Open Letters

September 13, 2014

The following are 2 open letters on the current social and institutional state of the sangha of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche: an initial letter by Tashi Colman to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and a response by Clarke Warren (published here with their approval).


Open Letter by Tashi Colman

Open Letter to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

31st August, 2014

Dear Sir,

After living and working in Bhutan the last several years, I returned to Nova Scotia this past summer for my first extended (3-month) visit back in five years. After living far from our Shambhala sangha for so long, I was deeply moved and gratified to experience again the extraordinary richness of the support for our dharma practice and study available in our wider Shambhala community.

I want to emphasize here that I personally am profoundly appreciative and grateful to you for all you are doing to teach and explore further the precious Scorpion Seal termas. Indeed, having now completed four Scorpion Seal Assemblies, I remain fully committed to that path. To be blunt, despite my deep commitment to creating Shambhala society, I confess that my Werma practice used to be episodic and pale to say the least, and it has come to life with ever greater vividness as a direct result of the Scorpion Seal practices you have introduced. Thank you so much for that!

I also recognize that the Buddha taught the dharma in 84000 ways, that not every one relates to the Scorpion Seal path, that the Kagyü, Nyingma, kasung, dharma art, and many other practices so kindly given us by the Vidyadhara are all entirely valid and authentic paths that suit particular people, and that the Shambhala umbrella is big enough to incorporate the Vidyadhara’s entire legacy.

For me personally, the Shambhala, Kagyü and Nyingma paths are part of a single fabric and inseparable. As the Vidyadhara said in answering a question after his Windhorse talk at the 1982 Kalapa Assembly:

“…. The drala practice is like the sharp edge of a sword blade which deals with day-to-day life already, automatically. The Vajrayogini practice is like the other edge of the sword blade, which carries the weight so that the sharp edge can cut. It’s like the two sides of a coin.”

But I also realize that the Kagyü, Nyingma, and Shambhala paths are all entire paths in themselves, and that others may not choose to join them.

And so I was deeply disturbed during my visit back this past summer to see how widely accepted and ‘normalized’ the rift in our sangha has become. From afar, of course I was aware of and saddened by that split, but I never had to deal with it on an ongoing basis, and so I never got used to it and find the present divisions entirely unacceptable. Those entirely loyal to you and those entirely alienated remain equally my heartfelt Shambhala brothers and sisters.

On the one hand, we learned long ago that furthering disharmony in the sangha is a serious breach of our vajra commitments. On the other hand, what struck me over and again was how unnecessary and easily resolvable the present divisions are.

And so I am moved to write this open letter to you to plead and supplicate you for very simple actions that can not only heal the present wounds but I feel will also greatly strengthen and broaden your own leadership of the Shambhala Kingdom. Indeed, I really don’t believe we as Shambhalians can be any kind of effective model for the world or for our wider society while we cannot accommodate each other or heal our own fractures.

I want to emphasize here that none of the modest (and perhaps naïve) suggestions that follow would even slightly detract from or prevent your own present teachings, writings, assemblies, and other activities from proceeding apace, nor would they diminish even slightly the number and quality of students following the Scorpion Seal path and the various practices and teachings you are giving. On the contrary, I feel certain that the humble gestures suggested below would strengthen the paths you are propagating by virtue of their unifying influence and their accommodating so many more students under the broad Shambhala umbrella.

I have discussed the following specific suggestions in some detail with your secretary, David Brown, during a meeting in Halifax last month:

  • At Gampo Abbey, just restoring the Seven-Line Supplication to Padmakara and the Supplication to the Takpo Kagyü to the morning liturgy would do wonders to heal present wounds. Abbey folk have plenty of time, and the extra 2 minutes in the morning would be greatly welcomed in the Shambhala practice centre with the deepest commitment (e.g. 3-year retreat) to preserving our Kagyü and Nyingma inheritance. As well, the Shambhala aspiration could be alternated in the evening liturgy with the aspiration to fulfil the wishes of the Vidyadhara written by the Abbey’s own abbot, Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche.
  • At Karme Choling, the Vajrayogini shrine room has become the community room and the ngondro shrine room has become the exercise and music room. If Karme Choling is to continue to be a ‘deep training facility’, then restoring dedicated shrine rooms for the Kagyü and Nyingma practices would be ever so accommodating and greatly appreciated by many dedicated practitioners.
  • I am sure you agree that the three-volume Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma is a true tour de force for our Shambhala sangha, a magnum opus that systematically brings together the Vidyadhara’s core teachings on the entire Buddhist path like never before. What could be more central to our Shambhala sangha than thirteen years of the Vidyadhara’s Seminary transcripts, beautifully compiled, arranged, and organized by one of our most gifted, practised, and genuine senior teachers in 25 years of dedicated effort? This is a reference work that will be studied for generations to come.
  • And yet the annual Profound Treasury retreats taught by Judy Lief are held in Maine, outside our Shambhala practice centres. Why not simply invite the Profound Treasury organizers to have the annual retreats at Karme Choling? I can think of no program that more definitively belongs in the very heart of our Shambhala community and practice mandala.
  • If just once a year, Sir, you were to give a Vajrayogini tri, and if you would allow entering vajrayana students (new tantrikas) the option to pursue the path of Kagyü ngöndro in addition to the Primordial Rigden ngöndro, this would again be greatly appreciated by so many genuine students and practitioners. My understanding is that all the acharyas have the authority to give the necessary permissions for these Kagyü practices within the folds of our broad Shambhala sangha. Without that, we are in danger of losing a vital and precious component of our inheritance – “the other edge of the sword blade” to use the Vidyadhara’s words cited above.

