Movie where this suburban white teenager is dressed up like a stereotypical black ghetto kid, and trying to imitate ghetto talk. He wears his pants low and shuffles when he walks and the whole thing. What makes it funny is that so many white American kids actually do that, perhaps in a subtler way, because they are so desperate to feel connected to something genuine. They are convinced that being white is empty and meaningless and evil, and they’re so desperate for some sort of identity.

    And then we have all the people who come along and prey on that weakness. The German people in the 1930s were desperate for identity, and there are probably many other examples.

    It’s amazing how Trungpa Rinpoche could see such richness wherever he went– in Japanese culture, Irish culture, American culture. He never played on people’s weaknesses or their poverty-mentality. I think it’s interesting to reflect on this.

    Thanks for publishing this.

  4. Michael Sullivan on March 23rd, 2009 2:05 pm

    Robin’s staff at the program (some Shambhala students and others who would be more correctly described as Robin’s students) really went all out… The shrine itself was totally “Old School Dharmadhatu” with Dilgo Khyentse’s picture as well as Suzuki Roshi’s. One of the thangkas on the wall was of one of the Rigden Kings (very different than the standard SI one now) and included a little section with the king surrounded by his court. IIRC there was also a table with a selection of books that were Western Classics that resonated with the topic. All in all, quite a “time machine”!

    Thanks to Andrew for doing the hard work of transcribing.

  5. Andrew Safer on March 23rd, 2009 2:34 pm

    I am so glad that people are enjoying this talk! I find it tremendously inspiring. I am just waiting on the confirmation of the spelling of one Tibetan word (Mark Nowakowski is assisting with this), and Part Two should be ready to go up soon.

  6. Petra Mudie on March 25th, 2009 9:07 am

    Thanks for sharing all this – Robin was a brilliant giant, and it is great to be able to still learn from him. Let us never give up the effort to transform our world and the way that we live in the world, so that eventually you are meditating eight or ten hours, well, you’re meditating 24 hours a day because everything you do is part of your meditation.

  7. Jason on March 30th, 2009 10:22 am

    These talks were available on You Tube for awhile. I have some of them on Robin’s old computer if folks are interested I can try to make them available. Email direct at


  8. Andrew Safer on March 30th, 2009 1:16 pm

    Jason and others:

    The link to these talks is at the top of this article, where it says: “Google Video”.