Portrait of a Shambhala Buddhist

by Travis May

(The Great Stupa Which Liberates Upon Seeing @ Shambhala Mountain Center)

What follows is my account of what it means to be a Shambhala Buddhist.  This mult-media project is meant to be interesting, informative, and perhaps a little entertaining.

Buddhism starts the from the premise that people are fundamentally intelligent, worthwhile, and unblemished.  It is the total opposite of the concept of original sin.  That being said our normal experience is marked by suffering, anxiety, and confusion.  Meditation and the other practices supplied by the Buddha (Buddha is a word that means ‘awakened one.’ The one who woke up from that suffering, anxiety, and confusion) are methods for us to explore our mind and reality and regain our lost sanity.

This 20 ft statue of the Buddha is inside the stupa (pictured above)

Shambhala is the cultural aspect of Shambhala Buddhism.  Trungpa Rinpoche said that if Buddhism is the mountain, then Shambhala is the trees and flowers on that mountain.  Shambhala’s vision is creating an enlightened society.  Not some utopian pipe-dream where everyone is a Buddha necessarily, but just a society that acts from the basis of love, compassion, and wisdom.  Shambhala places an emphasis on the arts, uplifting our environment, and having a good head and shoulders.

When Trungpa Rinpoche came to the United States in the 1970 his students were a bunch of long-haired, bare chested hippies.  Within a few years he had them in suits and gowns, and often held elegant balls, and had his students participate in long elocution lessons where he taught them how to speak Oxonian English.  These former hippies, along with his son Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, are the leaders of the Shambhala Buddhism of today (an organization with some 200 meditation centers and groups world-wide with a membership of over 10,000 people).
Dawa Sangpo, the mythical king of Shambhala, went to the Buddha and told him that he was interested in the teachings and achieving enlightenment, but he couldn’t just leave his kingdom and become a monk, he had responsibilities to his people and his kingdom.  So, the Buddha showed him a way that he could practice a path to enlightenment and not renounce his worldly affairs.  Thus, Shambhala Buddhism does not emphasize monasticism (though it does have a monastic path for those who wish to pursue it), but instead is a path of yogi-householders, whose goal is to be fully human, fully engaged in the world, for their own benefit and sanity, but especially for that of others and society.


I am awakened by the blinding light of the sun.  What good are see-through curtains?  The powerful rays fill the room with a life-force that implores one to get out of bed.  It’s 6:30am.  I roll out of bed with the calm clarity that permeates the whole environment.  Getting dressed and then going downstairs to get cleaned-up I don’t encounter any of the other six house residents.  Just as well, today there will be no talking.

I walk out onto the porch into the crisp summer air.  It’s forty-five degrees.  While making my way down the short path from the ranch house to the conference center a small bunny freezes and stares at me cautiously as I pass.  On the porch of the conference center two chipmunks run down the railing and pause to watch as I enter the door.  Here are the first signs of human life, some sitting scattered about at tables sipping coffee or tea, two reading the schedule of the day’s events on the bulletin board that I posted before going to bed the night before.  *Silence All Day* it announces at the top under the date.  Someone blows the conch shell; short, short, short, pause, short, short, short.  This lets us know that it is seven mintues to seven.  I put a jasmine tea bag into my cup and let the near boiling water pour over it.

The path that led to my becoming a Shambhala Buddhist begins around ten years ago.  At that time I was basically a nihilistand suffering from an undiagnosed depression.  A friend of mine was telling me about a literature class he was taking at SPC (St. Petersburg College), and one of the books they read was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.  I had been curious about Buddhism, but never really enough to look into it much.  After hearing my friend talk about the book it seemed interesting enough for me to go purchase it at the book store.  Needless to say, the book had a profound impact on me.  Something clicked, and a path began to open up before me.  It seems that it had always been there, this yellow brick road, and that until that time I had just ignored the entrance.

Slowly making my way from the conference center to the shrine tent I put the cup up to my nose and take in the fragrant scent of jasmine.  I look up and to the left purposely to see the moon above the mountain in the deep blue daytime sky.  The only sounds are the crunching of gravel under feet and the gong being struck in the PMH (post-meditation hall).  The gatekeeper is reciting a four line chant in his head in between strikes of the gong.

At seven, the gatekeeper begins the rolldown, sixty some people taking off their shoes and lining up to go in.  After the rolldown the umdze (timekeeper), enters the shrine tent and the others follow.  I walk in, take off my shoes, and go over to the trash can to deposit my tea bag.  I enter the shrine tent, bow towards the shrine and am handed a chant book.  At this point everyone is standing in front of their cushion waiting for the stragglers to get to their seat, the gatekeeper gonging more quickly now; grant your blessings so my mind may be one with the dharma (he says to himself), gong, grant your blessings so that dharma may progress along the path, gong, grant your blessings so that the dharma may clarify confusion gong.  When everyone is at their places the umdze nods to the gekko who nods to the gatekeeper, who begins the final rolldown.  The umdze starts to sit and everyone else sits down together.

The search for further information in this newly discovered world that was opening up before me led me to the works of Alan Watts, Ram Dass, Krishnamurti, and Joseph Campbell, to name a few.  My biggest inspiration and teacher for the next several years though, was definitely Alan Watts.

When I read The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are and then The Tao of Philosophy my mind was totally blown open.  Looking over at my bookshelf as I write this, I count 16 Alan Watts books.  In those years, I also downloaded many of his lectures and listened to them over and over again.  Watts was a brilliant orator, explaining the world-view and philosophies of the East- Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism in a way unparalleled to anyone I have encountered before or since.