There are many other similar and very simple gestures that would work wonders in healing present rifts and accommodating all our Shambhala sangha in the broadest sense without in the slightest detracting from your present path, teachings, and trajectory. It is perfectly understandable, Sir, to make a distinction between your role as teacher (focussing on the Shambhala and Scorpion Seal paths) and your broader organizational role as leader of the Shambhala sangha (which can embrace a much wider range of skillful means and students committed to other authentic components of the Vidyadhara’s legacy).

I felt this past summer that, at bottom, all us Shambhalians – those most loyal and those most alienated – are one sangha deeply sharing a vision and an inheritance that are precious beyond imagination. The present painful rift is truly unacceptable and it would take so little to bring us together again in full harmony. From the bottom of my heart, Sir, I supplicate you to take the simple actions needed to make that happen. Thank you again for your kindness, skill, and generosity in teaching the Scorpion Seal terma, and for considering this heartfelt plea.

Yours in the dharma,
Tashi Colman


Response by Clarke Warren

I have read and contemplated the letter that Tashi Colman has recently courageously submitted to the Sakyong. It didn’t take long, however, to see the cracks in this proposal, as robustly honest and good hearted as it is. In short order, they are nice thoughts and aspirations. But a bit presumptuous that there is or ever was “one sangha”. Or that it would ever be a good idea. The very idea of “one unified sangha” attacks creativity, stifles initiative, broadcasts a dictate of uniformity, and attempts to curtail the very brilliance that the Vidyadhara lived, in all his highly unique style and outrageousness. By the Vidyadhara’s description, sangha is not a unified conglomerate group, but individuals standing on their own, lonely yet together, inter-dependent but not co-dependent. As it is up to individuals to ignite the transmission of the Vidyadhara, so it is natural that an attempt to reduce individuals to a corporate identity is itself a contradiction and violation of the meaning of “sangha”. And for those who do not naively submit to an agenda of defined and enforced “harmony”, the road is far more unencumbered to actually enact the vision of the Vidyadhara in myriad ways.

It was, however, neither a coercive mandate of conformity nor a counter, subversive influence, that has “split” the more unified strains of the past, but the very force of the Vidyadhara’s and the lineage’s transmission and teaching. The community talk Flowers and Lids (in Collected Community Talks) spoken by the Vidyadhara himself, speaks eloquently to this forceful phenomena. The very branching of the “four great and eight lesser lineages”, is testimony to this, as are the 84,000 dharmas, or the 6,400,000 tantras of the Nyingma.

Even if the Sakyong were to adopt the suggested measures, it would be viewed by many, I believe, as highly suspicious and self-serving. But , even if he did (highly improbable), I doubt very much whether it would “unify” a diversified sangha that has already broadcasted to a much larger world, unencumbered by organizational self-interests, than could ever have transpired otherwise. The organization is already outdated, despite its grasp on infrastructure, its regimented prescriptions, and its increasingly vivid indications of the pitfalls of organized religion. The influence of the Vidyadhara, on the other hand, has been released to the world in a myriad of expressions and potent practicalities, like the exploding seeds of a dandelion in a gale wind. Not likely to be “reigned in”. [sic]

In that regard the so-called lack of unity, itself, could already be the good news, the blessings of the lineage. The Vidyadhara’s influence has far outflanked the organizational ambitions of more fundamentalist strains. This is how Mahayana outflanked the earlier, highly conservative social constraints of the Buddhist tradition. Narrow views and prerogatives, which define themselves as universals, tend unerringly toward the climes of irrelevance, or in more aggressive cases, infamy. The Vajrayana, on the other hand, even more so than doctrinal Mahayana, in essence, style, and influence, represents the explosion of unconstrained Dharma to the world. And that explosion is the actual momentum of Shambhala vision.

But, more dismally probable is that Tashi’s letter, even if it does (doubtfully) make it before Sakyong’s eyes, will be ignored. It is this very arrogant disregard that has led to things as they stand now. What an utter contrast to the uncanny openness of the Vidyadhara! That was the openness and utter absence of territoriality that actually did bind us together! On the other hand, though, the absence of that has ironically propelled the Vidyadhara’s display of genius and compassion to a much broader spectrum of humanity precisely because the more creative and courageous of the Vidyadhara’s students have bolted from any suggestion of sangha as a constraining orthodox corral.

