Creating Enlightened Society — Part 3

April 4, 2009

Creating Enlightened Society

by Dr. Robin Kornman

 Part 3

Now, I’m going to talk about what Rigden means. The Rigden was the king of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala. He was the man who spread the Kalachakra teachings across the world. By the end of this weekend, you’re going to know what the Kalachakra teachings are and who the Rigden is, and what the idea is in being a Rigden. But for right now, let’s just say that the Rigden king represents the wisdom of the Court principle. And when these people are devoted, because of their intelligence, to the Rigden king, they work together well and they form a society. So it says,

Thus a good human society was created on this Earth.

And that’s the end of the section. I’ve been studying this section for years, and if I had more time I’d work through every word in Tibetan. Actually, I’d like to give a word-by-word commentary on it, but we don’t have time tonight. Still, I think you have the basic idea: Society is a natural thing. It comes into being when your mind perceives the basis of things. Society is created, not by two or three people getting together, which is what Aristotle said about politics. It’s created by glimpsing the origins of human intelligence, and how you accept your glimpse of origins of human intelligence, that tells you what kind of society you are going to create.

We build an enlightened society in the Shambhalian way by giving people a practice that enables them to face their primordial nature, to face their own nature, and that is the sitting practice of meditation. The first thing we do in Shambhala Training or in Buddhism is teach you how to sit, and we tell you to follow your breath. But the idea isn’t for you to become an expert at focusing on your breath. The idea is that you are using the breath as a crutch to do something else: to look at your own mind. My mind is following the breath; my mind is looking at the breath. My mind is the “I”. The breath is the “it”. “I” look at “it”. What I want to do is look at “I”. I want to turn and look at myself, and the sitting practice we do aims to do that. That’s what it fundamentally is. You follow the breath, and after a while you begin to discover that you can’t follow the breath too much. Thoughts come up and distract you, and you begin to complain that your mind is full of uncontrolled thoughts. You have a monkey mind, full of thoughts. It swings from thought to thought, like a monkey swings from branch to branch.

You complain about your lack of discipline, but you’re seeing your thoughts. You’re beginning to turn towards your mind. That first glimpse of the business of your thoughts is the beginning of your turning towards your mind.  That first glimpse of the business of your thoughts is the beginning of your turning towards mind itself. As you begin to slow down in meditation, you begin to see the arising, dwelling, and cessation of the thoughts. You begin to see the beginning of the thought, the middle of the thought, and the end of the thought. When you see the beginning, middle, and end of a thought, now you are turned away from the phenomenal world and you’re looking back towards the cosmic mirror, and you’re watching the thoughts arise from the mirror.

The thought arises from something. When you turn towards that something, rather than the thought, you’ve made that great turning, the 180 degree turn. The Yogacharans call it “the great turning”. The longer it takes you to do it, the better. The more agonizing it is, the better. If it takes you 20 years to turn, you’ve made a great turning, and you’re going to have a great realization. That’s what the meditation practice is, and that’s where we begin. We’re going to learn to construct an enlightened society and the first step is learning how to look at the abyss, at the vast mind. Tomorrow morning I’m going to go into the technique of looking and I’m going to talk about how you develop a capacity, from that meditation practice, which enables you to construct palaces and plant beautiful fields, join with others in complex projects, and design a society.

Actually, if you wanted to prepare for the talk, in the manual there’s a paper you could read called A Prolegomena to a Theory of Contemplative Education by Robin Kornman. When I was studying Comparative Literature at Princeton, I learned that if you begin a paper with a Greek word that nobody knows, it gets published! (Laughter) It just does! Stephen knows… So I want this paper published, so I begin with “Prolegomena”, and I’m not going to tell you what it is. That would remove the magic and mystery.  This is a Prolegomena, but you’re going to have to guess what that means. In any case, if you wanted to you could prepare by reading this, because this is what I’m going to talk about tomorrow morning.