It’s quite chilly.  Many are bundled up in heavy jackets, scarves, and blankets.  I don’t mind.  There’s no place I’d rather be.  The white tarp walls of the tent flap gently in the wind.  Someone coughs, another clears her throat.  The umdze strikes the gong three times indicating the beginning of the day’s practice.  It won’t be completely silent on this day.  The umdze chants The Four Dharmas of Gampopa solo.  Everyone joins in on The Supplication to the Shambhala Lineage, then the Seven Line Supplication to Padmasambhava, The Supplication to the Takpo Kagyu, The Heart Sutra, and finally The Homage.  The umdze strikes the gong one final time and meditation practice begins.

“For the warrior, letting go is connected with relaxing within discipline, in order to experience freedom.  Freedom here does not mean being wild or sloppy; rather it is letting yourself go so that you fully experience your existence as a human being.  Letting go is completely conquering the idea that discipline is a punishment for a mistake or a bad deed that you have committed, or might like to commit.  You have to completely conquer the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with your human nature and that therefore you need discipline to correct your behavior.  As long as you feel that discipline comes from outside, there is still a lingering feeling that something is lacking in you.  So letting go is connected with letting go of any vestiges of doubt or hesitation or embarrassment about being you as you are.  You have to relax with yourself in order to fully realize that discipline is simply the expression of your basic goodness.  You have to appreciate yourself, respect yourself, and let go of your doubt and embarrassment so that you can proclaim your goodness and basic sanity for the benefit of others.”

~Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche from Shambhala:  The Sacred Path of the Warrior

TM Read Aloud

http://www.google.com/reader/ui/3247397568-audio-player.swf?audioUrl=http://convergentemergence.pbworks.com/f/TMaloud.mp3

Trungpa Rinpoche first came here in 1971. Acharya Hayward said, “to have had that experience of knowing his mind filling all of space is especially important now that his physical body is no longer with us, because his mind has never moved.”  He was like a conduit into a reality normally obsucred by our conditioning that imprisons us like a cocoon.  At Shambhala Mountain Center that window into the mind of the guru seems to have been left open.

I sit on the gomden, legs loosely crossed in front of me on the zabuton.  My back is upright, head slightly tilted, gaze falling about six feet in front of me, eyes half-lidded, hands gently resting on my thighs.  My mindfulness is loosely following my breath, my awarenss is watching to make sure it stays there, and to bring it back when it wanders.  A thought tries to occupy my attention, but is gently brushed aside like a harmless fly.  I am present.  There is no need or desire to add any additional commentary or conceptual buffer to this moment.  Then my awareness drops from my head down into my heart and the division between myself and the environment dissolves.  What is left when the ego drops away, yet awareness remains?  Seemingly, the totality, Buddha Nauture, the universe, being aware of itself.  Gong.



Acharya Gaylon Ferguson, PhD

During his talk, Acharya Ferguson asks what we mean by the word ‘mindfulness.’  I answer, “mindfulness is reclaiming the lives we are actually living.”  The always (overly) humble teacher recognizes the direct quote from his own book, hides a smile while bowing his head, and tries to move on to someone else as quickly as possible.  If he had asked what exactly he meant by that, I may have said something like, “usually we spend our time lost in some story-line, some conceptual overlay that covers the direct experience of the present moment.  In this way, we miss so much of our lives; stuck in the past or fantasizing about the future, we rarely take the time to Be Here Now“, as the famous Ram Dass book title pleads.

After all of these years of haphazard and undirected study, I met a friend who introduced me to a Dzogchen group that met weekly for meditation and sadhana practice.  Group practice was a new and exciting adventure and I appreciated it very much.  Dzogchen, however, is a fruitional practice, and as it turned out, for me, it wasn’t the ideal place to start.  During the six months that I practiced with this group the same person who introduced me to the group lent me a copy of a book called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.  Reading this book marked the next big aha! moment in my life.  This book had the same effect of mind blowing awesomeness as did the Alan Watts books when I first encountered them.  What I soon discovered was Chogyam Trunpga Rinpoche was what Alan Watts was talking about.

After oryoki breakfast there will be a three hour period of sitting and walking meditation.  A big feature of this month-long meditation retreat is the extended periods of shamatha practice that allow the mind (hopefully) to settle further and further. Shamatha is a Sanskrit word (Tib. shine) that is translated as “peaceful abiding.”  By repeatedly applying the technique of returning the attention to the breath and breaking the habit of continually being lost in thought we develop the ability to tame the mind, somewhat, and to be present for the life that we are actually living.  This process of taming the mind is likened to tilling the soil, so that then our innate seeds of joy, compassion, and wisdom may be cultivated through various other contemplative practices.


Sittin’ on Rocks.  That’s the stupa (from the picture above…way down there!)

The afternoon session will mirror the morning in most respects.  Except it has warmed up some.  The meditation instructors are meeting individually with participants, so I will occupy the timekeeper’s seat.   Once we are all seated, I strike the gong.  The familiar tone reverberates through the air for half a minute and gently fades away.  The smell of Japanese sandalwood incense wafts through the air.  Then comes the rain.  The sound is deafening on the tent top.

On October 7, 2007, I took my refuge vows with Drupon Rinchen Dorje RinpocheDrikung Kagyu bhikshu, or monk, visiting the local Ratna Shri group.  I received my new name- Kunchok Samten (Jewel of Meditative Concentration) Not many landscapes like this in Tibet, ay Rinpoche?!