I, like Tashi, returned to North America after years of living in Asia, to find a highly disseminated world of the Vidyadhara’s students and legacy, an atmosphere, on the organizational side, dismissive of criticism, and dismissive even of the place of discriminating intelligence as an essential element of bodhicitta/awakened heart. And the retirement of many of the practices and teachings of the Vidyadhara, so lovingly, powerfully and skillfully planted in the rich soil of the West. Ironically, the world I encountered resembled everything the Vidyadhara warned of. It was an eclipse of everything I had appreciated, an umbra of the Vidyadhara’s brilliance. But in the process, I have witnessed many highly inspiring sun flare endeavors of unleashed disciples! Let the eclipse pass rather than feed it, and the sun will burst forth even more brilliantly. And the unconstrained constellations of lineage will be there to nurture us and cheer us on, as they are this very moment.


Clarke Warren


Response by Tashi Colman

Dear Clarke,

Thank you for your letter. Of course I fully agree with you that the last thing we would ever want is one conformist sangha that stifles creativity and initiative in the name of enforced uniformity. And of course the only possible ‘harmony’ is through diversity.

For that very reason, the operative word in my letter to the Sakyong is “accommodate” (said 4 times), reinforced over and again by phrases like: “…recognize that the Buddha taught the dharma in 84000 ways, that not every one relates to the Scorpion Seal path, that the Kagyü, Nyingma, kasung, dharma art, and many other practices so kindly given us by the Vidyadhara are all entirely valid and authentic paths that suit particular people, and that the Shambhala umbrella is big enough to incorporate the Vidyadhara’s entire legacy.” Etc. etc.

So I was just a bit surprised that you read my argument for accommodating the diverse paths given us by the Vidyadhara as implying a “unified conglomerate” sangha, when the intent and language of the letter were precisely the opposite….

Warmest wishes, Tashi


Clarke Warren responds in the Comments below

Open Dojo

December 4, 2011

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.

RFS Shift and Decorum

October 28, 2010

Welcome back from the weekthün – and to being in that kind of thün, no matter the time!

I think this gap was good to have, and to be in. And it continues in the question of what RFS, the Radio Free Shambhala website and community, is about, and of how it manifests that intention day by day, activity by activity.


One area to consider is the tone of articles and comments, which really is a matter of decorum. As the late Beverley Webster, who compiled the Shambhala Decorum Manual, says:

Shambhala Decorum is not to be regarded as a rigid set of rules or fixed code of behaviour, but as a flexible system of signs, symbols and signals, ceremonies and social gestures, in a continual process of adapting itself to the evolving needs of our evolving society.
We would like to encourage more article submissions. Articles for RFS go through an editorial process, with particular scrutiny for aggression, but also for presentation style and for clarity.
Comments, on the other hand, are totally at the discretion of the commenter, and have been allowed to remain exactly as written except for the most extreme cases. This doesn’t seem to be quite enough. The quality and quantity of comments is turning off many people who otherwise feel the site has something valuable to offer.

There are two problem areas with comments:

  1. Toxic comments. These use inflammatory or aggressive language. They are somewhat easy to spot: I notice a physical reaction in my body when I encounter such comments. It’s clear that strong language can come from the author’s personal pain, or their meeting a sharp edge of perceived truth. We do not want to blunt experiencing the sharp edges, or deny the energy that arises at that point. However, what you do further with that, which includes _how_ you express it, is very much your doing, your creation of further karma, and your responsibility, and this affects others. “I hurt” is an important communication to make. This can be stated forthrightly. Bringing drama and sharp pointy gestures into the mix is unnecessary and, often, aggressive.
  2. Lengthy, multiple, and off-topic comments. Often these end up bouncing back and forth among just a few commenting regulars. They constrict the quality of the space, and drive out other people.  There is ignoring the quality of the common space, and there is ignoring one’s personal space and its awake openness, which allows subconscious voices to eek out. Such comments often have good nuggets buried within them, but these get lost in the noise. When writing a comment, include the context: “am I dominating the space?”, or “am I using this topic in order to further my own new topic?”

Both of these problem areas call for us to manifest, moment by moment and in detail, the “enlightened society” we talk about. The medium really is the message: if we don’t talk about such a society in a sane and considerate manner, there’s little likelihood of actually manifesting it.

Critical Articles and Forward-Looking Articles

There will probably always be a need for critical, discriminating articles, such as regarding the setup of Shambhala International and its relationship to Chögyam Trungpa’s Shambhala Vision and to the greater Chögyam Trungpa sangha. However, what we are about is manifesting this vision, which includes supporting the emergence, community, practice, and study of the Vidyadhara’s sangha.

So this is one focus area for RFS: to provide resources on practice and study, meditation instructors and teachers, and sangha and programs.

We will tighten the commenting guidelines and software regarding length and frequency of commenting, and also explore moderating comments. Moderation basically means that comments go into a queue, and are only actually published when okayed by a moderator. This has upsides, but also significant downsides, including the time commitments required of moderators. It also calls for more explicit “right speech” guidelines that both commenters and moderators can refer to.

As part of a site redesign and refocus, we will be adding some new functionality, including groups and discussion forums. Joining groups and discussions will require registering with the site, and providing a verified email address.

Comments on this article are welcome: respect the floor as you take it.

Several more articles will appear in the next little while. We are particularly interested in contributions regarding study and practice resources, and ways that the Shambhala vision of Chögyam Trungpa can be found and shared in this world.

Monarchy and Power within Shambhala

July 4, 2010

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.

