Shambhala Training was secular Vajrayana

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

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. However, enlightenment as a group accomplishment is an intriguing possibility. It’s perhaps a unique conception, but consistent with Vajrayana trends. 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). In the end, I had many questions that had no answers within the system. And there appeared to be significant 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 an explicitly Buddhist lineage in the late ’90s. That worked well for me then, 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 do that, until 2000. Then, 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. Unfortunately, however, this means that Shambhala is no longer “a secular path of meditation,” but another brand of Buddhism.

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.