Reflections on the Vajra Sangha

February 9, 2009

Commentary by Charles Marrow

I very much appreciate this forum for dialogue which gives the sangha an avenue to reflect on how we would like to proceed, as individuals and as a sangha, to continue as practitioners of the buddhadharma and Shambhala teachings. As far as a means of communication that are open to me, there is not much available where I can address these concerns. So I think Radio Free Shambhala is pretty good. With this in mind, I would like to express my appreciation for the moderators and all the contributors who have added their posts to this web site regardless of the degree to which their views might coincide with mine.

The ability to have a coherent discussion regarding changes to the lineage view and dharma practice of our sangha has been slow in coming. It has been my feeling that the administration and the leadership of Shambhala have not readily acknowledged two things that I think are important. Now, these topics are gradually finding their way into discussions on this web site and, presumably, into other conversations. The two topics that I would like to consider and that are closely related are:

A: There is a division in the sangha, and

B: Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has made and is continuing to make significant and some of us might say “dramatic” changes in the spiritual approach of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Regarding the first topic, I think it is fair to say that any reasonable Buddhist would regard a division in the sangha as not a good thing. So we probably agree on this point. Regarding the second point, some might feel an affinity to the Sakyong’s vision and feel that his vision is very appropriate to their inspiration, some may feel deeply disturbed by what the Sakyong is doing and many might have mixed feelings about the new approach of Shambhala Buddhism. So I am comfortable suggesting that there is a broad range of feelings about adaptations to the teachings and practices of Trungpa Rinpoche that are now being presented as Shambhala Buddhism.

Let us first discuss the topic of division within the sangha. The historical Buddha gave an important vinaya teaching which addresses the serious nature of a division in the sangha. From a scholarly point of view, the issue of dividing the sangha is somewhat complex. A key element is that the sangha must be harmonious for the fault of dividing the sangha to occur and what is regarded as a harmonious sangha would be subject to interpretation. But suffice it to say, as sangha members, we instinctively feel that a divided sangha is not healthy. Under these circumstances, any balanced and mature communication that can alleviate some of this tension is regarded as laudable in the Buddhist tradition.

We can be a little bit more thorough and consider why a division in the sangha is a problem. After all, there are 84,000 collections of dharma, many personality types that will find affinity with various teachings, we are liberal and broad minded people and certainly there is room for great diversity. Is this not the case? Are not disagreements somewhat normal? On this point, the traditional texts are very clear: “As long as the sangha is divided, the five paths will not be realized”, meaning that if there are fundamental unresolved issues within a practicing community, it is pretty hard to make progress on the spiritual path. Practically speaking, if the sangha is divided in regards to fundamental spiritual principles and the related practices, there will be a natural underlying tension and a certain amount of competition, even if unstated, as to where the sangha’s spiritual and material resources will be directed.

The second topic is that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has made significant changes to the Vidyadhara’s teachings coming from the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions and also to the teachings of Shambhala. The Sakyong proclaimed a spiritual lineage of Shambhala Buddhism at the year 2000 Kalapa Assembly. Again, whether this is a positive, negative or mixed development will be perceived differently by different people. I would like to be simplistic for a moment and merely note that there is a difference.

Using myself as an example, I became a member of Karma Dzong in Boulder in 1977 which was the main seat for the Vajradhatu Buddhist organization. Vajradhatu, under the spiritual direction of Trungpa Rinpoche, followed the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The emphasis was on a certain approach to sitting meditation followed by mahayana teachings, the Kagyu ngondro and the yidam practices of Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara. The view and teachings of the Nyingma tradition were elucidated by the Vidyadhara at important points in his teaching. Now that the West has some thirty-odd years of experience of Tibetan Buddhism, there is some understanding that Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach is pretty classic, and is well known amongst informed Buddhists. That is to say it follows the tradition of the Karmapas, the Rimé tradition, and the teachings that the view of Ati is the highest view. The Surmang Trungpa lineage is within the Karma Kagyu school which can be traced directly to Gampopa and is therefore about 1,000 years old. This tradition has had many, many committed practitioners over the centuries in Tibet and also a notable number in the West in recent decades.

In regards to the Shambhala teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche, these have been presented to many people in the Shambhala Training levels, graduate program, the Kalapa Assemblies, etc. This format  is well known in our community and many of us would regard Shambhala Training as having been very helpful to many people over a long period of time.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is teaching and encouraging others to teach the lineage, the view and the practices of Shambhala Buddhism. This lineage came into existence under this name in the year 2000. I do not think any other master ever taught something known as Shambhala Buddhism. This teaching seeks to unify the Shambhala and Buddhist paths and articulates the principle of basic goodness as the overarching principle. This principle is represented by the image of the Primordial Rigden. Shambhala Buddhism is presented as more applicable to the modern times and the problems of this era. It is also regarded as being more applicable to a greater number of people.

In the practice methods, Shambhala Buddhism presents a view of sitting meditation that promotes the value of shorter sitting periods and also recommends using a closer technique with more control used in mindfulness meditation. It presents the mahayana teachings and then one proceeds to do the Primordial Rigden ngondro followed by the Primordial Rigden abhishekha, the Werma Sadhana practice of Trungpa Rinpoche and then the Scorpion Seal retreat. The Kagyu ngondro and yidam practices of Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara are presented in Shambhala Buddhism as optional, and presumably valuable practices that can be done after the completion of the Scorpion Seal retreat at the discretion of the practitioner. As the primordial Rigden ngondro is only a few years old and the format for the Scorpion Seal retreat is still being worked on, there have only been a very few acharyas who have worked with this path to a significant degree. It is still being formulated, without much previous human experience.

