Dissent in the Shambhala Community

July 30, 2009

Article in The Coast, Volume 17, Number 10 (July 30 – August 5, 2009)

The Coast, Halifax’s what’s-happening-around-town free weekly, just published a short article on Radio Free Shambhala. In paper it was titled Sham. dissent (probably for width reasons), while on the web it’s Dissent in the Shambhala Community.

Here’s the text of the article.

Dissent in the Shambhala community 

New website Radio Free Shambhala illuminates a disagreement over the relationship between Buddhism and Shambhala.

An unusually public display of dissent and controversy among the Halifax-based Shambhala community is playing out on a provocative website that questions the present leadership direction of the organization.

RadioFreeShambhala.org was started about a year ago, says Mark Szpakowski, a web developer who came up with the idea for the site with fellow Shambhalan Ed Michalik. “It came about because there wasn’t a venue for discussion, and there were a whole lot of topics that some people thought weren’t being talked about at all,” explains Szpakowski.

The heart of the issue is a disagreement over the relationship between Buddhism and Shambhala.

“Shambhala” is a collection of teachings from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a charismatic Buddhist scholar who, at the age of 20, fled Tibet as Chinese armies were moving into that country in 1959. Trungpa went on to become the leading figure bringing Tibetan meditation practices to the west, and became established among the 1960s counterculture—Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, for example, taught at Trungpa’s Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

In 1986, Trungpa moved his operation to Halifax, and many of his supporters followed him here, establishing the local Shambhala community.

Trungpa died the following year, and after a mostly behind-the-scenes power struggle lasting two years, his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, took control of the organization.

“Many people who are devoted to Trungpa Rinpoche and who don’t consider the Sakyong to be their teacher don’t feel welcomed by the community, and they’re afraid to speak up,” comments dissident Andrew Safer on the Radio Free Shambhala site.

“Chögyam Trungpa had done the Buddhist thing, and he was an absolute master of them, and took a very rigorous approach to that,” explains Szpakowski. “But he saw that for the next long period of time, what the world needs is some kind of relationship that brings the sacred and the secular together.

“There was a whole stream of teachings that were presented that were independent of Buddhism, which were the Shambhala teachings, even though of course Chögyam Trungpa obviously came from Tibet and he himself was a Tibetan Buddhist.”

Trungpa taught that anyone at all, from any religion, or an atheist, could use Shambhala practices. And, in fact, many of Trungpa’s followers don’t consider themselves Buddhist; Michalik, for example, describes himself as a devout Roman Catholic.

But, say commenters on the Radio Free Shambhala site, Sakyong Mipham has insisted on re-asserting the traditional Tibetan Buddhist lineages, and generally bringing religion back into the organization.

That kernel of disagreement has widened into broader disagreements, including over organizational finances.

The Shambhala organization did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article. —Tim Bousquet

Deception, Corruption and Truth

July 21, 2009

Commentary by Suzanne Duarte

   Hell is the truth realized too late. ~ E.O. Wilson, Harvard biologist


Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, 1975 (Photo by Paul C. Kloppenberg)



It is said that when a great teacher passes, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche did in 1987, his or her students each carry particular teachings from that teacher that they then have the responsibility to bring to fruition in their lives.  This is how lineage is carried on.  I received many transmissions from Trungpa Rinpoche, but after he died several specific aspects of his teachings rose to consciousness, bringing an urgent sense of my obligation to fulfill them.  These pieces came as little energetic packets of information—or ‘medicine’—about my ‘mission’ that had his stamp on them.  I don’t know how else to explain it.  These ‘messages’ usually came to me while I was on retreat and they shaped the path that would subsequently unfold in my life.

Two of the ‘messages’ I received (on two separate retreats) had to do with two dharmic values that the Vidyadhara embodied, which were reinforced in me by his example.  Those values are consideration and concern for future generations and the importance of being truthful, which are related with each other.  After receiving these messages after he died, I began to understand that our personal adherence to the truth – or honesty – in the present is essential for the sanity and wellbeing of future generations, and thus for the continuity of the dharma.  That neither truth nor concern about future generations is a value that is widely held or respected in mainstream Western societies has become increasingly apparent to me since the Vidyadhara died, which has served to sharpen my focus on the importance of these values. 