During the time that I was researching taking refuge, I had come across the local Shambhala center, not having any idea what Shambhala was.  After reading Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and finding Trungpa Rinpoche’s book Shambhala:  The Sacred Path of the Warrior, I made the connection between the two and was happily shocked that there was a center founded on and carrying out the teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche right here in St. Petersburg!  So, I went there…and I stayed.

You can never actually see the present moment.  By the time you look at it, it has passed and a new moment has arisen.  The rain’s rat-a-tat-tat drumroll on the rooftop makes it easier to recognize that freshness and points out that you can’t hold on to any one of these moments, but if you can take the one trying to do the holding out of the equation, you can just ride along as part of the flow.

At eight o’clock the day’s activities are complete, and I decide to visit my favorite place on Earth.  Out, and up, here, an hour away from the nearest city, the sky is black and illuminated by a billion stars.  When I first came here last summer I used to take my flashlight with me to shine on the dirt path for the twenty minute walk through winding trails to the Great Stupa of Dhamrakaya.  Now, I just walk alone in the quiet night with the moonlight as my guide.  The stupa is a memorial to Trungpa Rinpoche.  Skull fragments from his cremation rest in the heart-center of the giant twenty-foot gold Buddha statue inside the main sitting room.  Relics of the historical Buddha, Milarepa, His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, and many other realized masters are embedded in the foundation.


The Padmasambhava of the West


Trungpa Rinpoche was born in 1939 in the Eastern region of Tibet named Kham.  He was recognized as the eleventh incarnation of the Trungpa Tulku when he was around a year old by His Holiness the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa.  He underwent the typical training of a high-ranking lama beginning when he was just five years old.  By the time he was in his late teens, he was the governor of his large system of monasteries and the entire region beyond it.  In 1959 when the Chinese invaded, he led a group of hundreds on foot over the himalaya mountains escaping eventually into India.  (Note:  for a more complete biography click here.)

“Padmasambhava was an Indian teacher who brought the complete teachings of the buddhadharma to Tibet.  He remains our source of inspiration even now, here in the West.  We have inherited his teachings, and from that point of view, I think we could say that Padmasambhava is alive and well.

I suppose the best way to characterize Padmasambhava for people with a Western or Christian cultural outlook is to say that he was a saint.  We are going to discuss the depth of his wisdom and his life-style, his skillful way of relating with students.  The students he had to do deal with were Tibetans, who were extraordinarily savage and uncultured.  He was invited to come to Tibet, but the Tibetans showed very little understanding of how to receive and welcome a great guru from another part of the world.  They were very stubborn and a very matter-of-fact—very earthy.  They represented all kinds of obstacles to Padmasambhava’s activity in Tibet.  However, the obstacles did not come from Tibetan people alone, but also from differences in climate, landscape, and the social situation as a whole.”  -from Crazy Wisdom by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Before Trungpa Rinpoche was invited to come and teach in the United States by some of his students, he decided to take off his monk robes, as he felt that he would have to relate to his students on their level to get through to them.  As when Padmasambhava went into Tibet to spread the Buddha’s teachings, when Trungpa Rinpoche came to North America there was simply no precedent for Americans to follow when relating with a high Tibetan lama.  There was also a lot of animosity towards authority at this time in our country’s history.  It likely would not have went over well if this Tibetan man, half-paralyzed on his left-side from a car accident, would have limped up to a throne, insisting on sitting higher than his students, forcing them to prostrate and bow to him constantly, and all the other things that everyone had done his entire life.

Here is a small piece of an interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, one of today’s most well known and respected teachers, discussing Trungpa Rinpoche coming to the West:

DKR.mp3

http://www.google.com/reader/ui/3247397568-audio-player.swf?audioUrl=http://literacyachievementgap.pbworks.com/f/DKR.mp3

True to his bodhisattva vow, Trungpa Rinpoche’s goal was to help people, not to turn them into Buddhists, or not to earn a comfortable living.  Throughout his seventeen years in North America he constantly blew up people’s expectations, cut through their spiritual materialism, and showed people how they could regain their lost sanity and be a genuine human being in this world.

After the traditional clockwise circumambulating of the structure I ascend the remaining steps to the entrance filled with veneration and appreciation for the great bodhisattva in whose honor this stupa was built.  I prostrate three times to the beautiful monument, a symbol of the enlightened mind, in a gesture of offering and devotion.  Finding the sitting room empty, I light an incense and take my seat in front of the great statue of the Buddha (the one who woke up).  My head and heart vibrates with the electric engery of the room.  An hour flies by in the blink of an eye.  When I leave I feel rejuvenated, alive, and I dedicate any merit accumulated for the benefit of all sentient beings.

As I walk back I remember how loud the buzz of insects is in Florida.  Here, at night, there is absolutely no sound.  It’s amazing.  It is cool again, the air crisp and sharp.  I walk along the path.  Trunpga Rinpoche was here, and neither was I.

The current lineage holder of Shambhala Buddhism is the son of Chogyam Trunpga Rinpoche.  His name is Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

Sakyong is a title that literally means “earth protector.”  The name Mipham comes from the great Buddhist scholar and teacher Mipham the Great (1846-1912).  Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche was recognized as the reincarnation of Mipham the Great by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche.  Rinpoche is also a title bestowed upon great teachers.  It is often translated as “precious jewel.”

