Dissent in the Shambhala Community

July 30, 2009 by     Print This Post Print This Post

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


272 Responses to “Dissent in the Shambhala Community”

  1. Rita Ashworth on February 28th, 2013 3:05 am

    Dear Mr Perks et al,

    It is not exactly that I am not a wimp in now following somewhat of an outside path from the one laid down by SI, rather it seems to me from my reading and meeting with people of other Buddhist faiths, the Christian community and artists in the last three years that I have come to the notion that the ‘conceptions’ about enlightened society can not be set in stone at the present time.
    Discussions about society whether enlightened or not are happening all over the globe now much more frequently than before due to environmental and financial crises-and I have come to no ready made conclusions about how to resolve all these discussions. But I am ready to dialogue with people of all faiths and none who are also debating similar issues. Indeed re the convention I am helping to organise here we are now going to have a day of practice to share our thoughts about society, practice, Buddhism and the themes of the convention itself. If we work well together on this day of practice perhaps further ventures could be considered as to practice environments and the sharing of ideas both Buddhist and non-Buddhist in a greater conception of sangha. In addition many Christians are also going to come to the convention in October so who knows what will develop from this connection also.
    Yes the prevalence of the discussions about society seem to be at the root of many Buddhist organisations now and I dont think SI can lay claim to be the only organisation on the block that has The Answer to whole thing as it were.
    Reflecting also on this notion of exchange of thoughts about society I have been much impressed by students of Nhat Hanh who have a process called ‘mindful sharing’ which allows individuals the space to reflect on issues in the openness of being heard without a sense of speediness-hope to experience this process for myself soon on our day of practice together. Furthermore Hanh also allows his students to have many teachers if they wish which I find a really interesting position for any teacher now to have in this present age of ‘religious’ monopolies.
    Of course all of the above does resonate with me about what the original presentation of the shambhala teachings are actually about and if I can in any way bring my feelings about what I know of and have experienced about basic goodness I will bring that to the table also.
    So yes many of us out here are on a voyage of discovery with what we have learned from Trungpa Rinpoche and to say that his legacy can in any way be contained in one organisation now is not on the cards I believe.
    Yes from my own explorations in the last three years I would urge people to go out more to fellow seekers who are also involved in discussions about society now in whatever form and yes these discussions are a great blessing at this time.

    Well best from the UK

    Rita Ashworth

    (Ps: Please do read the Confessions book by Batchelor its completely fascinating and also goes to a degree into the discussions about society and Buddhism’s role in it).

  2. John Perks on March 1st, 2013 8:59 am

    “Agharta” by Miles Davis,who I met at Cosby’s,MD a real wild man.

  3. John Tischer on March 2nd, 2013 4:32 pm

    Here’s a story about Trungpa Rinpoche, that could have happened, but didn’t.

    A student asks him, “Sir, how can you stand having all these people around you all the time?”

    He responds: “It goes with the lack of territory.”

  4. John Perks on March 3rd, 2013 9:30 pm

    Yes John,you are right,
    you know what ,SMR is never going to be CTR,or anything like him.,
    SMR has done his best to disenfranchize CTR’s students,and proclaim himself as the only heir to his fathers teachings but it is a lie,
    WE also hold the teachings of the Mahasiddha Chogyam Mukpo,as his dharma sons and daughters
    SMR is a real fake,
    still we love him,
    years ago he SMR told me his aim was to establish a Tibetan Dynasty,
    he has been very successful in that.but for us our path
    goes with the lack of territory…..

  5. Rita Ashworth on March 5th, 2013 2:56 am

    Dear Mr Perks et al,

    It would be interesting to know when SMR had this discussion with you so that we could somewhat set things in a timeline.
    It seems from what I have read and garnered from rfs that 2000 seemed to be the start of the ‘new’ approach. However Dan Montgomery on another post said that as at later as 2004 people were discussing the status of the Sakyong position. So how did SMRs thinking about his own approach develop in these years and to a degree could it have been influenced by other sources.
    As far as I can see from CTR’s talks on enlightened society he stepped back from establishing a concrete monarchy in the west. In addition he appointed the Regent as his dharma heir and also from posts on rfs from Mark Smith we have the notion of the essence of the teachings being transmitted not through the tulku lineage but from student to student.
    Also even if SMRs thinking and his feeling that things should go this way for myself I dont think this governance model is on for the west. If you look at western history re philosophy, re religion, re politics the monarchical system never totally works here. Yes I would only see the monarchy concept in terms of the actual shambhala teachings in a philosophical sense as they also have it somewhat in Christianity with the ‘Kingdom of God’ which CTR also briefly mentions in his books too.
    Furthermore recently on rfs in posts from Scowling Owl and Jake I think we have the beginnings of people actually in shambhala centres who are turning away somewhat from the model on offer –so there seems to be some questioning going on now about this in the centres themselves. Yes people on the outside will just have to wait and see how this whole thing plays out, but for myself I can not see it fundamentally working in the end because it does not suit western society as it now is with its growing notion of democracy and the spread of meditation through other less hierarchical modes and the mindfulness movement.