The Vidyadhara and his Kagyu and Nyingma lineages had a great deal of foresight and always acted on behalf of future beings.  This was the force behind the Rimé movement in the 19th century, which helped to preserve sacred teachings in Tibet for future generations.  Trungpa Rinpoche expressed his concern about the future in the Sadhana of Mahamudra and in his Shambhala teachings.  I was already concerned about our collective future before I met Rinpoche in 1972, but when I found myself reciting the Sadhana of Mahamudra the first time I walked into a Dharmadhatu (aka Shambhala Center), that clinched it for me.  That shared concern for the future was the main reason I became his student and it fueled my devotion to him. 

Trungpa Rinpoche went to great lengths to make sure his students understood that we are the beneficiaries of the work and sacrifices of many generations of dharma practitioners and teachers whose explicit intention was to benefit future generations of human beings.  In the summer of 1976 or 1977, at a Naropa Institute lecture at the Sacred Heart school auditorium, I heard Trungpa Rinpoche describe his 500-year vision of how the dharma could be kept alive through the Dark Age of materialism, and thus enable future generations to maintain awakened mind in difficult circumstances.  He called this vision Enlightened Society, which is elaborated in his Shambhala teachings on warriorship.  He founded Shambhala Training in the late 1970s specifically to build the foundations for an enlightened society. 

In 2000, when George W. Bush showed up on the American horizon, the truth aspect of the Vidyadhara’s teachings – his consistent directive to adhere fearlessly to the truth, both within ourselves and with each other – began to echo recurrently in my mind.  Surrendering to the truth – even when bitter – and integrating the wisdom offered is the spiritual practice that enables the path to unfold.  After all, when we enter the stream of Buddhadharma by taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we vow to free ourselves from delusion, acknowledging that ignorance and delusion cause suffering for ourselves and others.  The cure for delusion is to face the truth, the facts of reality.

As Trungpa Rinpoche said in “Just the Facts:

Dharma literally means “truth” or “norm.” It is a particular way of thinking, a way of viewing the world, which is not a concept but experience. This particular truth is very painful truth — usually truths are.  It rings with the sound of reality, which comes too close to home. We become completely embarrassed when we begin to hear the truth. It is wrong to think that the truth is going to sound fantastic and beautiful, like a flute solo. The truth is actually like a thunderbolt. It wakes you up and makes you think twice whether you should stay in the rain or move into the house. Provocative. . . .

Sacredness doesn’t come in the form of religion, as a savior notion. The sacredness is the truthfulness. . . .  At this point, believing in miracles is an obstacle.  There is great room, on the other hand, for our minds to open, give [in] and face facts. Literally to face the facts: the facts of reality, the facts of pain, the facts of boredom.

Our world, this particular world, our Dharma, our truth, needs to be acknowledged and needs immense surrendering—not just a one-shot deal. Without this first Dharma, understanding the truth and our relationship to the truth, we could not go further.

Trungpa Rinpoche himself was fearlessly honest and up-front, and he had an unnerving, cosmic sense of humor.  He abhorred deception and pretense, deplored cowardice, and was compassionately precise in exposing it – a characteristic that discomforted many students.  Someone once said that the role of the spiritual friend is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.  This was exemplified by Trungpa Rinpoche. 

His emphasis on truth as sacred dharma confirmed my intuitive conviction that lies and deception are corrosive.  Lies and deception create fragmentation, confusion, and degradation.  Cleaving to truth gives us strength, backbone, and is essential for maintaining integrity and sanity, whereas lying fragments our integrity and therefore weakens us.  Deception also sows corruption in our social milieu, like a virus in the collective psyche.  Truth sets things right and restores sanity, at least for a little while, until the virus of corruption erupts again.

During George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000, the pretence and deception were so transparent that I could not understand how so many people could fall for it.  Bush’s election was ‘dodgy,’ to say the least, but he got in, and the fact that so many people were so easily deceived did not bode well for the future.  Indeed, a virus of corruption erupted during the Bush II administration, and that virus seemed to spread to other countries due to the American political and economic hegemony that existed when Bush took office – as if the world said, “If they do it in American, it must be okay.” 