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche was born in 1962 in Bodhgaya, India, the place where the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) awakened into enlightenment.  He is known for his ability to bridge the East & West, as he grew up (after he was about 8) in the West, but also studied extensively with great teachers, such as, Penor Rinpoche, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and of course, his father the Venerable Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.  The current Mipham Rinpoche was enthroned as the Sakyong in 1995.

The Sakyong is currently beginning a one-year retreat in India.  However, he is going to come out of his retreat next summer to preside over a couple of important programs at Shambhala Mountain Center.  During this time I hope to take samaya with him, meaning he will become my main teacher as I enter the vajrayana path of Shambhala and Tibetan Buddhism.

Wolf In My Eyes
The power of being alone can be measured
By how well I sit by myself.
Can I sit in a circle and watch my mind
Surrounded by a ring of mirrors that reflect
Me upon me
Self upon self
Thought upon thought
Hope upon hope
Self-reflection upon self-reflection?
When I sit in this space
Am I sitting alone with myself?
How alone is this sense of desolation?
Why is it that I feel surrounded
When I am alone?
I do not see these mirrors that reflect
The perplexed face of a lonesome self.
When I look at myself
I see a mountain rich in snow and timber
Gleaming in sunlight,
Wearing clouds like a cape,
Gazing in a clear blue mountain lake.
This mountain-pristine, desolate-
Is happy to watch its own reflection.
Mesmerized by solitude day and night
Among stars’ galaxy of light,
It knows its place as a single mountain.
It knows itself by what it sees.
Crystal is what I see when I sit on my own.
I am by myself
Surrounded by a world of mirrors.
Among reflections
Who is alone?
Within perpetual insistence on independence
Which reflection is independent?
Which lake can separate itself
From the mountain it reflects?
In this play of perception lies reality.
What is the lake?
Who is the mountain?
Who am I to sit here by myself
Thinking I’m alone?
Without the lake’s pristine reflection
I would not know I’m alone
Nor what loneliness is.
As summer winds blow
Grass bends, the golden wheat-field shimmers.
The sun reflects and sees its brightness.
The world
Life
Is born from its own reflection.
Move
Eat
Laugh
Hug-
Express a simple being
Dancing with its own reflections.
Being alone is the beginning
of loving another.

~Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche from Snow Lion’s Delight


In the early 1970’s when Trungpa Rinpoche first began teaching Buddhism in the West, he did so in a way that many different teachers of various lineages do today.  He taught the traditional teachings including the esoteric philosophies and practices of vajrayana Buddhism.  What he soon realized was that it wasn’t really working.  Nothing was happening.  He surmised that one must establish a strong foundation in meditation, and the hinayana and mahayana schools of Buddhism, before attempting to go on to the more advanced teachings and practices.

In 1976, Trungpa Rinpoche began to reveal the Shambhala teachings to his students and the world.  The Shambhala teachings are terma, meaning teachings of Padmasambhava, and his emanations, that lay dormant until the time in history when they are ripe and needed the most.  The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the most well-known teaching of this type.

Compared to most other forms of Buddhism, the Shambhala Buddhist path is highly organized.  From immersing himself into the culture of the West, Trungpa Rinpoche set up a path that he felt would be the most beneficial to his students.  Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche continues to fine-tune this path today.  In the beginning, students of Shambhala Buddhism are instructed and encouraged to practice shamatha meditation.  The Way of Shambhala is a new curriculum developed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and other senior teachers that combines weekend-long meditation workshops with weeknight classes where one learns the view and practices contained within Shambhala Buddhism.  In addition to these programs, there are many other offerings through Shambhala, such as programs in the artsMaitri Space Awareness, and many others.  To further establish some stability of mind, it is required that one complete a dathun (da- moon, thun-cycle), a month-long meditation retreat (or a combination of week-long retreats adding up to a month), before one moves on to the more advanced programs.

(Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, & Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche)

My Meditation Insructor Will Ryken and his wife Paula Bickford,the director of Shambhala St. Petersburg

As part of this project I engaged in a written dialogue with my classmates about the topic of Shambhala Buddhism:

Kori:  My name is Koryogi and my question is. Did Krishna really fall into such a deep state of meditation (in the woods) that he had to manifest a second self to shoot an arrow into himself under the the years of foliage that had overgrown his presence; to wake himself from the meditative state he was in?

Travis:  Krishna is a mythological figure from Hinduism, so I would be disinclined to say that he “really” did anything.  But, that makes me think that maybe something should be said, as part of a background, about different Eastern religions, so they do not become conflated into a single entity.  That might be out of the scope of this project though.

If we plant peaches, we’re always going to get peaches.  If we plant pears, we’re always going to get pears.  Karma works in just this way.  If you plant nonvirtue- migewa- you get suffering.  If you plant virtue- gewa- you get happiness.  If we’re using strong negative emotions to get what we want, and what we want is happiness, it’s never going to work.  Therefore we need to contemplate our intentions and actions.  Contemplating samsara and karma strengthens our intention to point our life away from suffering and toward true happiness.”

~from Turning the Mind Into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Kori: How is it that there was or is two different Buddha’s from to different countries: one the Indian and the other the Chinese? Am I even right about this asssumption? I have tried to empty myself and be still as I ponder this. I am also trying to become like water. I believe I have rolled several different philosophies together again.

Travis:  Well, when we use the term Buddha we are generally speaking of one individual, Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha who was born an Indian prince, left his kingdom and realized enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. So, Buddha is a title, meaning ‘awakened one.’  Other people, such as, Padmasambhava and Nagarjuna are both sometimes referred to as the second Buddha.  Everyone has the potential of becoming a Buddha.  The Chinese person you are referring to, I believe, is the figure characteristically portrayed as a fat jolly naked monk in the statues.  These representations are based on a Zen monk named Hotei. Whether, or not, he was a Buddha, or fully enlightened being, I do not know. He very well could have been.

