Sangha As Herd

March 18, 2009 by     Print This Post Print This Post

Commentary by Sebo Ebbens

Sangha as herd

Some discussions within the sangha have produced in me a number of feelings about our sangha, which I would like to share with you. I have tried to express these feelings in this article. As a basis for my reasoning, I will start by discussing the difference between a mob, a herd and a community. I have taken this from a book by Korteweg and Voigt (Helen of delen [Healing or sharing], 1990, chapter 2). Their thoughts have helped me to gain a better understanding of and a firmer grasp on the functioning of learning communities, and of spiritual communities in particular. The theme of learning communities has intrigued me for a long time. To come straight to the point, I think our sangha is usually more of a herd than a spiritual community. I’ll explain further.

Mob, herd, and community

The three-fold division made by Korteweg and Voigt describes a developmental process. They say that a mob is focused on idols, as at a football match or a pop concert. The individual is taken over by the mob and becomes part of it; and worships the idol – the football player or the pop star – as one entity. Individuals have no personal responsibility. It is not an expression of one’s own personality. 

If the mob becomes a smaller collective group with a more personal character, we call it a herd. A herd focuses on common ideals or common values. Examples are a church, or an organization like Greenpeace or the WWF. You become a member because you share the same values. 

If the connection is stronger, the herd then has a large degree of community spirit: you share the same goals. At the same time, however, free thinking or feeling does not exist: viewpoints must express the values of the herd. There can be no criticism of its aims or methods: ‘that simply isn’t done’ or ‘you just don’t say that’ are often heard. Sects are a degenerated example of this.

This is why some people sometimes don’t feel at home in a herd. These people feel the need to control their own lives, the need for authenticity. They no longer want to be guided by the common social values of the herd, but to follow their own values and learn about them. This choice means that you go through life alone, because you can only follow your own conscience. In addition, you seek connections with people with whom you can travel the same road. This means you usually have to go through a period of loneliness or being alone in order to make those connections. When you have found that group, you enter a community (I call it a community; Voigt and Korteweg call this a circle). A characteristic of a community is that it usually is temporary and that it stimulates you to make your own personal journey. In a talk about this with Dale Asrael (one of our Acharyas) she said that the community might also stimulate you to leave the community if necessary, because you would be better off following another path. The community doesn’t push. The principal characteristic of the community is that it helps you to realize your human potential and to express yourself in the real world, whether within or without the community.


I would like to illustrate my viewpoint that our sangha is more of a herd than a spiritual community on the basis of two examples. One example comes from the Shambhala Mountain Centre (SMC, also a part of our sangha) where I have the pleasure of staying for four weeks every summer, as a teacher at Naropa University. The other example comes from our own sangha in the Netherlands. 

The first example: the Sakyong was about to arrive at SMC after an extended period of absence. It was suggested that we all go to the shrine tent to welcome him there. Suddenly someone shouted that we should go and stand by the road and everyone should take a little flag to wave on his arrival. The flags were next to the tent entrance. Everyone ran to the road with their little flag. After a while a car with blacked-out windows drove by. Everyone waved. My first thought was that there might not even have been anybody in the car. You couldn’t see anything. I felt embarrassed, and like part of a herd, nearly part of a mob. There was something extraordinarily stupid about standing there waving a flag with everybody else without seeing the Sakyong.

The second example: over the last few years I have attended a number of courses. At two of these courses I felt that the manner of teaching was inadequate; in the others it was perfectly satisfactory. On one occasion I reported this to the board as well as to the teacher concerned (who ultimately reacted well). But the initial response made me feel that criticism should not be expressed. Or that it should be expressed differently, in another tone of voice or with another sentence construction. It was clear that we don’t know how to react to a message such at that: you shouldn’t say anything about the quality of the teaching. The inadequacy of the second teacher was discussed extensively by the group that participated in the course. But the teacher knows nothing of it, as far as I know. For that matter, that is also not done. Here, too, there is evidence of a herd: the teacher always deserves to be praised. And of course that’s true. But even teachers deserve their own individual paths. Another herd characteristic is to toast the teacher and to sing his or her praises. And to praise each other. Always. That’s how it ought to be.

Sangha as spiritual community 

I could also give other examples. Consider the way we follow Eva Wong, who was asked to rearrange the building of Shambhala Amsterdam. She proposed to change the beams in the shrine room: a very expensive operation. There was not a real discussion about this proposal and it happened as proposed. I personally think that beams in the meditation room are acceptable. Or how we propagate the idea of enlightened society even if we don’t demonstrate it. But to me the examples are not the point.

To me what’s important is that I want the sangha to be a spiritual community where we support each other in following our own path, in our practice as well as in our daily lives, while maintaining respect for each other’s personal paths. Our path is a difficult one. It is a solitary path. But if we are members of the sangha, this is the path we have chosen. In that sense the sangha is a spiritual community and not just a social club. The sangha does not function as a spiritual community if we can no longer say what we think because that isn’t done. Or where we can hide behind what is done or not done or behind what someone else says. We develop for ourselves what is done and what is not, within our own tradition. That makes us a living spiritual sangha. 


Things are never as bad as they seem. Of course there are moments in our sangha when I feel that we do manifest as a spiritual community. Of course our sangha is also made up of some outstanding people. In addition, there are many satisfying weekends and good courses organized by all those members. But in one way or another, herd thinking quickly creeps in. If we were asked, everyone in our sangha would have a different view of what is and isn’t acceptable in the sangha.