I cite the example of the Bush II years to illustrate the relationship between deception, corruption and collective suffering, which is the converse of the relationship between truth (dharma) and the wellbeing of future generations.  Although the corruption in the Bush administration may not have exceeded by orders of magnitude that of other corrupt American administrations, it was nevertheless a dramatic example of the old adage that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In any case, my conviction in the value of honesty and my visceral antipathy towards deception kept my attention riveted to the shenanigans of the second Bush administration. There seemed to be no end to the lies, hypocrisy, secretiveness, cover-ups, disinformation, denial and distortion of scientific findings (e.g., global warming!), intrigues, scandals, fraud, subterfuge, and evasion that came out of that administration or were permitted by it.

It seems significant that the Bush II years were marked by numerous scandals in the United States, beginning in October 2001 with the Enron scandal – the largest corporate scandal in American history, which involved Bush’s good friend Ken Lay.  And just before Bush left office, another gigantic scandal erupted in December 2008 with revelations of the $65 billion fraud case against Bernard Madoff – “the largest investor fraud ever committed by a single person,” which has had devastating effects on many sangha people.  We can’t blame all of this on Mr. Bush, but a culture of deception and corruption did proliferate during his administration, and now we can watch (and experience) the ripening of the karma as the United States and the global economy suffer the economic consequences.  

On July 12, 2009, an article in The Independent reported on the State of the Future,” the largest single report to look at the future of the planet.  Entitled “The planet’s future: Climate change ‘will cause civilisation to collapse,’” the article says:

The impact of the global recession is a key theme, with researchers warning that global clean energy, food availability, poverty and the growth of democracy around the world are at “risk of getting worse due to the recession.” The report adds: “Too many greedy and deceitful decisions led to a world recession and demonstrated the international interdependence of economics and ethics.”

Although the future has been looking better for most of the world over the past 20 years, the global recession has lowered the State of the Future Index for the next 10 years. Half the world could face violence and unrest due to severe unemployment combined with scarce water, food and energy supplies and the cumulative effects of climate change.

This report vividly illustrates the effects of deception and corruption. “Too many greedy and deceitful decisions” lead to collective suffering in the future because deception and corruption are entropic.  They create disorder and degradation, ruptures in the fabric of reality, and are therefore, by definition, unsustainable.  It doesn’t matter how many people buy into the deception and participate in the corruption, there is no safety in numbers.  Rationalizing that ‘everybody does it’ provides no cover.  The rotten karma will still ripen.  And the more widespread the deception and corruption are, the more people get hurt.  In the case of climate change, for example – which the Bush administration denied for 8 years, delaying action to mitigate the effects – the collective suffering could go on for centuries. 

But what does all this have to do with the dharma and why talk about this on RFS?  Corruption can and does occur on a spiritual level as well as in the political economy.  Spiritual corruption begins when we depart from the truth, the dharma.  When we deceive ourselves, we inevitably deceive others, which starts the degenerative cycle of corruption.

In fact, the Vidyadhara said that deception creates samsara (cyclic existence and suffering due to ignorance and delusion):

With tremendous deception, we create samsara — pain and misery for the whole world, including ourselves – but we still come off as if we were innocent.  We call ourselves ladies and gentlemen, and we say, “I never commit any sins or create any problems. I’m just a regular old person, blah blah blah.”  That snowballing of deception and the type of existence our deception creates are shocking.

You might ask, “If everybody is involved with that particular scheme or project, then who sees the problem at all?  Couldn’t everybody just join in so that we don’t have to see each other that way?  Then we could just appreciate ourselves and our snowballing neuroses, and there would be no reference point whatsoever outside of that.”  Fortunately — or maybe unfortunately — we have one person who saw that there was a problem.  That person was known as Buddha. 

(From “Introduction” to The Truth Of Suffering And The Path Of Liberation, edited by Judith Lief, Shambhala Publications 2009.)

