Monarchy and Power within Shambhala

July 4, 2010 by     Print This Post Print This Post

Some Thoughts on Monarchy and the Dynamics of Power within Shambhala

Commentary by Damchö

1) I came to Trungpa Rinpoche’s first Shambhala book after I’d read nearly all of his published Buddhist teachings. Most of the book made a tremendous impression on me, particularly the first main part–”How To Be a Warrior”. The monarchical and Confucian political vision which emerged later in the book, however: this I had to hold in my mind in “negative capability”. I recognized it as a provocative challenge to my inherited Western skepticism about kingship. And indeed it created some real cognitive dissonance. After all, I would say to myself, this man is clearly pretty realized, and I clearly am not, so who am I to disagree? And yet…

Few around me within the sangha seemed to have much in the way of qualms. I remember conversations at retreat centre dinner tables about this topic. Some of the contributors were 20-years-old yet already confidently proclaiming democracy to be lame, an idealistic but naive illusion. Anyone can see monarchy is the only mature, wise choice of government, I would hear…

My personal difficulty with idealizing monarchy stems from an inability to point to any idealized example of it, one which–as far as I am able to see–has ushered in anything close to enlightened society. The chants mention Ashoka, “Emperors of China and Japan and so forth,” but when I read history–history rather than hagiography or wishful thinking–I really don’t find what I would call enlightened kingship anywhere. Very possibly I am missing something. But I would also venture to guess that everything the average Shambhalian knows about Ashoka, for example, could fit inside a (small) paragraph. And how much of even that, after all, can we be truly certain of? Journalists disagree about what happened yesterday, despite transcripts and video footage! Here we are talking about ancient history, where pretty much everything is up for interpretive grabs. And yet, in my experience not only is there little questioning of this view, it seems to have become a new dogma–something unquestionable.

Of course certain reigns have been more humane (or at least less inhumane) than others. Still, mostly what I see in trying to evaluate the ways in which we humans have ruled over each other are the grubby, “human all-too- human” realities of power and the will to power. I see all the manifold pathways unchecked power opens up to corruption, ie simple human grasping and aversion–from subtle through flagrant all the way up to genocidal. And I see the stoking of spiritual materialism and theistic king / emperor worship. I am left with a strong conviction that the various functions of power need to balance each other and have some measure of genuine independence in order for a society or community to be healthy.

2) My last experiences at a centre–after a break of a number of years–heightened all of this considerably. There, I saw the current head of Shambhala treated as not all that short of a god. And saw the effects of this kind of culture on those in positions of authority and newcomers alike. Over time I have noticed less and less disagreement being expressed at centres, more and more uniformity of thought and even style. At a certain point I began to feel I’d entered a realm of True Believers.

All of this crystallized one Parinirvana Day, when I’d been living at one of the land centres. Nothing new happened, particularly; nothing I hadn’t noticed before and pondered. Still, that day everything came together in a concentrated way and I found myself thinking along more definite channels about the state of things.

Simply put, that was the day I began to feel that Shambhala had become a little too much concerned about itself, in relation to the dharma. More about triumphing than simply trying to manifest the teachings, more about self- perpetuation and growth than service. Again, nothing was especially different that day. True, there were more people in kasung uniform than usual so the military vibe was heavier, and the kasung energy, at that time and place at least, was fairly cold, punitive / superegoic in style, not terribly reminiscent of the broken-hearted practitioner. There were more toasts than usual, but not a ton more. Depth of pride in the lineage was very much on display that day, but naturally enough after all.

Still, sitting in the shrine room that evening, listening to the toasts I’d heard innumerable times each in the preceding year and (about four times that day) the Shambhala Anthem; hearing too much news about the three separate weddings Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and the Sakyong Wangmo were about to have, a few too many assertions about how special the Mukpo family is; hearing a triumphalist “proclamation” read that had just been issued, offering help at governance to the town of Halifax (or was it the whole province of Nova Scotia?); gazing frequently up at the new shrine which now contained only representatives of the Mukpo family, just Sakyong Mipham and his father; seeing a little too much uniformity of taste, opinion, expression, even individual vocabulary … in the midst of all this a sense of claustrophobia which had been creeping up on me for a number of weeks, getting stronger and stronger, finally forced me to pay proper attention to it. I pronounced to myself the word which is always made a joke of at Shambhala centres. Yes, I wondered why the whole experience that day felt so unspacious, indeed suffocating. Why it felt rather like being in a cult.