And this article… is this acceptable? 

Sebo Ebbens is a long time member of Shambhala in Amsterdam. By profession he is a teacher trainer. He also taught at Naropa University in Boulder for several years in the Department of Contemplative Education. His web site is Center for Contemplative Practices.


Herd photo is from


39 Responses to “Sangha As Herd”

  1. Marguerite Stanciu on March 19th, 2009 11:46 am


    I love this commentary because it is lucid and humble. We are going through a very rough period in our community that is now stretching out for over 15 years. I don’t know where this is going and it is all extremely painful.

    The logic of the Buddhadharma and Shambhala teachings as they were presented by the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa are timeless and complete. As such, I trust that they will survive.

    As to finding another community, I don’t believe that is the point. We, as members of this community have to work with this. I don’t think divorce is an option.

    Once a Mukpo, always a Mukpo.


  2. rita ashworth on March 19th, 2009 12:29 pm

    ……..I feel ‘problems’-the ‘herd mentality’ could be somewhat solved if individual sangha members had more concrete ways of manifesting their wishes, desires in relation to what is happening in a political sense – I still like the idea of voting on issues after much discussion…….thats why I go on about the National Assembly where Trungpa Rinpoche envisaged voting happening.

    ……..yes I have been at some events in the past which were quite creepy and cliquey -we must always be on our guard about situations like this….

    ……..I think if the politics of SI could become more translucent and not so top-heavy I might stop thinking about engaging with other teachers…….

    …….I suggested a concept of a ‘commonwealth’ of former teachers to
    Mr Reoch who have now left SI but in some way could be stamped as ‘legitimate’ by SI ie that they were not total lunatics-this way they could still have access to Trungpa’s teachings held by SI -what do people think of this idea?

    It seems to me as I investigate Trungpa’s teachings more and more he did not want just one lineage holder to carry the whole thing on -else why consecrate the Regent as a lineage holder? I think you have to allow for legit diversity thats the way societies truly evolve.


    rita ashworth

  3. ashoka on March 19th, 2009 2:57 pm

    everybody please open your elocution books. thank you. we shall begin.

  4. Suzanne Townsend on March 20th, 2009 9:37 am

    I remember a community talk in Boulder in the 70s when Trungpa Rinpoche urged us to not be sheep OR rhinocerouses. I recall his description as sheep=herd mentality; rhinocerous=loner mentality. I’m hoping someone has the actual source material and can cite the reference?

  5. Greg Bronswinkel on March 20th, 2009 9:50 am


    What do you mean with “open your elocution books”?

  6. Suzanne Duarte on March 20th, 2009 9:59 am

    Hello, Sebo Ebbens. I appreciate your contemplations of the differences between mob, herd, community, and spiritual community. As I’ve said in a different thread on this site, I have sensed herd mentality among younger generation defenders of SI/SMR. As I read your article, I thought about whether I sensed herd mentality among Trungpa Rinpoche’s sangha in the 70s and 80s. I think not – not in those days. It seemed rather that everybody was becoming more distinct, sometimes ‘characatures of themselves’ (CTR’s term), but there was a sense that everybody was becoming more who they really were – not conforming to a mold. I remember sitting in the Dorje Dzong shrine room in Boulder when the Vidyadhara gave his ‘Lids and Flowers’ community talk, and rejoicing. As I understood it, VCTR’s approach was to water/nurture his students’ potentials to bloom, rather than suppress or put a lid on anything. He was fearless, as we know, and he created a lot of outlets for students’ creativity, gifts and realizations.

    You say: “I want the sangha to be a spiritual community where we support each other in following our own path. . . . Our path is a difficult one. It is a solitary path. But if we are members of the sangha, this is the path we have chosen. In that sense the sangha is a spiritual community and not just a social club. The sangha does not function as a spiritual community if we can no longer say what we think because that isn’t done.”

    I think that one of the reasons the Vidyadhara introduced warriorship and the Shambhala teachings was to enable us to be a true spiritual community in the sense that you mean it – supporting each other in following our own inner and outer path. That takes warriorship – fearlessness – willingness to stand on our own two feet and not go along with herd mentality, whether among the sangha or in the culture at large. That fearlessness is based on having found our own ground through practice. Then a true spiritual community could grow into and manifest as enlightened society.

    However, Sebo, when you say, “Things are never as bad as they seem,” I wonder whether you are falling into the Dutch herd mentality of always being conciliatory, afraid to just stand on your own convictions for fear of being slapped down. (I live in Amsterdam, so I’m quite familiar with Dutch habits of enforcing conformism.) I wonder whether the herd mentality you observe in the Amsterdam Shambhala Center is heightened by Dutch culture.

    In fact, herd mentality can mask or blind people to the fact that sometimes things are actually much worse than they seem. This is demonstrated by the current economic debacles in which the prevailing economic herd mentality has masked how bad things really are. . . .

  7. Chris Chandler on March 20th, 2009 10:07 am

    Dear Susan:

    Re: Rhinoseros and Herds:

    “Looking into the world
    I see alone a chrysanthemum,
    Lonely loneliness,
    And death approaches.
    Abandoned by guru and friend,
    I stand like the lonely juniper
    Which grows, among rocks,
    Hardened and tough,
    Loneliness is my habit.
    I grew up in loneliness,
    Like a rhinoceros
    Loneliness is my companion.
    I converse with myself,
    Yet sometimes, also,
    Lonely moon,
    Sad and Happy come together.

