Not About Happiness

September 21, 2008

Since Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche died in 1987, the Internet has revolutionized the way we communicate. The Sakyong is taking full advantage of this medium at

A review of this web site brought to light, for this writer, some of the key differences between the teachings of the Sakyong and those of Trungpa Rinpoche.

Firstly, the Sakyong is described as:

  • “one of Tibet’s highest and most respected incarnate lamas”
  • “King of Shambhala”
  • “the eldest son of the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche”
  • “the incarnation of Mipham the Great, who is revered in Tibet as an  emanation of Manjushri, the buddha of wisdom”
  • “descends from the Tibetan warrior-king Gesar of Ling”
  • “holds the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism”
  • “head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and is spiritual director of Shambhala, a borderless kingdom of meditation practitioners committed to realizing enlightenment and social harmony through daily life”
  • “the lineage holder of Naropa University”
  • “has studied with the great masters His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche–teacher of the HH Dalai Lama and the king of Bhutan–and HH Penor Rinpoche”
  • “is married to Princess Tseyang Palmo, daughter of His Eminence Namkha Drimed Rabjam Rinpoche, head of the Ripa lineage”
  • “has written two books, the national bestseller Turning the Mind Into an Ally, and the prize-winning Ruling Your World”
  • “is a poet and an artist”
  • “runs marathoms to raise money for Tibet through the Konchok Foundation”
  • “in September 2006 he offered the first Living Peace Award to HH the Dalai Lama at the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya in Colorado”.

The Sakyong’s bio brings to mind Trungpa Rinpoche’s phrase “Buddhadharma Without Credentials”…only here, it’s With Credentials. One gets the impression that some effort is going into crafting his on-line persona.

One of the credentials is that he is the incarnation of Mipham the Great. I don’t recall hearing anything about this before the Sakyong Enthronement in 1995. It is noteworthy that neither of the great tertons/mahasiddhas, Trungpa Rinpoche and His Holiness Khyentse Rinpoche, recognized the Sakyong (who was the Sawang then) as the incarnation of Mipham the Great during their lifetimes. It seems odd that such an important fact would have eluded these great visionaries.

The audio, video, and text files in the Archive section of the site reflect a recurring theme about Happiness. In the video “What About Me”, the Sakyong says, “You know what? When you’re happy, I’m happy. That’s the formula.”

Putting other before self is what Buddhism is about, but it’s the “I’m happy” part that adds a new twist to the teachings we received from Trungpa Rinpoche.

In the audio clip “If You Want to Be Happy” the Sakyong talks about using a type of contemplation to switch one’s thought patterns from focusing on oneself to focusing on compassion and love. The title implies that adopting this approach will make you happy.

While this approach is well-intentioned, there is a danger that students might conclude that there are “good thoughts” and “bad thoughts.” It also gives the impression that discursiveness can be harnessed to achieve a desired result. Even if this type of contemplation is, to some degree, successful in developing compassion, the danger is that, by fiddling with discursiveness in this way, the practitioner–unbeknownst to himself/herself–is sacrificing the development of prajna in the process.

In another audio file, “Chicago Public Talk” (August 2007), the Sakyong talks about karma and interdependence. “Every action we’re engaged in is the result of many things coming together, and they say [this is also true of] our emotions, and whatever happens to us. We say: ‘I’m sitting here feeling sad. How do I feel happy?’ [There is a] way to be able to shift the energy of our karmic situation. We need to orient our karmic situation so that we’re developing the seed, so that has a possibility.”

Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on the life of Naropa provide a useful context for considering this view. In the talk titled “Meeting Reality” (New York, January 1972), he said, “Naropa’s experience of discovering Tilopa is connected with finally giving up hope. We have to give up the hope of getting what we want to get; the search for an ultimate answer has to be given up.” He further explained that we have a love-hate relationship with ourselves. “That’s precisely why the samsaric mind and samsaric point of view of trying to gain happiness is regarded as holding the wrong end of the stick.”

In the talk about Naropa’s life titled “Continuity” (Karme Choling, December, 1975), he said, “The role of the guru, at this point, is to tell you you’re hopeless…or that you will never solve your problem.”

However, explained Trungpa Rinpoche, hopelessness here is different from despair. He equated despair with laziness and lack of intellect, and hopelessness with intelligence, inspiration, and challenge.