No matter how many people believe a lie, it’s still a lie, and it still creates samsara, corruption, karma, and suffering – a setting sun world.  The lie has to be exposed.  To be permissive of deception is to collude with it and corrupt ourselves. This is the Buddha’s painful and embarrassing truth that “comes too close to home.”  But, since it’s the Buddha’s truth, there is still good news: recognizing deception and corruption and realizing the truth releases the energy that has been locked up in evasion, and that is the energy we use to liberate ourselves and walk the path of dharma.   

Allegiance with the truth, no matter the cost, enables us to remain in integrity, connected with reality, one with the dharma.  We have to look beneath the deceptive surface of ‘normality’ to glean the truth of things as they are – whether about ourselves or about our world.  Being open to seeing the truth, rather than shying away from it, arouses our creative energy, raises our lungta, and turns the poison of delusion into medicine – insight.  Of course, it is certainly best to catch deception before we become involved in corruption, for then we might think we have too much to lose by facing the truth – which is the ultimate deception that creates samsara.  

As the Vidyadhara said, surrendering to the truth isn’t a one-shot deal.  It is a continuous process of unmasking ourselves, cutting through deception, through spiritual materialism and all the other tricks of ego that are reinforced by our conditioning in the setting-sun world.  Our wisdom co-emerges with our confusion when we are willing to catch ourselves in deception and surrender to the truth. 

The energy of truth uplifts us and takes us forward in a dharmic direction, the direction of enlightened society.  Enlightened Society is our hope for the future of humanity and of the dharma, and that hope resides in being honest and truthful with ourselves and each other.

On Differing Views and Paths

July 16, 2009

Interview with Richard Reoch, by Andrew Safer

On-line discussions on the Radio Free Shambhala web site and various listservs have been pointing out that there are students of Trungpa Rinpoche who are continuing along the path he set out for them, and who don’t feel welcome within the current-day Shambhala community. It no longer feels like “home” to them. Sometimes they are disparaged by community members who cite their “lack of loyalty” to the current Sakyong.

Andrew Safer of Radio Free Shambhala recently had the opportunity to ask Richard Reoch, President of Shambhala, to comment on this state of affairs.

Radio Free Shambhala: As you know, there has been tension and disagreement between some of Trungpa Rinpoche’s senior students and some of the students of the Sakyong, regarding changes to the practice path and differences of view. Many of these senior students do not feel that there is room for them within the Shambhala mandala.

Richard Reoch: It’s true that some of the long-term students of the Vidyadhara feel like they’re not supported. I and others have been in conversation with some of the long-term acharyas to see what is the practice support that is needed that would continue to nurture their path, and not make them feel excluded.

RFS: Sometimes the samaya of these senior students has been questioned.

Richard Reoch: That’s not what I feel Shambhala vision is about. I do not believe we should be commenting on or having the presumption to comment on another practitioner’s samaya. We all have a common, deep karmic connection. Probably most of us can’t even fathom it. We are all in this extraordinary lineage stream. We have a deep shared vision, at least about what Shambhala means, in an archetypal sense, in our subconscious.

To regard someone who is maintaining samaya within the Shambhala lineage as a dissenter is a mistaken view. It is not helpful to comment on the legitimacy of another person’s practice of samaya. Perhaps this happens because we don’t have the ground for the perpetuation of lineage in this culture. If you think several generations ahead, are we going to say that the students of the next Sakyong are dissenters because they’re following the teachings of Mipham? This is a fundamental misunderstanding of lineage.

One problem with the transplantation of egoless devotion from a culture like Tibet to a culture like we have in the West is we don’t have a tradition of lineage in modern form. We don’t have the cultural roots to support that. We are all grappling with how to understand this profound teaching.

I try to use the office I hold (as President), and the authority that goes with it to deal with this issue. When members of our community are described as “border tribes”—when they write me or meet with me—I devote a lot of time and try to learn from them. I think there has been a kind of polarization in which extreme language is used. We genuinely have to go deeper, beneath this level of argument, to find the commonality. I’m definitely doing that, person to person.

