Dissent in the Shambhala Community
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