    Do not trust.
    If you trust you are in
    Others’ hands.
    It is like the single yak
    That defeats the wolves.
    Herds panic and in trying to flee
    Are attacked,
    Remaining in solitude
    You can never be defeated.
    So do not trust,
    For trust is surrendering onself,
    Never, never trust.

    But be friendly,
    By being friendly towards others
    You increase your non-trusting,
    The idea is to be independent,
    Not involved,
    Not glued, one might say, to others.
    Thus one becomes ever more
    Compassionate and friendly.
    Whatever happens, stand on your own feet
    And memorize this incantation:
    Do not trust”.

    25 November 1969
    From “Mudra” by Chogyam Trungpa

  8. Suzanne Duarte on March 20th, 2009 10:08 am

    Hi Suzanne T, I believe he said ‘parrots and rhinoceroses,’ and I think he gave that community talk at 1111 Pearl. The talk may be archived as Parrots and Rhinoceroses Community Talk. Maybe John Tischer remembers, or Jamie Elliot. The parrots flock together and chatter constantly to each other, the rhinos have thick skins and big, lethal horns as defenses. 😉

    Anyway, your point is well taken re: spiritual community. Btw, did you sense herd mentality in Trungpa Rinpoche’s sangha before you moved to Halifax?

    Suzanne D

  9. Greg Bronswinkel on March 20th, 2009 10:09 am

    Loyalty, Surrender and Service.

  10. Suzanne Duarte on March 20th, 2009 10:25 am

    Dear Chris,

    Thank you for the poem! It is a perfect expression of a pith instruction that many of his students received from the Vidyadhara, although it may have taken decades to understand, realize and embody it:

    But be friendly,
    By being friendly towards others
    You increase your non-trusting,
    The idea is to be independent,
    Not involved,
    Not glued, one might say, to others.
    Thus one becomes ever more
    Compassionate and friendly.

    Suzanne D

  11. Michael Sullivan on March 20th, 2009 10:37 am

    I think there is a herd mentality as a basic tendency in all sanghas. I also think that it was present in the 70’s and 80’s.

    I think the big difference is whether the teacher holds a mirror up to the herd, and uses recognition of it as a teaching device. I think that is what the Lids and Flowers talk was to a certain extent (I wasn’t there, only heard the tape).

    CTR certainly held the mirror up to the sangha. I am not in a position to judge whether SMR does so.

    Also, I also am a bit afraid that our old memories are rosier than our experience was at the time.

  12. Suzanne Duarte on March 20th, 2009 11:01 am

    Good points, Michael, but re: “I also am a bit afraid that our old memories are rosier than our experience was at the time,” I don’t think that is true for me because I actually liked the sharp edges and thorniness and chaos. I appreciated the sense of reality that existed around VCTR. He didn’t permit much rosiness. He promoted wakefulness but always with compassion.

  13. Mark Szpakowski on March 20th, 2009 11:21 am

    Lids and Flowers, Community talk given at Karma Dzong, Boulder, February 28, 1978 (Talk 13 in Selected Community Talks):

    Speak out. There is a way of speaking out, as well… There is complimentary speaking out, as well as critical speaking out… if there are any negative situations happening, you should also speak out — not in the sense of complaining, but pointing out your misgivings. Just speak the simple truth rather than coating it with emotion, or cutting it down or building it up.

  14. rita ashworth on March 20th, 2009 1:06 pm

    Ashoka – just learned a few months ago my Aunt Mary taught elocution to the northern hordes – life as we know it is getting very bizarre. She was a very good card player – she taught me and my brother to play cards.

    However on the topic of the herd mentality I agree with Suzanne about the Dutch. I was contemplating the ending of the article when Sebo asked if the article was acceptable – I dont think an English person would ask that question maybe because of the excessive debate on everything possible in the UK . In addition my mother came from Liverpool where everyone gets cut down to size every minute of every day with words – to find out what you really think about things.

    On another tack really value Marks quote from Rinpoche about the way of speaking out that is very valuable information.

    Could it also be possible to put the Lids and Flowers talk on this website as you have done with Robin Kornman’s transcription then we would have a clear idea of what Rinpoche was teaching and it would also be useful for people to read.

    Again aka herd mentality I investigated TCS as much as I could, interviewing quite a lot of honchos about the situation in this way I got some insight into why the situation occurred. I would therefore encourage everyone to ask deep questions about SI structure aswell because this develops insight into the political and economic status of the organisation.

    Yes also Suzanne cultural conformity is a subtle arena of thought, emotion – look how long it took the Americans to get rid of Bush and elect Obama but I think with the net and an open media this revolution in politics, culture will change more rapidly. For example recently saw a documentary by a Saudi Arabian prince on Channel 4 discussing how to give more political power to women. There was a really good interview with a veiled woman who was very internet-savvy she stated she would eventually like to become a Minister in the Saudi government.

    Yes everything must be open up to discussion.


    Rita Ashworth
    Stockport UK

  15. John Tischer on March 20th, 2009 1:19 pm

    I once wondered, a few years into my involvement with Vajradhatu, what I had in common with my fellow practitioners. I decided it was that we all were crazy. One remarkable thing about the sangha at that time, to me, was how different we were from each other….in spite of the fact that we were mostly upper middle class whitte folks, The only herding I saw was around Rinpoche..A cult, of sorts, did form around him in his later years.