Then tomorrow afternoon, I’m going to take the different pieces of an enlightened society and talk about them separately. I’m going to hearken back to oral teachings that Trungpa Rinpoche gave me, gave us in the early days. He taught us, I don’t know, it seems like hundreds of techniques of meditation in action. Each one of them was an aspect of building an enlightened society. I’ve made a rough list of those teachings he gave that didn’t get written down anywhere. Now, some of them did get written down, but if you want to know his techniques for meditation in action, or his techniques for building an enlightened society, it’s hard to find them by reading his writings. Thanks to the work of people like Carolyn Gimian we have the collected writings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche [The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa] in those gorgeous yellow books. And in addition to them, we have all the seminary transcripts from the early Vajradhatu Seminaries. We have tons and tons of writings by him, but I reckon he gave about one-third of his teachings casually and orally in his living room to different students. We knew that they were important and we spread them. We talked to all the other students we could talk to and we made sure that these teachings got propagated. So that community of Trungpa Rinpooche’s original students did a very effective job of spreading these teachings.

I was at Karme Choling, a Buddhist meditation Centre in Vermont, and I would come back from spending an evening at Rinpoche’s house and people would say, “Well, what did you talk about?” And I would say, “We talked about this, and this, and this…go through the whole list, and then everybody would talk to each other about it. Somebody else would spend the evening there and come back and say, “Well, we talked about such and such. We talked about sex. Would you like to know what he says about sex?” “We talked about cooking, we talked about clothes, we talked about politics. Whatever was discussed got passed on, and passed through the community, and became part of what the senior teachers taught in their more casual moments in the lectures they gave. Now, we stand in danger of losing those teachings because they weren’t written down in books. They weren’t recorded.

So a bunch of us have been rushing around, finding people who were privately taught something by Trungpa Rinpoche, and getting those people to talk it into a camera. We post it on The Chronicles web site; we make them available in general. For example, Jack Niland spent hours and days with Rinpoche learning an approach to painting based upon Dzogchen. It’s an approach to painting that even includes a Dzogchen way of preparing the canvas. You actually polish the canvas and cover it with a kind of clay which you polish until the canvas becomes a mirror. The canvas becomes the cosmic mirror, and then you paint what arises out of the mirror on the canvas. It’s a whole system of painting and he just taught it to Jack Niland. Jack kept notes and Rinpoche did drawings for him, and he kept the drawings and a couple of us learned about it two years ago and we began having Jack give programs in New York, and filming the programs. So now we’ve documented those private sessions. So I’m going to make a list of whatever I can remember of private teachings that need to be discussed, and talk about them. As the months go on I’m going to just give them into the camera and we’ll make podcasts and put them on the web. And I’ll find other people who have had private instructions like that and add them to the list.

In the afternoon tomorrow, I’m going to start a list of oral instructions on details of an enlightened society. Any that you can remember, add to that and we’ll collect as much as we can. There are a couple of old timers here.

On Sunday I’m going to take the material on enlightened society that you’ve heard in these three talks, and follow it out in some of the Tibetan scriptures from which these teachings come. All of the teachings that I’ve been talking about – we find them in the Shambhala texts. We received them from Trungpa Rinpoche in his lectures and we got instructed on them in private lectures with him or with the Sakyong, whoever your guru is in the Shambhala lineage. But they all come from Tibetan scriptures. On Sunday, I’m going to go through two or three of the Tibetan scriptures in detail that are origins for these teachings on enlightened society. Actually, there are lots more than I’m going to have time to do on Sunday but Sunday will be a beginning, and then we can have podcasts of the rest. So that’s the weekend. We’re going to have music and art and a book fair. I’m going to mention lots of little details and I want you to enjoy yourself and enjoy contributing to this environment as we try to remember the dreams we had in the early days of the Court, and recreate the sense of Court. It seems pretty complete.

