Shambhala is a magical, mystical place, inhabited wholly by enlightened beings and ruled by a king who received teaching directly from the Buddha. Though obviously mythical, this utopia stands as a powerful metaphor for what is possible for humans even in a single lifetime. Shambhala is also the name given to a secular spiritual philosophy which assumes that we all have pure goodness in us seeking modes of expression. Because kindness, gentleness, cheerfulness, and openness make us vulnerable in a hostile world, Shambhala invokes the image of a warrior to give us the strength and courage to follow through with our aspiration to bring these qualities to our relationship with the world and its beings. A Shambhala warrior-bodhisattva is a steward of the well-being of the world and all creatures in it. The basis of this philosophy is to live in the real world and seek to understand and be one with the truth.
Shambhala was formulated by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and introduced in a series of lectures in 1976. He developed these ideas further between then and the publication of the basic text, Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior in 1984. (All quotes in this essay are from this book unless otherwise indicated). Though he continued to develop the themes contained in this text until his death in 1987, the underlying principles remained unchanged. In order to make this philosophy attractive to the largest possible number of people, Trungpa separated it from the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism within which he had studied, taught, and practiced nearly all his life. Inevitably, however, the influence of these teachings is a strong and essential part of Shambhala.
What follows is one person's understanding of this philosophy, and should be considered neither authoritative nor exhaustive. There are dozens of books available on this subject, some of which are listed in the sources at the end of this essay. Shambhala centers exist throughout the world, and further elucidation and instruction is available there.
The Underlying Philosophy of Shambhala
The basic message of the Shambhala teachings is that the best of human life can be realized under ordinary circumstances.
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior
Trungpa uses Shambhala as a metaphor for "an unconditional state in which you simply possess an unwavering state of mind that needs no reference point. There is no room for doubt; even the question of doubt does not occur. This kind of confidence contains gentleness, because the notion of fear does not arise; sturdiness, because in the state of confidence there is ever-present resourcefulness; and joy, because trusting in the heart brings a greater sense of humor."
Shambhala is based on certain key assumptions. These are the premises upon which the entire philosophy is built. Though they may be open to debate in a wider discussion, within this context they are accepted as givens:
- The world is in dire need of help spiritually, intellectually, ecologically, and emotionally.
- There is a basic goodness in all beings.
- Rather than attempting to impose our concept of a better world on others, it is far better to find ways for our goodness to shine through; this will inevitably lead to a better world.
- The way to achieve all this is to seek the truth of who we are and face it fearlessly. This fearless scrutiny can then be extended to the world around us. Our courageous effort is represented in the concept of the warrior-bodhisattva, the enlightened being potential in us all.
The idea of a peaceful warrior (despite the silly book by that name) may appear at first blush to be an oxymoron. Indeed, when the warring of nations is one of the manifestations of a lack of the enlightenment being advocated in Shambhala, the use of this martial terminology appears downright antithetical. However, Trungpa asks us to consider another meaning to this word. It is his translation of the Tibetan term pavo, defined as "one who is brave." He also states that, "the fundamental aspect of bravery is being without deception"(emphasis his). Thus, he is asking those who wish to make this world a better place to take up the weapons of courage, fortitude, and truth-seeking, to be warriors for peacefulness. This use of the word is also an attempt to co-opt the violent imagery of war, to challenge its hegemony in our world. Too often the default response to a fearful situation or perceived insult is to strike out in violence. Shambhala suggests aggressive action in an opposing direction. This also counteracts the alternative default response, that of passive acceptance of injury and violence.
The Practice of Shambhala
Wherever we are, we can train as a warrior. Our tools are sitting meditation, tonglen, lojong, and cultivating the four limitless qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
Comfortable with Uncertainty
In order to bring about the better world Trungpa posits, the warrior-bodhisattva must aspire to certain key practices. These are given here is approximate order of increasing subtlety and complexity (in some cases, one might be tempted to say obscurity). As such, their order also give some idea of the sequence of attainment the practitioner could presumably expect if these practices were carried out to their conclusion.
The Basic Practices
- Meditation. If we seek the truth, we must first seek ourselves and the truth of who we are at depth. Meditation cultivates unconditional friendliness toward whatever arises. Though there are some modifications introduced by Trungpa, the style of meditation he advocates is not substantially different from the Vipassana or Insight Meditation with which many Western practitioners are familiar.
- Tonglen and lojong. These are also practices which heighten our awareness of truth and the courage to stay with it rather than attempt to escape. These two terms are covered in detail at their respective nodes, but in brief can be described as follows: Tonglen is the exchange of the negative for the positive, but in the opposite direction of that which we might intuitively choose; we breathe in the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the world, and breathe out joy, peace, and harmony. The intent is to develop compassion for others and ourselves and de-emphasize our egos' constant clamoring for satisfaction. Lojong is slogan practice, the use of pithy sayings to wake ourselves out of our habitual ways of thinking.
- Genuineness. Becoming unafraid of who we truly are.
- Persistence. Refusing to give up on anyone or anything, particularly one's self.
Deeper Underlying Philosophies
- Heart of Sadness. This deeply felt sadness arises from the realization that the world is not an easy place in which to have an open and loving heart, that there is much that is uncompassionate and cruel here. The alternative to this sadness is shutting down and remaining ignorant of reality. Since courage is required to avoid this shutting down, maintaining the Heart of Sadness is the act of a warrior.