    I remember being in a situation with Springer and the Regent. At that time, there was a great rivalry between Boulder and Karme Choling, who were
    competing for Rinpoche’s time. I remember the Regent saying to Karl “The truth we tell is today’s truth….tomorow’s will be different.” It was
    a reminder of the “real politic” situation they were in….the situation in
    those days was dynamic and fluid…there were power struggles and
    people trying to one-up each other all over the place..the organization was growing rapidly, and Rinpoche was constantly pushing people in various directions. I really didn’t feel any herd mentality. I never would
    have hung around.

    I’ve been hanging around Khandro Rinpoche’s sangha for a few years now. What I see, among the western students, is not a herd mentality,
    but rather a loose understanding of a standard of behavior that is
    acceptable. It seems more like a way of training the mind out of bad
    habits. There is some self consciousness and a quality of “faking it”, but
    that is true of any discipline at the begining.

    Herd mentality assumes a blindness. Isn’t that impossible around an
    authentic teacher, aside from Anandas?

  16. sebo ebbens on March 20th, 2009 4:38 pm

    Dear All

    Thank you very much for all you responses. There are much more responses then I ever expected. I think that my article is in essence a plea for being fearless and alone on the path. And a plea for not hiding among others. That fearlessness comes from meditation as Trungpa Rinpoche mentioned. I love the poem of Trungpa Rinpoche Chris Brandler brought in.

    Suzanne Duarte writes: “”Things are never as bad as they seem,” I wonder whether you are falling into the Dutch herd mentality of always being conciliatory, afraid to just stand on your own convictions for fear of being slapped down”. I don’t have that feeling. I thought that a more positive tone would help the discussion. I am Dutch of course, but did teach in the USA for quite a while. The same with my last question (Rita Ashworth). What I wanted with my last question was a discussion in the Amsterdam sangha. There was a small one for a very short time. My expectations were higher then that. But that is ok

    I think that the discussion is still an actual one. That was one of the reasons I gave permission to place it (I was asked to do it). My experience right now is that there is less meditation going on in the sangha then, let us say, 20 years ago. The whole situation is getting more social. Then there is more danger that the herd mentality will be back. I think that is the same within the US. If that is true is completely up to you, of course.

    Thank you so much for all your involvement.


  17. rita ashworth on March 21st, 2009 9:02 am

    Discussion, discussion, discussion ………I sometimes think that it is an art that has been lost with the speed of western life. I remember in the past people would tell stories in public houses for hours in the UK before mega TV. However, I am not against TV, back in the sixities in the UK we had some marvellous dramatists like Ken Loach doing wonderful social realist drama pieces that virtually everyone in the UK watched. There was a somewhat cohesive culture.

    Really I think some effort should be just put into having discussions in the sangha in a concentrated western way ie the idea of a world cafe that they have in Halifax. I have also heard on the Chronicle Project that Rinpoche would institute complicated discussions on politics such as the Iran hostage crisis to see how the Kasung would solve it.

    I do think there should be more discussion going on about how we see the structure of SI and the split off movements evolving-it could be done in reasonable manner in sense of an open debate. Americans also have this tradition with the town hall meeting and from living in Nova Scotia I can tell you that you can never stop talk happening in fact I think the Canadians could win a war by talking you to death!

    Perhaps in Holland you could have an open ‘grumble’ debate where you could grumble all you want to – it could be light-hearted you could bring tea, coffee cakes. Dunno if Eva Wong was right or wrong about the centre but you could record peoples reactions to what happened without going off at the deep end but then again the deep end might be good for the Dutch – I dont know the mentality of the people really – tho I have known someone who was half dutch and she is and was an inspiration to me though slightly nutty at times

    Well best

    Rita Ashworth

  18. Edward on March 21st, 2009 5:41 pm

    I think a big part of herd mentality is trying to give responsibility to someone else. “Safety in numbers”

    For instance, let’s say you’ve been given some genuine spiritual wisdom. It might be hard to live based on that wisdom, hard to preserve it in a living way. Very awkward and painful, when the buddhas of the three times rise up against you. Maybe it would be easier to dump that responsibility onto some figurehead, so we don’t have to feel the need to live those teachings ourselves. Maybe we can find someone dumb enough to accept that position (i.e. assume our responsibility) because of his or her vanity. (Like in that old Eurythmics song)

    I think that’s a big part of what human herds do– project their fantasies or hopes onto something external, some sort of idol– a president, a guru, a tv set, a sports team, a Gaius Baltar. And here I don’t see a useful distinction between a herd and a mob.

    When I hear people talk about and defend certain spiritual teachers, they often talk in such a way that they put all responsibility onto the teacher and accept none for themselves, other than being a good herd member, being devoted to the herd and following all the correct behavioral cues. Understanding the teachings is the guru’s responsibility, ours is to follow our script.

    If we’re not careful, our herd could begin to function like a collective ego, with the same mechanisms in place, the same shyness, self-protectiveness, and unwillingness to look at certain things.

    Maybe before we can talk about “sangha” as something genuine, we first have to have a sense of what a herd is, and whether we want to be a 100% participant in that. Maybe developing our own personal practice allows us to find sangha, even in places where we didn’t think we could.

