It became clear to me that humankind is full of gods, like a sponge immersed in the open sky. These gods live, attain the apogee of their power, then die, leaving to other gods their perfumed altars. They are the very principles of any total transformation. They are the necessity of movement.
– Louis Aragon, Paris 1953
As is well known, Gautama Buddha renounced the possibility of being a world ruler in order to take the path which led supreme complete enlightenment. He made this choice in order to discover a way to liberate all sentient beings from the endless cycles of delusion and suffering in which they are inevitably ensnared.
The choice he made and indeed advocated in most of his subsequent teachings is based on a strict dichotomy between the world of form and the formless, between engagement in the secular world of humankind and commitment to spiritual awakening. This has been the paradigm for enlightenment not just in Buddhism but in most other world religions.
After Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche left Tibet and his traditional role as an abbot-lama, he began to explore the possibilities in re-uniting these two paths. In the Political Treatise, one of the earliest texts written after he came out of Tibet, he expressed the view that the spiritual path is not the only means to enlightenment, nor is it necessarily the highest of such paths. In fact, he considered that the path of a political or social leader could be a more evolved manifestation of the awakened state.
While Trungpa Rinpoche emphasized the continuity between spiritual practice and ordinary daily life in the way he taught Buddhist practices, it was in presenting the Shambhala teachings that he opened a form where engagement in the secular world became a complete path of enlightenment.
It is implicit in the Shambhala view that enlightenment can be realized by many paths of discipline. But, as the great early twentieth century sage, Jamyang Mipham Rinpoche once observed, while the goal of every Buddhist path is the same, the experience and the way it is conveyed is colored by the path which was taken to reach it.
Thus the enlightenment, the unconditioned awareness that may be realized by a concert pianist or a diplomat or a nurse or an astronomer or a vagrant differ from one another as they do from that of a religious practitioner. The teachings relating to the Kingdom of Shambhala constitute a vision in which these many paths may find greater clarity, inspiration and support on a common ground.
There are many ancient legends concerning the Kingdom of Shambhala as an enlightened society. Nevertheless, it is not a past golden age since it is still considered to be alive. Nor is it a future utopia in the Occidental sense of being an arrangement of laws and institutions set forth to produce some kind of ideal state of existence. The vision of Shambhala is not a vision of something seen, but rather a way of seeing and perceiving and acting in the context of the phenomenal world. The Kingdom of Shambhala is an innate and spontaneous longing to realize the freedom of the awakened state within the context of our existing social life.
Unlike a monastic path which emphasizes cultivating the awakened state by renouncing worldly pre-occupations and the detailed exploration of mind itself, the Shambhala path proposes going into the world ever more deeply and thoroughly. This is the path of discovering the vivid wakefulness in every aspect of daily living as one leads the life of a householder: working, cooking, cleaning, and relating to spouses, lovers, parents, children, friends and neighbors. When we cut through the narrow preoccupations and projections of ego-fixation, wakefulness illuminates as the processes of everyday tasks.
This path is a discipline much like art and requires attention to the minutiae of the mundane and love in the ways one shapes it. It is in some ways more difficult than the monastic approach since there is no vinaya, monastic rules, and less outward communal support.
To intensify this awareness, Trungpa Rinpoche introduced, in addition to the practice of meditation and the teachings now part of Shambhala Training, the practices of poetry, Kyudo, Zen archery, flower arranging, equitation, theater, Bugaku, calligraphy, cooking and military strategy, among others. Such personal disciplines establish a basis for sharing the world and uncover, moment by moment, the ongoing ground of enlightened society.
There are however obvious and continuing obstacles on this path. How easy it is to conflate indulgence and appreciation, self-aggrandizement and inspiration, obsession and discipline. Trungpa Rinpoche was untiring in his scorn for comfort- seeking and the pursuit of endless entertainments. These were in his view the building blocks of what he called “the cocoon” and this desire to build a private world of ease and diversion around ourselves is not merely a psychological quirk but one with solid cultural enfranchisement.
As Walter Benjamin noted in his discussion of trends that began during in France in the period of Louis-Phillippe, 1789: For the private citizen, for the first time the living-space became distinguished from the place of work. The former constituted itself as the interior. The office was its compliment. The private citizen who in the office took reality into account, required of the interior that it should support him in his illusions. The necessity was all the more pressing since he had no intention of adding social preoccupations to his business ones. In the creation of his private environment he suppressed them both. From this sprang the phantasmagoria. This represented the universe for the private citizen. In it he assembled the distant in space and in time. His drawing room was a box in the world-theater.
Walter Benjamin, tr. Harry Zohn- Paris, 1973
And in moving to his considerations on art nouveau, he continued: Art nouveau appeared, according to its ideology, to bring with it the perfecting of the interior. The transfiguration of the lone soul was its apparent aim. Individualism was its theory.
With the telephone, television and attendant home entertainment systems, the internet, and so forth, these trends have clearly accelerated to a level that would have been impossible to imagine even fifty years ago. Now it is quite easy to be informed about events throughout the world, the nation, one’s city, and one’s neighborhood, and to conduct widespread communications about them without leaving home or meeting anyone face to face. Immediacy, presence, authentic community and even solitude are, within this social construct, exotic. Alone amid the endless torrent of images, commercial promises, manufactured needs and ‘information’, silence and the sheer momentariness of life afford only haunting anxiety.
A GATEWAY TO SHAMBHALA continues in Part II.
Kalachakra thangka painted in Sera Monastery, Tibet
Photo from Pin Valley in Spiti by David Warren: I dreamt that I went to a pure land like Shambhala through that valley.
Also photos by Morquefile
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