Going Down With the Ship

November 8, 2008 by     Print This Post Print This Post


Much communication has been taking place lately across the electronic airwaves about the state of the Shambhala community. This exchange of views is a good thing.  

I believe much of the “problem” is structural. A particular mandala set-up organically grew up around Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.  The mandala that developed was a mutual creation of his, his students, the mahakalas, dralas, and other non-theistic entities Rinpoche was/is connected with. As the Vidyadhara (crazy wisdom holder), he was inscrutable in the way he occupied the space at the centre. One could say that the centre of the mandala was empty, or one could say that the centre was like an axis which exists according to some universal principle, but does not exist in any tangible way. For the most part, the Vidyadhara was in the background, hidden by the hustle and bustle of what was going on…the activity of the mandala itself. (He’s still in the background, but, for me, it has gotten harder and harder to see the relationship between him and the current mandala.)

When Trungpa Rinpoche was the central mandala figure, sometimes he was in the foreground. When he taught, he was “the man”. The spotlight was on him. The rest of the time, because he showed us how to meditate and work with our mind, because he empowered us to take our seat and be who we are, we were the actors in the ongoing movie, or, more often than not, the unfolding drama–and he was in the background.   

Lots of things went right, and some things went wrong. When they went wrong, typically, he didn’t fix them. My understanding of this–and this is pure conjecture on my part–is that he had faith in the intelligence of the mandala, he knew karma would take its course, and, generally speaking, he had no inclination to step in to “save the day” in any case!

From a theistic point of view, this is hardly acceptable. The person in charge should right the ship when it’s listing, dammit! But in our case, when things start to go south, there is no Superman. There is no magician to pull a rabbit out of a hat. It’s up to us.

But we do know one thing. When things get rough–when there’s a lot of pain, confusion, and divisiveness–one thing we can do is practice tonglen, and go from there.

Quite a few years ago, in the question period at a seminar, I asked Trungpa Rinpoche about tonglen. (I don’t recall which seminar it was, but judging from his response, he was probably not teaching Hinayaya or Mahayana.)

 “If you’re doing tonglen for someone who has cancer,” I asked, “and you’re doing it properly, does that mean that you won’t get the cancer?”

 “No,” he said. “You get cancer.”

 “So, you go down with the ship?”

 “Yes.” (I believe he was smiling at this point!) “You go down with the ship!”

This exchange has always stuck with me because it’s so unsettling. Recently, I was reading  “Crazy Wisdom” in The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Volume Five, and came across the following passage which gave me a bit of a clue as to what Trungpa Rinpoche was talking about [my emphasis]:

There still seems to be some kind of timidity in our general approach. We are timid in the sense that, no matter how subtle or obvious the teachings may be, we are still not reconciled to the notion that “pain and pleasure alike are ornaments which it is pleasant to wear.” We might read it, we might say it, but still we find it magnificent to twist the twist and feel that misery or negativity is good: “We have to work with it. Okay, I’ve been doing that. Lately I’ve been finding all kinds of rough and rugged things going on in my mind and in my life. It’s not particularly pleasant, but all in all it’s interesting for me.” There is some tinge of hope. The idea of finding the negativity “interesting” is that somehow as we go along we will be saved. The unspoken implication is that finally the whole thing is going to be good and pleasurable. It’s very subtle. It is almost as though there’s an unspoken agreement that in the end all roads lead to Rome.

Ego is always trying to come out on top. We hope/expect that we will end up smelling like a rose. Trungpa Rinpoche’s message to us was, simply: Good luck, sir (or madam)!

Regarding our current situation, along with the mantle he has assumed as leader of the Shambhala community, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has inherited the Vidyadhara’s mandala set-up. On the face of it, it makes perfect sense that we would keep the mandala intact–if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it–and pass it along from Sakyong to Sakyong. I’d go so far as to say that this happened without so much as a thought that it could be otherwise.

When the Sawang became Sakyong, it was as if we, as a community, figured that–suddenly–the training wheels could come off the bicycle.  I was far from the centre of the action at the time, so I’m going to speculate as to why we did this. Perhaps the Sawang-turned-Sakyong was eager to start riding on his own, but we were also very keen for him to take his ‘bicycle seat’ at the centre of the mandala. We longed, even ached for this because we had been living for so long  with the gap that Trungpa Rinpoche had left behind. This absence was painful. The notion of waiting any longer–if it had occurred to us that this was even an option–would have been quickly squelched by our desire for the new Sakyong to lead the community, fully fledged. That way, the uncomfortable gap would go away.  (Hindsight is 20/20!)