    Sorry if I got carried away. What a wonderful topic. Thanks to the author for posting this article, and thanks to everyone who shared comments, particularly the poem.

  19. damchö on March 21st, 2009 10:41 pm

    Thank you Sebo for raising this topic, and to everyone for their insightful comments. This is so central.

    Following up on what Edward has said, I think we need to take the reality of collective ego far more seriously than we do. It so very often seems to function as a blind spot, the one big area we fail to interrogate. Whether it’s a club or organization, a political party or nation or–most deviously and poignantly–our spiritual community, the Group can give us an out.

    On the one hand sangha can provide much-needed warmth, challenge, inspiration. At the same time, we should never forget that ego will always try to co-opt it into giving us more–the satisfaction of being on the good team, the best team even. Of being Right and secure. As Trungpa Rinpoche so vividly pointed out, ego’s inherently theistic point of view seizes upon “spirituality” with sooo much hope. How do we guard against this?

    I think we need to look at the specific mechanisms operating in whatever our particular community happens to be. We should be looking at the question of agendas, I think. Just as we do at the individual level, we can examine collective agenda and self-protection. So often we fail to do this. We are sometimes shocked by actions of, say, government officials or CEOs or whoever which really could have been predicted if we had only put ourselves in their shoes and recognized what psychological dynamics and stresses were involved. What losses would have to be faced otherwise.

    More specifically, is Shambhala as an institution truly capable of letting everything go if it were to come to that? Of putting the dharma first in each and every situation, even if that might weaken the furtherance of its larger goals or involve an admission of wrong-doing? When I look at every other sangha I’ve had a connection with, I feel more confident that this is the case. But what if there is simply a lot more to protect?

    Shambhala has a King and Queen first of all, a royal family (when I receive emails from other sanghas, the teacher is referred to as a Rinpoche, one among many; when I receive emails from Shambhala, SMR is now referred to as His Majesty.) It has a monumental vision it is confident it can realize, involving nothing less than the transformation of our world into an enlightened society, with Shambhala the vanguard and ultimately the ruling entity. Its shrines–at least at the residential centre I last visited–contained pictures of only a father and son, no longer Nyingma and Kagyu lineage holders–further representation of separateness and uniqueness. It maintains a large hierarchical and bureaucratic government and has a lot at stake financially as well throughout the world. There are now many high-ranking teachers with a lot of authority and power in their own domains, who in practice–in my experience anyway–are more-or-less entirely deferred to by their local communities, rarely if ever challenged. It has a central, privileged body of sangha members who serve the function of kasung: a beautiful function properly understood and practiced, but one which also carries with it … once again … the temptations of power which all too readily can be abused.

    I’m not necessarily criticizing any of these aspects of Shambhala in and of themselves here. BUT they point to various forces and setups which easily create the blind spots we are talking about. Psychological incentives towards herd mentality. Recognizing this should not be viewed as any kind of threat. Just the reverse. The threat is complacency and territoriality here, it seems to me. Us-and-them conventional degraded warrior displacing tender-hearted vast-minded warrior who ultimately is not even concerned with self-preservation at all.

    A long post, sorry. But such a crucial topic. Thanks again for providing the space to discuss it.

  20. Ginny Lipson on March 22nd, 2009 12:44 pm

    Here is a very heart felt offering to add to this very delicious stew.

    a memory. seemingly ages ago, when the Venerable CTR was doing a Vajra Assembly (or an ATS??) up at SMC, in the big tent.

    After the talk, and he had walked out of the tent, it appeared that instead of driving off in his car, he was remaining there, talking to a few people just outside the tent. The students in the tent began to walk out towards where he was standing, and then we all seemed to be there, attending to his every word, his delightful presence…. And there he was, talking to us in the warmest sweetest, most personal and ordinary way. I felt as though we were all in a complete “love trance.”

    (I think that I remember Rinpoche walking up the hill to the main area, and that he even talked to us some more up there, but this its not clear. If this memory is accurate, we followed him all the way up.)

    The Dorje Loppon (DLLD) (bless his very wonderful heart) was back in the tent at some point , vocalizing his worries about how would he ever get all these people to return to the tent to do the closing chants! so sweet and human.

    Meanwhile, we were out there for a long time, with Rinpoche just carrying on with us. My only memory of one thing that he said was: (something like:) would you like to see my (badges?) (or whatever word is used to describe whatever one calls all those symbols appliquéd onto his uniform) He explained every one.

    It was so special, and unforgettable. I’m sure many of you remember this incident. A good example not of herd mentality, but some magical devotional group moment.

  21. Edward on March 22nd, 2009 1:08 pm

    Mr. Tischer wrote:
    Herd mentality assumes a blindness. Isn’t that impossible around an
    authentic teacher…?

    I disagree and I think this is actually a critical point. This sounds like something the Regent was reported to have said.

    I think an authentic teacher constantly manifests situations that tends to work against people’s blindness.

    However… I think blindness and herd mentality are GUARANTEED around any teacher. It’s part of the cocoon, part of what makes a person not fully-enlightened. It’s a constant phenomenon, like passion or aggression. It’s why we need practice, and why sangha is helpful.

    Even Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who I consider to be one of the greatest teachers in history, let alone in the modern era, spoke about how he had a car accident once, which he took to be a reflection of his unwillingness to see certain things, I believe.

