Dispatches Interviews RFS Editor

November 19, 2009 by     Print This Post Print This Post

The Chronicles Radio site has published a podcast interview with Mark Szpakowski, one of the RFS editors, as part of its Dispatches series: “Mark talks about his family background, meeting and studying with Trungpa Rinpoche, his views on Buddhism, Shambhala, and Shambhala Buddhism, and Radio Free Shambhala“. There is also an accompanying short interview on dharma in the cyber age.

Please comment and contribute to discussion and understanding of the issues presented, either on the Chronicles site or here on Radio Free Shambhala.

You can listen to the podcast on the Chronicles Radio site, or right-click (control-click on a Mac if you don’t have a two-button mouse) a link there to download the MP3, or click an iTunes button to subscribe to Dispatches podcasts through iTunes.


14 Responses to “Dispatches Interviews RFS Editor”

  1. Michael Sullivan on November 20th, 2009 11:17 am

    That was an interesting interview. I especially liked the short segment on dharma in the cyber age. It brought back memories….. I recall Dharmanet – that was one of my early bulletin board experiences (on my Commodore 64! ) and i recall an access number to some server and then seeing “telnet” on the screen before we actually got in to dharmanet proper. Both CTR’s passing – which I recall as pretty much a one-way communication – and then the Regent crisis which was much more a free-for-all dialog – stand out in my memory.

    I think that computer – mediated forms of communication are actually under-used in dharma situations for the most part these days. A major exception to that is my current teacher Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, who has for the last 10 years been using the web as a teaching medium. He does at least 4 multi day retreats per year that are “open” webcast, live in real-time, both in audio and video, as well as a number of “closed” webcasts that are limited to community members. They include lungs for various practices, so it isn’t simply dharma talks. This is invaluable for people in remote locations, for those who lack the financial resources to travel to retreats, or for those who are limited by health reasons etc. I expect to see more sanghas using these types of technologies to a greater extent as a younger generation of teachers – internet savvy – come to the fore. Norbu Rinpoche’s use of the technology was probably spurred on by his son Yeshi – now teaching himself – who was an IT professional in Italy.

  2. Edward on November 20th, 2009 2:50 pm

    Good interview. I’ve only heard the first 1/3 so far.

    I enjoyed hearing about how varied and diverse the sangha was when you first met Trungpa Rinpoche.

    The comments about being a refugee were interesting.

    The bit about preserving CTR’s words and interactions for future generations was interesting.

    I liked the comment that CTR wasn’t just speaking “about” the dharma, it *was* the dharma.

    There was a question that Julia asked at one point: “Why do you think CTR taught Buddhadharma and Shambhala as separate things?” And Mark said he thought it was because CTR cared for the world. Which was a beautiful answer.

    But I’ll add one more possible reason. I think part of the reason CTR taught them as separate things was this: You can give a verbal teaching about “buddhadharma without credentials”. People can admire the teaching and say yes of course they agree with it. But then if you ask Buddhists to give some of the very best wisdom of Buddhism to non-Buddhists, to give it away for free so to speak, well that’s a real test isn’t it? That’s not easy to do. You have to not only verbally agree with the concept of “buddhadharma without credentials” but you have to be willing to *live* it, embody it, otherwise Shambhala will be destroyed by our desire to control and contain it as provincial, cocoon-worshiping Buddhists.

    That’s my opinion, for what it’s worth. CTR presented them as separate things in part as a test, a challenge, an opportunity, a mirror.

  3. Tashi Armstrong on November 20th, 2009 11:44 pm


    Thank you so much Mark. It was a brilliant and thoughtful interview. Obviously because you are a very brilliant and thoughtful person. I especially liked the example of your catholic friend. And the gentle correction you made for Julia about the nontheistic basis that underlies most spiritual tradititions. Reminding us that it is available right here regardless of “religious” affiliations which is what Shambhala was all about.
    I do feel a bit dubious about the ability of forums like this to provide any effective way of engaging the Dharma or the sangha (or the Buddha for that matter.). In many ways we are fooling ourselves here. As you said Mark — we need to sit together on that park bench. We need to actually meet. Otherwise it is just concepts. Words on a page. The illusion of reality and connection.

