Many of the borders between cultures have blurred in today's world. Sherpas on Himalayan peaks can watch pop stars on iPhones and teenagers in Michigan read ancient Buddhist texts on the internet. Yet as modernity and the information age bring forth exciting new possibilities for insight, communication, and connection, they also bring new potential for confusion, isolation, and aggression. These times demand teachers who understand them. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, son of revered teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who founded the Shambhala lineage that the Sakyong now heads, is not only a teacher that is adept at making the dharma accessible in these rapidly changing times: He was born of them.
Raised throughout Europe and North America, as well as Asia, he is also very much a product of the West, a hardworking family man seeking to navigate all the vagaries of the modern world. It is no surprise that tens of thousands of practitioners across the globe are drawn to the Sakyong as they too work to practice the dharma amid all the challenges and uncertainties of this age.
Last August, during the Being Brave: Transforming Our World program in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I had the chance to sit and talk with the Sakyong. Visit the Tricycle Retreat led by the Sakyong and Ani Pema Chödrön here.
- Monty McKeever
Please tell me about your early training. Who were your teachers? As someone trained in multiple traditions and who has lived in multiple cultures, were there any aspects of your training that people may find surprising? Reflecting back, I feel like my father brought me into the world intentionally, for the purpose of continuing his vision and his intention. Behind that, I was imparted to be a Buddhist teacher and to hold that lineage. At the same time, I think he was trying to establish, evolve, and create a unique lineage, which has become the lineage of Sakyongs. So my training reflects that, I had traditional training in Buddhist law, philosophy, and ritual at the same time the tradition of warriorship and the arts, politics, philosophy, in terms of the West.
My father was very hands-on. Every day he would ask what I was doing, both in the family sense and also to see if I had finished my recitations of certain mantras and things like that. Early on I was in India, and I grew up speaking Tibetan and Hindi. Then, when I went to England and Scotland I learned English. When I came West, I did a lot of the programs and public events that my father was doing and I continued training in the martial arts and contemplative disciplines. I would say it was a universal education, with parts of traditional Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, English, and Western culture. I think it was very unusual. Later, after the passing of my father, I was with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche for almost four years, continuing to study tantra and receive empowerments. He took special care to complete my education. Later I received education more in philosophy and metaphysics with Penor Rinpoche.
You are known for integrating the more secular elements of Shambhala and the more traditional Tibetan Buddhist elements of Shambhala into the single banner of Shambhala Buddhism. Now, in Shambhala Buddhism, there's Tibetan Buddhist elements, Zen and Shinto elements, Bon Rituals, as well as Western and Asian cultural practices. What do these all have in common? How do they all relate to Buddhism? The single defining quality is that Shambhala has, as its main principle, a social vision of creating a wakeful good society, using the wisdom traditions of the world. That was my father's wish and intention. When he left Tibet, I think he came to a crossroads, and his inspiration to continue on as a teacher, and to start Shambhala, was for the express purpose of trying to create a lineage and a culture of social transformation. All the elements that are involved within the Shambhala tradition now, are for that express purpose. The basis of Buddhism is essentially the notion that Dharma can alleviate suffering on a personal level, and in the case of the Shambhala teachings, on a societal level. Alleviating suffering was Buddha's intention. The notion of Shambhala is, how do you take this wisdom and make it applicable to what's going on in the modern tradition.
We are currently in the midst of the Being Brave, Transforming Our World program that you are teaching, with Pema Chödrön and Acharya Adam Lobel. Can you tell our readers about this program? How can bravery transform the world? The program, Being Brave, is highlighting the essential aspects of the Shambhala teachings, which is the notion of warriorship—that we must be courageous and brave. Bravery is thematic, as Shambhala has to deal with the notion of not being overwhelmed by adversity. The notion of warrior is never giving up. Bravery is a key element. Can we raise our energy and raise our strength to actually influence and participate in society and try to help it go in a direction of hope and human betterment? Right now, can we be compassionate? If we’re not brave, none of these elements will come out, so bravery is very much an action and engagement.