That was around the time I first heard SMR referred to as His Majesty, and the place he would stay always referred to as The Court, as if there were a kind of superstition against even occasionally saying “so-and-so’s house” or “such-and-such hotel”. It was around the time I attended a server’s meeting at which someone described how something had once been spilled on the floor in the Sakyong’s presence and he actually helped the server clean it up! I put this phrase in italics because it indicates how the story was told, as something truly extraordinary, indicative of superhuman love on the part of the Sakyong. It was also around the time a friend of mine–who’d just come back from serving the Sakyong on a book-writing retreat–told me in hushed tones that he’d seen SMR with his own eyes follow through on a speaking engagement despite being sick to his stomach just beforehand. He described this, again, as if it were another instance of something incredibly exceptional. Yet all I could think of at that moment was the singer (was it Joan Baez?) who in an interview spoke of having to go through nausea and vomiting before literally every concert. Or for that matter all those who get up and go to work every day pretty much however they are feeling. More to the point, it was around the time I began to notice the Sakyong being spoken of like this all the time.

3) As with James Elliott, who has written eloquently here about this topic, my reflections on and around that Parinirvana Day came after observing abuse of power–undealt with by Shambhala hierarchy. And also as in his case this was the catalyst for trying to understand the current environment within the sangha better, focusing on questions about power and how it is dispersed and related to within Shambhala International. Abuse of power in and of itself is maybe not all that remarkable. But a culture which downplays it, looks the other way, or even fails to see it in the first place is another matter entirely.

All these thoughts raise two core issues for me, with which I will conclude:

a) Samaya, theocracy, and inclusiveness

Samaya is unique, unlike any other relationship we could think of. Samaya is the utterly intimate, mind-to- mind relationship that exists between a student and the Lama she has freely chosen. It exists at the level of spiritual practice and not for any kind of collective, political purpose.

When the aspect of obedient submission within samaya moves outside of that relationship and begins to characterize the larger political structure of an organization, we have theocracy, and one to a very pure degree. It is a primordial temptation, an ancient dream, that we might bypass ordinary checks and balances and leap directly to the revolutionary goal: dutifully acknowledging the (generally catastrophic) failings of such movements in the past, yet insisting that now things are, for the first time, different.

The dharma is very clear in pointing out how ever-resourceful and clever is ego, how manifold its tendencies toward self-deception. And Trungpa Rinpoche saw fit to present as his first main teaching in America the sobering truth of spiritual materialism: that not merely even within religion, but especially within religion, can we find the temptations to cut corners and assume ourselves–or more to the point our Church or sect–pretty much entirely on the side of the angels.

I find it a thought very much in keeping with the dharma that the more centralized is political power and the fewer checks and balances upon it, the greater the temptation to abuse such power in the name of the ideal. It does not contradict the reality of basic goodness to assert the need for skepticism in assessing motivation in ourselves and our leaders, of course; it simply follows on from the illusions of ego and ego’s perhaps cleverest creation–spiritual materialism.

Within Shambhala I find a samaya-like quality operating at the level of the collective along with a lack of balance of power between executive, legislative, and judicial functions. In fact I would be hard-pressed to point to any actual distinction of such functions: acharyas traverse all three, and each has pledged a form of absolute loyalty to the Sakyong; the kasung likewise pledge loyalty to SMR and implicitly to his senior teachers as representatives; and everyone else is encouraged to follow the curriculum to its end, a path which involves ever- more-binding pledges of loyalty. A tight and intricate setup of obedience is thus in place, creating various issues of accountability and exclusion which have been aired often in this forum and elsewhere.

The admonishment to evaluate a potential teacher for a full twelve years before entering into samaya came from within a culture far removed from the democratic expectations of our own. And yet within Shambhala today many have pledged even more than samaya long before that span: they have also committed themselves to a King and a hierarchy, a political philosophy and political movement, and an increasingly independent lineage. At the same time Shambhala continues to represent itself as a non-partisan, inclusive umbrella under which all genuine spiritual practitioners from whatever tradition may feel at home. There is a serious discrepancy here.

b) Agenda, ambition, and spiritual materialism

Theocratic tendencies and insufficient checks and balances are concern enough. Along with this is another: that Agenda may become too powerful. That the goal may, too much, become the path.