  4. rita ashworth on November 21st, 2009 7:55 am

    Bravo Mark for doing that interview!

    Some thoughts on it maybe could have been a bit sharper on Julias side -think she should have prodded you more on the philosophy stuff -that way could engage with a wider audience – also maybe some talk of the practicalities of englightened society would have been good cos we are talking about government both world and national here.

    Cantagree with Tashi above on peoples minds not meeting on the web -words wherever you put them are pretty mighty even on telecommunication basis -its all communication between people. So people please communicate more here and all public forums -look at what those 148 pages of the Communist manifesto did in the nineteenth century for example.

    Is there any one CPcould interview re the dissenters would love to hear other dissenters in sound on here and elsewhere -we need the spread of different takes on things to provoke discussion and possibly a tinge of enlightment!

    Well best from the UK

    Rita Ashworth

  5. Tashi Armstrong on November 21st, 2009 4:29 pm

    Hi Rita,

    I agree that these public forums are incredibly powerful but can they possibly communicate the inexpressible recognition of mind? Or Adhistana?
    I am reminded of watching a video of Trungpa Rinpoche giving a talk and actually being in the room when he gave the talk. Something was missing in the video. The medium was incapable of manifesting awakened mind, incapable of transmission. Yet many people would say that they had seen that talk. Have they? I don’t think so.

    We can communicate concepts like “communism” or whatever. But the only way I have seen to really meet the Dharma is face to face. That’s why you can’t do a correspondents course Dathun. Got to be in the room together. I really feel that though this format has great potential for many things it also gives the dangerous illusion that we are operating like a sangha. And we aren’t. I think we just need to be very wary about the potential and the limitations here. By the way, you are welcome to come and practice with me, Rita, anytime you are in Maine! Maybe that is what this forum is best used for. Getting the sangha together to practice the Dharma together. That is where we should meet. Not in this disembodied cyber space! Its really quite funny that we can take this so seriously.

  6. Edward on November 22nd, 2009 2:05 am

    Tashi writes:
    I am reminded of watching a video of Trungpa Rinpoche giving a talk… The medium was incapable of manifesting awakened mind, incapable of transmission.

    I’m sorry that was your experience Tashi.

    I certainly agree that typing words onto a website is not a substitute for sitting together. It would be a huge mistake to think that. But perhaps the two things are not really in competition with each other?

    Also, I cannot agree that communications media like audio-video recordings cannot transmit awakened mind, in their own way. Why do you suppose Trungpa Rinpoche had stuff recorded? Maybe we could have saved him a lot of trouble if we had enlightened him with our superior understanding of such things? But cynicism aside, in my own experience and the experience of my friends, AV materials do transmit.

    One serious challenge with a website like this is the way feedback works here, the way the conversation works. Sometimes the discussions here are extremely heated and emotional and even a bit nasty– but also “real” in a way, maybe– and at other times they are somewhat cerebral and intellectual and involved with trying to get rid of or ignore unpleasant people and to identify and contain anything threatening.

    Actually, maybe that has more to do with the nature of mind than with this medium.

    Anyway, I think every medium has its strengths and weaknesses. We could just as well criticize black and white calligraphy, because it is so colorless, or we could lament the shortcomings of telephones, because they’re not the same as conversations that take place in person.

    Quite possibly online discussions have strengths that no other medium can offer. Imagine trying to have a discussion with 500 friends all at once in person. It would be quite challenging I think.

    But rather than discussing the dharma online, perhaps we should focus instead on practicing it. That’s not a bad idea, but unless my understanding of the dharma is tested through occasional conversation with others, it’s hard to tell sometimes if I’m really practicing the dharma or if I’m manufacturing my own version of it. Even large groups can manufacture their own version of the dharma, with the members all reinforcing the same mistakes.

    That’s why I thought it was interesting what Mr. Szpakowski said about the diversity of Trungpa Rinpoche’s sangha. People got together who had almost nothing in common except the dharma and the teacher. There is an interesting kind of magic that happens when we can tolerate that kind of environment, I think.