Of Note

April 15, 2010

Ginny Lipson (here) and Lee Weingrad have reported on the effects of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake on Surmang and on Thrangu Rinpoche’s monastery in Kham (cf the Kunchok Foundation web site and also Surmang Foundation and the Chronicles).

We also note that Karmapa XVII had to cancel his trip to Europe, due to the Government of India not providing the appropriate permissions. Europe meanwhile is in the aftershock of the Polish airplane tragedy, with its echoes of the 1940 Katyn massacre of the leadership of a nation. And now that great zipper of volcanic mountains running up the spine of the Atlantic opens a bit in Iceland, shutting down air travel.

Milarepa and the Origins of the Kagyu Lineage is an incredible, brilliant talk by Trungpa Rinpoche, from the Message of Milarepa seminar, July, 1973 at Karme-Chöling. The Q&A draws out a concise exposition of crazy wisdom. Audio available thanks to the Chronicles, Shambhala Archives, and the Chögyam Trungpa Legacy Project. Everything in just 34 minutes.

Loyalty is an essential topic these days, worthy of probably more than one article. One correspondent sends this link to Loyalty is Paramount in Woods’s Inner Circle.

Another key topic is Drala, and Bill Scheffel’s is a living resource. He has also started a blog, The Drala Principle. He writes:

I will introduce a new subject each week, often with accompanying video. Subjects will include:

  • The Drala Principle.
  • The legacy of Chögyam Trungpa.
  • Cambodia and a sustainable future.

This site will be adding a discussion forum, so that off-article-topic discussion can find a home and take place without overwhelming article comments.

If you have ideas for articles and related forms and contributions, contact

On Shambhala and the Samaya Connection

February 28, 2010


The Chronicles site has posted an Editorial by Ellen Mains: On Shambhala and the Samaya Connection, initiating its Vajra Dog series.

Ellen begins:

Not long ago I heard someone say that people who disagreed with decisions made by the Sakyong or Shambhala International were people who didn’t practice and therefore, we shouldn’t pay attention to them. As I stepped into the shower the next morning, I found myself being gradually drenched with thoughts and reflections in response to that statement. Although the shower ended, the other deluge continued for the next couple of hours and I realized I needed to write the ideas down, if only for myself. They reflect some of the heartfelt feelings, reflections and struggle of an older student of the Vidyadhara.

Read more… and discuss here.

K.O.S. Energy

December 27, 2009

By Bill Scheffel

Written 7-9 June, 2009

Introduction: The following reflections on the Shambhala teachings of Chögyam Trungpa (whom I refer to throughout the article as “Lord Mukpo”, his family name and the name he often used when teaching Shambhala Training) were derived from extended periods of time I spent in Cambodia between 2004 and 2007. This essay, in part a travel writing, is also a homage to the people and land of Cambodia. – Bill Scheffel

The Kingdom of Shambhala refers to a semi-mythical society that once existed in the Himalaya region of central Asia, an “enlightened society” that was based and organized on the principle of awake – that society could encourage and support the spiritual realization of every individual within it. Not that everyone was or would become enlightened or that the society was perfect, but that its constitution, so to speak, held this aim.

In the last decade of his life, Lord Mukpo sought to establish “The Kingdom of Shambhala” in Nova Scotia, Canada. This kingdom was often referred to simply as K.O.S. Lord Mukpo encouraged those students who could, to move there, which he eventually did himself, shortly before he died. This northerly, maritime province, agriculturally based with a long winter, and all too brief summer and a fairly depressed and less globalized economy was hardly a destination of choice for his largely American students.

The aims of this contemporary K.O.S. were to found a spiritually based but also spiritually inclusive society, one that would be a seat or home for the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, but founded on “Shambhala” principles which would make it a potential home for other spiritual traditions as well. Lord Mukpo’s keen enthusiasm for meeting, respecting, understanding and supporting the “contemplative” heart of all human spirituality was demonstrated in every aspect of his life trajectory, in his friendship with, say, Tomas Merton (and the many other contemplative Christians he had the opportunity to meet especially during his time in England) and his founding of Naropa University. In Nova Scotia, Lord Mukpo would be delighted to imagine Christian and Buddhist monasteries side-by-side, as well as Shinto shrines and, no doubt, mosques and centers of Islamic study.

K.O.S. as blueprint or reality has an urgent imperative. Global materialism threatens not only our environment and the countless species we share the earth with, but it threatens our human lineages of spirituality and culture. The erosion and outright destruction of so many traditional cultural containers and ways of life makes conservation of our spiritual traditions a real and urgent necessity. Tibetan Buddhism is one obvious example. Countless native or indigenous communities – each with their own unique and uniquely beautiful spiritual expression – are already lost forever. In Lord Mukpo’s vision, K.O.S. was intended to be a safe, fertile and welcoming ground for preserving our spiritual traditions.