The Sakyong Wangmo (Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s wife) and her father Namkha Drimed Rinpoche

“We contemplate our precious human birth.  What are these contemplations supposed to do?  They help inspire us to become a little stronger and more connected with reality.  We tend to take the preciousness of our situation for granted, so we contemplate that we are in a situation where we can actually practice meditation.  It is hard for that to have impact in America, where there is so much material comfort, particularly if you have never gone to a country that is very poor.  But it is shocking if we travel to India, for example, where so many people will never have even the most basic things that we take for granted and do not even think about- all of the sudden we realize how precious our situation is.  We realize that on our worst day, our worst bad day when we do not get what we want, we are a hundred times better off than so many human beings.  When you sit here contemplating your precious human birth it sounds almost like a joke, but when you go there it hits you so hard.  You realize, ‘I’m really fortunate.  I should stop complaining.'”

~from Taming the Mind and Walking the Bodhisattva Path by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Susan: Travis,  how does the ethos of the environment effect the state of being in this religion?  Our world has so little quiet everything moves faster and faster, does proximity to this effect the spiritual condition?  We know that something which does not adapt will perish, so how is this evolving without loosing its essence?

Travis:  As I mention briefly in the introduction above, the Shambhala teachings are more of a householder path, lay people living in society, rather than a monastic tradition.  A Shambhala Warrior is someone who has the courage to interact fully in the world with gentleness and openness.  It is also has an emphasis on working for the benefit of others, the bodhisattva path.  It’s hard to do this if you’re isolated from the world.  It’s also easy to be patient or have equanimity when you’re alone, but the true measure of the benefits of your practice is what happens when you are in the thick of things.  It’s all ‘grist for the mill’ as Ram Dass used to say.  The adaptive aspect is living and working with the world as it is, and not getting trapped by our conceptual judgments of how it should be, or how we would like it to be.

“By stopping habitual patterns, we can appreciate the real world on the spot.  We can appreciate the bright, beautiful fantastic world around us; we don’t have to feel all that resentful or embarrassed.  If we don’t negate our habitual patterns, we can never fully appreciate the world.  But once we overcome habitual patterns, the vividness of the drala principle, the magic will descend, and we will begin to be individual masters of our world.

~from Shambhala:  The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Linguistic Cafe: I read some something about “The Middle Way” and the four cycles to Buddhahood and I wondered if you could tell us something about these topics?

Travis:  The middle way (Sanskrit: madhyamaka, Tibetan:  uma) deals primarily with avoiding the extreme views of eternalism and nihilism both of which are considered to be false views.  Eternalism meaning that there is a permanent existing soul that lives on forever, and nihilism meaning that nothing matters, there is only this life, no karma, etc.  It seems that is often applied even more generally to avoiding any extremes of behavior, view, etc.  I’m not sure what the ‘four cycles’ are.  There are a lot of lists, the four noble truths, the four reminders that turn the mind to the dharma, the four immeasurables, etc.  I’m not sure about the four cycles.

“During [dathun last summer], someone read aloud from Shambhala:  The Sacred Path of the Warrior, the provactive passage where Trungpa Rinpoche says, “Your sense faculties give you access to possibilities of deeper perception.  Beyond ordinary perception, there is super-sound, super-smell, super-feeling existing in your state of being.  These can only be experienced by training yourself in the depth of meditation practice, which clarifies any confusion or cloudiness and brings out the precision, sharpness and wisdom of perception- the nowness of your world.”…. Much of our lives, we’re just skimming along the dull surface of things, but mindfulness of the senses offers a deeper, richer connection to life and the world around us.  A deeper experience of light and color, of pulse and sound, is often celebrated in the arts.  Isn’t this part of the reason we love music, paintings, dance?  From this perspective, the art of meditation has a deep affinity with all the arts.  Like the arts, meditation is a celebration of being alive.”

~from Natural Wakefulness by Acharya Gaylon Ferguson

Carola: I have to admit that I know little about Buddhism. My friend, Ben, is Buddhist. When I call him, he sometimes needs to call me back because he is in the process of “chanting.” I assumed this is a form of meditation or prayer, but I really don’t know. What is “chanting”?

Travis:  I’m not an expert on chanting, but I could say a little about it.  Different people view it differently.  Most Tibetan Buddhist places chant in Tibetan or Sanskrit, but in Shambhala we chant almost everything in English. Trungpa Rinpoche thought it would be better if we actually knew what we were saying when we were chanting (go figure : D ).  Our chants contain a lot of symbolism, and also what you may call reverence for past great teachers.  By paying respect to great teachers of the past we gain more appreciation for the teachings, what they went through to receive and transmit the teachings, etc.  There are also chants that supplicate, or make requests, to certain deities who represent certain qualities, such as wisdom, compassion, etc.  The use of the word deity can cause confusion.

Trungpa Rinpoche said in Heart of the Buddha, “the yidam is a non-theistic deity who embodies one’s innate nature, rather than any form of external help.”  So, ultimately you’re working with aspects of your own mind that are symbolized in the form of these other beings.  Incidentally, I believe this is how the deities in all religions were originally meant to be perceived.  As, Joseph Campbell said, God is a metaphor for the unexplained phenomena in the universe.  But, I digress.  Not everyone views chanting this way.  Some believe that the specific words themselves, as were spoken or written by other great teachers, have merit or benefit in themselves.  This is the case in a lot of Hindu chanting.  So, just reciting a mantra, such as, Om Mani Padme Hum, is beneficial in itself.  I am more of the belief that it isn’t just the words that are beneficial, but it’s contemplating their meaning, and what they represent, that is what can bring about beneficial change in oneself.

