Shambhala from 21st Century

September 8, 2009

Imagine – a civilization, a culture, a country or countries, where the sacred is acknowledged in every aspect of personal, family, and community life, as well as in the details of business, finance, and government. Imagine, not “no religion too“, but “your religion too“, so that such a society would respect equally the genuine practice traditions of the many faiths of its citizens. This is what I hear the 21st century, and the millenium we’re entering, calling for. This call is also the real source – terma, actually – of the Shambhala vision of Chögyam Trungpa.

I will explore two aspects of this here, very briefly: secular/sacred, and drala.


A new balance, or indivisibility, of secular and sacred seems to be needed, in which the sacred is fully acknowledged in all the institutions of government and society, but in which they are not tied to any one religious faith. The founding fathers of the United States made a very conscious and brilliant effort in this direction, basing the state on fundamental natural principles while separating state from church, but as we can see in today’s American society this is not the final word –  a more complete synthesis is necessary. The sacred has become the preserve of official religions and of fundamentalisms, while the secular has been left to be terrorized by market darwinism and peculiar beliefs such as that good trickles down from attachment and greed.

Looking beyond the shores of North America, we see that much of the world does not buy into McGlobalization, and is suggesting that other outlooks are equally or more valid: an Islamic example is that of a Caliphate, with formally integrated calls to prayer throughout the day, as a better way to be for human beings. I think there is great accuracy in this latter aspiration, and it finds echoes in the lifestyles of Hasidic Judaism, in life as sadhana for Hindus and Buddhists, etc. But how can it be realized in a manner that can be shared by adherents of more than one religious practice?

In my understanding and experience this is exactly the question and the need from which the Shambhala vision of Chögyam Trungpa was extracted, and it is this that the Shambhala project – experiment – in creating a secular expression of the sacred is seeking to address. Its motivation is not an attempt to find “who we are”, but rather, what kind of radically open space, in which the sacred presents, can we uncover, manifest and share – for us and others?


The divorce of the efficient instruments of economy, business, finance, and law from the sacred – evident in mantras such as “business is business” and in notions such as that the bottom line can be expressed as a number – have led to devastating exploitation and destruction of our environment, and of the entire fabric of life within which we arise. Drala is the Shambhala term for the understanding, relationship, and practice which brings experience of the sacred together with the world of appearances, resources, and perceptions. Drala is finding the cosmic mirror in a blade of grass, in a sheaf of wheat, in a kitchen utensil. It is drala that calls for an explicit role in the very guts of our systems of sustainability and care, in the DNA of our financial and engineering systems – and we need to find language and forms to express that. Drala also offers a way to bring together the sometimes more abstract notions of emptiness and nature of mind with the textures of the living world, and more and more vocabulary for it is emerging within science itself.

The Source is in Front

On a personal note, this is why Shambhala Vision feels ever more relevant: it is a genuine attempt to go from but also beyond one’s personal practice into the open space of others, and it offers some useful language and practice to bring such aspiration down to earth. This is also something not unique: I am finding that the more I look out and interact genuinely with people, the more I meet such vivid openness. It is not of my making, or my belonging, but through mutual letting go the space feels held, and common language, understandings, and forms emerge. It’s possible for people to meet in no-man’s land, and to learn to be there with integrity, decisiveness and confidence – then it turns out to be pure gold, drala’s home, and warrior’s way.

More than that, it’s necessary for our world to be so, and for us to develop such ways of being, along with the forms, culture and institutions to actually embody these. Sustainability needs sustained drala practice, for example. This is a radical project, to create a new secular vocabulary of the sacred, which includes explicit personal and communal recognition of drala in our food, clothing, land, and homes – where we live. That space and its yearning is where our legacy comes from.

Over the centuries, there have been many who have sought the ultimate good and have tried to share it with their fellow human beings. To realize it requires immaculate discipline and unflinching conviction. Those who have been fearless in their search and fearless in their proclamation belong to the lineage of master warriors, whatever their religion, philosophy, or creed. What distinguishes such leaders of humanity and guardians of human wisdom is their fearless expression of gentleness and genuineness – on behalf of all sentient beings. We should venerate their example and acknowledge the path that they have laid for us. They are the fathers and mothers of Shambhala, who make it possible, in the midst of this degraded age, to contemplate enlightened society.

The Shambhala Lineage, the final chapter in Shambhala The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Mark Szpakowski, earth cadet and habitat partner, develops software for collaboration and care, and has been a co-conspirator with Chögyam Trungpa since 1972.