    If a teacher as great as VCTR could have difficulty seeing something, I think it’s dangerous to think that ordinary members of some religious group could be immune to blindness, simply because they are in the presence of a teacher who has some authenticity.

    An authentic teacher might actually magnify his students’ blindness, or bring it to the surface, or create situations where it is more visible.

    My old teacher at times appeared to encourage herd behavior, and then at other times skillfully undermined it, or created situations where people couldn’t help seeing what they were doing. (I used to hate that– I always wanted to keep my ego hidden from everyone, especially from myself. Please, please, please don’t trick me into seeing ugly parts of myself! I beg you! Have some compassion for Christ’s sake.)

    One never really knew how to “please” him, other than by trying to understand the teachings and practice them. There was always a sense of unpredictability around him, which tended to provoke both fear and mindfulness. I’ll never forget the day I first felt afraid of him, rather than simply in love with him. I was in a smaller, more private setting and I realized that I couldn’t con him, and that absolutely terrified me.

  22. Edward on March 22nd, 2009 1:41 pm

    Perhaps Buddhist teachers represent their own kind of “herd” (if you’ll forgive me for the metaphor), with their own behavioral norms, styles of dress, ways of teaching, things that are allowed and not allowed, and so on.

    Perhaps Trungpa Rinpoche felt some reluctance to completely step out of that herd, by taking off his robes, drinking beer openly and all kinds of other things.

    Maybe in so doing he relinquished a very real level of safety that the “herd” had provided to him.

    Probably there are other examples of teachers leaving safe, approved group situations, such as Naropa leaving Nalanda to search for Tilopa.

    Please know that I don’t mean to disparage other Buddhist teachers here, merely to ask if VCTR relinquishing his monastic robes was an act that reduced his apparent membership in some sort of safe group that he’d previously belonged to.

  23. Edward on March 22nd, 2009 2:02 pm

    (sorry for the multiple posts)

    Please know that I don’t mean to disparage other Buddhist teachers, nor to disparage monastic robes, cultural traditions, sanghas, or social norms. All of which are good.

    I just want to ask if VCTR relinquishing his robes could have reduced his perceived membership in a group that had previously afforded him a level of security.

    Another way to look at the “safety in numbers” discussion, perhaps.

    (Btw, I’m not suggesting that trying to imitate VCTR is a good idea, particularly.)

  24. Chris Chandler on March 22nd, 2009 3:47 pm

    Recently, in a month-long retreat with a very respected Rinpoche, he shared with us how difficult it was for him to shed his own “Tulku Social self” He had a whole monastic montage around him, telling him to behave like his previous incarnations, not eating onions, carrying himself a certain way, even how the first incarnation always carried a prayer wheel around and he should too. It was necessary for him to break away from this heavy burden and discover what were the pith teachings and what was the cultural overlay, for him to really begin to help people. Now if a realized teacher has to do this, surely then, it is important for us.

    He shared this with us, because the topic was about “social selves” and how along the path the challenge is to shed these “social selves” that covered our true nature , and have been operating since our parents started molding us to conform to the particular social, cultural group we were born into. . We have to spend the rest of our practice life recognizing and uncovering this layering of social self conformity that continued in school, jobs, social groups and even dharma groups. This is the challenge to all of us to peel the onion, the layers and layers of group think and cultural overlay that will distract and prevent us from actualizing our true nature. There is no authentic way to actualize bodhicitta unless we do. Otherwise we are in a group delusion that thinks it is saving the world. A very heavy delusion, double delusion, in my opinion.

    Groups are there to encourage us to practice in the beginning, then they become addictive, a crutch, even preventing us from doing serious , solitary practice that is so important if any “progress” along the path is to occur. They can devolve into merely a social club. Insecure teachers can encourage this endless group practice mentality so that people never seriously do solitary retreat ( and I don’t mean a week or two, here and there). At a certain point, it merely serves the group’s survival and not the needs of the student .

    I think it takes a very long time, however, to discover how subtle this social self conditioning is. I think the herd mentality, for some of us, has to become revulsive, actually, if we are lucky, a sense of being in a state of Satre’s “bad faith, ” before we can take genuine steps to break away. Sometimes that requires really going it alone totally for a while, at least at first. Every person is different however, in terms of when that will happen for them.


  25. Suzanne Duarte on March 22nd, 2009 9:59 pm

    Hear, hear! Great discussion, Edward and Chris. Now it feels like we’re getting some place – at least beyond herd mentality, in any case.

    Edward, re: “I just want to ask if VCTR relinquishing his robes could have reduced his perceived membership in a group that had previously afforded him a level of security.”

    I think it’s safe to say, yes, absolutely. It was a risk he had to take. If you read about that era of his life in Dragon Thunder by Diana Mukpo, it was very difficult – although I doubt his main concern was his own security, but rather the continuity of lineage for OUR sakes, which he did manage to secure with HH Karmapa 16 and HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I believe that by passing through the trials he did, including disrobing and risking the disapproval of other lineage holders (transcending herd mentality), his power (enlightenment) was increased.

    Since I’m also a student of CG Jung, I can’t help observing the relevance of what he said about herd and mob mentality, which is that it occurs as a kind of psychic contagion, actually a collective psychopathology in which a group or mass of people project their power (or their ‘shadow’) onto a figurehead or an elite group, causing him (usually a male) or them to become inflated. He regarded this unconscious phenomenon to be very dangerous, in fact a source of ‘evil’ as it creates demagogues such as Hitler. So unquestioning loyalty, surrender and service are very questionable. That’s what characterized the excesses of Hitler’s Youth and also Mao Tse Tung’s Red Army – young people on the rampage.