To some this may seem a contrived question, but still I ask myself: is not the dharma / truth more important than Shambhala? More specifically, are not the teachings of Shambhala more important than Shambhala? I do suspect this distinction is one many within SI would not even be able to make. But it is worth pondering, I feel. Is it not our practice to devote our lives and labour to the creation of greater sanity, dignity, humanity, love, and awakeness in the world? If so then the size or power of our particular community should not be too great a concern to us. Who cares where the good influences are coming from, so long as we are doing our own thing as well as we can and supporting all individuals and groups who are manifesting basic goodness each in their own way, with their own emphases and styles.

This is obviously not to say we shouldn’t work at protecting, enriching, and offering our own precious inheritance. But the trend within Shambhala has been towards ever greater separation from the larger Buddhist community. And here’s the point: I don’t believe Shambhala is going to save the world. I don’t think Buddhism as a whole is going to save the world. If human community is going to survive and evolve, we will have to relinquish possession of the truth, as well as messianic mentality–a mentality that, here, would have to neglect its own teachings on the thoroughgoing interdependence of phenomena and non-duality of self and other.

The trouble is that even the very best of our motivations can turn into ambition and agenda, all the harder to spot because of how much evident goodness is there. This is why Chögyam Trungpa emphasized the perils of spiritual materialism so much. They represent a potential blind spot for all practitioners and spiritual communities. Agenda marks the point at which personally prevailing becomes more important than working with everyone else and simply doing one’s best, unconcerned with the status or size of our group.

I am concerned that Shambhala has been sliding down this path for some time, unawares. Removing Trungpa Rinpoche’s own beloved Kagyu- and Nyingma-lineage holding teachers from the shrine represents one important sign of this. Centralizing new practices which literally only one person in the world–the Sakyong–is allowed to bestow is another. Restricting approved teachers more and more to only those within the Shambhala system itself (and furthermore only those on-board with whatever changes occur, now or in the future) is a third. A little too much self-congratulation at the expense of humility, and difficulty in absorbing critical input from the “lower ranks” and especially from dissenters, is a fourth. And, as worrying as any of these, seeing dynamics of silence and exclusion in operation when criticisms are voiced. For a wise, healthy, and generous community need never fear its good-hearted critics–quite the contrary.

For me personally it has been a wrenchingly sad time. When organizations lack certain kinds of flexibility and correction mechanisms at the same time as they are utterly convinced of their own rightness (I don’t speak of basic View here, but of all the more down-to-earth and day-to-day aspects of direction and relationship), then I would say we are simply begging blind spots to appear and deepen. When we go even further and solidify our beautiful yearnings for enlightened society, peace, and a truly humane world into the figure of a Vajra Guru King who practically speaking is not acknowledged as capable of mistake: at this point, we are no longer learning from the past. Something has closed down. Something is unrecognizable.

Damchö is completing a BA in Music and hopes afterwards to do graduate work in linguistics.  He began Shambhala Training in 1997, reaching the final graduate level before the issues discussed above gave him pause.  However, he remains very inspired by the View of a complete non-sectarian and non-religious path grounded in spacious mind, tender heart, and fearlessness.


260 Responses to “Monarchy and Power within Shambhala”

  1. Chris on October 18th, 2010 5:01 pm

    This is what I mean, discussions are now focused on Zizek, INSTEAD of the issue of RFS and vehicles like it, and whether they serve to simply be “run off” of the energy needed to try and change things or ‘symbiotic helpmaidens” to keep the energy and intelligence AWAY from the actual issues that originally concerned the group of CTR students:

    SMR NOT teaching in CTR’s stream…
    Changing of the mediation practices of CTR
    Changing Lineages

    And the Spiritual Materialism and degeneration of the Dharma because of it’s emphasis on MONEY MONEY MONEY.

    No one, for example, even addresses the incredible gauche, vulgarity of the “Breeze of Delight” website and how this is a sign of the complete corruption of CTR’s mandala, the “end of the end” times. Nor how certain “events” like this tell us much more about the financial state of SI than any PR claptrap.

    But these things are ignored, to dissect Zizek now, who was simply mentioned in the context of blah blah blah, vs, movement.

    There is no focus to any issue, because liberals just like to TALK TALK TALK. Endless talk . I am sure THAT factor alone was enough for CTR to see the dangers of a liberal democracy. That was probably why he didn’t trust it.

  2. Edward on October 18th, 2010 5:18 pm

    Chris writes:
    liberals just like to TALK TALK TALK. Endless talk

  3. rita ashworth on October 18th, 2010 6:23 pm

    Dear Damcho,

    I have just come to Zizek so I am not familiar with his writings a great deal.

