Dissent in the Shambhala Community

July 30, 2009

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

The Net of Speech

July 7, 2009

Here’s some of what is being said and discussed on the world wide web, that may be of interest to RFS readers. We will periodically share links to other web sites, weblogs and networks. 

Not all these sites offer opportunities for  commenting, so feel free to speak up here.

Before, during, and after feeling this freedom, however…  please rest your mind – in whatever your best expression of practice is – and continue to share that! 

The listings below are in no particular order.

Shambhala Times: Shambhala Vision, Forward Vision
Lisa Johnston describes the Shambhala Vision Campaign. Bill Karelis requests financial transparency of the Sakyong’s Foundation.


Shambhala Times Nourishing the Third Jewel: A Letter from our Guest Editors
Mary Whetsell and Debbie Coats write on sangha and community: Susan Szpakowski and Suzanne (?) respond.


Church of Shambhala Vajradhara Maitreya Sangha
Remember the kid tulku in the movie Little Buddha? This is he.


Shambhala Times: Scorpion Seal Opens
“lifting a mist that has been hanging over the terma for decades.”


Gomde Danmark Sangha: East-West, West-East by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche comments on the recent Is Tibetan Buddhism working in the West article.


Gesar Mukpo’s Tulku trailer.

Dzongsar Khyentse Interview

December 11, 2008

The Chronicles web site is featuring an audio interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, conducted by Barry Boyce as part of its Let Loose series. This interview, held in November 2008 during the Transcending Madness program in Halifax, is worth listening to for its comments on lineage, cultural flavoring of how the teachings are presented, and other issues relevant to readers of this site. Please comment and discuss either here or on the Chronicles site.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has a particularly strong connection to students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, which began with his presentation of Vajrakilaya teachings to the Vajradhatu sangha on behalf of his (and CTR’s) teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and continued with his being tasked by Khyentse Rinpoche to relate with and care for the community of CTR’s students.

Global Delek?

November 21, 2008

Is it time for a world-wide Chögyam Trungpa delek?

This could be a way to use an existing and yet not fully realized form – that of the delek system – to take care of each other. There are enough of us with a presence on this site – plus all those lurking but not saying anything (yet) – that it may be timely. For those places where there’s enough people (Halifax is one) local deleks could also be set up. We could explore how to use various online forms and tools to support the global and local deleks. 

This may also be a good first step that addresses some social and political concerns while deferring dealing with the thornier issues around religious and practice forms that may need to evolve in the future. I personally don’t feel the time is quite right for the latter – the ground needs further pacifying and enriching, so to speak.

Sherab Chödzin Kohn writes[1] of Trungpa Rinpoche’s 1968 discussions at Taksang of political consciousness and the delek system:

Kunga [Dawa] describes the discussions at Taksang: “… the best thing would be if there was an enlightened ruler who ruled his kingdom but there was also a form of democratic governance so that the people would have a say and would be able to communicate with local leaders. […] So the basis would be communities on the local level… and there would be meditation happening. Rinpoche came up with the idea of the knot of eternity, saying that this would be the banner of our revolutionary activity; I suppose because it represents the continuity of the meditative state without beginning or end.


Society as a whole was to be imbued with a sense of meditative openness. […] The seal of meditation, the knot of eternity, is on the activity of both the delekpa and the king – insight is anonymous (which is why the meditation knot has no faces).

Comments and next steps welcome.

– Mark Szpakowski

[1] The Delekpa and the King, Kalapa Journal, Number 2 (1999)

A Useful Analogy?

November 12, 2008

There’s a possibly useful historical perspective and analogy that might apply to the question of whether the Shambhala Vision (as well the Dharma Art) of Chögyam Trungpa and of many of his followers is in its breadth and in its depth fundamentally for Buddhists, or equally for people of any religious practice.

Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, was himself a Jew, as were all his original disciples. Yet very soon, though not without controversy, Christianity opened itself up to people who were not Jewish. As it says in one of its texts (Galatians 3:28), there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female.

This seems roughly comparable to the situation with the Shambhala of Chögyam Trungpa, who was himself a Buddhist, and whose Buddhist students made up 99% of the original citizens of his Shambala Kingdom. Yet it was always clear to me, as one of those Buddhist students, as well as to my fellow participants in this grand experiment, that the intention was quite explicitly to have Shambhala and the full range of its teachings and practices available to all. As Chögyam Trungpa says in Great Eastern Sun, The Wisdom of Shambhala, p 133:

Shambhala vision applies to people of any faith, not just people who believe in Buddhism… the Shambhala vision does not distinguish a Buddhist from a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Moslem, a Hindu. That’s why we call it the Shambhala kingdom. A kingdom should have lots of spiritual disciplines in it. That’s why we are here.