    Chris I agree with you: “I think it takes a very long time, however, to discover how subtle this social self conditioning is.” It can take a very long time to peel the layers of the onion, but liberating ourselves from our social conditioning is absolutely necessary on the dharmic journey.

    Suzanne D

  26. Jim Wilton on March 23rd, 2009 6:29 pm

    It’s not the “social self” that has to be peeled away. Any self has to be recognized as a fabrication and given up. This includes the “self” that thinks it is free because it is not standing in a crowd waving a flag as the limo drives by. I think you can test how fixated your mind is by noting whether it is gentle with other’s mistakes (and with your own mistakes for that matter). Do you feel contempt looking at others that you think are following the “herd”? Is this behavior offensive to you? You say you felt embarrassed. Could you sit with that embarrassment? Why is embarrassment uncomfortable in the first place?

    Sure, it is a solitary path. And we can’t always know what someone else is experiencing. Even if we catch someone else in a klesha attack or a mistake — their mind changes in the next minute. That is a reason not to be too judgmental.

    Still it is a good topic. We aren’t members of a club. We also aren’t on a do-it-yourself path and we need a teacher.

  27. Edward on March 23rd, 2009 9:09 pm

    yes, being among people who push our buttons is so hard.

    I had a friend once who said she felt loneliest when she was with other people. I guess, because she had so much trouble relating to them.

    The people that I’m the most inspired by are people like Trungpa Rinpoche who can work with all types of people, regardless of what’s happening. Is that called a “no privacy” situation?

    My old teacher wrote an interesting play that relates to some of this– herd mentality and so on. In the play, this man is walking alone through the woods when he encounters this cult of religious people. And he finds to his amazement that the subject of the cult, their idol of worship, is he himself!

    Somehow this cult is all about him, even though he’s never met these people before– though the leader of the cult claims to know him– and as soon as they see him they grab him and appropriate him as their religious symbol. But because of his great compassion for these people, he’s willing to work with them– even though they are totally deluded and have tremendous underlying aggression.

    They enact various rituals in an unconscious, rote way, feeling tremendous satisfaction from their association with him as their cultic object. Meanwhile the leader of the cult hands the man a script that he’s supposed to read from.

    Eventually, he refuses to play along by the rules of the cult, and as a punishment they imprison him in a mental hospital. However, he still has compassion, and he still continues to give teachings, even though he’s imprisoned. He feels that someday, someone will be able to use his teachings. They take his teachings and use them to make money.

    Eventually the man dies a violent death in the mental institution. Nobody understands his teachings, and he dies alone.

    The play takes about 10 hours to perform, and the whole thing has a feeling of being backed into a corner that you never get out from, except that realization occurs in that space. It’s kind of a horrific, claustrophobic nightmare that never ends… but I’ve also felt a spacious quality in the midst, somehow.

  28. Mark Szpakowski on March 23rd, 2009 10:14 pm

    Cool. I think.

    That resonates with a story I heard Chögyam Trungpa recount at the last talk of a 10-day seminar on “The Ten Bhumis of the Bodhisattva Path”. It seems there was a kingdom where it started raining, and whoever drank from that rain would go mad. Eventually all the subjects were mad, except for the King, who had stored large supplies of good water. At that point he decided that he too would drink from the water of madness, and join his subjects.

    By the way Edward, it would be interesting and beneficial to hear your story some time (when you felt comfortable sharing it), and about your teacher. One way might be as an article for this site.

    RE “VCTR relinquishing his robes”, I see that as highly self-symbolic. It did alienate him from pretty much all the Tibetans for a while, except for Khyentse Rinpoche (who was one of his three main gurus) and a few others – his name was shit. However, it was also an expression of the confidence to express the truth of dharma directly from itself, as did the Buddha, who, as he sometimes pointed out, was not a buddhist. That’s actually the true terma. Taking off the robes is buddhadharma without credentials. That made it more possible for him to present dharma, the way things are, to a culture different from his. That approach is also what made, and makes, it possible to present the Shambhala teachings without buddhist credentials. And it is also what makes it possible for Shambhala people to meet others, and the world, beyond their own shambhala forms.

    As a wise young friend told me recently, “there’s nothing to protect”.

  29. Edward on March 24th, 2009 9:10 am

    There were other parts of the play about growing up, falling in love, losing the one you love– those kinds of themes– but the part about herd behavior was what stuck in my mind.

    Yes, it’s a bit surrealistic, over the top… but maybe by painting with a big brush, the point about herd behavior gets through. I also think the protagonist’s willingness to persist with the cult was suggestive of the idea of never giving up on your students. Even if they act like a mean, aggressive herd sometimes.

    Thanks for the invitation. I’m probably not ready to do that, but I’ll think about it.

    Great discussion about herd behavior and sangha, everyone.

    One of my favorite quotes about herd behavior:

    “How fortunate for rulers that the people do not think.”
    – A.H.

    Honestly… I think this discussion is really, really important.

  30. Michael Sullivan on March 24th, 2009 9:49 am

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned much are the aspects of how herd mentality manifests on the personal level, in all of us. It is much easier and convenient to talk about groups in the abstract…..