Creating Enlightened Society — Part 3

April 4, 2009

Creating Enlightened Society

by Dr. Robin Kornman

 Part 3

Now, I’m going to talk about what Rigden means. The Rigden was the king of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala. He was the man who spread the Kalachakra teachings across the world. By the end of this weekend, you’re going to know what the Kalachakra teachings are and who the Rigden is, and what the idea is in being a Rigden. But for right now, let’s just say that the Rigden king represents the wisdom of the Court principle. And when these people are devoted, because of their intelligence, to the Rigden king, they work together well and they form a society. So it says,

Thus a good human society was created on this Earth.

And that’s the end of the section. I’ve been studying this section for years, and if I had more time I’d work through every word in Tibetan. Actually, I’d like to give a word-by-word commentary on it, but we don’t have time tonight. Still, I think you have the basic idea: Society is a natural thing. It comes into being when your mind perceives the basis of things. Society is created, not by two or three people getting together, which is what Aristotle said about politics. It’s created by glimpsing the origins of human intelligence, and how you accept your glimpse of origins of human intelligence, that tells you what kind of society you are going to create.

We build an enlightened society in the Shambhalian way by giving people a practice that enables them to face their primordial nature, to face their own nature, and that is the sitting practice of meditation. The first thing we do in Shambhala Training or in Buddhism is teach you how to sit, and we tell you to follow your breath. But the idea isn’t for you to become an expert at focusing on your breath. The idea is that you are using the breath as a crutch to do something else: to look at your own mind. My mind is following the breath; my mind is looking at the breath. My mind is the “I”. The breath is the “it”. “I” look at “it”. What I want to do is look at “I”. I want to turn and look at myself, and the sitting practice we do aims to do that. That’s what it fundamentally is. You follow the breath, and after a while you begin to discover that you can’t follow the breath too much. Thoughts come up and distract you, and you begin to complain that your mind is full of uncontrolled thoughts. You have a monkey mind, full of thoughts. It swings from thought to thought, like a monkey swings from branch to branch.

You complain about your lack of discipline, but you’re seeing your thoughts. You’re beginning to turn towards your mind. That first glimpse of the business of your thoughts is the beginning of your turning towards your mind.  That first glimpse of the business of your thoughts is the beginning of your turning towards mind itself. As you begin to slow down in meditation, you begin to see the arising, dwelling, and cessation of the thoughts. You begin to see the beginning of the thought, the middle of the thought, and the end of the thought. When you see the beginning, middle, and end of a thought, now you are turned away from the phenomenal world and you’re looking back towards the cosmic mirror, and you’re watching the thoughts arise from the mirror.

The thought arises from something. When you turn towards that something, rather than the thought, you’ve made that great turning, the 180 degree turn. The Yogacharans call it “the great turning”. The longer it takes you to do it, the better. The more agonizing it is, the better. If it takes you 20 years to turn, you’ve made a great turning, and you’re going to have a great realization. That’s what the meditation practice is, and that’s where we begin. We’re going to learn to construct an enlightened society and the first step is learning how to look at the abyss, at the vast mind. Tomorrow morning I’m going to go into the technique of looking and I’m going to talk about how you develop a capacity, from that meditation practice, which enables you to construct palaces and plant beautiful fields, join with others in complex projects, and design a society.

Actually, if you wanted to prepare for the talk, in the manual there’s a paper you could read called A Prolegomena to a Theory of Contemplative Education by Robin Kornman. When I was studying Comparative Literature at Princeton, I learned that if you begin a paper with a Greek word that nobody knows, it gets published! (Laughter) It just does! Stephen knows… So I want this paper published, so I begin with “Prolegomena”, and I’m not going to tell you what it is. That would remove the magic and mystery.  This is a Prolegomena, but you’re going to have to guess what that means. In any case, if you wanted to you could prepare by reading this, because this is what I’m going to talk about tomorrow morning.

Then tomorrow afternoon, I’m going to take the different pieces of an enlightened society and talk about them separately. I’m going to hearken back to oral teachings that Trungpa Rinpoche gave me, gave us in the early days. He taught us, I don’t know, it seems like hundreds of techniques of meditation in action. Each one of them was an aspect of building an enlightened society. I’ve made a rough list of those teachings he gave that didn’t get written down anywhere. Now, some of them did get written down, but if you want to know his techniques for meditation in action, or his techniques for building an enlightened society, it’s hard to find them by reading his writings. Thanks to the work of people like Carolyn Gimian we have the collected writings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche [The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa] in those gorgeous yellow books. And in addition to them, we have all the seminary transcripts from the early Vajradhatu Seminaries. We have tons and tons of writings by him, but I reckon he gave about one-third of his teachings casually and orally in his living room to different students. We knew that they were important and we spread them. We talked to all the other students we could talk to and we made sure that these teachings got propagated. So that community of Trungpa Rinpooche’s original students did a very effective job of spreading these teachings.

