Last week around 900 people gathered in Shambhala’s capital city of Halifax, Nova Scotia to participate in a historic sangha retreat led by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Pema Chodron, and Acharya Adam Lobel. The sangha retreat is a week-long meditation program (weekthun) that was created to give people at all levels of practice, and even people brand new to Shambhala Buddhism, an opportunity to meet, practice with, and hear teachings from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (and also, at this special gathering, the beloved & remarkable acharyas, Pema Chodron and Adam Lobel). In addition to the large group in attendance, all of the talks and practice sessions that were led by these three wonderful teachers were broadcast online to Shambhalians gathering in their local centers and homes around the world. This five day program offered meditation practice, dialogues (contemplative investigation & deep listening exercises), group discussions, and teachings from three of the most special teachers alive today.
During this retreat, titled Being Brave, the Sakyong continued to emphasize deep personal reflection & practice in order to directly experience basic goodness and find practical ways that we can contribute to the transformation of our culture. The aspect of being brave is important because it is what enables us to overcome our deep-seated fears & doubts that are preventing us from being open to others and our world.
Acharya Lobel began the retreat on the first night by welcoming everyone participating and encouraging them to bring (and welcome) everything they were experiencing in their lives to the program, e.g., pain, stress, doubts, etc. The program wouldn’t exist, or be needed, he said, if we didn’t have these things to bring to the table. Acharya Lobel also said that we can welcome all of the suffering happening in the world and that we needed to let go of our fantasies of enlightenment and bring this down to a real & practical level.
The idea that we can escape the problems of the world is a fantasy, Acharya Lobel said. This is the good news, since it is also the case that the wisdom to solve all of the world’s problems exists right here in our community. “Shambhala is a tradition of spiritual warriorship,” which is a manifestation of bravery & confidence to face the challenges of the world 100%. On Saturday morning he continued this theme, stating that meditation is a process of becoming familiar with ourselves and this simplicity allows us to be in a most natural human way.
Acharya Lobel introduced the Sakyong to the mixed gathering of beginning & seasoned practitioners, “The Sakyong, like most of us, was born in a cave near where the Buddha attained enlightenment,” Acharya Lobel dead-panned. He went on to say that Rinpoche’s task was to proclaim & sustain confidence in basic goodness and to keep a connection alive to kindness, confidence, and openness so that others could be re-inspired & re-ignited to connect with basic goodness themselves. The Sakyong is an example & embodiment of the full “dignity of human beings.”
When Rinpoche took the stage Saturday morning he shared the deep introspection he has been going through during, and since, his retreat. He said that he needed to contemplate basic goodness and to really feel it himself. He didn’t want to go on teaching about it without that personal experience. He told a story of when the Dorje Dradul was at a similar crossroads; after witnessing the worst in humanity leading up to his escape from Tibet, he also had to decide whether to continue. He, obviously, found that people, at their most fundamental level, are pure, and he began to proclaim the truth of basic goodness in the West and worked miraculously to lay the groundwork of creating an enlightened society on this planet.
There is a deep feeling, Rinpoche stated, in our culture, of it being too late. Humanity is too bad and the situation is unsalvageable. This feeling pervades our individual & collective psyches- even if we are practitioners. Contrary to this pervasive attitude, the Shambhala notion is that we (and everything else) is inherently complete and without fault. This is why it is so vital that each person deeply reflect on basic goodness (at a personal & societal level) and through experiencing it directly a Butterfly Effect can occur spreading the vision of the Great Eastern Sun throughout the cosmos. Personally manifesting & embodying the teachings & vision of Shambhala Buddhism is what brings them down to a practical human level and out of the realm of lofty platitudes.
Now is the time for our biggest gut check (or basic goodness check) as practitioners, and as a community. The theme, Rinpoche said, is “How do we feel?” Bravery is looking/feeling with open & honest eyes into our experience without rejecting it and pushing it away. It also takes bravery, he said, to see the beauty & miraculous qualities of the world. On Sunday morning Rinpoche led us in a practice of deep feeling and connecting with our hearts. He also spoke about our attitude towards meditation. We must view it as a worthwhile & valuable activity, in order for ourselves to derive benefit and sustain our practice. He also wanted to instill the importance of seeing meditation as important and a good use of our time. “Appreciating being alive is a worthwhile activity” itself, Rinpoche stated. Acharya Lobel added that we should savor each breath as if it were a delicious piece of chocolate. This view could then start to make meditation and acknowledging basic goodness a more natural & accepted part of our culture.
When Pema Chodron took the stage for her first talk she praised the Sakyong for not dictating the teachings, but instead encouraging serious personal reflection & contemplation. Everybody is basically good, she said, but there is a lot of confusion overlaying this fundamental state. She also said that not only is personal reflection and individual responsibility for our development necessary, not doing so results in mental illness, prejudice, and aggression towards others.
Acharya Pema equated the term basic goodness with “primordial openness,” and said that we should try to remain open to the feedback we receive from others and our world. She said that she is not interested in finding answers, but only to remaining open, and that our only obstacle is ignorance (of ourselves and our world). The problem, according to Acharya Pema, is not the aggression or anger itself, but how we relate to it, and the antidote is to keep our eyes & heart open without condoning or condemning.
The Shambhala teachings rose to combat the stress & chaos in the world created by fear & aggression, Acharya Pema said at the beginning of her second, and final, talk. Profound bravery happens when we feel the anxiety, remain open, and continue forward. Acharya Lobel added that if we’re not being self-aggressive, we won’t be other-aggressive either. All three teachers emphasized, if sometimes even by inference, that we have to take responsibility for ourselves and the society we are constantly co-creating. We can’t look for others to do it for us, and we can’t look to the teacher to give us something that we don’t already have. Our lives are constant moment-by-moment precious opportunities to practice compassion & kindness, or to continue to be pulled down by setting sun outlook.
Ultimately, the Sakyong sees Shambhala Centers as beacons of social transformation. He announced that during the Shambhala Lineage Festival next month there will be an opportunity to take part in two vows committing ourselves to proclaiming & acknowledging basic goodness, and creating an enlightened society. The vision of Shambhala came out of tremendous suffering. But, also, “pain is the seed of wisdom.” The notion of creating an enlightened society is what we did during this sangha retreat, and at many other programs. These examples, in microcosm, show us that it can be done. As Acharya Pema said, enlightenment is not something that is going to happen in the future. If it’s going to happen it’s going to happen right now- moment-by-moment.
This post also appears here on the Shambhala Times.