I wanted to just say one thing and I’ll talk more about it later.  I just realized that that table in the corner might seem very mysterious to you. It’s meant to be a table full of aphorisms. We’re going to talk about the role of proverbs and aphorisms in enlightened society, so I grabbed a bunch off my shelf and put them there. These are texts which are designed to be read by 14-year-olds. I’ll talk about the training of teenagers in an enlightened society, and the use of those texts. Also, you’ll see Recalling Trungpa Rinpoche which is a book that Fabrice Midal edited. A lot of work went into this book. It’s meant to be a way of presenting Trungpa Rinpoche’s ideas to the non-buddhist world. It’s a collection of essays written for philosophers, academics, critics, and artists who aren’t committed to a path, the beginning of making him one of the people you study in school when you study the thinkers of the twentieth century. It’s being published in French and in English. I don’t know if the French translation is going to really happen or not, but the text has been translated into French. You’ll find the articles there very interesting. Some of them are average but a lot of them are very brilliant. Reggie Ray has a very good article, Traleg Rinpoche has a brilliant article. This is a way of getting a really different insight into the thought of Trungpa Rinpoche, looking at him as a twenty-first century philosopher, not done just as a buddhist teacher. 

OK. So let’s bow to each other and fold our tents and steal silently into the night.

Creating Enlightened Society, Talk 1: Part 1 | Part 2

Self-Improvement, Windhorse, and Spiritual Materialism

January 2, 2009

Commentary by Andrew Safer

It’s normal to have ambitions, goals, and expectations when one enters the spiritual path. At 15, I was fortunate to go on a family vacation with my mother and sister to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center where I met Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. I was immediately struck by him. Whatever he had–composure, equanimity, fathomlessness, big mind–I wanted it. Later, when I was in university, I sat zazen with Kobun Chino Sensei and Jiyu Kennett Roshi.

Zen training was uncompromising. I soon found out that what I was hoping to achieve was beside the point. What kept coming back was: just sit! When I started studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the practice environment was less severe, but the message was the same. The sitting practice of meditation was always paramount. What I was striving for—my version of enlightenment—was, well, hardly the point. Over time, I started to learn that there was a great distance between what I wanted, and reality.

My sense is that the same is true of any authentic spiritual path: it’s not about what the practitioner wants. It’s about the practice itself, contacting a bigger world, and dedicating oneself to others.  

When I recently read Ruling Your World by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche I found much of the book instructive, but I was also concerned because there are many instances where the four dignities and the practices are spoken about in terms of the result: if you do A, then B will happen. While this approach will interest the beginner who is achievement-oriented, I’m concerned that it is sending the wrong message to that same person who rereads the book once they’ve entered the path, and to everyone else who reads it.   

My reference points are my early teachers and my root guru, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi says (emphasis mine):

Especially for young people, it is necessary to try very hard to achieve something. You must stretch out your arms and legs as wide as they will go. Form is form. You must be true to your own way until at last you actually come to the point where you see it is necessary to forget all about yourself. Until you come to this point, it is completely mistaken to think that whatever you do is Zen or that it does not matter whether you practice or not. But if you make your best effort just to continue your practice with your whole mind and body, without gaining ideas, then whatever you do will be true practice. Just to continue should be your purpose. [p 43]

It is therefore a bit jarring to read, in the chapter in Ruling Your World on “The Confidence of Equanimity”: “We realize in an outrageous moment that if we approach all beings with kindness, appreciation and love, we can be happy anytime, anywhere.” [p 138]

As Suzuki Roshi said, “just to continue should be your purpose.” When one’s own happiness is brought about by an act of kindness, this seems to be a different kettle of fish entirely. (This theme was also explored in Not About Happiness.)

When we take the bodhisattva vow, we vow to liberate all sentient beings before ourself. Even though it’s impossible, we vow to do so. This is not only the height of magnanimity, it’s also pragmatic, because it sidetracks the practitioner from thinking of himself. Pragmatic, because this way, he doesn’t waste any time thinking about, or catering to,  his ego—which, as we eventually discover, in fact, doesn’t exist.