I was at Karme Choling, a Buddhist meditation Centre in Vermont, and I would come back from spending an evening at Rinpoche’s house and people would say, “Well, what did you talk about?” And I would say, “We talked about this, and this, and this…go through the whole list, and then everybody would talk to each other about it. Somebody else would spend the evening there and come back and say, “Well, we talked about such and such. We talked about sex. Would you like to know what he says about sex?” “We talked about cooking, we talked about clothes, we talked about politics. Whatever was discussed got passed on, and passed through the community, and became part of what the senior teachers taught in their more casual moments in the lectures they gave. Now, we stand in danger of losing those teachings because they weren’t written down in books. They weren’t recorded.

So a bunch of us have been rushing around, finding people who were privately taught something by Trungpa Rinpoche, and getting those people to talk it into a camera. We post it on The Chronicles web site; we make them available in general. For example, Jack Niland spent hours and days with Rinpoche learning an approach to painting based upon Dzogchen. It’s an approach to painting that even includes a Dzogchen way of preparing the canvas. You actually polish the canvas and cover it with a kind of clay which you polish until the canvas becomes a mirror. The canvas becomes the cosmic mirror, and then you paint what arises out of the mirror on the canvas. It’s a whole system of painting and he just taught it to Jack Niland. Jack kept notes and Rinpoche did drawings for him, and he kept the drawings and a couple of us learned about it two years ago and we began having Jack give programs in New York, and filming the programs. So now we’ve documented those private sessions. So I’m going to make a list of whatever I can remember of private teachings that need to be discussed, and talk about them. As the months go on I’m going to just give them into the camera and we’ll make podcasts and put them on the web. And I’ll find other people who have had private instructions like that and add them to the list.

In the afternoon tomorrow, I’m going to start a list of oral instructions on details of an enlightened society. Any that you can remember, add to that and we’ll collect as much as we can. There are a couple of old timers here.

On Sunday I’m going to take the material on enlightened society that you’ve heard in these three talks, and follow it out in some of the Tibetan scriptures from which these teachings come. All of the teachings that I’ve been talking about – we find them in the Shambhala texts. We received them from Trungpa Rinpoche in his lectures and we got instructed on them in private lectures with him or with the Sakyong, whoever your guru is in the Shambhala lineage. But they all come from Tibetan scriptures. On Sunday, I’m going to go through two or three of the Tibetan scriptures in detail that are origins for these teachings on enlightened society. Actually, there are lots more than I’m going to have time to do on Sunday but Sunday will be a beginning, and then we can have podcasts of the rest. So that’s the weekend. We’re going to have music and art and a book fair. I’m going to mention lots of little details and I want you to enjoy yourself and enjoy contributing to this environment as we try to remember the dreams we had in the early days of the Court, and recreate the sense of Court. It seems pretty complete.

I wanted to just say one thing and I’ll talk more about it later.  I just realized that that table in the corner might seem very mysterious to you. It’s meant to be a table full of aphorisms. We’re going to talk about the role of proverbs and aphorisms in enlightened society, so I grabbed a bunch off my shelf and put them there. These are texts which are designed to be read by 14-year-olds. I’ll talk about the training of teenagers in an enlightened society, and the use of those texts. Also, you’ll see Recalling Trungpa Rinpoche which is a book that Fabrice Midal edited. A lot of work went into this book. It’s meant to be a way of presenting Trungpa Rinpoche’s ideas to the non-buddhist world. It’s a collection of essays written for philosophers, academics, critics, and artists who aren’t committed to a path, the beginning of making him one of the people you study in school when you study the thinkers of the twentieth century. It’s being published in French and in English. I don’t know if the French translation is going to really happen or not, but the text has been translated into French. You’ll find the articles there very interesting. Some of them are average but a lot of them are very brilliant. Reggie Ray has a very good article, Traleg Rinpoche has a brilliant article. This is a way of getting a really different insight into the thought of Trungpa Rinpoche, looking at him as a twenty-first century philosopher, not done just as a buddhist teacher. 

OK. So let’s bow to each other and fold our tents and steal silently into the night.

Creating Enlightened Society, Talk 1: Part 1 | Part 2