The Sakyong, through his administration, has indicated that, with a view to unifying Shambhala and Buddhism, the Shambhala Training levels will be mixed with the new Shambhala Buddhist curriculum. This new approach to the Shambhala teachings is presented under the curriculum title of the Way of Shambhala. There is a possibility that the name of “Shambhala Training” will be phased out altogether in favor of “The Way of Shambhala”. An individual entering this new program will receive Buddhist teachings in an explicit form. As we know, in the Shambhala Training format, it was possible to complete the entire program, even up to receiving Werma Sadhana without becoming Buddhist. Some may feel this inclusion of Buddhist teachings in the Shambhala context is very good.

In these summations, I am trying to be neutral and merely highlight some of the distinctions in the Shambhala Buddhist approach in contrast to the Kagyu Vajradhatu tradition with Shambhala Training being presented as a separate stream of study and practice.

Now I would like to speak more subjectively and say a few things about how I have personally experienced the community and organizational dynamic. First of all, up to the last year or so, I felt like Shambhala International’s official position was that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s approach was, in essence, identical to his father’s. This is what I felt was being said. Further, it seemed that this new Shambhala Buddhist path was being presented as really superior and that it will become widespread and help many, many people in this dark age. Also, I felt I was being told that the notion of adhering to the practices and teachings I was quite fond of from Trungpa Rinpoche’s Vajradhatu path was out of date and that I was stuck in the past. Then, there were the instances when it was communicated to me that, like other “old” students, I was just hanging on to the Vidyadhara’s teaching, being inflexible and being an obstructionist as to how the Sakyong wanted to manifest Shambhala.


My reaction to this whole process is that the current Sakyong and the administration has crossed the line in what modern parlance would call “non-negotiables”. One could make up a simple story, as an example. Say that I am an Italian man, who likes my home country and falls in love and marries a German woman. I go and spend time with my wife’s family and her German father begins to expect that I will become patriotic to Germany, root for their soccer team, sing their national anthem, adore German beer, give up my love for opera and Italian wine and totally get into the German national spirit. “Well, sorry to say to you guys, I am an Italian and I like my Italian thing and that is just the way it is!” In short, one would feel that these kinds of expectations are unreasonable.

From the point of view of spiritual development, in my own experience, I feel that the presentation of Shambhala Buddhism is a distraction. I do not have much connection to it and I have explored its theory and practices to a reasonable degree.  Needless to say, there are students of Sakyong Mipham who are inspired by his example and are undertaking the Shambhala Buddhist path with enthusiasm. So, once again, I am merely trying to clarify and stabilize the notion that a) the Kagyu Vajradhatu path is different from Shambhala Buddhism, and that b) there is a division in the sangha.

Perhaps it is because of my background as a member of the Dorje Kasung that I believe it is sometimes most skillful to approach complex situations with a degree of simple-mindedness and literalism. In discussions that we have had on this web site and elsewhere it is easy to get drawn into notions that “This way or that way is the pure, enlightened or correct way,” or that “This is what Trungpa Rinpoche really wanted,” etc. In fact, there are certain traditional methods for exploring the validity of a path of dharma through study and contemplation but that is not the purpose of this article. Here, I am trying to focus on two simple facts that are related to the experiences of individual practitioners and that also have a big impact on the vitality and cohesion of ourselves as a sangha, i.e., a group of practitioners.

I will go one step further into an area that is maybe somewhat more difficult, but necessary. This is to say that, in some form or another, there will have to be a process by which the direction of the sangha is clarified. The issues discussed thus far have been in the air for some number of years now. For example, in 2004 there was a conference in Boston called the Mandala Conference that produced a document called The Ground of Openness and Trust. I personally feel that the observations made at that time are still quite applicable to our situation. What is needed now is to have a mechanism for discussing and coming to practical decisions regarding the issues raised at that time.

From the vantage point of looking back to the discussions of the Shambhala Congress of 2003 and the issues that are still with us, I have to be somewhat blunt regarding my observations. I feel like there was, and still is, an approach to communication coming from the Sakyong and Shambhala International where expressions of the principles of inclusion, diversity, respect for elders, etc. are regularly circulated. However, when we observe how actual policies are implemented, it seems that every effort is made to march on with the predetermined agenda of furthering Shambhala Buddhism, while the feelings of those who have an affinity to maintaining Trungpa Rinpoche’s dharma and the practice traditions of Vajradhatu are related to as minimally as possible. One might get the feeling that it is the hope of the administration that if they just proceed, then those of us who did not really like these changes would eventually conform or just get out of the way, perhaps even leave the sangha altogether. Needless to say, this does not encourage a good sangha atmosphere.

To conclude, I would like to recap a statement made by His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche when he was in Colorado around the time of the Vidyadhara’s parinirvana. I heard the following quote from two different reliable sangha friends. At this time, His Holiness said something to the effect that:

Now that the Vidyadhara has passed away, various lamas will come to the sangha and will want to present their teachings. My advice to you (the Vajradhatu sangha at that time) is that you ignore those lamas and continue with the teachings you have received from the Vidyadhara.

It is my feeling that this advice applies today.

I know some of these are difficult points, but I trust that presenting these issues will be of some benefit to the practicing community.

Charles Marrow has been a practicing Buddhist his entire adult life. He moved to Boulder in 1977 to become a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche after practicing at San Francisco Zen Center. In 1983 he moved to Nova Scotia to participate in the Vajradhatu sangha. He has been the owner of several small businesses and currently works as an independent bookkeeper and accountant.