So, the Sakyong took his seat at the centre and gradually began to “grow into” that spot. It was as if, on receiving the Sakyong empowerment,  he emerged fully hatched, like a garuda.  

Now, a dozen years later, we find that there’s an elephant in the living room. Ignoring it is not helpful. There’s a difference between a vidyadhara occupying the centre of the mandala, and someone who is still on the path occupying that same spot. The latter is in a vulnerable position because checks and balances and training wheels were not built into the Vidyadhara’s mandala.  In the Shambhala International mandala, there is no authority to whom Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche must listen and pay heed. Technically, the Board of Directors can step in to create a boundary but to my knowledge, this seldom happens.  

We know from history that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believe this can and will happen to anyone who is still on the path–anyone who has not dissolved the last vestiges of ego–who finds him/herself in the centre of the Vidyadhara’s mandala . 

The first time there was serious divisiveness in the sangha the Regent was the leader. Much pain and handwringing took place over that messy situation over a period of years, and deep schisms roiled the sangha. While there are significant differences between the Regent and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, what is similar is that they were both put in positions with unchecked power and authority. Now, in retrospect, we can see the consequences. 

There is nothing wrong with making mistakes, but making the same mistake twice can have severe repercussions.

I submit that whenever someone who is still on the path occupies the Vidyadhara’s position in the mandala there will be problems, because only egolessness can “survive” that particular spot unscathed. As a result, if we fast-forward to today, we see that decisions have been made that are creating a great deal of discord in the sangha. Among them are the following:

  • In the path that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has recently articulated for his students, the practices of Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara have become optional after completion of the Scorpion Seal retreat.  When the Vidyadhara transmitted these crown jewels of the Mahamudra tradition and teachings to his senior students,  indeed, there was (and is) nothing ‘optional’ about them! This is just one example of key teachings and practices that have either lost their priority or been altered to fit a new agenda.
  • If I wanted to join the Shambhala community today, I wouldn’t be able to because, as it says in the St. John’s Shambhala Meditation Group Membership document, I cannot make a “personal commitment to the path of Shambhala Buddhism” because this view is not in accord with my training. My understanding is that the Shambhala and Buddhist paths are closely related, but separate. This is one of a number of reasons why a significant number of senior students have either dropped out or been terminated from membership, due to non-payment of dues.
  • Discussions are underway to transfer the ownership of Kalapa Valley, The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya (!), and Trungpa Rinpoche’s copyrights to an entity that exists outside the purview of Shambhala International. Some of us are disturbed by this.
  • There is a “need” for the current Sakyong to have multiple expensive residences. At the moment, there’s Halifax, Boulder, and Cologne.  There is also talk about building a Gesar Palace at Shambhala Mountain Center, which would include a residence for the Sakyong. Does this consumption and display of wealth really reflect Shambhala values?

I think it’s time to roll up our sleeves, practice tonglen–and go down with the ship.


51 Responses to “Going Down With the Ship”

  1. kristine on September 28th, 2009 8:21 pm

    Hi all,

    This was a thread I missed when I was away. Interesting to read this all in the light of this summers teachings by the Sakyong.

    I liked what Frans had to say – sincere and touching on a lot of topics.

    It really isn’t fair to either the Vidyadhara or the current Sakyong to compare them. They did arise at different times.

    I had no idea the sangha supported a large house in Europe for the Druk Sakyong that he went to only once. Was this as debated as the Sakyongs house in halifax getting a reno? (he is there many months of each year)

    Andrew – I liked what you said about how the Vidyadhara wouldn’t fix things that went wrong. hmm – food for thought…

    I loved the info on the term – Vidyadhara – this is a good forum for discussion – thank you organizers.

    I don’t feel like we are going down with the ship – but I do feel like those who don’t want to continue the study of the Shambhala teachings are free to not to that.

    Membership is growing albeit slowly. People are more clear about what that entails and are encouraged to make that choice carefully.

    these ‘optional’ practices are still practiced and practiced well. Just look at the land centres which are committed to offering group practices of chakrasmava, four roots and vajrayogini, mahamudra and even Vajrakilaya. In halifax we have regularly 4 or 5 feasts a month. All qualified practitioners are ALWAYS welcome to come and practice these regular practices.

    the debate about buddhism/shambhala aside. I do feel like we are creating a ‘community’ a society. One that can support many views and is open to criticism. and is truly becoming the culture that the shambhala teachings encouraged – neither a tibetan remake nor a monastic enclave but the unique western blend that is Mukpo and all of you are family.

    here is another optional practice.

    but we may have missed the boat.

    ki ki so so