The divergence of these views on happiness and hopelessness hinges on egolessness. In Trungpa Rinpoche’s dharma teachings, there is no shortcut around egolessness, and nothing trumps it–not happiness, not power, not fame, not a 12-gun salute, nothing. “The great symbol (Mahamudra) which does not involve any metaphors,” he said, “relates to things directly and completely and allows no compromises.” According to what he taught, rather than bettering oneself, the path is about giving up ground. Becoming less, not more.

The Vidyadhara’s students are proud inheritors of the lineage of the Takpo Kagyu. In our morning chant, we recite: “Great Vajradhara, Telo, Naro, Marpa, Mila, Lord of Dharma Gampopa…” In this one line, we invoke the lineage of the ones who realized Mahamudra, attained enlightenment, and benefitted sentient beings immeasurably.

When we study the lives of these great teachers, we see that their paths were arduous, to say the least!. The effort they expended is difficult to fathom.

Naropa’s experiences are particularly instructive. After a distinguished career as a learned one, he struck out on his own in search of a qualified teacher—Tilopa. Along the way, he met up with all kinds of disturbing situations. One man was washing the insides of another man’s stomach. Two old people were killing and eating the insects they found in the furrows they were plowing. Naropa then saw one-eyed people, a blind man who could see, a man with no ear who could hear, another without a tongue who could speak, another who was lame, running, and a corpse fanning itself. These were just some of his encounters along the way. When these people called out to him for help he refused because his sights were set on finding the guru. Eventually he learned that they were inseparable from the guru, but his attachment to habitual patterns and conceptual mind prevented him from seeing this.

After Tilopa agrees to take him under his wing, Naropa’s life doesn’t get any easier. At one-year intervals, Tilopa says to him: “If I had had a disciple he would… build a bridge over a pool of leeches. (Naropa does and is eaten by leeches and other vermin); bring fire, reeds and fat, if he wants instruction. (Naropa does and Tilopa dips the ends into the fat which had been heated on the fire, and held them against Naropa’s body; the pain became unbearable); throw the queen down and drag her about. (Naropa does and the king and his followers beat him to within an inch of his life). These are just a few of the trials Naropa went through.

Although very different, Milarepa’s trials were every bit as arduous as Naropa’s. Marpa told Milarepa to build a stone and mud house. Then when it was built, he had him tear it down and put the stones back where he found them. Then Marpa told him to build another house, and another, etc. After that, Milarepa had to build a nine-storey tower for his guru’s son before he could receive teachings.

Such was the nature of the guru-student relationship back then. It has been said that the traditional ngondro practice was developed as a way to approximate the dynamics of this intense and personal relationship in modern times when this close way of working together is no longer possible (for example, Tilopa worked with Naropa for 12 years).

But now that the Sakyong has introduced the Rigden Ngondro, these practices can be accomplished in less time and with less effort. Where will the Milarepas and Naropas of the future come from if this abbreviated form of training becomes the norm?

There is another element of the web site that suggests an entirely different teacher-student relationship in the age of the Internet: the fundraising appeal. It reads: 

For generations in Tibet and other Buddhist countries, it has been the tradition for students to offer what they feel is appropriate for receiving the teachings from an authentic teacher. This creates a situation where we become personally motivated to give back in acknowledgment of the gift we have received and in recognition for the years of training and understanding the teacher has cultivated. Please think about what gift you would like to give in return. Please know that all gifts will be put back into the further development of this site as well as support the Sakyong’s activities world wide. Thank you for your generosity.

Giving a teaching gift is a traditional way for the student to express his/her appreciation to the teacher for conferring a particular teaching. Within the Shambhala community, typically, the teaching gift also helps the teacher to defray expenses associated with travelling from his/her home. 

In the case of this fundraising appeal, there is no reference to a particular teaching that is being given. It appears that the donation is meant to support the Sakyong’s activities, so the use of the phrase “teaching gift” is confusing. After visiting other sections of the web site, one can interpolate that perhaps the teaching referred to is that which is contained within the audio, video, and text files in the Archive section, but this is not at all clear.

As the first lineage holder of Shambhala Buddhism, the Sakyong has broken out of a mold and is charting a new course, one which involves extensive use of the Internet, via web sites and e-mails (Shambhala News Service, etc.) sent to members of his organization.  It seems that the Internet is now mediating between the Sakyong and his students/public, which suggests that it is no longer necessary to meet the teacher in person or be in his/her presence to hear the teachings. The teacher-student relationship has become easy and convenient, but what is being lost in the process? 