The theme of killing two birds with one stone—serving oneself while serving others—reappears throughout the book.  In the chapter on “The Confidence of Delight in Helping Others”:

We may be sitting there contemplating others, and in the back of our mind thinking: “I need to do more for myself.” By thinking of others, we are doing more for ourselves. Generating joy by helping others is a secret way—and the best way—of helping ourselves. Every time we think of someone else’s happiness, we are taking a vacation from the “me” plan. It’s like getting physically fit by helping our neighbour shovel the snow from the driveway. [p 116]

In the era of new-age this and new-age that, perhaps it’s fitting that the Buddhadharma and Shambhala teachings have been repackaged in a way that appeals to “the marketplace.” One could argue that this represents a skillful means, that in this way, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is making the teachings accessible to many more people. This may indeed be the case, but at what cost?

On the topic of self-improvement and the achievement of goals, Trungpa Rinpoche said (emphasis mine):

Trust and compassion for oneself bring inspiration to dance with life, to communicate with the energies of the world. Lacking this kind of inspiration and openness, the spiritual path becomes the samsaric path of desire. One remains trapped in the desire to improve onself, the desire to achieve imagined goals. [Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism: p 98]

Windhorse (lungta in Tibetan)—the self-existing energy of basic goodness that has been described as “the breeze of delight”—is an important theme in Ruling Your World.  Once again, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche breaks new ground in the way he discusses this key Shambhalian principle. “We are not afraid of the power of windhorse, which brings worldly and spiritual success.” [p 179]

Clearly, this is a description that will appeal to the self-improvement types. But even in the context of a new-age version of windhorse which is all about “what’s in it for me?”, this description is one-sided. Consider this passage by Trungpa Rinpoche from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

The warrior who experiences windhorse feels the joy and sorrow of love in everything he does. He feels hot and cold, sweet and sour simultaneously. Whether things go well or things go badly, whether there is success or failure, he feels sad and delighted at once. [p 85]

In the last pages of Ruling Your World, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche expands on the outcomes of windhorse:

Windhorse brings spiritual and worldly success—personal power, harmony with others, strong life force, and material prosperity. [pp 192-193]

The notion that spirituality can be used to attain one’s personal goals was anathema to Trungpa Rinpoche. He made this quite clear in his ground-breaking book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which was published in 1973.

It would be foolish to study more advanced subjects before we are familiar with the starting point, the nature of ego. Speculations about the goal become mere fantasy. These speculations may take the form of advanced ideas and descriptions of spiritual experiences, but they only exploit the weaker aspects of human nature, our expectations and desires to see and hear something colorful, something extraordinary. If we begin our study with these dreams of extraordinary, “enlightening”, and dramatic experiences, then we will build up our expectations and preconceptions so that later, when we are actually working on the path, our minds will be occupied largely with what will be rather than with what is. It is destructive and not fair to people to play on their weaknesses, their expectations and dreams, rather than to present the realistic starting point of what they are. It is necessary, therefore, to start on what we are and why we are searching. [pp 121-122] 

The results-based orientation of the Sakyong’s teachings and his appeal to the self-help market are key characteristics that distinguish him from Trungpa Rinpoche. 

Having coined the phrase “spiritual materialism,” Trungpa Rinpoche defined it in this way:

There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. [p 3]

He was particularly diligent in pointing out the pitfall of self-deception so that the practitioner can be aware of it and recognize it when it rears its ugly head.

Ego is very professional, overwhelmingly efficient in its own way. When we think that we are working on the forward-moving process of attempting to empty ourselves out, we find ourselves going backwards, trying to secure ourselves, filling ourselves up. [p 56]

 “Self-deception is a constant problem as we progress along a spiritual path,” continues Trungpa Rinpoche. “Ego is always trying to achieve spirituality. It is rather like wanting to witness your own funeral.” [p 63]

Reading further in Ruling Your World, in addition to happiness, personal power, and worldy and spiritual success, luck is also identified as an outcome for those who practice the path of virtue. This is articulated in the following two passages:

As the golfer Ben Hogan once said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” In Tibet, this luck is known as tashi tendrel—auspicious coincidence.  [pp 158-159] 

By acting virtuously, exerting ourselves in service to others, we are blessed in return by harmony and good luck. [p 160]

From a conventional point of view, there’s no argument here! But is it dharma?

