Shambhala Training was secular Vajrayana

From the 1970s to 1990s, Shambhala Training explained itself as “a secular path of meditation.” It was:

  • explicitly non-Buddhist
  • not a religion; without dogmatic beliefs; compatible with atheism and secular humanism
  • compatible with any religion, including Christianity

Secular mindfulness meditation is commonplace now, but this was radical then. Shambhala was an opportunity to learn advanced Buddhist meditation techniques without having to buy into Buddhist beliefs and institutions. For me, and tens of thousands of others, that was hugely valuable.

Officially, Shambhala Training synthesized several spiritual traditions from around the world. In reality, its founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, drew mainly on the specific, unusual Vajrayana system he learned in Tibet. The introductory Training “levels” presented basic Buddhist meditation from an implicitly Vajrayana perspective; advanced levels were increasingly overtly tantric. The whole path was devoid of Sutrayana: no Buddha, no Noble Truths, no renunciation, no paramitas, no Neverland Nirvana.

Shambhala Training was the clearest example of modern Vajrayana to date. I’ll explain below how it met most of the criteria for “modernity” I listed in my previous post.

Unfortunately, it was an unfinished work. Also, it no longer exists in its original form; and it might be somewhat obsolete if it did.

So, I don’t see Shambhala as the answer. However, it is an “existence proof” that modern Buddhist tantra is possible. It may also be an inspiring resource for future innovations.

Shambhala Training as naturalized tantra

One strategy for removing supernatural claims from Buddhism is to reinterpret them as psychological metaphors. This goes back to the 1800s, but Trungpa was exceptionally thorough and skilled at it. David McMahan uses him as the paradigm, contrasting his demythologized, psychological, metaphorical view of the Buddhist Realms of Rebirth with Mahasi Sayadaw’s traditional, cosmological, literal view.

Shambhala Training didn’t talk about rebirth at all. Its concern was the world as it appears, here and now.

Shambhala could be understood entirely naturalistically: no gods or spirits, no cosmology, and no immaterial magic. It didn’t explicitly align itself with either a natural or supernatural worldview, however. There were aspects that could be understood according to either, and it maintained resolute silence as to which was preferable. For example, drala, a key concept, could be understood as “war gods,” but it could also be understood as “experiences of the sublime in nature.” The system presented both interpretations without comment. This made Shambhala accessible to everyone, regardless of their metaphysical beliefs.

Shambhala Training as engaged practice

Shambhala Training constantly emphasized engagement with the everyday world and the sacredness of everyday life. This included all four types of engagement I mentioned in the last post: social, cultural, natural, and psychological.

The goal of Shambhala was not individual enlightenment, but the creation of “enlightened society.” I find Trungpa Rinpoche’s discussion of this half-baked, at best. However, enlightenment as a group accomplishment is an intriguing possibility. It’s perhaps a unique conception, but consistent with Vajrayana trends. Recently, Tom Pepper has independently proposed that enlightenment is necessarily a social activity, not just a mental state. I hope such ideas could develop into a compelling alternative to concepts of personal enlightenment.

Trungpa Rinpoche intimately engaged American 1970s culture—particularly the hippie counter-culture. But he also taught timeless principles of Dharma Art; and Shambhala encouraged the creation and appreciation of art and of natural beauty.

Finally, Western psychology was a major influence on Shambhala Training, although mainly implicitly. Trungpa’s “psychologization” of the Realms of Rebirth is an illustration (though that was part of his Buddhist teaching, not Shambhala).

Shambhala Training and Protestant attitudes

I’ve suggested that four Protestant Christian dogmas are incompatible with modern Vajrayana: puritanism, scripturalism, anti-ritualism, and anti-clericalism.

My own impulse is to say “modern Vajrayana rejects those—if you don’t like that, find another path.” Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach was more tactful, and more skillful, I think. Shambhala Training didn’t explicitly reject Protestant assumptions. Instead, it gradually, gently, introduced practices that contradicted them.

For example, the first training levels involved no overt ritual. The path introduced ritual elements one at a time, in the course of about three years, so students could adjust easily.

The Shambhala Training model for teacher/student interactions was another unique innovation. Although clearly unequal, it felt natural to Americans. It mostly managed to avoid triggering knee-jerk anti-authority attitudes—even in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, where I did the programs. This suggests that unconscious anti-clericalism can be side-stepped, by altering external forms, rather than explicitly rejected.

Not a complete path

Shambhala was said to be a “a complete path to enlightenment.” Shambhala students were not to convert to Buddhism in order to finish their study and practice.

I think, though, that “Shambhala” here did not mean the Training system as taught during Trungpa’s life. He did not consider Shamabhala his creation, but to exist independently, outside of time, as a possibility inherent in all human existence. He “received” visions of this abstract Shambhala as a series of bizarre terma texts, about one a year. He contemplated these and eventually based concrete teachings, loosely, on his understanding of them.