The more the Sakyong articulates his view and teachings, the more apparent it becomes to this writer that both his medium and his message are markedly different from what Trungpa Rinpoche taught.

As the Talking Heads song goes, “This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!”


August 10, 2008

“Kalapa” is a new protecting entity announced in the Sakyong’s 2008 Shambhala Day address. But what is it protecting? If Shambhala Buddhism and Shambhala are two different lineages, it can protect the former, but not the latter.

Read the full article, and come back here to comment on it.

Namkha Drimed in Shambhala International

July 28, 2008

Since the Sakyong’s marriage in 2006, Namkha Drimed, Rinpoche, the Sakyong’s father-in-law, has been handed a major role in Shambhala International — giving empowerments and teachings in North America and Europe. This short article takes a look at Namkha Drimed and some possible outcomes of his dharma activity in our mandala.

Through a Glass Darkly: Christian Non-Theism

July 28, 2008

Prophet Elijah, 15th century icon


Moses has to settle for a dialogue with a burning bush; the Israelites roll the dice on a pillar of dust and flame; whatever Job witnesses he does so in a whirlwind, and keeps mum about his encounter. One day, we will see the Lord “face to face”; but for now, as Saint Paul rhapsodizes, we can only glimpse the divine “through a glass darkly.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, no one sees the face of God and lives (unless one is a televangelist). Ultimate reality conceals itself from the discursive mind and manifests only in the elements of nature. These are but a few of the Scriptural sources of Christian non-theism.

From a Buddhist perspective, theism is “fixed mind”; from a Judeo-Christian perspective, it is “idolatry,” which is a sin. (For the secular modernist, theism is neurosis à la Freud.) Christian theology is shot through with non-theism. At the beginning of the High Middle Ages, for instance, Saint Anselm (1033–1109) postulates that God is that which is beyond mind’s conception; fast forward to the Death-of-God era, and Paul Tillich (1886–1965) writes with a distinctly Dharmic sensibility that God is the “ground of being.” Of course, Sunday morning congregants occasionally fall prey to theistic theism. The killjoy Jehovah who casts down thunderbolts and the cosmic Santa Claus who doles out spiritual bobbles do provide certainty and comfort, but, they also infantilize the minds of the devout. The good news is that the great majority of mainstream Christians are not Biblical literalists. They have a more spacious view of the cosmos. From my own experience at Saint Agnes Church, I can report that there is a vanguard of parishioners who are happy to take shamatha instruction from me, a Christian Shambhalian, when I transpose the language of meditation into the vernacular. It’s not that great a leap for them or for me.

Sangha members would do well to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995) and Christ and Buddha as Brothers (1999). The Vietnamese monk grew up in a country teeming with French missionaries and saturated with Catholic culture. He understands the cathedral-like structure of theology and has a genuine devotion to Christ. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks Christian with no trace of an accent. In my travels, I have only ever met a handful of sangha members who can both speak Christian and love the language.

Given their heart connection to the Buddhadharma and the time they must invest in practice, it’s perfectly reasonable that Buddhist Shambhalians would have little desire to master the grammar and syntax of Christian non-theism. If the subject is broached, a few can cite Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) as a non-theistic fellow traveler or reference the friendship that the Vidhyadhara shared with the great Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915–1968). More often than not, though, what I hear in the Shambhala center cloak room are mutterings about the benighted Christian right, and what I hear in church is intercessory prayer for hapless “non-believers,” which can be code for Buddhists and practitioners of other Eastern religions.

Thich Nhat Hahn, calligarphy

So how do we overcome this dialogue of the deaf? The Speaking-of-Silence type Buddhist-Christian events are powerful gatherings, but logistically difficult to pull off. The strategy that I’ve adopted over the last twenty years is to use the Shambhala teachings, which for me constitute a secular or civic path, to serve as a bridge between Buddhism and Christianity, two religious paths. I’ve learned enough Buddhism to be able to speak the language, albeit with a thick accent. Whenever someone at the center shows an interest in my religious tradition, I try to translate the discourse of my Christian faith into the Buddhist tongue. A good place to start is with Greek apophatic or negative theology. If my interlocutor is inquisitive enough, we can travel quickly from Mount Athos to Vulture Peak Mountain. Naturally, all languages have their idioms. There is not a perfect Christian analogue for every Buddhist concept, and vice-versa. But, ultimately, the point of the endeavor is to move beyond language, beyond religion.