Again, in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa Rinpoche comments on this orientation towards results (emphasis mine).

So the point we come back to is that some kind of real gift or sacrifice is needed if we are to open ourselves completely. This gift may take any form. But in order for it to be meaningful, it must entail giving up our hope of getting something in return. It does not matter how many titles we have, nor how many suits of exotic clothes we have worn through, nor how many philosophies, commitments and sacramental ceremonies we have participated in. We must give up our ambition to get something in return for our gift. That is the really hard way. [p 80]

This passage echoes a well-known line in Trungpa Rinpoche’s Sadhana of Mahamudra : “I make these offerings without expecting anything in return, and without hope of gaining merit.”

The contrast between the teachings of father and son is extreme. Of course, it is Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s prerogative to teach as he sees fit. But the fact that the apple has fallen so far from the tree is worth noting, in the interests of helping to preserve the legacy of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche for both present and future generations.

Photograph of Lohan by Robert Newman. The Karme-Chöling shrine room has a series of Lohan images.

What Has Changed

September 26, 2008

To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. - Ven. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi


As a meditation instructor at my Shambhala Center between 1995 and 2004, I had no choice but to be aware of the changes in the introductory presentation of sitting meditation that occurred during that time. I learned new forms and practiced them regularly in order to be able to help other people learn them. In light of that fact, the hardest to understand  of the standard “talking points” from Shambhala about these changes was the assertion that while there may be superficial differences, nothing had really changed.

There are a number of variations in terms of how this is expressed. Here is a fairly easy one:

“The Vidyadhara himself gave changing instructions in the particulars of how to practice, based on his witnessing the changing needs of his students…and because of his changing understanding of how to serve his students best.”[1]

This version does at least acknowledge that there are changes. It implies, however, that there is a continuum between the changes made by Trungpa Rinpoche and the continuing changes made by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, that they are all closely related. In point of fact the two approaches are quite different in their fundamental view. As an MI working with students trained in one and then shifting to the other, this was very obvious to me.

I never met the Vidyadhara, so you would have to get someone else to talk about how they experienced the Vidyadhara’s famous and endless rug-pulling. But I have studied the Shambhala teachings and read most of the restricted vajrayana teachings. Throughout the shape-shifting, and from the beginning to the most advanced teachings, I see a consistency in view.

One aspect of the view is the assertion that we do not practice meditation to get rid of thoughts. I was taught meditation from the view of basic goodness, where the assumption is that the mind is primordially enlightened and the practice is to relax and allow space, first, and then to apply discipline in order to further that process.[2] I have practiced this way through my whole life as a practitioner. I cannot count how many times I have told new and not-so-new practitioners this radical assertion, which my teachers made to me and which made it possible for me to meditate. The arising of thoughts is part of the natural process of mind and the training is to “neither lead nor follow.” I cannot count how many times I have as gently as possible pointed out that a verb like “control” is not useful in relation to meditation.

Now, beginners are being taught to “tame” the mind, that the mind is a wild animal that must be controlled by the application of the practice of meditation. They are being taught that it is the goal of meditation to have no thoughts arise.[3] The Six-Class Sourcebook for Shambhala Instructors, p. 29, states categorically, “All public and open house instruction (except Level 1) will present working with the precise technique as a beginning place. The emphasis is on taming the wildness of mind.”

I do not presume to say that there is something wrong with this view, since it has a long and illustrious history. But I had never practiced that way, and would probably have never become a practitioner at all if that was what I was presented with when I started out. I found when I attempted to talk with people that I could not make the words come out of my mouth to present that view. So I retired as an M.I. That is no great loss. But I think the loss of this style of meditation, which Trungpa Rinpoche brought to the West from Tibet, at such great personal cost, would be considerable.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s metaphor, which I think he borrowed from Suzuki Roshi, for the mind in meditation was of giving a cow a large luscious meadow. At first it might run around, but after a while it settles down, relaxes, and enjoys. He said, “Meditation practice is not a matter of trying to produce a hypnotic state of mind or create a state for restfulness. Trying to achieve a restful state reflects a mentality of poverty.”