This made Shambhala Training a work in progress. I believe Shambhala could be a complete path, but that Trungpa had not completely actualized the vision before he died, in 1985.

Ten years later, I went through the whole program (except one final retreat stage, which I balked at). In the end, I had many questions that had no answers within the system. And there appeared to be big gaps—places where one would expect a practice or teaching, but it was missing.

Reluctantly, I concluded that, to go further, I would have to become a Buddhist. I left Shambhala for the Aro gTér lineage in the late ’90s. That has worked out well for me, but I wish Shambhala Training had continued to develop into a truly complete system of secular tantra. That would be accessible for hugely more people than Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana can ever be.

A teaching for a bygone age

Terma teachings address the specific problems of particular peoples, places, and times. Shambhala Training addressed the particular spiritual issues of young liberal Americans around 1980.

Thirty years later, American culture and society are quite different. I believe we face quite different spiritual problems. (I’ve previewed these differences before, and intend to say much more eventually.) For example, “the disenchantment of the world” and loss of meaning were the primary spiritual issues then, and Shambhala has much to say about them. They are not as significant now, and not in the same way. We have new problems—among them too much meaning.

If Trungpa Rinpoche were still alive, he might well have adapted and extended Shambhala Training to address new conditions. However, no one else felt qualified to make changes, until 2000.

Secular Vajrayana no longer exists

In 2000, Trungpa Rinpoche’s son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, began making changes in Shambhala Training. Those have continued to the present.

He first merged Shambhala Training with Buddhism. This was, perhaps, an implicit acknowledgement that Shambhala Training was not a complete, independent system. A realistic move: he recognized he was incapable of finishing it.

Unfortunately, however, this means that Shambhala is no longer “a secular path of meditation,” but just another brand of Buddhism. Secular Vajrayana no longer exists anywhere in the world.

The original Shambhala Training was highly unusual in omitting Sutrayana. Sakyong Mipham has merged many Sutrayana teachings into the curriculum. My impression—from a distance—is that “Shambhala Buddhism” increasingly resembles the way most other Tibetans teach Westerners. I find such teaching dysfunctional; I recently described some of its problems. Apparently, a substantial fraction of the Shambhala sangha has also rejected these changes, and left.

Sakyong Mipham’s changes seem well-intentioned and pragmatic. And, I think change is legitimate, and probably necessary to address the different spiritual needs of the current world.

However, the features of Shambhala Training that were most distinctive, and that I found most valuable twenty years ago, are gone. That is why I have written about it in the past tense.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

18 thoughts on “Shambhala Training was secular Vajrayana”

  1. Very interesting, and close to my own interests. I find the psychotechnology of Buddhism convincing and fascinating, but the religious and irrational crud around it poses some enormous hurdles. Blending Buddhism with scientific empiricism and evolutionary psychology offers some fantastic opportunities for a grand 21st century reformulation of the dharma. David, you mention that Shamabala did not offer a complete path. What are the elements of a complete path according to you?

  2. “This goes back to the 1800s, but Trungpa was exceptionally thorough and skilled at it.”

    Perhaps. But when push comes to shove, he always affirmed that the literal version was real, which I think makes the “reinterpretation” look more like clever but somewhat disingenuous marketing.

  3. I’ve been trying to figure out Shambhala as it seemed to me that it had become Buddhisized- I guess I was correct in my hunch. That’s not necessarily bad- and probably good. I appreciate his experimenting. Still, I think that much of Vajrayana, if well explained, wouldn’t need changing. I don’t really see much of it as irrational or incompatible with a modern sensibility, but rather as terribly communicated. However, how can we expect traditional teachers to explain it in a language they don’t really get- although I suspect that that is changing as Asia modernizes and the west gets more experience with Vajrayana. When much of the mystical hoop-ti-do is explained as skillful means and you gets a little experience with it then it clicks and you get it and then even enjoy it. I feel like a western explanatory/interpretive literature needs to be written to bridge the east-west, old/modern gap. The old texts are brilliant and we can’t just junk them, but we need to add our modern commentaries to them, just like they did in Tibet, to update the understanding. The practices are fine too- I just do them in English and they work just fine.I like the idea that Shambhala works toward Buddhism as one gets deeper- that’s keeping with my idea- give the student time to ‘get it’ and present it accessibly without scaring them off. Still, it shouldn’t lose confidence in its soundness or compromise its inner integrity, or it will weaken itself. Much of what appears to be irrational and anti-modern is not what it appears to be on the surface and a serious student will soon enough discover that. Still, it’s not a materialist tradition and students need to at least be willing to tolerate a view that posits a non-physical realm. But really, who’s to say that that’s not part of the material world anyway- what do we know? All you need to do is to accept that maybe there are dimensions of being that we haven’t yet mapped and just go with it. The problem is in effectively communicating that to interested outsiders and potential future students.