“It has been said that mindfulness of the body connects us with the earth, and the breath is like wind moving over the earth, and the breath is like wind moving over the earth.  As air moves over the earth underneath the vast sky, we are harmoniously joining movement and stillness, presence and openness.

Sometimes mindfulness is approached as concentration, heavy-handedly trying to fix the attention on one object.  In contrast, Trungpa Rinpoche placed particular emphasis on the expansive openness of meditation:  “A quality of expansive awareness develops through mindfulness of body- a sense of being settled and of therefore being able to afford to open out.”  Here, settling down and opening out go hand in hand.”

~from Natural Wakefulness by Acharya Gaylon Ferguson

ShareRiff says: I am interested in the concept of upaya as it might relate to the study rhetoric.  In his Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki takes time, in a lengthy footnote, to explain the Sanskrit term upaya. “From the standpoint of pure intelligence,” orprajna, “Bodhisattvas do not see any particular suffering existences….but when they see the universe from the standpoint of there love-essence,” or karuna, “they recognize everywhere the conditions of misery and suffering that arise from clinging to the forms of particularity. To remove these, they devise all possible means that are directed towards the attainment of the final aim of existence” (Suzuki 298). Suzuki goes on to say that the technical term upaya, whether translated as “expedient,” “strategem,” “device,” or “craft,” simply does not translate well into English.

In his Indian Esoteric Buddhism: a Social History of the Tantric Movement, Ronald Davidson argues that Buddhists seem to offer the term upaya as a rhetorical means for managing a “multidimensional relationship to their surrounding societies” (Davidson 23). “External influences and sociopolitical realities are sometimes treated cavalierly in rhetoric, even while being incorporated through a systemic apologia of unfortunate necessity (skill in means: upayakausalya).

These scholars seem to be describing two very different modes of speech.  How does Shambhala Buddhism take up the idea of upaya?

Travis: In my experience upaya is ubiquitously translated as ‘skillful means.’  The way I’ve heard it spoke of in Shambhala as well as Zen and other schools is that it is a general term to describe the methods that the Buddha used to liberate beings from samsara.  Meditation, chanting, tantric visualizations, contemplation, etc., are all examples of upaya.  Buddhism is not a religion of worship, of course.  It is a method.  The Buddha taught that people are trapped in this cycle of perpetuating suffering and confusion because of their erroneous belief and consequent attachment to a real, permanent, existing self.

The Buddha’s teachings are simply methods, upayas, to help beings recover the their lost sanity and wake up to the world as it actually is, rather than how we generally experience it.  You probably have heard the example of the raft.  We are on the banks of samsara, Buddhism is the raft that carries us to the other shore (enlightenment).  Once you get to the other shore you don’t carry the raft around with you on your back, you leave it there.  Another analogy is that of medicine.  Buddhism is medicine.  You don’t take medicine just for the sake of taking medicine.  You take it to get better.  And then you stop taking it.  In the case of the example of the finger and the moon, the upaya is the finger pointing at the moon, the moon is enlightenment.

The other day my iPod was on shuffle and this Alan Watts talk came on and he mentioned upaya, and he said something like it has a  deragatory connotation when used in reference to politics.  So, I don’t really know what Ronald Davidson is talking about here, but it may be a case of this word being used in different ways in different contexts.


“Friendship with others is intimately related to friendship with ourselves.  Meditation practice offers us a way to become friendly with our own experience, cultivating gentlness, peace, and a sense of humor.  That kind of inner friendliness will serve us well in good times and bad, especially when we let it radiate from our heart to others around us.  As the Shambhala terma says, “friendly to oneself, merciful to others.”  If we are constantly judging other people, judging other traditions, judging politicians and leaders, we need to look and see if we are being too heavy-handed with ourselves.  We might be unleashing the judgment we feel towards ourselves on those around us.  This kind of heaviness is like a disease sweeping through our world today.

Friendliness with ourselves is the preliminary work that enables us to eventually develop an inner teacher and guide.  The ancient practice of union with the teacher- guru yoga- is ultimately about recognizing our own inherent wisdom as teacher.  With that realization, the whole world can be our teacher moment by moment.  This is why connecting to the Sakyong- Earth Protector and symbol of Shambhala- connects us to our inherent capacity to rule our world and to protect sanity all around us.”

~Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche- The Dot, Spring 2009

Sue: I assumed that killing yourself was against the Buddhism religion.  Why did the burning monk feel this was ok? I was also wondering, what percent of the population of America is Buddist, and where do they pray.

Travis: I can only guess that the monk decided that the negative karma he was accruing by killing himself was worth it if he could benefit others by getting them to stop the war.
From what I am seeing, about 1% of Americans are Buddhist, or about 3 million people.  There are many small groups right in this area actually.  There are a lot of different sects.  Several groups in the area have converted homes into little dharma centers, others meet in yoga studios or similar places once a week, or others like our group rent a space of our own.  There’s a Theravadan temple on 62nd Ave.  There are centers all over the country.  Zen monasteries, remote retreat centers, all kinds of stuff.