What are your thoughts and feelings as we approach the 25th Parinirvana [final nirvana, i.e. death of an enlightened master] of your father? I think that he would be proud. His vision and dream has survived through quite a lot of adversity and challenges. Not only that, but I think we are actually flourishing. I’ve been reflecting more and more on how amazing his burden was, and his visionary quality. It’s been 50 years since he escaped Tibet and went to India, and he had this social vision and this vision of how Buddhists can change the basis of society. Now, here we are in Nova Scotia and in Shambhala centers around the world, in a culture where this vision is becoming more and more important. 25 years is an interesting amount of time, because it seems to be almost a generation, so now, time has really moved on, and it is a very different world. I think more than ever now, we're being propelled forward into the future, so his Parinirvana is a celebration, a remembering, and an excellent reminder to put into effect what he began.
Your father, most notably in the Sadhana of Mahamudra [a text written by Trungpa Rinpoche around which an important Shambhala practice developed,] stated that we're living in the dark ages. Can you elaborate on this? Do you share in this notion? What can be done? Well, what do you think? [Laughs]. It was dark then and it's gotten darker. The extent of human degradation has gotten more obvious, more intense and overt. We have created further chaos socially and mentally. The way I see the notion of the dark ages is that we're living in a time where the sun is setting on human potential, at least in terms of how people regard human potential, which is as if we can’t do better. There's weakness in the life force energy and human dynamics. Therefore, it is more important than ever that we try to put into action the teachings of the dharma. I would also say that, because things have in some ways declined, the need for another way to live has become even clearer. It's very challenging, but at the same time, it's not over, and we have an opportunity to change in time, if we can rise to the occasion.
You're a teacher, but you're also the Sakyong, which means, “Earth Protector,” and is also commonly defined as king. You're a King in an age where there are not that many Kings, and some people have trouble with the idea of a modern Buddhist king. Can you shed some light on this? How do you see your role as a king? Well, it's been an interesting journey. I was enthroned in this role when I was very young. Even my father said to me that this notion of Sakyong is something that doesn't really exist right now. It is a unique position, role, and duty that could maybe be likened to, in the West, a philosopher king, or in the Chinese tradition, a sage king. It's the notion of a ruler who takes care of society with benevolence and goodness, and at the same time, expounds spirituality. The analogy is that we are all meant to be Sakyong and Sakyong Wangmo, the king and queen, and not strictly in the sense of being royalty, but as possessors of our potency. One of the key criteria of leadership in our tradition is that one rules and leads completely as a path of benefiting others.
I think it's interesting because these days, there's just so much confusion about leadership altogether, from any political denomination. It really has to come back to the notion of honor, duty and decency. These roles have existed in the past and, and in terms of my community, this is the role and position that I hold. I see that it's important for me to hold it, because it provides the opportunity for me to help others and protect the teachings, so I see it as a protector and I see it as a leader, guide, and friend.
I'm very inspired by the work of the Konchok Foundation. Can you tell our readers about this organization? After my trip to Tibet in 2001, I started this foundation, which I dedicated to my mother, Lady Konchok. It means “Three Jewels,” as well as “rare and supreme.” It was my way of trying to help preserve, protect, and foster Tibetan culture and the Buddhist tradition within Tibet, and also provide for medical and social needs. One of the main projects we're doing is establishing a monastic school that's also available for lay practitioners. I ran some marathons to bring attention to it and so that got it going, and we're at the point where it's almost complete, and we're going to open it next year. The mission is to provide schooling, education, and training for people in the region, which is very poor in general and has been culturally weakened. This is our way of trying to help.
You were recently married and you have a young daughter. How do you balance your duties as the Sakyong? What have you learned as a husband and father? It's been wonderful to be a father, to experience that, and to be married. It's been a wonderful relationship and partnership with my wife. It's really brought me a lot of richness and warmth. It's been very helpful and grounding for my life. It's also been a challenge, in terms of integrating my home life with teaching. I feel like I’ve grown from it and I'm very happy that it has provided a lot of joy to our community. My wife is amazing, and it looks like my daughter is following suit. [laughs]
Family, relationships, and the notion of clan is a foundational element of our teachings. It's not external, it's really part of the path and part of the journey. It’s part of life. It's been very, very important for me, and I feel like that's what I'm trying to do more of in our community. Working with that sense of family and society.
