Some Thoughts on Monarchy and the Dynamics of Power within Shambhala
Commentary by Damchö
1) I came to Trungpa Rinpoche’s first Shambhala book  after I’d read nearly all of his published Buddhist teachings. Most of the book made a tremendous impression on me, particularly the first main part–”How To Be a Warrior”. The monarchical and Confucian political vision which emerged later in the book, however: this I had to hold in my mind in “negative capability”. I recognized it as a provocative challenge to my inherited Western skepticism about kingship. And indeed it created some real cognitive dissonance. After all, I would say to myself, this man is clearly pretty realized, and I clearly am not, so who am I to disagree? And yet…
Few around me within the sangha seemed to have much in the way of qualms. I remember conversations at retreat centre dinner tables about this topic. Some of the contributors were 20-years-old yet already confidently proclaiming democracy to be lame, an idealistic but naive illusion. Anyone can see monarchy is the only mature, wise choice of government, I would hear…
My personal difficulty with idealizing monarchy stems from an inability to point to any idealized example of it, one which–as far as I am able to see–has ushered in anything close to enlightened society. The chants mention Ashoka, “Emperors of China and Japan and so forth,” but when I read history–history rather than hagiography or wishful thinking–I really don’t find what I would call enlightened kingship anywhere. Very possibly I am missing something. But I would also venture to guess that everything the average Shambhalian knows about Ashoka, for example, could fit inside a (small) paragraph. And how much of even that, after all, can we be truly certain of? Journalists disagree about what happened yesterday, despite transcripts and video footage! Here we are talking about ancient history, where pretty much everything is up for interpretive grabs. And yet, in my experience not only is there little questioning of this view, it seems to have become a new dogma–something unquestionable.
Of course certain reigns have been more humane (or at least less inhumane) than others. Still, mostly what I see in trying to evaluate the ways in which we humans have ruled over each other are the grubby, “human all-too- human” realities of power and the will to power. I see all the manifold pathways unchecked power opens up to corruption, ie simple human grasping and aversion–from subtle through flagrant all the way up to genocidal. And I see the stoking of spiritual materialism and theistic king / emperor worship. I am left with a strong conviction that the various functions of power need to balance each other and have some measure of genuine independence in order for a society or community to be healthy.
2) My last experiences at a centre–after a break of a number of years–heightened all of this considerably. There, I saw the current head of Shambhala treated as not all that short of a god. And saw the effects of this kind of culture on those in positions of authority and newcomers alike. Over time I have noticed less and less disagreement being expressed at centres, more and more uniformity of thought and even style. At a certain point I began to feel I’d entered a realm of True Believers.
All of this crystallized one Parinirvana Day, when I’d been living at one of the land centres. Nothing new happened, particularly; nothing I hadn’t noticed before and pondered. Still, that day everything came together in a concentrated way and I found myself thinking along more definite channels about the state of things.
Simply put, that was the day I began to feel that Shambhala had become a little too much concerned about itself, in relation to the dharma. More about triumphing than simply trying to manifest the teachings, more about self- perpetuation and growth than service. Again, nothing was especially different that day. True, there were more people in kasung uniform than usual so the military vibe was heavier, and the kasung energy, at that time and place at least, was fairly cold, punitive / superegoic in style, not terribly reminiscent of the broken-hearted practitioner. There were more toasts than usual, but not a ton more. Depth of pride in the lineage was very much on display that day, but naturally enough after all.
Still, sitting in the shrine room that evening, listening to the toasts I’d heard innumerable times each in the preceding year and (about four times that day) the Shambhala Anthem; hearing too much news about the three separate weddings Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and the Sakyong Wangmo were about to have, a few too many assertions about how special the Mukpo family is; hearing a triumphalist “proclamation” read that had just been issued, offering help at governance to the town of Halifax (or was it the whole province of Nova Scotia?); gazing frequently up at the new shrine which now contained only representatives of the Mukpo family, just Sakyong Mipham and his father; seeing a little too much uniformity of taste, opinion, expression, even individual vocabulary … in the midst of all this a sense of claustrophobia which had been creeping up on me for a number of weeks, getting stronger and stronger, finally forced me to pay proper attention to it. I pronounced to myself the word which is always made a joke of at Shambhala centres. Yes, I wondered why the whole experience that day felt so unspacious, indeed suffocating. Why it felt rather like being in a cult.