    However in checking him out on utube the stuff that interested me the most was him still being a communist and talking about how new forms of communism could arise. That did seem to tie in with the Triad concept on our former cafe table so I thought that was interesting that there were still thinkers and ‘popular’ thinkers out there discussing how a new communism could come about. Of course Zizek has provided only tentative ideas on how this could happen.

    Yes on film I think I will buy his dvd as he does have a good grasp of cinema –there are also clips of his stuff on utube which are quite funny in a cranky eastern European way. Maybe this is also why he is so paradoxical – coz its partly a cultural thing coupled with his wide knowledge of philosophy and psychology.

    On another tack re Gandhi and perhaps backtracking from Zizek a bit Dzongsar Rinpoche does mention Gandhi in a clip on the Chronicle Project where he highlights the role of the writer of the Indian constitution Dr Ambedkar, I believe, a Buddhist and an untouchable. Dzongsar also posits that Dr Ambedkar was not much in favour of independence from the British because he realised that under Gandhi the caste system would still survive in India. So yes its interesting to listen to Dzongsars point of view on this on the Project. Yes perhaps we need more knowledge of Ambedkar to contrast him with the legendary figure of Gandhi. So yes could Zizek therefore know of Ambedkar and have considered the roles of both Gandhi and him in the establishment of the Indian state? Maybe not – but as you have mentioned Gandhi I thought I would bring this up to kind of state that there are many views in the pot about historical figures and the times they lived in.

    So yes re Zizek will have to read one of his books in more depth to see where he is coming from as to the formation of ‘new’ societies so will check that out.

    As to the talk of samaya –well mines with Trungpa, but much more than that too because re shambhala the idea is to create enlightened society re his command in the Shambhala book. So theres SI and the rest of us and we have these teachings to a degree –so jeez many ways could evolve with this. So for me nothing is locked down with these teachings they are still just so open and I just dont know what they will materialise into in our world. So this might be also a reason why I am interested in people like Zizek and others because at least they are talking about new conceptions of society. So yes to a degree I am looking for other similar discussions about politics byWestern thinkers which push some new buttons. So yes who would you suggest is out there re political thought that is somewhat like Trungpa’s take on society? There is Fromm who I have read but there might be others out there aswell –perhaps Mark Szp. could fill people in with more political thinkers in this vein.

    Well best from this side of the pond.

    Rita Ashworth

  4. damchö on October 18th, 2010 6:50 pm

    Dear Rita, interestingly Zizek does know of Ambedkar. In that same India Times interview he says this: “But again I feel Ambedkar was much better than Gandhi. My favourite one-liner from Ambedkar is ‘no caste without outcasts.’ I am for Ambedkar’s radical approach towards the caste issue.”

    Ambedkar certainly seems like an amazing guy. And apparently he brought an astounding number of people to Buddhism, maybe even hundreds of thousands.

  5. Tsering on October 18th, 2010 6:54 pm

    Dearest Rita, and , you too, Damcho.
    Do read Chris’s last post. Please contemplate on it. Do watch Edward’s recommended U-tube__twice even!
    And ,sweet Rita, please don’t respond (with sugar on it, pretty please?) .And , you too ,Damcho.

  6. rita ashworth on October 18th, 2010 7:27 pm

    Dear Edward and Chris

    Yes I thought his name was Mr D’eath…yes Sir Percy D’eath Esquire

    Chris yes I think the breeze of delight website was a bit weird especially the stuff about divinations always thought that was not on the cards with Trungpas way of doing things.

    But what I found more absurd was the online auction because it did not even seem to be raising any great amount of funds so what was the point of it?

    So yes re Z. perhaps one overdid it – but I do still feel that one aim of rfs is to discuss politics in connection with the shambhalian teachings. And I do believe that Trungpa was highly involved with connecting to discussions about politics in the states particularly in regard to Kasung affairs.

    Re money and Shambhala well I am no financial expert but even if they have loads of wealthy benefactors to really establish a connection to the teachings in society you have to have many people of all social levels engaging with the teachers and teachings. So I dont think the money ploy in the end will result in them getting more members so to me they are going the wrong way with the excessive emphasis on money.

    No I truly believe that a new appreciation of meditation comes from the ground up and ones genuine contact to the teachings. This is the way that the teachings will survive. So possibly SI might indeed lose the plot with its emphasis on financial affairs.