  7. Tashi Armstrong on November 22nd, 2009 8:23 pm

    Hi Edward,

    Are you suggesting that you can recieve dharma transmission from a video? Does that mean we could watch a video of ‘pointing out’ or get videos of abhisekas? I don’t think that would work and I think we need to investigate why that wouldn’t work

    “Even large groups can manufacture their own version of the dharma…”

    That is why we need to rely on a qualified master. And that generally needs to be a person to person situation. How do you know when you have a qualified master? There are certain criteria to look for and these have been enumerated by our lineage. I don’t know if there are any lineage masters on this forum. It would be hard to tell from the words they type. Something is not converyed through this medium.

    Brush calligrahy is a little different.

    But television is not reality — certainly not in terms of Dharma.
    It has been said, its impossible to attain realization from reading a book. We get trapped by concepts. This format is 100% conceptual.

    I guess my problem is that most of us are fooled by this medium. A sangha are the people you live with and practice with. There is no privacy in a sangha. It is the real world of ‘raw and rugged’ and we need to get back to that to develop strong Dharma communties. Regional centers where people live and practice together.

    People in the 70’s and 80’s that Mark is talking about were not cyber sangha. They actually lived together and practiced together. It is interesting to see that we have pretty much taken apart all of the regional practice communities like KCL.

    I think it is contributing to the overall deterioration of the situation.

  8. Michael Sullivan on November 22nd, 2009 11:41 pm

    Tashi wrote:

    Are you suggesting that you can recieve dharma transmission from a video? Does that mean we could watch a video of ‘pointing out’ or get videos of abhisekas? I don’t think that would work and I think we need to investigate why that wouldn’t work

    Actually it can work. The key is how the technology is used.

    I agree that you can’t simply watch a video of pointing out or transmission. That is because it is a recording of something that happened, and the transmission from the teacher happened at the time it took place.

    And yet, my current sangha has used the web technologies as an “alternative” medium for transmission for many years, but with a very important difference: the technology is used to bridge the distance, but the teacher and students are all practicing at the same time and are linked by their intention. The teacher intends to transmit, the student intends to receive the transmission (with necessary preparation etc.), and the technology serves to coordinate their practice together.

    I have quite a bit of experience with this. My eldest daughter was profoundly ill for many years, and my wife and I could not travel to retreats but participated remotely. Other senior students – among them my friends the late Kagyu monk Karma Jinpa Zangpo and Robin Kornman – also have received transmission in this style and felt it was a valid approach. Is it the ideal approach? No – I would much rather be in the room with the teacher – but sometimes that isn’t possible.

  9. rita ashworth on November 23rd, 2009 9:23 am

    Gee – I was not thinking of provoking a debate on the actual forum way of communicating online. I mean’t that writing persay was very powerful and that you could not underestimate the power of words in whatever way.

    However now that Michael Sullivan has posted on his experience with the web I am thinking that maybe yes it could possibly be a good way of transmitting the teachings in their totality – I suppose the proviso would be people practicing together in a centre when they were receiving the teachings -yes I think that could work and it does open up a good way of spreading the teachings to people.

    Also I am not sure that Trungpa did not ‘transmit’ by TV – I think I have read a report that some people got a hit on him from watching him on an interview on US TV -hope someone could enlighten me on this.

    I suppose you could get a more rounded answer about this use of technology by asking various lamas to see what they say on the subject. Of course you may get different answers according to the Lama!

    Also yes Tashi -thanks for the invite -if I am ever in Maine I will take you up on it.

    Also yes the communist thing I was using it as an illustration -timing is the thing in producing publications re anything – and yes in the UK we went mad in the past on pamphletering about various subjects – thats what the enlightenment did for the Brits -it made them educate the whole of society with the flourishing of clubs and friendly societies. In some respects I think Trungpas idea of a Shambhala lodge was based on the British experience. Hope people can enlighten me on this.