Now in the last few years there has much of what I would call revisionism and antidestablishmentarianism (yet another historical perspective), with the mainstream Shambhala Buddhist organization saying that Chögyam Trungpa’s Shambhala was always intended primarily for Buddhists, with non-Buddhists able to share some of the beginning practices, but that ultimately they can not be full, first-class citizens and subjects. Mitchell Levy, for example, in his recent Chronicles podcast, says that non-buddhists can participate in a Shambhala society but not in the Church (which, if it’s Buddhist, is understandable), the Military, or the Government. I think that the root of such a view lies in equating Chögyam Trungpa’s Shambhala exclusively with the Tibetan Buddhist Kalachakra teachings (he explicitly says it’s not just that). This view, for many, ignores the very heart and essence of Shambhala vision and of the ever increasing relevance  of its simple, precise language to our 21st century world.

The analogy with the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is not perfect: among others, the Buddhist/Shambhala relationship is not one between two religions, but between a religion and a society/state/kingdom. Nevertheless, I think it can be helpful in offering some perspective on an issue that currently divides communities inspired by Chögyam Trungpa.

– Mark Szpakowski

Crazy Wisdom – the film

October 13, 2008

Crazy Wisdom: The Life & Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is a film being prepared by Johanna Demetrekas. IMDb describes it:

Crazy Wisdom is the long-awaited feature documentary to explore the life, teachings, and “crazy wisdom” of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, a pivotal figure in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Called a genius, rascal, and social visionary; ‘one of the greatest spiritual teachers of the 20th century,’ and ‘the bad boy of Buddhism,’ Trungpa defied categorization. Raised and trained in the rigorous Tibetan monastic tradition, Trungpa came to the West and shattered our preconceived notions about how an enlightened teacher should behave – he openly smoked, drank, and had intimate relations with students – yet his teachings are recognized as authentic, vast, and influential. Twenty years after his death, with unprecedented access and exclusive archival material, Crazy Wisdom looks at the man and the myths about him, and attempts to set the record straight. 

Here’s a preview of the film.

Transcending Madness

September 30, 2008

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche will be teaching a program on Chögyam Trungpa’s book Transcending Madness in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the last weekend in November, 2008. The event is co-sponsored by the Chögyam Trungpa Legacy Project and by the Halifax Shambhala Centre.

I think this is a milestone event, and sets a great precedent for how to proceed. Presenting a commentary on a root text is a traditional form for buddhist teachers. This may not be the first time a notable Rinpoche is doing this with a text by Chögyam Trungpa, but it’s the first such I’m aware of. It pays homage to Trungpa Rinpoche, acknowledges his direct sangha, and uses him as a source of fresh teaching and practice. As Dzongsar Khyentse says,

I have chosen to say a few things about one of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s books, ‘Transcending Madness’.  Besides the subject matter being very important, more importantly, I offer this in gratitude and appreciation towards Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s legacy of courage and wisdom.

As well, this form, taking a text and commenting on it, seems like a good one to adopt on this site and others. There are many key terms, concepts, and instructions as presented in Chögyam Trungpa’s Buddhadharma and Shambhala teachings that are worth identifying, discussing, and applying. Radio Free Shambhala has started doing this with its short article on Spiritual Materialism (included under the Practice menu). Such posts and articles can then be used as references by other sites (such as Wikipedia).

On my personal blog site I recently wrote a post on Our Lady of the Ayatanas, about a song by Jill Barber, the ayatanas, and the notion of drala. I had a hard time finding good, concise links to the notion of the ayatanas as used by CTR, as well as to drala

What topics would you like to see addressed and discussed on this or on related sites?

PS You might be interested in Dzongsar Khyentse’s Reflections on Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Just Sitting

September 11, 2008


What’s emerging for me is that it may be time to collect and point to, as well as study and practice, the classic teachings and meditation instructions of Chögyam Trungpa, and make them available in a clean, simple, accessible manner.

For example, to start with:

  • how to sit (shamatha/vipashyana)
  • how to do a short sitting practice 
  • how to do a day-long sitting practice (nyin-thun)
  • how to do a week-long or month-long practice (I think that Bill Karelis has done this for his “Just Sitting” week-thuns)

This also implies:

  • how to find a meditation instructor
  • how to find others to practice and study with
What do you think?

I Wish I Were

July 29, 2008

Martha Wainwright: I Wish I Were

A song about fear, and about today (the video is unofficial, by whoever made the YouTube video – maybe close your eyes).

Tilopa’s Open Sesame

July 28, 2008

Tilopa, the founder of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have spent his time pressing sesame seeds into oil while serving as a bouncer for a prostitute. The Mahamudra tradition, that of the Great Symbol, comes from him, and, in our case, through Chögyam Trungpa who was a direct socket into its transmission stream.

This came to mind recently as I was practicing a very short Chakrasamvara text, composed by Naropa, who was a student of Tilopa. It was translated by Naropa and Marpa, put into writing by the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, and preserved by Surmang Monastery, which was in Trungpa Rinpoche’s care before he left for the west, where we met him, that lineage, and that practice in its living essence.

From that point of view, as Juliete (Judith) Ferris recently pointed out, we, the sangha of Chögyam Trungpa, are Tilopa’s Open Sesame. That’s what this site, and the people contributing to it, are about. That magic is alive, in the world, and in us. Let’s be open to it, and be willing to be its expression as well.

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