    Yes I have done some publicity in the past for the former dharmadhatus and indeed now I could probably get something going like SI and thats just me on my own but if you dont have the people in place who are soaked in the teachings I believe nothing of any value will occur. Yes religion is very strange –it survives indeed on a principle of deep shared community-certainly this is the case in my own region with its radical dissenters of the past.

    Well best from this side of the water.

    Rita Ashworth

  7. damchö on October 19th, 2010 10:09 am

    Chris, respectfully, we’re just not all coming from the same place here. That’s all it is. I’m glad you are you and have your perspective. If it ends up happening to be closest to the truth, then I hope you are able to persuade us all eventually.

    For now, I’m simply not in that place. I have been highly critical of certain aspects of Shambhala but I don’t follow you all the way. My purpose in contributing here is just to write about what I’ve experienced and feel so that maybe someone visiting might find some of it helpful in some way. And also to engage in ongoing conversation much as one does in retreat centre dining rooms over meals. It sounds like you want me to–no, are *demanding* that I!–storm the ramparts of the Sakyong’s castle or something. How can I do this when I don’t feel that way?

    I stopped contributing to SI some time ago and whenever anyone becoming interested in buddhism asks me about sanghas I advise them to avoid Shambhala (just as I used to suggest they check it out), and I give them reasons. I’ve also spent some time here putting those reasons together as clearly as I can. One way or another, SI will change–for better or for worse. And as it does we’ll all be playing our parts, but we can’t do it ourselves. Trungpa Rinpoche spoke of relationship as a dance. It has to be mutual.

    It clearly hasn’t been. So then your other suggestion comes in: that we withdraw our energy completely. That’s a good reminder. But at the moment I don’t feel I’m putting an enormous amount of energy in anyway. Really it’s just the number of minutes per week I spend writing posts, which doesn’t add up to a tremendous amount. And also, I still *am* connected to Shambhala–in the sense that I feel I have a responsibility towards it and towards all those who may join it in the future.

  8. Chris on October 19th, 2010 12:35 pm

    I think Damcho, that NOT LOOKING AWAY from this conflation of spiritual materialism and consumer materialism ,and the corruption of the authentic dharma all around us that results from this gross conflation of “materialisms” , is not a particular “opinion” for me, but an obligation felt in one’s very bones, a samaya with CTR to be doggedly critical about it, relentlessly critical about it not just re: SI and Company, but also the lama kleptocracy umbrella that enables it. I think it is impossible to say we are his students, without feeling this obligation in our very bones; I think this is one meaning of “haunting us.”

    I think not supporting it financially and warning new students about it, as you are doing, is also keeping samaya with CTR.

  9. Chris on October 19th, 2010 12:52 pm

    When the “end of the end” times for the authentic dharma of CTR is here in relation to SI and Company, and the lama kleptocracy has taken over, with such entities as websites for extended family members “”perform(ing) little ceremonies for material gain” and everyone on RFS just gives this a pass, “turns away”, pretends it isn’t happening, then one has to accept that one has become “part of it” by saying nothing, once again. No discussion of THIS ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, then one has to ask, “What is RFS’s purpose anymore?”

    I think it has become a social venue for lonely CTR students to just talk to each other about this and that. That’s o.k. too.

  10. Mark Szpakowski on October 19th, 2010 4:28 pm

    Alert! An RFS weekthun is coming up!

    This is a first step in stopping, resting there, and refreshing purpose.

    The last comment had a very timely question: “What is RFS’s purpose anymore?”

    We (the editors) have been considering this, as well as RFS conduct and decorum in light of that purpose.

    The idea of an RFS weekthun, a pause in commenting for a week, came up as a good full stop, and an essential part of a further journey of revisiting, resting in, and acting from our deepest intention, what we really care about.

    In light of the question of RFS purpose, I’ll post a short article summarizing some of the issues and approaches possible, with an invitation to join in discussion of that, with that discussion exemplifying where we want to go and how we want to be even while getting there.

    That purpose has everything to do with what we call enlightened society. The question is how to get it more under our skin.

    Let’s pause, and stop for a moment, using the formality of not commenting – and keep that moment in our subsequent actions and thoughts.

    In preparation for the weekthun, I’ll start turning off commenting on articles, so that we can begin the weekthun on Thursday morning. Meanwhile, let the commenting pause now.

    To talk with the editors, use the “editors at” email channel.