That was around the time I first heard SMR referred to as His Majesty, and the place he would stay always referred to as The Court, as if there were a kind of superstition against even occasionally saying “so-and-so’s house” or “such-and-such hotel”. It was around the time I attended a server’s meeting at which someone described how something had once been spilled on the floor in the Sakyong’s presence and he actually helped the server clean it up! I put this phrase in italics because it indicates how the story was told, as something truly extraordinary, indicative of superhuman love on the part of the Sakyong. It was also around the time a friend of mine–who’d just come back from serving the Sakyong on a book-writing retreat–told me in hushed tones that he’d seen SMR with his own eyes follow through on a speaking engagement despite being sick to his stomach just beforehand. He described this, again, as if it were another instance of something incredibly exceptional. Yet all I could think of at that moment was the singer (was it Joan Baez?) who in an interview spoke of having to go through nausea and vomiting before literally every concert. Or for that matter all those who get up and go to work every day pretty much however they are feeling. More to the point, it was around the time I began to notice the Sakyong being spoken of like this all the time.
3) As with James Elliott, who has written eloquently here about this topic, my reflections on and around that Parinirvana Day came after observing abuse of power–undealt with by Shambhala hierarchy. And also as in his case this was the catalyst for trying to understand the current environment within the sangha better, focusing on questions about power and how it is dispersed and related to within Shambhala International. Abuse of power in and of itself is maybe not all that remarkable. But a culture which downplays it, looks the other way, or even fails to see it in the first place is another matter entirely.
All these thoughts raise two core issues for me, with which I will conclude:
a) Samaya, theocracy, and inclusiveness
Samaya is unique, unlike any other relationship we could think of. Samaya is the utterly intimate, mind-to- mind relationship that exists between a student and the Lama she has freely chosen. It exists at the level of spiritual practice and not for any kind of collective, political purpose.
When the aspect of obedient submission within samaya moves outside of that relationship and begins to characterize the larger political structure of an organization, we have theocracy, and one to a very pure degree. It is a primordial temptation, an ancient dream, that we might bypass ordinary checks and balances and leap directly to the revolutionary goal: dutifully acknowledging the (generally catastrophic) failings of such movements in the past, yet insisting that now things are, for the first time, different.
The dharma is very clear in pointing out how ever-resourceful and clever is ego, how manifold its tendencies toward self-deception. And Trungpa Rinpoche saw fit to present as his first main teaching in America the sobering truth of spiritual materialism: that not merely even within religion, but especially within religion, can we find the temptations to cut corners and assume ourselves–or more to the point our Church or sect–pretty much entirely on the side of the angels.
I find it a thought very much in keeping with the dharma that the more centralized is political power and the fewer checks and balances upon it, the greater the temptation to abuse such power in the name of the ideal. It does not contradict the reality of basic goodness to assert the need for skepticism in assessing motivation in ourselves and our leaders, of course; it simply follows on from the illusions of ego and ego’s perhaps cleverest creation–spiritual materialism.
Within Shambhala I find a samaya-like quality operating at the level of the collective along with a lack of balance of power between executive, legislative, and judicial functions. In fact I would be hard-pressed to point to any actual distinction of such functions: acharyas traverse all three, and each has pledged a form of absolute loyalty to the Sakyong; the kasung likewise pledge loyalty to SMR and implicitly to his senior teachers as representatives; and everyone else is encouraged to follow the curriculum to its end, a path which involves ever- more-binding pledges of loyalty. A tight and intricate setup of obedience is thus in place, creating various issues of accountability and exclusion which have been aired often in this forum and elsewhere.