Lord Mukpo also spoke fervently about our relationship to environment and how people would need to live in Nova Scotia. So much so, that K.O.S might be considered as much an ecology as a society. The “setting sun world” – as he called it – is based on consumerism, its chimera, its endless seeking of entertainment, of distraction. A necessary underpinning of consumerism, is convenience, where every effort is made to make life merely comfortable and easy. He called this “warding off death”, a methodology of a thousand invented needs. Attenuated as consumerism-convenience have become, we exist in a vortex of speed, fundamentally aggressive and thoughtless. It is a literal disconnect from the earth.

Life in Nova Scotia, he told us, could not be this way. “As far as KOS goes,” he taught, “we all have to work on the earth, literally and properly.”

Since medieval times, the process of conquering the world has been based on conquering the earth instead of touching ground, touching soil properly. And the latest stage is designed to avoid altogether any possibilities of touching the earth. We are no longer allowed to drink raw milk or eat raw meat… You might think we are about to create a genteel world of people who never have to watch blood bleeding or experience a genuine, bad nightmare. That is wrong, ladies and gentlemen. These principles are not particularly geared so that we could avoid earth. Without earth we cannot have heaven, and then we can’t have our kingdom at all… Luxury is experiencing reality, ladies and gentlemen. [1]
. . . . .

I never was never able move to Nova Scotia, or even spend much time there (curiously, my grandparents on my mother’s side are from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island). In spite of being part of the K.O.S. vision or idea from its inception, and my deep identification with it, perhaps I took, or was led to, a route elsewhere – but with a similar destination, or at least the glimpse of a similar vision. Between 2005 and 2007, I took five trips to Cambodia, staying there for two to five months at a time. Much to my surprise, I discovered the Kingdom of Shambhala in Cambodia. If not an entire kingdom, something, at least for me, of its flavor, intent and latency – something I called “K.O.S energy.”

For virtually each of the more than four-hundred and twenty days I spent in Cambodia I was on “retreat”, in that my day was centered around meditation practice, but also writing. So it was a meditation-artist’s retreat. Or, I could say, I was the experiment of my meditation and art. We become the experiment or our spiritual practice, with no guarantee it will turn out successfully, though perhaps the more willing the surrender of our ingredients the more likely the experiment will succeed. I saw myself as an “experiment” of the drala principle and both meditation and writing were essential in the laboratory.

I began each day with a long session of meditation followed by writing (typically I would meditate at the end of the day as well). I would practice in my guest house room, leaving it to take breakfast and lunch at simple street-side restaurants. Only by mid-afternoon would I be ready to take up my other practice, “aimless wandering” which took the form of long walks through Phnom Penh (or the other towns and cities I stayed in). As foreigner, stranger and other these walks remained as pristine, remarkable and informative as, say, walking through an old-growth redwood forest or the Galapagos Islands might be. Every encounter was unexpected and all my learning was anecdotal and immediate (for I had no guides, no companions and read no books).

In the so-called poverty of Cambodia I discovered many riches and contrasts. In a country with still only a couple of supermarkets, with not even grocery stores as we know them, it was the street markets that provided the most vivid encounter with the “luxury of experiencing reality” as Lord Mukpo put it. To encounter the blood and nightmare of the food chain on a semi-tropical street without refrigeration amid the smells of six types of freshly caught fish next to a dozen types of fruit I’d never seen or tasted before was the best way to wake up before breakfast. The added luxury of my meditation and writing practice kept me an alert and open-minded experiment of my walks. Gradually, things made tremendous sense because they were simple, understandable and functional. Such as the squat toilet I came to so love:

I adore the squat toilet, even as I’ve come to understand it. A hole in the floor and beside it water stored in a plastic bucket or pot, some kind of reservoir. And each reservoir has a ladle or bucket inside it. To scoop up the water and pour it down the hole (which is s-curved, a simple hydraulic that siphons itself) is almost a sacrament, serving water as is serves you. This restaurant has a cement reservoir next to the squat toilet. The reservoir is shared by the kitchen and divided in half by the bathroom wall. Inside it are fish, eighteen or twenty inches in length, swimming in confinement until they are ordered for lunch. Multiple needs are being met in the few cubic yards of this water-conserving intimacy.

There was a time in Sihanoukville, shortly after I’d entered Cambodia on my second trip, that became my one of my strongest registering of what I began to call K.O.S. energy. Sihanoukville, a coastal town, became my first opportunity to really wander, and in that relaxation became the less self-conscious tourist.

One day, I met two boys on a path through the rice-fields. The older, maybe ten, could speak some English. “This path leads to a village, Sir. Would you like to go?” he asked. He was the kind of child whose head and face suggested a grown man, even an old one. He was dark, handsome, a man of great politeness and enthusiasm inside a very small body. “How would I get there?” I replied and waited for his answer, half wondering if their was conman-ship at work, perhaps a fee to see the village. “You would walk!” he laughed, saying it with a certainly and carefree amusement than made him even more enthused. He and his smaller companion, silent and smiling, walked on.

A few days later, I was up early, showered, and stood on the second floor porch of the $4 a night guest house I was staying in. Two large beetles lay dead on the cement floor, casualties of the incandescent light and picked at by ants. I walked down the stairs and out to a patch of leveled ground, red dirt waiting for a new building, someday. In the cool morning air, with a breeze moving the palm trees and the clothes-lines, with the sky filled with high clouds that would soon dissipate but were then variegated in blues and indigoes, with the discothèque still blaring karaoke music in the distance, I expelled stale air and began the twelve lujong, or Tibetan yoga, postures I did each morning. Chickens rooted around me and in that moment I realized this is the Kingdom of Shambhala.