  4. I did the first few levels of Shambhala Training and really enjoyed it. I know that people wind up swearing very odd oaths at later levels to the “King of Shambhala” (I’ve heard of one person walking out of the ritual at that point even). I missed out on that.

  5. @ Apollo — “Blending Buddhism with scientific empiricism and evolutionary psychology offers some fantastic opportunities”: Yes, I think so!

    Shambhala seemed incomplete just looking at the thing itself, without reference to external criteria. The presence of certain practices implied the existence of others, which were not there; intriguing doctrines raised questions whose answers were not supplied.

    The question “what are the elements of a complete path” will depend on what you think Vajrayana is for, and how it works. I’ve given unusual answers (possibly eccentric, but not altogether unsupported by tradition and texts). I’ve defined the aim as “mastery, power, play, and nobility,” and the method as “unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion.” So any collection of elements that accomplishes that is complete, in my view.

    @ Greg — “he always affirmed that the literal version was real”: I’ve heard the opposite, that he always refused to do that. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know… It’s famous within the Shambhala sangha that, for any issue, some senior students remember very clearly Trungpa Rinpoche consistently saying one thing, and others remember very clearly his consistently saying the opposite.

    @ Foster Ryan — “I think that much of Vajrayana, if well explained, wouldn’t need changing. I don’t really see much of it as irrational or incompatible with a modern sensibility, but rather as terribly communicated.” Yes, I agree with that!

    “I suspect that that is changing as Asia modernizes and the west gets more experience with Vajrayana”: I hope that is true! I also have suspected that, but I haven’t really seen much evidence of it yet. The alternative possibility is that as Asia modernizes, it is simply abandoning Buddhism, and that as the West moves beyond modernity, it is also simply abandoning Buddhism.

    The last of the great Lamas who were educated in Tibet will be gone in ten years. That will be a tragic loss in some ways, but it may also make room for younger Tibetan teachers, who understand the modern world better, to take leadership positions. I don’t know much about the power balance between conservatives and modernizers among that next generation, though.

    “I feel like a western explanatory/interpretive literature needs to be written to bridge the east-west, old/modern gap. The old texts are brilliant and we can’t just junk them, but we need to add our modern commentaries to them, just like they did in Tibet, to update the understanding.” Yes. For now, this is being done by Western academics, and I find their work very useful. However, the goals of academic Buddhology are quite different from the goals of practicing tantrikas.

    We need new practice manuals based on a deep understanding of the traditional texts and methods.

    @ Al — “I know that people wind up swearing very odd oaths at later levels to the “King of Shambhala” (I’ve heard of one person walking out of the ritual at that point even).”

    Yes, when I did the programs, that oath came at the end of a retreat called Warrior Assembly. I politely refused to take the oath. I was the only person out several dozen who refused. I didn’t feel I had to walk out, and the retreat leaders didn’t give me any sort of hard time about it.

    I mentioned in the post that I balked at the then-final program in the series, Kalapa Assembly. It was apparently largely about fealty, so I decided to skip that.

  6. It won’t do to cite hearsay as a means to preserve equivocation. In the very first Vajrayana Seminary transcript, from 1973, among other places, it is perfectly clear that he believes vajra hell to be a place as real as any other. And this is what he intended to be the definitive record of his more advanced teachings. Although public version is less explicit, even there they retain his assertion that it is a place where one remains for “millenia or millions of years.”

  7. Devotional practice involving supernatural beings through Guru Yoga is a key practice in Vajrayana. So how would this be done in a secular version of Vajrayana? Leave it out, suspend disbelief temporarily, interpret the supernatural beings as symbols and metaphors, or replace supernatural beings with “real” humans (such as the Buddha or Machig Labdrön) that can be the object of gratitude and devotion?

  8. Those all seem workable approaches to me! I don’t think we need to find the answer to questions like this; many different styles may work.

    In Shambhala Training, the mythical King of Shambhala (Rigden) was the object of devotion, and his ontological status was left undefined (so far as I know; it’s possible this was made explicit at Kalapa Assembly, which I didn’t attend).

    Westerners are hung up on existence and non-existence because it’s important in Greek philosophy and then in Christianity. It’s a weird obsession. I think we should care about observable effects, not ontology.

  9. I should say that in the system as far as I went with it, the ontological status of Shambhala (the supposed country) and its inhabitants was not merely passed over, but explicitly stated to be ambiguous. “Some people in Tibet believed that Shambhala was a real place, but we can regard it as an inspiring myth. Either way, Shambhala provides a vision of Enlightened Society”—or words to that effect.