- Clarity. Seeing the world as it is and choosing to live in it is the hallmark of clarity. The four limitless qualities (or brahma viharas) of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity are vitally important to clarity, as they keep the vision of reality from becoming obscured by our ego seeking. All four qualities are outwardly focused; rather than striving for our own pleasure or fulfillment, we seek to open our hearts to all beings. Also subsumed under the heading of clarity are the uniquely Shamabhalaistic terms "Great Eastern Sun" and "rejection of the cocoon". In brief, Great Eastern Sun is the rising sun, and a metaphor for hopefulness and positive action. It opposes "setting-sun thinking", which seeks comfort in judgment, blaming, violence, acquisitiveness, and mindless entertainment. The cocoon is the sheltering environment we wrap around ourselves for protection from the difficulties of daily life. The warrior-bodhisattva aspires to leave the cocoon behind to find a more enlightened way of being.
We become habituated to reaching for something to ease the edginess of the moment. Thus we become less and less able to reside with even the most fleeting uneasiness or discomfort. What begins as a slight shift of energy—a minor tightening of our stomach, a vague indefinable feeling that something bad is about to happen—escalates into addiction.
Comfortable With Uncertainty
- Renunciation of anything standing between the warrior and other people, including renunciation of a sense of spiritual accomplishment or superiority.
- Discipline. Following the path of goodness and egolessness in all things.
- Letting go of ambition and frivolity in order to "fully experience your existence as a human being." Letting go also demands seeking and speaking the truth, but with gentleness, kindness, and compassion. "When the arrow of intellect is joined with the bow of skillful means, then the warrior is never tempted by the seductions of the setting-sun world." This practice also introduces the principle of Windhorse. Wind is the energy of basic goodness which can blow away the miasma of confusion and grasping; the horse of this wind can be ridden to greater understanding of one's own true nature, and to greater compassion and helpfulness toward others.
- Confidence (from the Tibetan ziji), "an unconditional state in which you simply possess an unwavering state of mind that needs no reference point."
- Drala or unconditioned wisdom is the wisdom of pure experience, unfiltered by preference or seeking. "One of the key points in discovering drala principle is realizing that your own wisdom as a human being is not separate from the power of things as they are.... (T)here is no fundamental separation or duality between you and your world." Drala is "energy beyond aggression." This concept is based on the idea of the primordial state, which is unconditioned, not caused by any circumstances. "All conditionality comes from unconditionality. Anything that is made has to come from what was unmade to begin with." Meditation is the process of dropping preconceptions and returning as much as possible to the state of a primordial "mirror" willing to reflect anything and everything without adding or subtracting, without judgment. Drala can be divided roughly into four stages of subtlety and accomplishment:
—External drala or harmony with the environment surrounding us. All spaces are holy spaces. "The more you can be completely now, the more you realize that you're always standing in the middle of a sacred circle." (Pema Chödrön, Comfortable With Uncertainty, p. 116).
—Internal drala. Oneness with the body and the way we present ourselves (clothing, grooming, use of food, etc), how one seeks to "synchronize or harmonize your body and your connection to the phenomenal world."
—Secret drala. The result of the previous two, a heightened wakefulness or awareness.
—Ultimate drala. Primordial, unchanging, courageous drala.
Deeper, Subtler Practices
- Avoid arrogance. We must drop any sense of accomplishment, attainment, or superiority. Shambhala is not a merit-badge mentality in which one achieves superiority over others. These ways of thinking are barriers to drala.
- Drop habitual patterns. Our responses are conditioned by our fears and the ways in which we armor ourselves against being hurt. We must disarm ourselves to begin the process of opening to the truth.
- Beneficence. We must always seek to turn the goodness we invoke through all of these efforts outward, to the benefit of others and the world as a whole. Gentleness, kindness, and care for the world's well-being are manifestations of the warrior's inner strength. "The fruition of the Warrior's path is the experience of primordial goodness, or the complete, unconditional nature of basic goodness".
- Authentic presence, the sense of one's place in the world and the projection to others of a confidence free of pride. Authentic presence can be deepened and sustained through invocation of the four dignities: meek, perky, outrageous, and inscrutable. (This is an interesting example of Trungpa's unorthodox use of English words to invoke subtle concepts. There are other examples throughout his writings. Though he was fluent in English, in his writing such subtleties are not always expressed in ways native English speakers would expect, especially when he was translating abstruse concepts from Tibetan, Pali, or Sanskrit. It seems to be the case though that, far from obscuring the intended meaning, these outrageous and somewhat inscrutable choices serve to jolt our formerly meek attention and cause us to perk up).
Meekness is basically experiencing a humble and gentle state of being, while perkiness is connected with uplifted and youthful energy. Outrageousness is being daring and entering into situations without hope and fear, and inscrutability is the experience of fulfillment and uncontrived spontaneous achievement.
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior
But it's all much simpler than this....
This is all much simpler than it sounds. As with any spiritual practice, the true path of discovery moves toward simplicity. We must recall how to open our hearts to all beings everywhere in every way, beginning with ourselves. Though we use a million words to describe the process, this openness can be our only aspiration. Through it, we can find peace, and the whole world with us.
May all beings be happy. May all beings be free of suffering and delusion. May all beings know joy.
As was mentioned elsewhere in this essay, there are Shambhala centers throughout the world. (See the websites listed below). Shambhala is largely secular, and although some flavor of the Tibetan remains in these centers, they were conceived and continue to operate in a fashion nonthreatening to the Western sensibilities of even those entirely unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy of any sort. The publishing arm of Shambhala also has a website which is listed below, and all the writings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche are available there, including an edition of his complete writings which has only been available for a short time. As always, the writings of Pema Chödrön are the most accessible and direct entry point into the Shambhala teachings, and the author is greatly indebted to her not only as a reference for this essay, but as a true guide in his life.
Chodron, Pema. Comfortable with Uncertainty. Boston: Shambhala, 2002.
—When Things Fall Apart. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.
Trungpa, Chögyam. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston:Shambhala, 1973.
—Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. Boston:Shambhala, 1984.