The Path of Shambhala Buddhism

The path of Shambhala Buddhism is a many splendored thing.  In this post I would like to attempt to clarify our path (as much I am able to)  for the benefit of current and potential practitioners, as well as other curious passersby who may find it interesting to see how things are done in our lineage.

As I have come to understand it, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche began teaching Vajrayana Buddhism in America in the early 1970’s.  He realized after some time that not a lot was really happening as a result.  The reason for this was that the students he was introducing these foreign and esoteric teachings to didn’t have any foundation in the basics.  Last summer at Shambhala Mountain Center I heard an analogy relating the three yanas of Tibetan Buddhism to a house.  In the analogy the hinayana path is the foundation of the house, the mahayana is the walls, and the vajrayana would then be the golden roof.  Naturally, you cannot put on the roof of a house first.

In 1973 Trungpa Rinpoche began offering intense three month long seminaries where he would alternate two weeks of meditation practice with two weeks of teachings in each of the three yanas.  In 1976 he began to receive the Shambhala terma and to introduce the Shambhala teachings as well.  I was re-reading one of the source books from teachings on the Shambhala terma this summer and I was struck by the brilliance of the way the Dorje Dradul (Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala name which means Indestructible Warrior) was presenting this terma in a totally secular way.  I was thinking that it seemed that Trungpa Rinpoche had realized that it wasn’t enough to begin at the hinayana, and that he really needed to teach us how to be human beings before we could even begin the beginning levels of Buddhist practice. 

I have never been a particular fan of structure, so I am even surprised at myself for embracing the path of Shambhala Buddhism.  I love the way the path is designed and I truly believe that the Dorje Dradul and now Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche have created a plan that will best help myself and many others to practice and benefit from the teachings that originated with the Buddha.

My main practice is currently the Primordial Rigden Ngondro and it has taken me three years of seriously committed effort to reach this point.  It takes most others much longer to get to this point in their path in our lineage.  I love the fact that after three years of practicing in Shambhala I am just now getting to the ngondro (preliminary practices).

In many other Tibetan Buddhist sanghas in the West, not only do you often begin ngondro from the very beginning, in many instances you start doing vajrayana practices without even doing ngondro at all.  Before I came to Shambhala I spent six months with a Dzogchen group in Tampa.  The teacher was very good and had been a student of Dudjom Rinpoche before becoming a student of Namkha Norbu Rinpoche.  However, I remember the first time I walked into the place (my first experience with any sangha) I was doing a Vajrasattva sadhana without any explanation whatsoever.   How could anyone hold a visualization of a wisdom deity without being able to follow their breath mindfully for two seconds- let alone without understanding why it was being done in the first place?

As can be seen from the graphic above, the Shambhala path is structured in a way that a new student can build a foundation of study, contemplation, and mediation that will allow one to gradually progress along their path and be able to truly benefit from it.  I’m not saying that this is the best path for everyone, or that everyone should do it, but for me it makes a lot of sense and I have a lot of appreciation for the two Sakyongs who made this path and these teachings available in this way.

One begins the Shambhala Buddhist path by attending open houses and other beginner classes where one can be introduced to the shamatha mediation technique that is used in our centers,  and also be introduced to the tenets of Shambhala Buddhism.  In the beginning, especially, (but also throughout the entire path) basic sitting practice is stressed and said to be essential.  Shamatha is a mindfulness/awareness practice and through it we begin to tame our mind.   This is the essential first step and foundation for everything that comes afterward.

At this beginning point in the Shambhala Buddhist path there are many other courses and programs that one can take to help with their practice.  For example, at our center in St. Petersburg we offer a chance for extended sitting practice on Sunday mornings, and contemplation practice on Monday evenings.  We have book study classes where we read, contemplate, and discuss books written by Trungpa Rinpoche, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and Pema Chodron.

We also offer classes from the Shambhala School of Buddhist Studies (SSBS).  There are sixteen classes, in four cycles, in the SSBS where we are taught a wide range of topics, such as, Karma & The Twelve Nidanas (Abhidharma), Lineage & Devotion, Lojong, The Six Paramitas, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Emptiness, and more.  Each of these courses involves teachings by an authorized teacher in our lineage, readings, discussion, and sitting & contemplation practice.

