by Mark Szpakowski
An ongoing question for various types of Buddhists, especially those who have been in a relationship with someone they consider “enlightened”, is how to carry on in the absence of such an individual. This certainly affects the Vajrayana students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, with whom they were in a student/master relationship, and whom they considered the authoritative center of an enlightened mandala.
Trungpa Rinpoche’s first teachings on mandala referred to it as society. It is not surprising, then, that the Shambhala  students of Trungpa’s secular manifestation as Shambhala King feel the same issue: if you had some glimpse, through his leadership, of what an enlightened society could be, how can you carry on and realize that vision in the absence of such a figure? Is enlightened society possible without an enlightened leader?
In both cases these are profound and edgy questions, and also deeply disturbing to those for whom democracy is the best answer yet to the question of how to govern.
One venue where this has been explored, whether willingly, wittingly, or not, has been at the Alia Institute. Alia – Authentic Leadership in Action – originally the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership, was founded by a group of the Shambhala students of Chögyam Trungpa, who felt that the vision of a society that acknowledges and embodies both the secular and the sacred – beyond religious affiliations, including Buddhism – was worth realizing. The Institute welcomed those who, in technical Shambhala vocabulary, were warriors: those with a strong personal discipline of awareness, openness, and care, without aggression. Beyond welcoming, the Institute discovered such individuals already out there, who also welcomed the Institute back into their own spaces. Over the course of a decade, the Institute grew to not just include, but also to be coming from these individuals and their particular roots. Program after program, the participants built and held a container which felt open yet precise, not ignoring but kind, to the point yet playful. This was done as a cyclically recurring, and somewhat nomadic, community, with several programs a year, many in Nova Scotia, but also throughout the world.
The Open Dojo is one term that has emerged from this. It refers to a space of group practice that does not belong to anyone. It is no man’s land (to use a phrase Trungpa used in this context). It is a practice ground of listening, communicating, and acting. At the same time it is uncompromising, not swayed by wishful thinking and the sly fudging of ego. It is authentic – and its source and guardian is not one central figure, but a community of diverse practitioners. The Dojo is a container for practicing the way. The amazing thing is that it is possible for people, coming from various contemplative and leadership traditions, to recognize each other, and to recognize ground cultivated and allowed by them individually and collectively, held without ownership. This is a challenge – including and especially for those who feel they are holders of an authentic practice DNA that needs protection.
From this point of view, the Open Dojo is the heart of enlightened society. This is true for those who experienced that possibility through the presence of what seemed to be an enlightened being manifesting as leader. It is also true for those who never had such an experience, and may not believe it is possible or desirable, but who nevertheless have aspiration for and experience of Open Dojo.
Does that mean that the idea of a society ruled by a monarch – who, classically, joins heaven, earth, and man – is passé? Looking around us, we certainly see lots of anti-open-dojo patterns in a parade of dictators, kings, powerful individuals and their family dynasties, not to mention elected rulers. But that suggests something further.
How is it that so many smart, tough people in a two decade span late in the 20th century were willing to see Chögyam Trungpa as an enlightened leader? Sudden rememberance: because that person embodied the Open Dojo. He was embodiment of no man’s land: he lived the space where any trace of pretence and ego was obvious, and could not survive. If you thought you knew him, you quickly learned different. This is a scary, yet magnetic, place. Unblinking, yet nakedly genuine – and also attentive and kind.
It comes down to the same thing. At the heart of enlightened society is the Open Dojo, whether held by the group or embodied and held in a single individual. If the erstwhile ruler is not an Open Dojo, the people sense that, and ultimately he or she can neither command nor rule. The inner and personal space of the ruler must itself be no man’s land. To re-coin an old phrase, no man’s land and king are one.
It goes further, of course, because individuals must also hold themselves that way: otherwise, they cannot recognize the presence or absence of the Open Dojo. Before you can consider an external king, you must be king of yourself . And to recognize open space that is genuine yet not owned by any one individual – a group Dojo – you have to a) recognize such spark in yourself, b) recognize it in others, and c) gradually realize that it is b) more than a) that is the path and the goal.
Something interesting opens up here: if the citizens or subjects are not themselves kings and queens of themselves, then even with the most enlightened leader the vision of an enlightened society will not be realized. We cannot get away from it – it is our ground that must be first cultivated and realized in its own open nature.
The Open Dojo is not mythical. It is not the extraordinary of long ago fable or Hollywood movie. It is the extraordinary of the ordinary, whether at an Alia Institute gathering, or at – can we dare – an Occupy the Future gathering, or your next get together. It is necessary for monarchy as well as socialism as well as democracy. It is more essential than any of those forms, because it is the heart of their success, if any.
A final note, in Buddhist language: In 1968 Chögyam Trungpa gave a talk in which he said that Maitreya, the buddha of the future, would not be an individual, but society. For both the religious buddhist, looking up to a “master”, and the secular enlightened society advocate, yearning for enlightened leadership, this is provocative. It says something about how we think, and hints how future society can shape itself.
 I am using the term “Shambhala” here in the way Chögyam Trungpa used it, pointing to the idea of an enlightened society that brings together both secular and sacred outlook, inclusive of but not dependent on any one religious tradition. This is not to be confused with “Shambhala Buddhism”, in which Shambhala teachings distinguish a particular form of Buddhism. For an excellent concise summary of Trungpa’s Shambhala vision, see the just published article Ocean of Dharma, Shambhala Sun (January, 2012]).