  10. Sure, but I was not referring to Shambhala Training (which has no reference to rebirth literally or metaphorically), I was talking about his “demythologized, psychological, metaphorical view of the Buddhist Realms of Rebirth” which I contend should not be taken to indicate that he did not endorse the literal view, and teach it explicitly (in the context of his Buddhist teachings).

    I also agree that ontological issues are not terribly interesting, although I don’t think Westerners are any more hung up on them than, say, Madhyamikas or Yogacarins. But the question of whether or not one subscribes to a multiple-lifetimes model of experience and reality is one with important practical implications. I would not consider it an abstruse ontological question. (I’m not sure if that was your implication or not).

  11. Greg, thanks for the clarifications!

    I don’t think Westerners are any more hung up on them than, say, Madhyamikas or Yogacarins

    Yes, good point, that’s true. I’ve come to think this ontological orientation is a fatal flaw in Mahayana philosophy, actually.

    But the question of whether or not one subscribes to a multiple-lifetimes model of experience and reality is one with important practical implications. I would not consider it an abstruse ontological question. (I’m not sure if that was your implication or not).

    No, I didn’t mean to imply that; this was in reply to Apollo’s comment about supernatural persons.

  12. i’m not so certain that shambhala training as it is now (and has for the last five years or so been) taught utilizes shambhala buddhism in the manner you mention. those teachings manifest in the sacred path, later down the line. shambhala year one training is pretty explicitly secular, though i’m not sure if there was a time in the early 2000s where this wasn’t the case.
    as for trungpa’s affirmation of literalism or metaphor, i think it’s much more interesting to interpret his teachings in the space before the division of those categories. mr. chapman’s experience of the teachings on drala are exactly this both/and/neither/nor.
    and finally with regard to the oath ceremonies, those usually make more sense in hindsight as a precursor to samaya and guru yoga, though it doesn’t quite seem to have yet been worked out how to transition students more effectively into those realms of practice and thought. it needs more fine tuning, but it’s developing beautifully.

  13. Hi Yeshe,

    as for trungpa’s affirmation of literalism or metaphor, i think it’s much more interesting to interpret his teachings in the space before the division of those categories.

    Yes, I think that too. This topic is difficult to explain, but I’m planning to say quite a lot anyway, as well as I can!

    the oath ceremonies usually make more sense in hindsight as a precursor to samaya and guru yoga

    Yup. Shambhala Training didn’t lead to samaya or guru yoga at the time I did it, though.

    Thanks for the comment,

    David

  14. I’m somewhat late to this discussion, but I found your blog through a friend and I’m very interested in your perspectives (on more than just Shambhala). But I’m a practicing Shambhala Buddhist so I can help but jump in here.

    I mostly want to add to your comment that Sakyong Mipham brought together Shambhala and Buddhism. In that time, there were two relatively distinct streams of teaching in the Shambhala community – Shambhala training, which lead through the levels up to Warrior Assembly and Kalapa Assembly and “Buddhist” training, which led through the sutras to ngondro to Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara sadhana practice, part of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan buddhism. When, as you say, Sakyong Mipham brought Shambhala and Buddhism together, he did so because (I think) he felt that having two streams of teaching wasn’t sustainable for such a small community. Also that Shambhala was Trungpa Rinpoche’s unique vision and contribution to modern society. So joining the two was about saying “this is what we’re really about” and joining the community’s focus and energy. Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara practice still continues by some of those older students, but new students are not initiated into those practices for the time being.

    Having Buddhism within Shambhala training is about providing conceptual support for the Shambhala worldview. I find it interesting that you felt that introducing Buddhism into Shambhala training somehow disqualifies it from being secular Vajrayana. How can you have Vajrayana without Buddhism? If Buddhist concepts aren’t explicitly taught as a foundation for tantra, then they are definitely implied. As another poster commented, Vajrayana isn’t incompatible with modern society, it’s just poorly explained. Understanding the vajrayana view is best done by building into it by working with concepts like impermanence, emptiness, compassion, and so on. And Buddhism is largely discussed as a science of mind rather than a religion.

    To me, the determining factor of a secular tradition is that it doesn’t demand blind commitment or belief, but meets individuals where they are at. It doesn’t compel someone to try to be “Tibetan” or woo them with spiritual materialism, a concept from Trungpa Rinpoche meaning spirituality being used for the aggrandizement of ego rather than the undermining of ego. I think Shambhala aspires to be a tradition that explains itself and its conceptual and ethical underpinnings making it, to me, definitely secular.

    Your experience of Shambhala did come when the community was in a transition, so it’s not surprising to me that it felt a bit weird, clique-ish, and disjointed. I’d be curious what you’d think now.

    But, a question, do you think the presence of Buddhism in the Shambhala teachings makes it non-secular because of the popular appraisal of Buddhism as religious and, even though Buddhism has been in the West for some decades, a “foreign” religion at that? Or is it that Buddhism somehow pulls Shambhala away from secular ground on an ideological level?

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