What are some of the challenges that are currently facing Shambhala? One challenge is that Shambhala is really a social vision, and a lot of times people get involved in spirituality for personal reasons. Shambhala is actually taking people's personal inspiration and trying to figure out how to have them appreciate the social vision of it. I jokingly call it the big switcheroo, you come in for yourself, and then all of a sudden it's about others. That's been interesting and challenging.
Another challenge is the transfer and transition of wisdom and experience in the older generation to the younger generation. That’s something I’ve been working with, a notion of mentoring where both of the generations can appreciate it, and the wisdom holds. That's challenging, but in a good way.
Also, I’m happy to say that Shambhala has been growing and evolving, and the programs are very full and there's a lot of enthusiasm, so a lot of times it's just keeping up can be a challenge. We need more teachers, and more teacher and leadership training.
Where would you like to see Shambhala in 25 years? In what ways would you like to see the community grow or change? I would like to see us as a viable, credible, and helpful-participant in the global community. I’d like to see the teachings hold, and that the ideas and principles be part of treating the planet and society better. I think we've gone from being an oddity or curiosity, to gaining credibility, and now people actually realize this is real.
Regarding the Shambhalian ideal of creating enlightened society, how much thought do you give to this ideal? In terms of very specific institutions, for example how enlightened government might work, or what an enlightened school system or justice system would look like? Enlightened society is not a utopian fantasy. It's a society where the citizens are aware of humanity's most innate principle, basic goodness, that we as humans are at our core good and complete. That feeling of self-worth and dignity has a very powerful effect on society. The Shambhala notion of enlightened society is that the network of communication between people can be based upon actual goodness. Even though that's a very seemingly simple point, it's a fundamental point. It’s the basic point of who we are and how we feel about ourselves. We can create a lot of laws and institutions, but if we have no resolve in who we are there will be this feeling of inadequacy. That's what I feel we need to be looking more at, individually and in community.
Enlightened society is society recognizing its inherent healthiness. When this happens, society might get sick but there will always be an inherent health. Right now, people seem to approach society as if it is sick fundamentally, and occasionally we get healthy. Once the notion of enlightened society is established, it affects everything. It effects how kids are raised, how teachers talk to the students, how people engage in business, how they take care of their employees, and so on. It has a very dramatic effect.
Gesar is an important figure in Shambhala. It seems that at times, Gesar is referred to as a mythical hero, or as a historical figure, other times as a meditational deity, or as a Buddhist protector. It can be somewhat confusing. I was going to ask who is Gesar, but then I realized the better question may actually be, What is Gesar? Gesar is, in the Tibetan tradition, a kind of warrior king version of Padmasambhava. He is somebody who came and established a kingdom based upon the principles of warriorship. Historically, we believe that there was such a leader.
One thing about Gesar is that in his life, even though his image is a warrior, he was a great meditation master. In fact, after his enthronement he spent three years in retreat practicing the Great Perfection. So, from that point of view, he is a practitioner and enlightened meditator who is also like a general. He is said to have come at a particular time when there was a lot of confusion and degradation in his part of Tibet, so he re-established the view of basic goodness. When he passed away, as it were, his energy was invoked, and he became both a guru principle and a protector principle, as well as a hero that provided inspiration for generations. I think in Tibet, itself essentially being kind of a warrior culture, he really took hold, and that's continued. From our point of view, we are descendants of Gesar.
From a spiritual point of view, Gesar is said to be the combined embodiment of Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Vajrapani, crowned with Amitabha.
Is there anything else you'd like to talk about? I think we're at an important time, historically. I hope your readers have the practice of meditation, the Buddhadharma, and the wisdom of the Buddha in many ways. It’s now that we need to be able to embody the dharma as a worldwide community of practitioners of compassion and wisdom. I feel like we can embody it this generation, then people will feel like it's worthwhile, and the generation can be strong. I think that's the challenge right now. I hope we can manifest these wonderful principles.