Open Dojo

December 4, 2011 by     Print This Post Print This Post

by Mark Szpakowski

Practice room at Juniper Lodge, Windhorse Farm, Nova Scotia

An ongoing question for various types of Buddhists, especially those who have been in a relationship with someone they consider “enlightened”, is how to carry on in the absence of such an individual. This certainly affects the Vajrayana students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, with whom they were in a student/master relationship, and whom they considered the authoritative center of an enlightened mandala.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s first teachings on mandala referred to it as society. It is not surprising, then, that the Shambhala [1] students of Trungpa’s secular manifestation as Shambhala King feel the same issue: if you had some glimpse, through his leadership, of what an enlightened society could be, how can you carry on and realize that vision in the absence of such a figure? Is enlightened society possible without an enlightened leader?

In both cases these are profound and edgy questions, and also deeply disturbing to those for whom democracy is the best answer yet to the question of how to govern.

One venue where this has been explored, whether willingly, wittingly, or not, has been at the Alia Institute. Alia – Authentic Leadership in Action – originally the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership, was founded by a group of the Shambhala students of Chögyam Trungpa, who felt that the vision of a society that acknowledges and embodies both the secular and the sacred – beyond religious affiliations, including Buddhism – was worth realizing. The Institute welcomed those who, in technical Shambhala vocabulary, were warriors: those with a strong personal discipline of awareness, openness, and care, without aggression. Beyond welcoming, the Institute discovered such individuals already out there, who also welcomed the Institute back into their own spaces. Over the course of a decade, the Institute grew to not just include, but also to be coming from these individuals and their particular roots. Program after program, the participants built and held a container which felt open yet precise, not ignoring but kind, to the point yet playful. This was done as a cyclically recurring, and somewhat nomadic, community, with several programs a year, many in Nova Scotia, but also throughout the world.

The Open Dojo is one term that has emerged from this. It refers to a space of group practice that does not belong to anyone. It is no man’s land (to use a phrase Trungpa used in this context). It is a practice ground of listening, communicating, and acting. At the same time it is uncompromising, not swayed by wishful thinking and the sly fudging of ego. It is authentic – and its source and guardian is not one central figure, but a community of diverse practitioners. The Dojo is a container for practicing the way. The amazing thing is that it is possible for people, coming from various contemplative and leadership traditions, to recognize each other, and to recognize ground cultivated and allowed by them individually and collectively, held without ownership. This is a challenge – including and especially for those who feel they are holders of an authentic practice DNA that needs protection.

From this point of view, the Open Dojo is the heart of enlightened society. This is true for those who experienced that possibility through the presence of what seemed to be an enlightened being manifesting as leader. It is also true for those who never had such an experience, and may not believe it is possible or desirable, but who nevertheless have aspiration for and experience of Open Dojo.

Does that mean that the idea of a society ruled by a monarch – who, classically, joins heaven, earth, and man – is passé? Looking around us, we certainly see lots of anti-open-dojo patterns in a parade of dictators, kings, powerful individuals and their family dynasties, not to mention elected rulers. But that suggests something further.

How is it that so many smart, tough people in a two decade span late in the 20th century were willing to see Chögyam Trungpa as an enlightened leader? Sudden rememberance: because that person embodied the Open Dojo. He was embodiment of no man’s land: he lived the space where any trace of pretence and ego was obvious, and could not survive. If you thought you knew him, you quickly learned different. This is a scary, yet magnetic, place. Unblinking, yet nakedly genuine – and also attentive and kind.

It comes down to the same thing. At the heart of enlightened society is the Open Dojo, whether held by the group or embodied and held in a single individual. If the erstwhile ruler is not an Open Dojo, the people sense that, and ultimately he or she can neither command nor rule. The inner and personal space of the ruler must itself be no man’s land. To re-coin an old phrase, no man’s land and king are one.

