By Dr. Robin Kornman
Transcribed by Andrew Safer
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
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.
The transcription of “Creating Enlightened Society” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License .