Of course, I could also have had this realization on a ranch in Idaho or even a park bench in New York City. What counted, for me, was the force of the realization. A complete inner conviction that one thing the Kingdom of Shambhala meant, quite simply, was a return to a more elemental way of life. This vision of Shambhala is more than a nostalgia, which can remain as daydream, or become conservative and reactionary. The “return” to simplicity is a return to the future, the necessary bend in the cycle, a returning to sustainability.

I use the word “sustainable” also in this way: even the way we walk is not sustainable. It was through walking for a long time among people who walked at a very different pace than I did that made it clear to me that we no longer even know how to walk. The “ordinary” Cambodian” lives of life of intense nowness, doing simple work that is difficult and often grueling, is seldom if every rushing. Without haste, speed, anxiety, no yet severed from the “earth’s rhythm” – the way people walked impressed me most of all. They could work all day, walk all day – and a human being’s normal, languid and sometimes insouciant walk is a tremendous healthiness and joy.

. . . . .

Besides this elemental or earth-based sighting of the Kingdom of Shambhala, the K.O.S energy came to me in another way, with complimentary but differing implications. In presenting the Shambhala teaching, Lord Mukpo put great stress on the difference between “conventional mind” or experience and “unconditioned” experience. An unconditioned experience is the essence of basic goodness as well as the drala principle itself. When the world or our own being is glimpsed in the first moment – the “first thought” – before conceptual mediation and comment, we have an unconditioned experience, an experience of things as they are. To cut the rings of an onion with a sharp knife or hear a dragonfly before we see it – these, and all, perceptions, are first thought. In fact, everything we experience is first thought, but our conceptual, commenting process takes over so quickly we seldom realize it. Through a process of long, dedicated development, though both gentleness and courage, a person can come to live entirely in first thought or first moment. This is a fully realized warrior.

Someone who seeks unconditional experience or realization, which is to be fully human, must relinquish conventional mind. This does not mean becoming overtly unconventional (another form of convention) but moving beyond any and all of the ways we secure ourselves – i.e., our conventions. Convention exists to give us a structure, such as a highchair for a baby to eat. Convention is natural and at its best, necessary for that time or station. Each convention is also a highchair we must one day set aside. Crucial to understanding convention is to see that all conventions are relative. Cultures that eat on the floor do not need a highchair. Conventions are relative inventions and are passed on to us. We thus acquire our conditioning – from parents, society, school, church, etc. – and behave accordingly. To the extent we are governed by hope and fear, our acquired conditioning becomes habitual – a cocoon or even a prison we are reluctant to leave simply because we know it.

The Shambhala path is based on decreasing, or refraining from, unnecessary, obsolete, inappropriate (and eventually all) acquired conditioning. What is to be nourished, restored or cultivated is our unconditioned basic goodness, our essential nature – which each spiritual tradition has its own names for.

. . . . .

One of the most remarkable aspects of my time in Cambodia, indeed of all of the traveling I did, was that I never felt closer to Lord Mukpo and my own spirituality and confidence. Farther, and for much longer periods of time, from my family, friends and spiritual community and institutions than I’d ever been, I felt far closer to them and to myself than I ever had. The sense of being able to continually touch my own human and spiritual strength and feel my teacher’s presence [the drala’s presence] in this simultaneity was a constant and striking phenomena.

Part of being alone as a wanderer meant I seldom if ever had conversations where I “explained myself,” the kind of conversations we share with our friends as a matter of course; talking about ourselves, our relationship issues, our job issues, our aspirations, neurosis, spiritual insights, and giving our opinion on a thousand topics. The conversation I had, in the little Cambodian I leaned to speak, or the minimal English those around me might speak, meant I could only converse in simple and immediate ways; simply hello or how-are-you, names of the food I was served, jokes about the weather. I found these simple, minimal conversations delightful. I also found that I didn’t miss “talking about myself” at all.

I began to experience more fully how we continually reinforce our acquired conditioning through our conversations, even those seemingly most sincere and of the best intent. It was a kind of “deconstruction” not to do this, which greatly reinforced and supported “being on retreat.” Without the usual reinforcements of speech I become more open to the sights and phenomena around me, more reflective of my life and true direction. Less in the grip of anxiety. Perhaps more useful than being completely solitary and silent, I was with people each day – amidst thousands of them – without really saying much.

. . . . .

The combination of being alone, being largely silent, being without reference points enhanced my meditation, my writing and my sense of perspective. In the thinning ozone-layer of my own conceptual mind, the Shambhala teachings, long my cherished central source of study and practice began to appear differently, larger in implication and scope. I began to see the meaning of Shambhala anew. Though I’d always sensed or believed in these implications and scope, now I was not so much my thinking this as feeling it – it was the “K.O.S energy” communicating its atmosphere.