    Well best

    Rita Ashworth

  6. John Perks on March 5th, 2013 9:49 am

    Dear Rita,
    Well lets see that would be just after CTR died,
    But you know it is our fault to think that SMR would continue what his father had initiaed after all SMR said “I am not my father”,and every one applauded that statement at that early meeting as I was told.
    SMR has been quite clear on what he wanted,and the direction he wanted as to how Shambhala should be established .
    also he was quite clear he did not want any input from from CTR’s students unless they were willing to follow his direction,
    Personally I do not want to live under a Tibetan Dynasty,but there are many that do..who can tell how things will work out,which reminds me of a true story I just heard…
    A 4 year old girl Suzy was painting a picture in her class,her teacher came by ,and said “what are you painting Suzy” “A picture of God”replied Suzy,
    “O” said the teacher “but Suzy no one knows what God looks like”
    “they will in a minute”exclaimed Suzy.

  7. Rita Ashworth on March 5th, 2013 4:37 pm

    Dear Mr Perks et al,

    (excuse the second post)

    Thank you for the clarity of your statement.

    So some thirteen years before we got the ‘new’ approach as it were it seems that the Sakyong from your inference was planning this ‘Tibetan dynasty’-yes quite some time to keep this thing under wraps and to develop what was going to come in. I wonder who he consulted about this Tibetan dynasty in those thirteen years –people in what was once known as Vajradhatu or people outside of it. Perhaps we shall never know this as courts seem to me to never keep minutes.
    I also wonder who was at this ‘early meeting’ and if they were aware what was going to occur some time ahead or whether the whole thing came as a shock to them as well. So yes quite a pulling of the rug as things turned out in the end.
    As to him ‘not being his father’, hardly a reason to cheer….so he is his own man ….so what…does one need to measure up to a genius.
    So also if people were not to follow his direction, – where does this in the end leave the whole rapprochement process with Satdharma-not I think on a level playing field.
    As to CTR’s students in the states surely this ‘direction thing’ of his also leaves them in the lurch too-wonder what Mark Smith and others would say about that.
    Yes, personally I dont see how a Tibetan dynasty can deliver the goods dharmically for the west-this thing, this fairy tale is way past anyones bedtime now. We have grown up in the dharma over forty years and there is no way now that at some time in the near future you are not going to have credible and learned western teachers at the head of diverse sanghas.
    So yes on we go here in the UK with our own feelings about enlightened society. I am planning to get over 300 people to a Buddhist convention in October I am helping to organise and I hope to further the discussions of the dharma and its role in society to a great extent. I dearly hope that others in Canada and the States can follow suit.
    Best from the UK
    Rita Ashworth

  8. John Perks on March 6th, 2013 7:03 am

    Dear Rita,
    Good luck on your convention,
    and as Mark says “The philosopher King is rarer than teeth on a hen”
    We had one,still do,in that we have our clan which is Shambhala our relationship to each other and commitment to what we experienced with him goes on,like a rain of blessings…
    love to you

  9. Michael Crowley on March 6th, 2013 1:39 pm

    I’ve been checking this site periodically for a couple of years after finding it accidentally while searching for information, variously, on VCTR and Sakyong Mipham. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about VCTR until long after he passed away, but it was his books that convinced me to take refuge in Buddhism. There is so much food for thought here, and it is an honor to be able to read the thoughts of his actual former students.

    Is there any kind of message board where his “old dogs” (your words) post and can be asked questions about the Dharma and VCTR’s teachings? This seems like a precious opportunity to seek the advice of people who’ve had this amazing experience of studying under him personally, and I don’t belong to a sangha, nor do I have a face-to-face teacher/guru/lama. Questions come up, and there are a lot of thoughtful and eloquent practitioners here who might be able to help people like myself.

    I apologize for posting this here, but I could find no better place to post it on this site, and this thread seems to be still active. What is so intriguing about this site is that it has gathered together a lot of his former students—it seems a great opportunity for less experienced practitioners who also find enormous value in these teachings.