    In me, it seems like “protective coloration”. When in a group, if you look and sound similar to the others, you are more likely to be treated as “us”. So in one sangha you might wear suits, with those who wear casual clothing viewed as either newbies or not serious about the teachings, while in another those who wore suits would be viewed as overly tight and rigid.

    One particular standout for me is listening to the words people use. Verbal mannerisms and “pet words” of the teacher are almost like jargon, and people (including me of course!) use them to death. Is this done out of actual understanding and insight or simply to sound like the teacher? Would it be better to chew on those words and express them from my own experience in my own words?

    Sometimes it almost seems like riffing on an instrument. A great jazz musician will occasionally quote another song in the course of playing, but it is done rarely. I have heard many budding instructors sound like verbal copy machines, and it really serves to enforce a herd mentality. The Teacher speaks a certain way, then the student teacher copies it, and the message that the student gets is that “this is how we talk”. It is important to note that in this I am referring NOT to dharma terms or content, but to the style of delivery and particular word choice.

    I certainly see this tendency in myself, and I bet that many others would too.

  31. Edward on March 24th, 2009 10:59 am


    I personally don’t think blending in with people is necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself.

    When Padmasambhava went to Tibet, he took a Tibetan consort and acted rough like the mountain people. That can be a skillful way to connect. Maybe a way of stepping out of habitual patterns, in some cases.

    I’ve met some people who were very skilled at working with animals, and when they would interact with a dog or a horse, they used the body language that the animal itself was familiar with– the native tongue, so to speak.

    On the other hand unconsciously imitating people is probably not so good.

    I might use verbal mannerisms that VCTR used, but it’s just cause I dug how he talked and can’t think of a better way to express something in the moment. My old teacher talked very differently from VCTR, so there’s an interesting contrast for me.

    I think the real problem with herd mentality gets back to the notion that fitting in with the group is the same as being a practitioner. Somehow the two things become confused. The goals of the group become confused with the goals of practice. Or the goal to practice.

    Well, if we do imitate VCTR in vapid ways, all the more reason to invite non-Buddhists to fully participate in Shambhala training, as fully-welcome and respected participants. One of the levels I did a few months ago was so lively because of the mix of people that came. It was also very unpredictable. There was one person there that definitely did not follow the same social cues that the rest of us did, and he kept us on our toes!

    I like the jazz metaphor you used.

  32. Michael Sullivan on March 24th, 2009 11:47 am

    I think that the “Parrots” aspect is tricky because on one hand, yes of course we like the way the guru talks, but on the other hand if we just repeat the words without integrating the content into our mindstream then we are acting very much like a herd. We also tend to judge ourselves very leniently in these matters.

    Plus, every time I listen to someone over-use “some sense of” I think they are either treading water or subtly suggesting that the invisible hand of CTR is co-signing on their talk…..

  33. Edward on March 24th, 2009 12:01 pm

    We also tend to judge ourselves very leniently in these matters.
    That again is the great thing about outsiders. Like the guy at the Level I went to. He had no sense of inhibition about his own speech, and gave all of us a lot of feedback, both directly and indirectly.

    Another thing that herd animals do is protect themselves from outsiders. If predators are spotted, the weaker herd animals are moved toward the center, and some of the warriors stand between the predator and the rest of the herd.

    Well… what is there to protect? That’s an interesting question.

    I think one characteristic of a cult is that it draws a circle which delineates insiders from outsiders. The outside of the circle is excluded, and the inside is protected from intrusion.

    Isn’t this the cocoon?

    We want to prevent the possibility of feedback. Some organizations are like that. And yet, eventually, the feedback comes anyway. The more feedback is blocked, the more painful it is when it finally gets through.

  34. Michael Sullivan on March 24th, 2009 12:07 pm

    “We want to prevent the possibility of feedback. Some organizations are like that. And yet, eventually, the feedback comes anyway. The more feedback is blocked, the more painful it is when it finally gets through to us.”

    Witness Radio Free Shambhala and the reactions of some to the feedback loop it represents….

  35. John Tischer on March 25th, 2009 1:17 pm

    “We want to prevent the possibility of feedback. Some organizations are like that. And yet, eventually, the feedback comes anyway. The more feedback is blocked, the more painful it is when it finally gets through to us.”

    So true…and a good standard by which to evaluate an organization. I’m in Mexico, and, although there is a Shambhala group down here, they seem to be inextricably connected with a phony shaman dude. The more serious practitioners are opposed to the relationship and express doubt and confusion, while the supporters are starry eyed and impervious to and angered by any criticism. It would be an interesting case to study.

  36. John Tischer on March 31st, 2009 3:32 pm

    One way the progress of Shambhala as it appears makes total sense to me isif SMR’s approach is to get the teachings to as many people as possible
    because he knows time is short. To me, it would also explain how the
    teachings are being protected now…..more available, less accessible.

  37. Alla on December 14th, 2011 10:01 pm

    This “free sharing” of infomration seems too good to be true. Like communism.

  38. John Tischer on December 15th, 2011 1:59 am

    Well I take back what I said in the post before this.
    At this point, I think it’s a crock.

  39. rita ashworth on December 15th, 2011 3:33 am

    yes where is the ‘true communism’ – I am exploring it….one such thinker who takes over from Fromm I think is John Holloway….very interesting…best rita