I felt or sensed two things. First, a conviction in the reality of “Shambhala” as embracing countless traditions, or expressing itself in countless ways and that somehow these traditions and ways – and in particular the dralas connected to them – were “longing to meet each other.” That Shambhala is a kind of universal curiosity seeking to awake and interested in creating bridges, dialogues, communications and mutually supportive relationships between the myriad methods and traditions of awake. In the sense that dralas are agents of non-duality, of awake, Shambhala also represents dralas wanting to meet other dralas!

The drala principle is participatory and human beings are necessary participants. We not only must invoke drala in order to meet the dralas ourselves, but we have the potential, if we courageously follow the unknown auspicious coincidence of our own heart, to blaze paths where “dralas can meet dralas.” If the drala principle is activated through the dynamic participation of human beings, creative and concrete benefit takes place – as it always has. The expression of this is through wisdom traditions meeting and mutually enhancing each other (even if each is represented by a single individual), or as one society exchanging with one another, opening both material and spiritual “trade routes” where cultural enrichment and healing could take place. Times of cultural flourishing or renaissance have always been times of such exchange (and invocation of drala). Is it too farfetched to infer that efforts to, say, reduce Middle East violence, mitigate global water crises, heal genocidal legacies or end the conscription of child soldiers could all be supported through dralas meeting dralas?

At the root of this sensibility – the reality of Shambhala as embracing (and thereby continually expressing) many traditions – is that Shambhala, by definition, cannot be owned, is not proprietary, is not the property of anyone or any one group. Shambhala is a quality, not a quantity. To say that one is “Shambhalian”- as we often do in the organizations founded by Lord Mukpo – should not imply membership but attitude – an attitude that is open-minded and curious to begin with, and also eventually daring and sophisticated.

In this very distinct, non-proprietary “K.O.S. energy” a basic principle of all “absolute” teachings became clearer, even obvious. “Absolute” is another word for unconditional truth, which by definition is fundamentally ineffable, beyond relativity, reference point and any conditions or conventions. Shambhala is such a teaching. The “relative truth” is the putting of this experience into language, into teachings, and the forms that develop to support the teaching and the experience the teachings are meant to foster.

For example, in the very beginning of the Shambhala Training program, which was intended to be “secular”, we rented hotel convention rooms or other public spaces to hold the weekends in. We needed an environment without shines and the other Buddhist trappings that were part of the Dharmadhatus (the name of Shambhala meditation centers at the time). Even so, these convention rooms needed to be made functional and elegant; symbols and symbolism – relative truth – were a necessity. So we removed the chairs and tables, put down zafus and zabutans, flower arrangements and a speaker’s chair and side-table. Finally we hung banners, large ones that hung from nearly ceiling to floor. One was the “Great Easter Sun”, a gold circle with striped bands across the top. This one went in the front of the room, behind the director. The other was an arhat, an equally large banner with a silkscreened photograph of a statue from the Minneapolis Art Museum. The arhat, in meditation posture, somewhat stern, looking down in earnest and sincere diligence, was a Buddhist image, but it served simple to express the universal posture and potential of sitting meditation. For breakfast on Saturday and Sunday morning we served coffee with bagels, the latter being cheap, popular and easy to prepare.

These conventions worked well, worked beautifully. Through the personal instruction of Lord Mukpo, Osel Tendzin, the co-founder of Shambhala Training, and the others of us who become Shambhala directors, people began to sit in meditation and study the teachings derived from the terma Lord Mukpo received. For many years, this motif is what Shambhala meant to many people, and what it meant to be a “Shambhala person,” including having the arhat banner hanging in the back of the room and eating bagels on Saturday.

The non-existent dividing line between absolute and relative truth, between the unconditional and conventions is never very clear in the beginning of one’s training. Later on, the confusion might become even greater, when the form becomes too aggressively insisted on, held on to – or even changed. In Shambhala Training we no longer hang the arhat banner, though we frequently still eat bagels, the former being long-forgotten, the latter a stubborn or endearing custom, depending on what one thinks of bagels. After thirty years of being taught, studied and practiced, as well as organizationally defined in varies and evolving ways, Shambhala means, most centrally of all, what it has come to mean in the experience of each individual, but also has come to mean all the ways in which we talk about is, agree or disagree on it, and so on.

If we go to the root of Shambhala Training and all that we call Shambhala, we find the terma Lord Mukpo received and the body of teaching he gave us to explain the terma. The terma, prophetic or revealed teachings, is the most direct expression of absolute truth (one could also say K.O.S energy), each word precise, potent with potential meaning and a durable ground of all future study. But even this terma is a relative expression of the absolute or unconditional truth it attempts to express. How much more so all the other forms and conventions that help developed around them. This is not necessarily to imply that even a single one of these forms is unnecessary or obsolete, but only that they are forms. In other places, in other times, myriad differing and diverse forms could have or will occur. This is only to make one point and raise one question. What we yet know of the Shambhala or K.O.S energy may only be a small part of it. And in this knowing, might we not easily misinterpret the little we do know, as the blind men did with the elephant?