Maybe now that the current orientation of the path is getting clearer, we need to have a conversation with the senior acharyas about precisely what could be the support that can be provided for people who started on a particular element of the path of Shambhala and that needs to continue and be supported?

Five Sakyongs down the road, there will be people who say “I make a personal connection by reading the works of the Vidyadhara.” Others will day “How fortunate it was for Shambhala that Mipham the Great reincarnated as the Sakyong.” Eventually, it’s not just about tolerating differences; it’s about appreciating the incredible richness that’s available in our kingdom.

RFS: The real question is: how are the teaching stream and legacy of Trungpa Rinpoche going to continue?

Richard Reoch: I’ve been in discussions with Carolyn Gimian since the beginning of the Chögyam Trungpa Legacy Project about the importance of that initiative. The analogy we have used is that the Legacy Project is like a presidential library, so things don’t end up moldering and being lost. I’ve had some initial conversations with some of the longer-term students and acharyas about how to create an identifiable and helpful framework so no one is seen as being on one track or the other, or as renegades which is antithetical to the long-term survival of the lineage.

RFS: Many people who are devoted to Trungpa Rinpoche and who don’t consider the Sakyong to be their teacher don’t feel welcomed by the community, and they’re afraid to speak up.

Richard Reoch: One of the earliest statements issued by the Mandala Governing Council created after the first Shambhala Congress was a statement on the commitment to openness. I asked members of that council to list the issues that people are afraid to speak up about. We seemed to have inherited an incredible atmosphere of fear, and I did not understand that. I had no idea the extent to which this community was traumatized. When I asked what issues were not being addressed, people were afraid to name the issues.  I think we all realized, ‘Wow, we can’t even talk about what we can’t talk about!’ Opening up that discussion was like Glasnost and Perestroika in Shambhala.

I talked to Larry Mermelstein, and asked, “Is there anything we can do to reduce this climate of fear?” Some people were experiencing this fear in a very palpable way. If we can’t create a social framework in which we understand that people will have different points of view, then all the notions of fearlessness and openheartedness—everything we’re so proud of about the Shambhala inheritance—absolutely won’t take root. We can’t build an enlightened society on a basis of fear.

Wherever I go, I invite people to talk to me about this so I can find out more about it. Sometimes, because someone has said something extremely abusive, we feel like we’re going to lose membership. There are people hiding out, as if they’re the old Chi Kung masters at the height of the Cultural Revolution hoping they’re not noticed by the Red Guards. It’s a slow process of personal conversation, trying to address these tendencies of people persecuting each other.

When Radio Free Shambhala was established, people contacted me as if this was the end of the world. “No, just think ahead,” I said. “If we think about the new golden age of Shambhala, there will be countless Web sites and social networking opportunities where people express their experience of the dharma and of different teachers, including what others might disagree with. If there’s one thing that prevents establishing the kingdom of Shambhala, it’s called fascism, and I‘m not having anything to do with that.”

The Net of Speech

July 7, 2009

Here’s some of what is being said and discussed on the world wide web, that may be of interest to RFS readers. We will periodically share links to other web sites, weblogs and networks. 

Not all these sites offer opportunities for  commenting, so feel free to speak up here.

Before, during, and after feeling this freedom, however…  please rest your mind – in whatever your best expression of practice is – and continue to share that! 

The listings below are in no particular order.

Shambhala Times: Shambhala Vision, Forward Vision
Lisa Johnston describes the Shambhala Vision Campaign. Bill Karelis requests financial transparency of the Sakyong’s Foundation.


Shambhala Times Nourishing the Third Jewel: A Letter from our Guest Editors
Mary Whetsell and Debbie Coats write on sangha and community: Susan Szpakowski and Suzanne (?) respond.


Church of Shambhala Vajradhara Maitreya Sangha
Remember the kid tulku in the movie Little Buddha? This is he.


Shambhala Times: Scorpion Seal Opens
“lifting a mist that has been hanging over the terma for decades.”


Gomde Danmark Sangha: East-West, West-East by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche comments on the recent Is Tibetan Buddhism working in the West article.


Gesar Mukpo’s Tulku trailer.