The admonishment to evaluate a potential teacher for a full twelve years before entering into samaya came from within a culture far removed from the democratic expectations of our own. And yet within Shambhala today many have pledged even more than samaya long before that span: they have also committed themselves to a King and a hierarchy, a political philosophy and political movement, and an increasingly independent lineage. At the same time Shambhala continues to represent itself as a non-partisan, inclusive umbrella under which all genuine spiritual practitioners from whatever tradition may feel at home. There is a serious discrepancy here.
b) Agenda, ambition, and spiritual materialism
Theocratic tendencies and insufficient checks and balances are concern enough. Along with this is another: that Agenda may become too powerful. That the goal may, too much, become the path.
To some this may seem a contrived question, but still I ask myself: is not the dharma / truth more important than Shambhala? More specifically, are not the teachings of Shambhala more important than Shambhala? I do suspect this distinction is one many within SI would not even be able to make. But it is worth pondering, I feel. Is it not our practice to devote our lives and labour to the creation of greater sanity, dignity, humanity, love, and awakeness in the world? If so then the size or power of our particular community should not be too great a concern to us. Who cares where the good influences are coming from, so long as we are doing our own thing as well as we can and supporting all individuals and groups who are manifesting basic goodness each in their own way, with their own emphases and styles.
This is obviously not to say we shouldn’t work at protecting, enriching, and offering our own precious inheritance. But the trend within Shambhala has been towards ever greater separation from the larger Buddhist community. And here’s the point: I don’t believe Shambhala is going to save the world. I don’t think Buddhism as a whole is going to save the world. If human community is going to survive and evolve, we will have to relinquish possession of the truth, as well as messianic mentality–a mentality that, here, would have to neglect its own teachings on the thoroughgoing interdependence of phenomena and non-duality of self and other.
The trouble is that even the very best of our motivations can turn into ambition and agenda, all the harder to spot because of how much evident goodness is there. This is why Chögyam Trungpa emphasized the perils of spiritual materialism so much. They represent a potential blind spot for all practitioners and spiritual communities. Agenda marks the point at which personally prevailing becomes more important than working with everyone else and simply doing one’s best, unconcerned with the status or size of our group.
I am concerned that Shambhala has been sliding down this path for some time, unawares. Removing Trungpa Rinpoche’s own beloved Kagyu- and Nyingma-lineage holding teachers from the shrine represents one important sign of this. Centralizing new practices which literally only one person in the world–the Sakyong–is allowed to bestow is another. Restricting approved teachers more and more to only those within the Shambhala system itself (and furthermore only those on-board with whatever changes occur, now or in the future) is a third. A little too much self-congratulation at the expense of humility, and difficulty in absorbing critical input from the “lower ranks” and especially from dissenters, is a fourth. And, as worrying as any of these, seeing dynamics of silence and exclusion in operation when criticisms are voiced. For a wise, healthy, and generous community need never fear its good-hearted critics–quite the contrary.
For me personally it has been a wrenchingly sad time. When organizations lack certain kinds of flexibility and correction mechanisms at the same time as they are utterly convinced of their own rightness (I don’t speak of basic View here, but of all the more down-to-earth and day-to-day aspects of direction and relationship), then I would say we are simply begging blind spots to appear and deepen. When we go even further and solidify our beautiful yearnings for enlightened society, peace, and a truly humane world into the figure of a Vajra Guru King who practically speaking is not acknowledged as capable of mistake: at this point, we are no longer learning from the past. Something has closed down. Something is unrecognizable.
Damchö is completing a BA in Music and hopes afterwards to do graduate work in linguistics. He began Shambhala Training in 1997, reaching the final graduate level before the issues discussed above gave him pause. However, he remains very inspired by the View of a complete non-sectarian and non-religious path grounded in spacious mind, tender heart, and fearlessness.