    Rita Ashworth

  10. Tashi Armstrong on November 23rd, 2009 3:02 pm

    Hi Michael and Rita,

    Thanks for your views on this. I guess the jury is out on this one. For Buddhism’s 2500 plus years it hasn’t had to contend with the internet. We tend to think of it automatically as a helpful tool — but I would ask that we be wary of that. Personal, face to face, intimate, human– internet contact provides the illusion of connection without the actual connection.
    I think we confuse the two. And at the same time, this” tool” conditions our minds in such a way as to make genuine intimacy more difficult. There have been various studies on this recently. I think face to face is the basis for the dharma to passed on from generation to generation.
    You’ll need to make up your on minds on this. I don’t think lamas have too much experience in this department. If you feel you are really recieving mind to mind on the internet — best of luck with that! My experience tells me otherwise.
    I think both of you have been around for quite a while. When was the last time you were ‘soaked in the dharma’ and what were the conditions that allowed that to happen? Many of the people who post to this site I have lived with at various Dharma Centers in the 80’s and 90’s when we were in residence. That was training and intimacy with others. We really need to try to provide those types of training opportunities to the current crop of practitioners.

  11. Tashi Armstrong on November 23rd, 2009 3:10 pm

    But anyway,

    I am taking my own advice and getting out of the internet posting game.

    Best of luck to you all,


  12. Michael Sullivan on November 23rd, 2009 3:35 pm

    Hi Tashi

    as you say, this is new. religious institutions are conservative in their outlook, but that is also a double edged sword. Remembering CTR’s soft voice – how many people would have heard him without that PA system? It wasn’t as intimate as sitting at the court – but he used the PA to reach a large group of people, so they could actually hear him and receive the communication, not just the Chosen Few in the front row…. that was a technological change too. not ear-whispered!!

    So… exactly what “experience tells you otherwise”? The method I mentioned upthread is definitely NOT merely watching a recording. If you are just watching a video, of course that isn’t the same. I would posit that you can learn from that, but it isn’t transmission, because the person ostensibly transmitting is either otherwise occupied at that moment, or is even dead.

    I rejoice in the good fortune of those who have the resources and leisure to travel as they please and attend teachings – and I might add that many teachings seem to be getting increasingly expensive. Unfortunately, there are far far more people who cannot do that. Too bad for them!

    My “soaking at the center” days were the late 70’s and early 80’s. My most recent “soaking” happened when our daughter was in hospice (at home) and we opened our home for a nightly practice.

  13. Mark Szpakowski on November 23rd, 2009 9:13 pm

    Re dharma, practice, terma, and transmission on-line: of course it’s there. On-line is part of our sambhogakaya manifestation these days. When in Second LIfe, you literally have a body of speech.

    I lived at Karme-Choling for 3 years – definitely an alembic, a sealed pressure cooker container in which transformation could – or might not – happen. I was lucky, and at a time in my life when I could do that.

    Over the last year i have discovered that the internet, and most intensely virtual worlds such as Second Life, provide opportunities for practice, for small group discussions/dialogue, for getting to know people quite personally and intimately, and for sharing both trivial and the most profound moments.

    These kinds of environments enable two things:

    – embodiment. You have a cartoony 3-D avatar – yet, as in dreams, your identification with that is as real as that with your ostensibly “real” body. And the level of emotional engagement with other avatars, who are there with you in real-time, is as real as with First Life avatars.

    – container principle. You have freedom in Second LIfe to build environments, structures, bodies, with as much freedom as in dreams (you can also fly, as in dreams 🙂 Which means you can create environments for personal and societal transformation. Working with container principle is part of the DNA of Shambhalians.

    There is one group I am working/playing with that feels like an early Dharmadhatu, with as much inspiration of awake! And then of course virtual living can reflect back on “real” living, in a way that echoes both illusory body yoga and dream yoga, not to mention visualization. On a more mundane, practical level, you can just find places to sit, do the basic, seemingly universal, mindfulness-awareness practice, with sangha. And do recognition practice. And share that.

    Avalokiteshvara/Kuanyin has thousands of arms, many of which are in the net, on the web.

  14. Robert Long on November 27th, 2009 11:59 am

    Michael Sullivan didn’t mention this, but Namkhai Norbu gives pointing out instruction in a closed-circuit video broadcast. I went to one of these in Dusseldorf with his local sangha. I had previously done a live one with him at Merigar in Italy. This didn’t feel compromised. He does some of these transmitted events with his worldwide community all seeing them at once, in every possible time zone. For us it was very early in the morning in the dark. People drove over from Cologne and Bonn for it.