    Maybe I shouldn’t even say this, but I don’t really understand the appeal of joining a sangha or “belonging” to a community. Is this an absolutely necessary component to realizing Enlightenment, or is it a hindrance? I used to wistfully imagine it might be satisfying or important, but as this site and many others illustrate, whenever you put people together regardless of best intentions it seems like the five poisons eventually ruin everything. Why not just find the best written texts and, if fortunate, a good teacher and practice by one’s self? That would completely avoid the inevitability of being disappointed, of having spiritual practice degenerate into a political and interpersonal soap opera. I listened to a discussion on the internet yesterday that involved at one point an argument over which gurus’ pictures should be placed on an altar. This would frustrate me no end.


  10. Michael Crowley on March 6th, 2013 1:39 pm


    Anyway, I have the highest regard for the level of discourse and issues discussed here; it is troubling at times but fascinating, thoughtful, and seems full of potential with an opportunity for less experienced practitioners to learn from very interesting people with great experience. BTW, in the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t have a problem with the Sakyong Mipham; I’ve read three of his books and watched his YouTubes and think he’s worth listening to. In one fairly recent talk he gave to a Los Angeles Shambhala group (he’d just come out of a one year retreat) he seemed troubled, somber and serious, on the verge perhaps a shift in what directions he wants to take his teachings. Maybe this is a mirage, but I’m willing for now to reserve judgment.

    I don’t know if he is “realized”; only he knows that, I suppose. It seems from what he is saying that he regards himself as still on the path, which also makes him someone I can relate to.

    Warmest wishes to all.


  11. John Tischer on March 6th, 2013 6:12 pm

    John…loved the “Susie” thing…..

    there’s a proprietary quality to saying :”I am not my father”…which I think
    some psychologists, (to use them though i hate them) would say is a developmental statement. It is completely “personal”, and there is no dharma in it….there is no “other” in it.

    Lineages usually try to uphold the teachings that they have been given and realized. Was the Shambhala Path not fully delineated (EXCEPT for Scorpion Seal) before the Vidyadhara died? Was it working or not? These are two of myriad questions that won’t even be asked.

    If SMR had said something like,: “I am not my father, although I aspire to be.” That would, at least, have sounded better.

    You know John, you go to Brooklyn, and the guy in the street says: “You
    want yer God? I got Yer God right here!”

    P.S. to Mike….might as well ask your questions here, if you like…after all..it’s here.
    you might make a personal relationship with someone here and could e mail.
    This site, if not surely one thing, proves to me that the Kingdom of Shambhala will always embrace chaos.

  12. Rita Ashworth on March 7th, 2013 3:52 am

    Dear John et al

    Thanks for your best wishes re the convention we need it!

    Yes I am very much in exploratory mode re enlightened society and the processes of religion for want of a better word.
    As such there is a wonderful set of talks by Stephen Batchelor and Roshi Joan Halifax about Buddhism and practice in general that I am finding quite pertinent to my own explorations at the present time….yes the talks are quite dense but very informative as to the general feelings about Buddhism in the west which seems to be undergoing a critical analysis by people out there in academe and centres……so check out http://www.upaya.org
    Of course I am not sure if I would go as far as Batchelor in throwing lineage, karma and rebirth into the bin! But he does give quite good and logical reasons for doing this for a western audience.
    Yes from my recent reading, discussions with people and just practice itself I am becoming more connected to the way CTR originally taught the shambhala teachings in the west which were less prescriptive as to adherence to gurus and traditions. Yes it seems to me now that people are abjuring connection to status quos and rules and are much more acting from an instinctual nature which we can see from the recent political upheavals therefore as such I think we need to leave space for those questionings to abound without hedging them in with defined practices. If you like in set Buddhist terms perhaps we are going into a world that is more flavoured with spaciousness and richness in terms of creativity. Its true that I dont have a handle on what these explorations will result in but to set things in stone at this early stage I believe would be a wrong move and I much more willing to let the questioning process take its measured time and encourage more exploration of community in diverse forms.
    Yes to some extent I have no choice in standing outside of SI because that is where suffering humanity is-it is not in an organisation nor are the vast majority of people in this world Buddhist so morally this is where I have to be now aswell.

    Well best from the UK.

    Rita Ashworth

  13. John Perks on March 7th, 2013 5:23 pm

    Dear Mr Crowley,
    There are many fine teachers on this site,old dogs if you will who were close to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
    my advise is to ask them directly with questions of your interest,
    they are,
    Rita Ashworth,
    Suzanne Duarte,
    Mark Szpakowski,
    John Tischer,…among others,
    I do not include myself because I is to old,an can’t spell worth a spit,an my index finger is worn down to a nubb with one finger writin.
    good luck on your adventure

  14. Rita Ashworth on March 8th, 2013 2:33 am

    Dear John et al,

    Thanks for that mention in your post to Mr Crowley ….but though I am catching up I dont think I am that old yet!