In my years of Shambhala training, I’ve noted that near the end of a long Saturday afternoon in the shrine room there are neither theists nor non-theists. Instead, there are “tea-ists”: frazzled meditators anxiously anticipating the four o’clock tea break. Whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian, if you sit long enough on a gomden, you will realize that neither Buddha nor Christ is going to swoop down and save you from the vexation of your mind and the roiling in your heart. A Christian in Shambhala is like Elijah. Elijah searches everywhere for God: he climbs mountains, he braves fire and earthquakes, and he shakes his fist at the empty sky … until he is exhausted. When Elijah finally stops ranting, when his heart finally breaks, he sits down and starts to listen to the silence of the hills. It’s in this silence that he first hears the Word of God. Elijah: Judeo-Christian prophet or bodhisattva manqué? Merely human, I suggest.



Image Credits

Top: Elijah, fifteenth-century icon

Bottom: Thich Nhat Hahn, calligraphy


Calcutta is Everywhere

July 28, 2008

For Mother Theresa there are two Calcuttas: there is the actual city of lepers and outcasts, where “suffering … is much more physical, much more material”; and there is the Calcutta of the mind, where “suffering is much deeper and more hidden.” The tangible Calcutta is a seething Indian metropolis; the intangible Calcutta is a soul lost in a burb somewhere in the West.

“You can find Calcutta all over the world,” she says, “if you have eyes to see; not only to see, but to look.” To look at the tangible Calcutta is to contemplate the causes and effects of a rigid, hierarchical social system and the lopsided distribution of scarce material resources. To look at the intangible Calcutta is to contemplate box store USA, whose superabundance of material wealth cannot hide the anomie that wastes away its citizens.

Who is hungrier: the living skeleton that a Missionary of Charity wraps in a blanket or the zoned-out football fan who hauls into Costco in his SUV, hunting down the perfect 60’ flat screen? The former is too weak to stand, the latter too emotionally compartmentalized to love his family. The Beatitudes differ on the question on poverty. Luke’s Jesus says that the materially destitute are blessed in the eyes of the Lord; Matthew’s Jesus says that it is the mentally impoverished who are blessed. Jesus himself makes no such distinction between the atrophied body and the sickly mind.

In Dharmic terms, Mother Theresa’s Calcutta is the lair of the Three Lords. As warriors, the right attitude to adopt in order to eradicate materialism in all forms is that of daring and renunciation:

What the warrior renounces [says the Druk Sakyong] is anything in his experience that is a barrier between himself and others. In other words, renunciation is making yourself more available, more gentle, and open to others. Any hesitation about opening yourself to others is removed. For the sake of others you renounce your privacy. (Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, 59.)

Jesus’ approach to renunciation is distinctive of the warrior. Jesus heals and hence becomes the leper shunned by the village. He embraces the denizens of all the Calcuttas of his time: tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and so on. For him there is no “other”; there is just us—each made in the image of God, or, if you will, the embodiment of basic goodness or tatagathagharba.

The dissolution of self and other is at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom message, a kingdom which is within you, in front of your eyes, or in your midst. In other words, it can be tapped into on the spot. (It resembles Shambhala vision in its immediacy.) Of course, if comes with a cost, the crucifixion of one’s own ego fixation. But how else are we going to clean up the world’s real and imagined Calcuttas? If you won’t save this world, asked Trungpa Rinpoche, who will? This is a question that all of us, regardless of our faith tradition or philosophical inclination, are called to answer.

Mark Szpakowski Illuminates Dark Matter

July 28, 2008

In this first podcast, Ed Michalik interviews Mark Szpakowski, who talks about allowing the Dark Matter in the greater Shambhala sangha to self-illuminate.

This is an introduction to Radio Free Shambhala.

Audio MP3

Click the Play button above to listen to the podcast.

Right-click (control-click on Mac) to download high-speed version (36’48”).

Right-click (control-click on Mac) to download low-speed (dialup) version (36’48”).

The Ashé Windhorse

July 24, 2008



Ashé Windhorse



I took this photo of a bronze statue we have, placed on a window sill, on a brilliant blue day.

Against the sky of the cosmic mirror, inky black windhorse, ashé with hoofs and tail and mane.

There it is, in a moment.


– Mark Szpakowski

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