These now seem to me crucial points, to continually contemplate how little we might actually know about Shambhala vision. For instance, a person is reading Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior for the first time (as I saw a man in the café I frequent seemingly doing this just last week). The book may be awaking things in the man that are unique to him, to his capacity. Perhaps a stunning awakening or metamorphosis is taking place in him that will also lead to great realization or accomplishment on his part – and that he might never study or experience anything further of Shambhala. His experience of Shambhala, occurring in relationship to the book, could be as profound, creative or far-reaching as my own or anyone else’s – and just from the single encounter with the book. In this sense, even if exaggerated, Shambhala is an “organism” of everyone who has encountered Lord Mukpo’s teaching, even if “only” through reading, even if only through a dream. This organism will be far larger and look quite differently than any “organization” that might call itself Shambhala. My point is not to diminish the importance of organizations and institutions, but to illustrate that an organization is only part of the organism, the latter being ever-growing and impossible to measure.

. . . . .

Bill Scheffel‘s website is

[1] from 24-Oct:1979 Kalapa Assembly Talk Two. In this same talk, Lord Mukpo uses the example of living on a farm:

It seems that our situation in general begins with our daily life situation, which is connected with farming, if I may say so. When you get up in the morning, what is the first thing you do?… We have ignored a lot of things in the process of getting up… you find out what kind of water system you have in your bathroom. We are talking about a farming situation, how we are going to experience the land properly, the real land. It is very important that our first incense is either cow manure or horse manure. We have to go back and experience how the earth works. As far as KOS goes, we all have to work on the earth, literally and properly. That is the best way to wake ourselves up. So many devices are presented to us. ten thousand types of gloves and a hundred thousand pair of shoes and millions of masks to ward off animals in the real world… All developed,,, because we don’t want to feel anything out. That is the purpose of the setting sun people, to ward off the world altogether.

Dispatches Interviews RFS Editor

November 19, 2009

The Chronicles Radio site has published a podcast interview with Mark Szpakowski, one of the RFS editors, as part of its Dispatches series: “Mark talks about his family background, meeting and studying with Trungpa Rinpoche, his views on Buddhism, Shambhala, and Shambhala Buddhism, and Radio Free Shambhala“. There is also an accompanying short interview on dharma in the cyber age.

Please comment and contribute to discussion and understanding of the issues presented, either on the Chronicles site or here on Radio Free Shambhala.

You can listen to the podcast on the Chronicles Radio site, or right-click (control-click on a Mac if you don’t have a two-button mouse) a link there to download the MP3, or click an iTunes button to subscribe to Dispatches podcasts through iTunes.

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.

Dissent in the Shambhala Community

July 30, 2009

Article in The Coast, Volume 17, Number 10 (July 30 – August 5, 2009)

The Coast, Halifax’s what’s-happening-around-town free weekly, just published a short article on Radio Free Shambhala. In paper it was titled Sham. dissent (probably for width reasons), while on the web it’s Dissent in the Shambhala Community.

Here’s the text of the article.

Dissent in the Shambhala community 

New website Radio Free Shambhala illuminates a disagreement over the relationship between Buddhism and Shambhala.

An unusually public display of dissent and controversy among the Halifax-based Shambhala community is playing out on a provocative website that questions the present leadership direction of the organization. was started about a year ago, says Mark Szpakowski, a web developer who came up with the idea for the site with fellow Shambhalan Ed Michalik. “It came about because there wasn’t a venue for discussion, and there were a whole lot of topics that some people thought weren’t being talked about at all,” explains Szpakowski.

The heart of the issue is a disagreement over the relationship between Buddhism and Shambhala.

“Shambhala” is a collection of teachings from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a charismatic Buddhist scholar who, at the age of 20, fled Tibet as Chinese armies were moving into that country in 1959. Trungpa went on to become the leading figure bringing Tibetan meditation practices to the west, and became established among the 1960s counterculture—Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, for example, taught at Trungpa’s Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

In 1986, Trungpa moved his operation to Halifax, and many of his supporters followed him here, establishing the local Shambhala community.

Trungpa died the following year, and after a mostly behind-the-scenes power struggle lasting two years, his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, took control of the organization.

“Many people who are devoted to Trungpa Rinpoche and who don’t consider the Sakyong to be their teacher don’t feel welcomed by the community, and they’re afraid to speak up,” comments dissident Andrew Safer on the Radio Free Shambhala site.

“Chögyam Trungpa had done the Buddhist thing, and he was an absolute master of them, and took a very rigorous approach to that,” explains Szpakowski. “But he saw that for the next long period of time, what the world needs is some kind of relationship that brings the sacred and the secular together.

“There was a whole stream of teachings that were presented that were independent of Buddhism, which were the Shambhala teachings, even though of course Chögyam Trungpa obviously came from Tibet and he himself was a Tibetan Buddhist.”

Trungpa taught that anyone at all, from any religion, or an atheist, could use Shambhala practices. And, in fact, many of Trungpa’s followers don’t consider themselves Buddhist; Michalik, for example, describes himself as a devout Roman Catholic.

But, say commenters on the Radio Free Shambhala site, Sakyong Mipham has insisted on re-asserting the traditional Tibetan Buddhist lineages, and generally bringing religion back into the organization.

That kernel of disagreement has widened into broader disagreements, including over organizational finances.

The Shambhala organization did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article. —Tim Bousquet

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