    Rather I would suggest to Mr Crowley that he just steps into the fray of rfs and argues the toss like the rest of us…I hope we dont get into a hierarchy of commentators like the grade of bananas syndrome that seems to be developing in a lot of orgs….yes alleluia and past the basket!
    Dunno where Trungpas teachings are taking us –I am in transition and exploring mode…so trying to look at this very world head on.
    Yes perhaps before going to meditation halls we should go to the streets….like this demo that is happening in London which looks quite fun! Here is the vid – yes overthetop but perhaps we need to be overthetop now and somewhat beyond it in this time.


    Perhaps then we would get some inkling of what is going on out there with people….ah well…..best from the UK rita

  15. Suzanne Duarte on March 8th, 2013 12:34 pm

    For Michael Crowley: I am touched by your questions and your interest in dialoguing with some of the Vidyadhara’s senior students. It’s ironic that you ask, “Is there any kind of message board where his “old dogs” (your words) post and can be asked questions about the Dharma and VCTR’s teachings? This seems like a precious opportunity to seek the advice of people who’ve had this amazing experience of studying under him personally.”

    Thank you for inquiring, Mike. The irony is that a couple of years ago, a little group of old dogs floated a proposal for creating a website that would bring together many of VCTR’s direct students who would be willing to relate with people interested in VCTR’s teachings. However, at the time, the feedback was that it wouldn’t work, that the old dogs wouldn’t go for it. The issues are complicated, but I think the idea of a message board is intriguing. I can imagine a site called, “Ask an Old Dog”!

    One of the problems in even visualizing such a thing is that Trungpa Rinpoche’s sangha is fragmented – truly fragmented. The tiny handful that continues to show up on RFS is not particularly representative. If you could get a representative spectrum of VCTR’s direct students to relate with a message board for answering questions about VCTR’s teachings, you might receive wildly differing responses to any one question, and there would be no way to verify either the identity or the authority of those answering questions.

    However, regarding your question about sangha – “I don’t really understand the appeal of joining a sangha or “belonging” to a community.” – you might gain some insight from my article on this site titled “How to Invoke Magic and Revitalize the Third Jewel” http://radiofreeshambhala.org/2011/06/third-jewel-magic/. That explains to some extent the traditional teaching on sangha, the “third jewel.”

    I can say that when the Vidyadhara was alive, my own experience of sangha was wonderful. I am so grateful to have had that experience, which included working in VCTR’s headquarters and living in rural retreat centers under his direction for 10 years. Living and working with sangha was deeply satisfying and it also considerably reinforced the integration of the teachings in my life. And that is why sangha is important – as a support for practice and learning.

    I’m sorry we can’t offer that to you now.

  16. Charles Marrow on March 10th, 2013 12:39 am

    Dear Michael Crowley,

    I would be happy to pass along any dharma thoughts that may, in some small way help clarify things. I am an email minimalist but think the telephone is an amazing piece of modern technology. Along those lines you may call me at 780-705-3007 if you would like to visit on the phone.

    Best Wishes, Charles Marrow

    PS: for time zone reference this is Edmonton Alberta

  17. Jake on March 10th, 2013 2:04 am

    I was attracted to Shambhala Training and CTR’s teachings because it was available to everyone, Buddhist are whoever. I only head him speak once at one of the early the Christian Buddhist conferences at Naropa. This quote may have been from one of those…I’ m not sure.

    “The world is not going to be saved purely by religion alone.
    But the world can be saved also by secular enlightenment as well. So that is the meaning of Shambhala”.


  18. John Tischer on March 10th, 2013 3:00 pm

    “secular enlightenment”……doesn’t mean it becomes a business deal
    or a twelve step program. It means that the religion is gone….what’s left
    is the bare minimum….”basic goodness” is a common term for this.

    and, yes, Sir, you threw us out or threw us up…..but we needed that instead of
    just following the next One….so, thanks!

    what term would one coin for the form of Shambhala.org. now? Commercial Secularism? That doesn’t sound very nice. What
    ever it is, it’s not what it was…..

    and, apologies to Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche, but, Yes, Sir….we did “get it”.

  19. John Perks on March 10th, 2013 5:40 pm

    NO apologies needed “fucking A”

  20. John Tischer on March 10th, 2013 8:40 pm

    You know, John, I’m usually not that nice….I agree with your statement,
    of course…..I was just trying to feign a little Shambhala dignity…show a different…side. I’m sure I’ll be stupid enough before long. here and everyone will forget

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