Beginning in the late 70’s Trungpa Rinpoche and his senior students also devised a curriculum of weekend retreat programs known as Shambhala Training.  The first five levels of this training are known as the Way of Shambhala I and are heavily focused on shamatha meditation practice, but also include teachings on the path of Shambhala, one-on-one interviews with a meditation instructor, and discussion groups.  Also part of the Way of Shambhala I are weeknight classes in-between the weekend levels where a continuity of practice is established, teachings from Shambhala and traditional Tibetan Buddhism are offered, and many exercises and small group, or dyad, activities are planned.

In the Way of Shambhala II more advanced Shambhala teachings are given in another series of weekend retreats.  In these programs practitioners begin to receive and work with the actual terma that was discovered by the Dorje Dradul and new profound practices are introduced.  At this level students begin to work more deeply with topics, such as, Great Eastern Sun, Windhorse, Drala, and the Four Dignities (Tiger, Lion, Garuda, and Dragon).

Following the Way of Shambhala II students can continue on their path, if they choose, by attending more advanced programs at our land centers (Shambhala Mountain Center in CO, Karme Choling in VT, Dechen Choling in France, and the capital/headquarters of Shambhala- Dorje Denma Ling in Nova Scotia).  Warrior Assembly is the ten day intensive that culminates the Shambhala Training path.  It is taught by the most senior teachers in our lineage and it is where students are introduced to the principle of Ashe and stroke practice.

Sutrayana Seminary is now a two week retreat program held at one of our land centers where senior teachers (acharyas) offer further in-depth study of hinayana and mahayana teachings of Buddhism along with more advanced Shambhala teachings.  Next, Vajrayana Seminary is a three week retreat taught by the Sakyong and acharyas where students are introduced to the vajrayana teachings of Buddhism & Shambhala, given pointing-out instructions from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and receive transmission to begin the Primordial Rigden Ngondro among other things.

A dathun, or month long mediation retreat, is required as further preparation for attending seminary.  It is also possible to accomplish the month long retreat in week-long segments.

Once a practitioner completes their ngondro requirement they are eligible to request and receive the Rigden Abhisheka which authorizes a student to begin to practice the Werma Sadhana.  The Werma Sadhana is a Shambhala Vajrayana practice written by the Dorje Dradul, Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche, and is based on the Shambhala terma.

After practicing the Werma Sadhana for a certain amount of time, practitioners can begin the Scorpion Seal retreats.  The Scorpion Seal is the final and highest of the terma received by the Dorje Dradul.  As terma are potent teachings revealed at the time in history when they are most beneficial, to some, the Scorpion Seal are the highest teachings on Earth at this time.

The Shambhala Vajrayana teachings, as with all vajrayana teachings, make it possible to achieve complete enlightenment in one lifetime.  As terma, these teachings are particularly applicable to our modern Western dispositions and lifestyles.  These are our teachings, for our time in history.  They are teachings to end this dark age we are currently living in, and to establish an enlightened society.

I am so grateful for the efforts of the great bodhisattvas, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche for the profound and powerful path of Shambhala Buddhism.  May all beings benefit.

This post outlines the path of the student from a Practice & Education perspective.  There are also two other pillars of Shambhala Buddhism and also much to say about the sangha, Shambhala Arts, Maitri, and many other things.  Topics of future blogs for sure!


10 thoughts on “The Path of Shambhala Buddhism

  1. Thank you, Travis. This is so helpful, especially thanks to your personal commentary and clear, direct style of explaining what initially appears quite foreign and esoteric to us newcomers. I look forward to your elucidation of the other pillars of Shambhala, etc.