“The difference between the Buddha and a Buddhist is that the Buddha was not a Buddhist.  And everyone of us sitting here, and every sentient being throughout the world, is already the Buddha and quite simply just waking up to that.  So, at any moment, given the right circumstances, any individual, whether Buddhist, or anything else, can wake up on the spot to their full potential as a human being, and guide other sentient beings to their own destiny, to become rulers of their own worlds.”

~Will Ryken- Practice in a Time of Chaos- Change Your Mind Day 2009

Valentina:  Travis,  I was going through a book called”Old wisdom in the New World” /Americanization in Two Immigrant Theravada Buddhist Temples/ in connection to the immigrants’ cultural and in this case religious adjustments.

I will just share some excerpts from the book and you can comment back. I feel too much uneducated about Buddhism to ask questions / mild way to say: “ignorant”…/

The two temples that the author Paul David Numrich is describing are located in Chicago and Los Angeles. His observations are very detailed and very carefully documented regarding the architecture, the management, and the service and recruitment process.

In the last chapter “Americanization” he compares the language. “ …though both temples remain clearly more “Asian” than “American” in daily activities and general programming emphases. The transition from Old World vernacular languages to English, a barometer of Americanization, proceeds slowly at both Wat Dhammaram and Dharma Vijaya: with the notable exception of the latter’s newsletter, both temples still rely heavily on the immigrant tongue. However, a substantial majority of adult immigrant survey respondents preferred the use of both the immigrant tongue and English in religious services (87 %), children’s classes (73%), and their temple newsletter (79%), indicating their willingness to make the language transition.” (p. 141)

1.What language do you think has to be used?

There is another phenomenon that the author talks about, the so called: “parallel congregation”. “We can expect to find parallel congregations at many of the immigrant Buddhist temples of America. The key, in my mind, is the presence in such temples of clergy both willing to and capable of proffering an attractive and fulfilling practice of Buddhism to the nonethnic spiritual seekers visiting those temples.” (p. 146). The author observed that the presence of these visitors changed the way of the meditation is held at the temples and also relates to “Buddhist modernism in Asia”.

2.What is the influence of  the visitors in the temples and what is that modernism trend?

Travis:  Thank you for you questions Valentina.  First off I would just say that Theravada is quite a different sect than I am involved and familiar with.  Your question reminded me of this great article I read a while ago by Ponlop Rinpoche. There he says the following:

The essence of Buddhism is like pure water; it is wisdom that is transparent and fluid. Like pure water, it is without any inherent shape or color of its own. Yet at the same time it is capable of adopting any shape and reflecting all the colors of the container into which it is poured. It is a science of mind and a philosophy of life that addresses the emotions as well as the intellect and offers a basis for understanding the meaning of life and the nature of the world.

Historically, as Buddhism traveled from its homeland of India to other lands—to Tibet, China, Sri Lanka, Japan and so on—this pure water, the genuine wisdom of Buddha, took on the shape of its different containers and reflected the languages and social forms of each country.

This is the water Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche began pouring from his Tibetan container into the vessel of Western culture, to quench the thirst of beings overwhelmed by poverty mentality and spiritual materialism. Thus Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche played a very important role in bringing the complete buddhadharma to the West.

So, our approach, which may not be the approach of these two Theravadan groups, is that the essential part is the pure water (the teachings of the Buddha- which are universal).  We don’t particularly need the vessel (culture).  We don’t have to try to be Tibetans or Japanese to practice Buddhism.  If you strip the culture and simply pour the water of the dharma into our vessel, the result will be an authentic American Buddhism.  To get caught up in the bells and whistles of an ‘exotic’ culture is what Trungpa Rinpoche called Spiritual Materialism.  People who fall into this trap end up getting attached to the ‘idea’ of being a Buddhist instead of working with the path for the purpose of liberating oneself and others from insanity; taking medicine for the sake of taking medicine rather than to get better.

To do this in the US and Canada, naturally, English must be used.  Actually, Ponlop Rinpoche led a large conference recently to discuss translating the entire kangyur and tengyur (the teachings of the Buddha and the commentaries on those teachings) into English, primarily from Sanskrit and Tibetan.  I lent the article to someone, so I don’t have here in front of me, but they have planned out this enormous project and they estimate it will take around 100 years to complete.  The aim is to create a Western Buddhist Canon.  I also remember the article stating that these translations would be using some sort of commons license and will be completely free to access.

“Ambition is a sign that we are trying to appease our suffering by thinking that something external will make us happy.  Because that approach is ego-centered and aggressive, it will never appease the suffering.  It will only fire it up.  This kind of ambition is actually bewilderment, not knowing what to do and where to put our faith.  We are putting our hope and ambition into all kinds of things, and coming up empty-handed.

Meditation, and the postmeditation practice that follows it, heighten our awareness of the qualities of a worthy object.  That is why we do formal practice.  When we have the courage to literally take our seat and work with our mind, we are cultivating lack of ambition in a positive sense; we can relax into who we are.  Opening up our mind in this way gives us the insight to overcome aggression and increase compassion.  When we put ambition into this enlightened context, it will actually materialize as something of value.”

~Coming Out of the Dark by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun- January 2009


“In his [Chogyam Trungpa] teachings, he explained that those who think they have found a spiritual path and are on the side of truth have simply fallen into the huge trap of looking for a savior and thus fleeing their own experience:  “It’s not so much that the doctrine has converted you, but that you have converted the doctrine into your own ego.”  The aim of the teachings is for us not to learn to be “right,” but instead to be ever more open to what is.