The Sakyong’s metaphor for the mind is a wild horse. He said you could put that horse in a large meadow and wait there all day, but it would never come to you. So it has to be captured and tamed. “In the beginning, you could meditate for eternity, thinking, ‘The mind will naturally come back.’ It’ll never come back. [Laughter] Just like the horse. If you lie in the meadow thinking, ‘This horse is intrinsically tame,’[laughter] you could wait and wish as much as you want, but the horse is never going to come back. It’s just going to get old and die. [Laughter]”[4]

Different methods work for different people. The cow-in-a-big-meadow style didn’t work for some people, and they felt bad about that. Unfortunately, the Sakyong’s adoption of the taming-the-wild-horse method has selected for all the people from all the various generations and subgroups who never got or liked the cow method. And that comes with a certain amount of backlash. Think about all the laughter in the previous paragraph. There is relief there, and there is also pay-back from people who felt left out.

I have felt odd being caught in the middle of this dichotomy. People assume because of things that I say that I am an “old student,” but I never met Trungpa Rinpoche. I learned from Trungpa Rinoche’s students. But the way I started out was immensely helpful to me. Since I am an ordinary person, not unique or special, I think it would help others out there as well. It is less commonly available as a beginner’s practice than the “taming” view, and I am very sad to think it may no longer be available at that level.

 “The Sakyong was raised and trained closely by the Vidyadhara.  To my thinking, he is introducing a far more systematic training process than VCTR was able to introduce in his lifetime, both in practice and study. . .  The Vidyadhara was a pioneer, he was plowing a field of solid stone.  As a result of his efforts, the Sakyong is now plowing a softer field, and he is bringing in new equipment to make the soil even finer.  He’s looking at what VCTR did, seeing what worked and what didn’t, and making changes accordingly.”[5]

Thought experiment: spend a moment imagining the area of practice and/or the Buddhist or Shambhala teachings that most inspires you, the thing you love and practice the most. Now imagine that someone directed the remarks above at that very area of the teachings, dismissing those practices you love as “what didn’t work,” and describing you and others like you as a field of stone. If you can imagine that, then maybe you have an answer to the question of why old students drop out of the lives of their centers.

From one hunk of rock to all the others,

Ngakma Zér-mé Dri’mèd



Photo by Chögyam Trungpa, from Garuda (Spring 1972), p. 29.

[1] Sangha-talk, 2004.

[2] Myth of Freedom, p. 48-49

[3] Turning the Mind into an Ally, p. 53-56; the graphic on p. 59 and the chapter about it, p. 58-75, especially p. 74-75; and the chapter on the nine stages,p. 114-126, especially p. 126 on the ninth stage.

[4] 1999 Seminary Transcripts, Book 1, p 39-40

[5] Sangha-talk, 2004

Just Sitting

September 11, 2008


What’s emerging for me is that it may be time to collect and point to, as well as study and practice, the classic teachings and meditation instructions of Chögyam Trungpa, and make them available in a clean, simple, accessible manner.

For example, to start with:

  • how to sit (shamatha/vipashyana)
  • how to do a short sitting practice 
  • how to do a day-long sitting practice (nyin-thun)
  • how to do a week-long or month-long practice (I think that Bill Karelis has done this for his “Just Sitting” week-thuns)

This also implies:

  • how to find a meditation instructor
  • how to find others to practice and study with
What do you think?

Keeping Alive the Teachings

August 10, 2008

The living treasure trove of teachings, practices, forms, symbols, individual and group instructions and methods, which the great Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche left to the world, are held by his direct students–to preserve, protect, and propagate.   Such treasure belongs not to us, but to humankind.

Read the full article, and return here to comment on it.