  2. “The necessary and welcome economic growth within our Sangha, in the form of business operations and commercial and domestic investments, has brought along as a by—product an increasing frequency of disagreements and disputes. There is a need for our society to provide resources for the sane, nonagressive resolution of such conflicts in keeping with the principles of Dharma and the Great Eastern Sun. Accordingly I have decided to institute and appoint the Upaya Council. The function of the Upaya Council shall be to mediate and/or arbitrate commercial and domestic disputes among members of the Vajradhatu community, as individuals, groups, or businesses. It shall be the initial task of the Upaya Council to propose to me and my Privy Council a set of guidelines under which it shall operate. There shall be no internal hierarchy within the Upaya Council and each member shall have an equal voice; the findings of the Council shall be arrived at by unanimous consent.”

    ~ Vajracarya the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, Spring, 1979.

    Upaya Council

  3. Maybe you could chime in on the changes to Shambhala training and this reported schism with longer term students of CTR and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s teaching. Not to be totally offensive but the voices that i have found online sound largely ignorant of where Shambhala teachings originate and the context of the lineage in relation to Vajrayana Buddhism as a whole. Encouraging a broader view outside of rigid curriculum guidelines might benefit the sangha. All opinion, naturally,

  4. Wow, this page really does need to be updated. I don’t know how much I can say about any schism. I don’t have any direct experience of it. I’ve seen a few things online, but I’m not sure how many people it effects. The changes that have been made aren’t about Shambhala Training, so much. The Heart of Warriorship and Sacred Path weekends are largely the same as they have been for decades, I think. What is different is that there is now a really strong emphasis on the Shambhala terma. It has been made the centerpiece of the path. You’re probably aware of how precious an occurrence terma is. What the Sakyong has done in unpacking the terma and taking it further than the Dorje Dradul was able to, due to his early death, has been fantastic, in my opinion. I think the main point of tension for some of the Dorje Dradul’s students is that they feel that his more traditional Buddhist teachings are being de-emphasized too much. I can see their point. But, the path is continuously evolving. How things are this moment isn’t how they will be next year, or five years down the road. It’s a process. I imagine that soon there will be more of a path of study and practice that focuses more on the traditional teachings. But, also, Shambhala centers offer teachings and classes related to what some of these people who have left feel are missing. We just finished a class on Andy Karr’s book Contemplating Reality. Centers are doing readings and teachings based on the newly released Profound Treasury, and classes from the Shambhala School of Buddhist Studies. There are also programs, such as, the Mipham Academy. And, also, very traditional and esoteric teachings are included in the new In Everyday Life series and the Basic Goodness Series- they are not really delved into deeply during the classes though. Also, it seems if someone were a close student of Trungpa Rinpoche and considered him their guru, that they would be very interested in practicing the teachings of the Kalapayana. He was quoted numerous times saying that these were the teachings he was most proud of, that were the most important to him and for his students, and he was already making the Shambhala teachings more and more the focus of his work before he died. So, I don’t really understand how his students can say they don’t want to practice the Shambhala terma teachings. And now, if they have left, they are missing the highest teachings of the terma, the Scorpion Seal, which the Dorje Dradul didn’t live long enough to teach. Reggie Ray said in his interview on The Chronicles site a few years ago that it’s funny how Trungpa Rinpoche continually challenged people’s expectations and continued to pull the rug out from under their feet. He was constantly changing things. Reggie Ray said that his message was that he had no legacy- and then suddenly when he died people wanted to try to freeze everything. This is the living dharma, it is continuously evolving, and so are all of us.

  5. Yes, there is a rather rigid curriculum available for those who wish to take it. It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. Maybe, like you say, it could include more of a history or overview of Buddhism. That would probably be helpful to put things into perspective. I’ll see what I can do. 🙂

  6. Thank you so much for this explanation. I am a Shambhala Buddhist in Cape Breton, NS, but I live far from any recognized center and have not really committed to any of the teachings after level one. I was just so confused to all the terminology I was hearing/reading. Your breakdown (and cleverly following the image of the stupa/enlightened warrior) is really just what I have been looking for over the past several years. Thank you so much. Lobsang Wangmo ❤

  7. And…may we be looking forward to an updated diagram in the near future? As someone who has a tough time with strictly designed paths, I choose to “do my own thing” (but recognize I can use some more discipline) with regard to Buddhism, but, I must say, you have sparked my interest. I may even attend a half dathun since Dorje Denma Ling is so close. Namaste ❤

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