Confronted as we are with the rampant spiritual materialism all around us, the practice of meditation is the only weapon we possess.  This practice consists in looking at who we really are, thus providing us with a naked experience of our state of mind, but without trying to reach any particular goal.  Meditation is not a religious practice:  “The practice of meditation is based not on how we would like things to be, but on what is.”  Given that the characteristic of the ego is to view everything in a competitive, aggressive manner, it is starved to death by meditation, which aims at nothing.”

~from Chogyam Trungpa His Life and Vision by Fabrice Midal (quoted text is from lectures by Trungpa Rinpoche)

21st Century Buddhism

(His Holiness the 17th Karmapa working on his MySpace page.)

In 2008, HH the 17th Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, made his first visit to the West making teaching stops in New York. Boulder, and Seattle.  Incidentally, Shambhala Buddhism, due to Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche as lineage holders, consists of teachings primarily of three lineages:  Kagyu, Nyingma, and Shambhala.

Some examples of his 21st century approach to spreading the dharma were related in the latest issue of the Shambhala Sun:

“The Karmapa has put teeth into his aspirations and openly criticized monasteries for clear-cutting forests to construct buildings and selling timber for profit.  At a recent weeklong conference on environmental protection for monasteries, he gave PowerPoint presentations on the cosmos according to Western science, on biodiversity, and on wildlife protection, with intricate descriptions of the food chain.  The butterfly effect in chaos theory, he said, showed that ‘modern science has reached similar conclusions to Buddhism, that everything is interconnected and interdependent.’

The Buddhist principle of interdependence is not a philosophy, he says, but a guiding principle for working with the Earth on a daily basis.  When he visited Colorado, his teachings centered on healing the environment, and he said that ‘our outer environment is the most important condition for establishing peace of mind in the twenty-first century.’  He said that all the world’s citizens are like ‘artists creating or painting the world.’  The fact that the world has become smaller has made this easier to understand, and that makes this a fortunate age to live in.  ‘The world has given us much, an environment to live in,’ he says.  ‘Now we should consider how to give back.’

During his visit to Seattle, at the conclusion of his U.S. tour, the Karmapa caught people’s attention when he talked about how Asian countries have misinterpreted the Buddhist’s teachings to sanction patriarchy and oppression of women.  He declined to comment on patriarchal practices in the West, but he was emphatic that patriarchy ‘continues to be a problem in the East and must be abolished.’  Many of the audience were surprised at how frank he was in addressing a subject that has been taboo for many Buddhist teachers.  Longtime Buddhist Christine Keyser said at the time, ‘His Holiness’ overt feminism marked a clear demarcation from his predecessor’s generation and signaled an egalitarian vision bringing ancient Buddhist wisdom in line with contemporary social values.  When the Sixteenth Karmapa visited the West, women were prohibited from serving him or even wearing pants in his presence.  The sight of two young baristas serving His Holiness a mug of Starbucks coffee during the welcoming ceremony in the Seattle underscored this generational shift.'”

Today, dharma teachers give teachings via YouTube:

Dzsongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is a filmmaker.  He’s made two movies:  The Cup, and Travellers and Magicians

There was also a movie made about him:

In conclusion, I would like to offer the ground, path, and fruition of Shambhala Buddhism, as I understand it from reading an essay on Shambhala Buddhism by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche:

Ground:  Buddhism is the path to complete enlightenment.  Shambhala is the path of establishing and maintaining a sane society.  So, Shambhala Buddhism is a method of creating an enlightened society.  The ground of both Shambhala & Buddhism is uncovering the basic sanity that is our true nature, and to manifest that for the benefit of others.

Path:  Training ourselves in order to help others.  Helping people realize their innate dignity and to appreciate our precious lives.  Also, the path is helping people to discover their basic sanity and stability in order to effectively pursue our spiritual path.

Fruition:  Living our lives with confidence and being genuine people.  The fruition of our path is to never lose sight or connection to basic goodness (Buddha nature).  The fruition of creating an enlightened society is that people will be able to live together harmoniously, and live their lives from the principles of gentleness, kindness, and compassion for others.  We live in joy and fearlessness in all aspects of our lives and see the magic and sacredness of the world.

Recommended Readings:


Ki Ki So So Ashe Lha Gyel Lo

Tak Seng Khyung Druk Dyarke!

Read Narrative As One Piece

Links of interest:

http://www.shambhala-stpete.org

http://www.shambhala.org

http://www.shambhalamountain.org/

http://www.chronicleproject.com/stories.html

http://www.mipham.com

http://onlinedharmaclassics.org/

By this merit may all attain omniscience.

May it defeat the enemy, wrongdoing, from the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death,

From the ocean of samsara,

May I free all beings.

By the confidence of the Golden Sun of the Great East

May the lotus garden of the Rigden’s wisdom bloom.

May the dark ignorance of sentient beings be dispelled.

May all beings enjoy profound brilliant glory.

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6 thoughts on “Portrait of a Shambhala Buddhist

  1. Pingback: Manifesting Mindfulness Through Speech | Selected Topics

  2. Pingback: Manifesting Mindfulness Through Speech. ~ Travis May | elephant journal

  3. Pingback: Dathun- A Narrative « Selected Topics

  4. Thanks for this Travis, it was so good to re-read the writings of my own beloved lineage holders and to realize that the essence of that wakefulness continues in vibrant, energetic and youthful form.
    Best wishes to you.

  5. Pingback: {Cutting Through}: Motivation. Is my Intention to Meditate Pure? {Weekly Q & A} | Selected Topics

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