It goes further, of course, because individuals must also hold themselves that way: otherwise, they cannot recognize the presence or absence of the Open Dojo. Before you can consider an external king, you must be king of yourself [2]. And to recognize open space that is genuine yet not owned by any one individual – a group Dojo – you have to a) recognize such spark in yourself, b) recognize it in others, and c) gradually realize that it is b) more than a) that is the path and the goal.

Something interesting opens up here: if the citizens or subjects are not themselves kings and queens of themselves, then even with the most enlightened leader the vision of an enlightened society will not be realized. We cannot get away from it – it is our ground that must be first cultivated and realized in its own open nature.

The Open Dojo is not mythical. It is not the extraordinary of long ago fable or Hollywood movie. It is the extraordinary of the ordinary, whether at an Alia Institute gathering, or at – can we dare – an Occupy the Future gathering, or your next get together. It is necessary for monarchy as well as socialism as well as democracy. It is more essential than any of those forms, because it is the heart of their success, if any.

A final note, in Buddhist language: In 1968 Chögyam Trungpa gave a talk in which he said that Maitreya, the buddha of the future, would not be an individual, but society. For both the religious buddhist, looking up to a “master”, and the secular enlightened society advocate, yearning for enlightened leadership, this is provocative. It says something about how we think, and hints how future society can shape itself.


[1] I am using the term “Shambhala” here in the way Chögyam Trungpa used it, pointing to the idea of an enlightened society that brings together both secular and sacred outlook, inclusive of but not dependent on any one religious tradition. This is not to be confused with “Shambhala Buddhism”, in which Shambhala teachings distinguish a particular form of Buddhism. For an excellent concise summary of Trungpa’s Shambhala vision, see the just published article Ocean of Dharma,  Shambhala Sun (January, 2012]).

[2] Paraphrase from an attendee’s interchange with Trungpa at 1973 “Nine Yanas” seminar in San Francisco.


1,253 Responses to “Open Dojo”

  1. John Tischer on March 28th, 2017 11:40 pm

    Well, nothing here for a good long time, so, here’s a poem:

    Pretty Soon!

    Pretty soon, I won’t have to worry
    about that anymore…
    the past is just the future left behind.

    Rainbow in the corner of my eye…
    no one can tell me why…It must be
    just one of those things.

    Oh, I stopped making sense, yes siree!
    Anything comes out of the closet!
    Adorably adorned!

    Since everyone’s stopped talking to me,
    I don’t know what I should be worried about…
    but, let’s not talk about that now.

    Getting back to the soda fountain,
    Betty in her poodle skirt is now living
    in a trailer by the railroad tracks.
    Biff died at work, crushed by an
    hydraulic press…but the kids are
    doing fine. This is the sixth dog in
    a row they’ve had named Candy.

    And so it goes.

  2. rita on April 8th, 2017 12:12 am

    Yes keeping mum, seems to be the theme in today’s world.
    But now that is not the time for that, because the mad politicians at the door. Indeed now is the time to actually debate in the round what Enlightened Society means for us All and not within the confines of a governance vacuum.
    In my own region endeavouring to ‘create’ room for discussion about Dharma and Enlightened Society. Yes and so we all go on with our own appreciations of the Vidyadhara. Perhaps next year in Sydney as the Vision stated. Best Rita

  3. John Tischer on April 26th, 2017 11:28 pm

    The Sign

    Man’s having a horrible time with
    his life; lost his job, wife and kids
    moved in with his neighbor, dog
    ran away, and he contracted
    shingles. He’s at the end of his
    rope, falls to his knees in the
    backyard where his children used
    to play, and begins to pray:

    “Oh, God, please show me a sign
    that you will help me in my misery.
    that, like Job, my faith is not in vain…
    Oh, Lord, I need a miracle!”

    Suddenly, The Lord appears in the
    skies in front of the man, a rainbow
    arcs, heavenly music plays and flower
    petals and perfume fill the air.

    The Lord speaks: “So, how was that?
    Feeling better now?”

    “Not as much as you’d think.”