In STORYTELLING by Douglas J. Penick

Continued from part one.

“The people need poetry that will be their own secret to keep them awake forever, and bathe them in the bright-haired wave of its breath.” Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems 1974.

The stories and songs concerning the Kingdom of Shambhala as an enlightened society have been current throughout central Asia for a thousand of years, and have, as David-Neel, Stein, Hessig, Bernbaum, Samuels and Roerich among others have shown, provided enduring inspiration for rulers as well as ordinary men and women. This lore exists in liturgies, prayers, songs, epics, histories and folk tales. In them Shambhala itself is often described in three simultaneous ways: as a real place on the earth which is sometimes manifest and sometimes not; as a pure realm, a place where the practice and communication of the awakened state of mind proceed without obstacle; and as the innate structure of the human heart.

In this tradition, the Kingdom of Shambhala is not just an enduring aspiration for enlightened society but is equally a kind of ongoing substrate within our lives. For just as it is said that enlightenment is the natural state, it is likewise true that the Kingdom of Shambhala represents the intrinsic ground of all societal possibilities.

In this tradition, the Kingdom of Shambhala is not just an enduring aspiration for enlightened society but is equally a kind of ongoing substrate within our lives. For just as it is said that enlightenment is the natural state, it is likewise true that the Kingdom of Shambhala represents the intrinsic ground of all societal possibilities.

Beyond the lore that describes the Shambhala kingdom and its rulers, there are also accounts of heroes and heroines for whom Shambhala provided crucial inspiration or who expressed this vision from their own intuition. These stories do not take place in an ideal world and are concerned with the struggle to uplift the human condition.

In several important texts, Trungpa Rinpoche gave particular emphasis to four historical exemplars of the spontaneous appearance of the Shambhala path. These four ancestral sovereigns combine the inspired and the pragmatic in a very heightened way. All are warriors. None received the throne as a matter of course but had to seize the throne and make great alterations in the pre-existing social order. Sometimes these changes were in the direction of restoring tradition and sometime they involved ideas and institutional norms that were entirely new. In uplifting their social world entirely, the ways in which these monarchs ruled each represents a specific kind of fruition of the warrior’s path. Trungpa Rinpoche correlated each of these sovereigns with specific attributes from the Shambhala teachings, and considered that each was the embodiment of specific qualities of the warrior. Trungpa Rinpoche therefore referred to these four as the ancestral sovereigns of Shambhala.

First mentioned of the four ancestral sovereigns is Ashoka Maharaja who ruled India and lived from 304- 232 BC.  Ashoka is the warrior-monarch associated with meekness, modesty, kindness and mercy. He embodies the activity of pacifying, and in his own life transformed himself from a rapacious conqueror into one who extended non-violence and compassion as the foundation of his laws and polity.

Next is Gesar, King of Ling who is semi-legendary but who lived in the ninth or tenth century AD. Gesar is associated with perkiness, unceasing discipline and uninterrupted wakefulness. He embodies the action of cutting through all delusions.  Gesar unhesitatingly plunged himself into demonic realms of madness and chaos in order to conquer them.

Then follows the third Ming Emperor, Yong Le who lived from 1360 to 1424. The Yong Le Emperor is connected with the quality of outrageousness in going completely beyond hope and fear to immerse himself in all the complex totality of the world and its requirements. He magnetized and illuminated his empire, and established an order that lasted for three hundred years.

Finally, there is Prince Shotoku Taishi who was Regent of Japan and lived 574-622 AD. Prince Shotoku Taishi embodies the warrior quality of inscrutability, unshakable confidence pervading one’s whole existence such that one does not need to act nor to doubt those actions one has undertaken. As a Prince Regent of Japan, Shotoku Taishi did not take the throne but enriched his country by initiating many spiritual and temporal forms that characterize Japanese culture to this day.

The ancestral sovereigns of Shambhala delineate a terrain in which spiritual enlightenment would appear, at first, to be in conflict with secular life, but they proceed to explore ways in which the two can, and in fact, must be carried forward inseparably. By so doing, the spirit and the reality of Shambhala dawns.

Each of these four rulers opened the path of secular enlightenment in the heart of his social order and they worked unceasingly until it pervaded the entire society. Their vision was shared with all their subjects and was in turn embodied by many. Though their lives were immersed in the needs of a specific time and place, the accounts of their deeds resonate as a living possibility without the constraints of time and space.


Even the most cursory review of human history cannot avoid the fact that to live on this earth is to inhabit a slaughterhouse. For more than five thousand years, the number of lives subjected to war, slavery, starvation, plague, grinding labor, random violence and terrible uncertainty dwarf the number of lives that have been prosperous and secure. We cannot escape the recognition that our heroes tower over battlefields littered with legions of the anonymous dead and our histories of our momentary Golden Ages do not recount the lives of the masses that endured the grinding misery of unending servitude.

And yet, at the same time, human beings have never ceased to produce heroes, moral exemplars, teachers and artists. The past is equally bursting with heartbreaking and hauntingly beautiful artifacts: pottery, sculpture, painting, songs, stories, dances, buildings, philosophies and spiritual visions.

Truly, suffering and beauty are inextricable in this realm and it is here that the four ancestral sovereigns have by their great endeavors marked their age with the light of an inspiration that continues into our own time.

For such reasons, it is said of the ancestral sovereigns
If there is a vision of mercy in this world,
It is Ashoka.
If there is a vision of victory in this world,
It is Gesar.
If there is a vision of luminosity in this world,
It is Yung Lo.
If there is a vision of true warriorship in this world,
It is Shotoku Taishi.
-The Razor of Kalapa


Our possibilities in this world are circumscribed and provided by the fact that, as is asserted in both Buddhist and Shambhala tradition, the human realm is formed as a realm of desire. Our lives are conditioned by our desires and an unending effort to find happiness by giving them perceptible form. Language carries us from the silence of unspecified longings and wants into the articulation of specific passions,as both subjects and objects. In our arts, we explore this condition, and we evolve techniques to share our discoveries. This is true whether the field of endeavor be in sight, sound, smell, taste, touch or understanding.

Out of this set of circumstances, we extend our sympathies far beyond the constraints of our time and place and individuality. Out of solitude and love, the deep bond of our sheer humanness brings us worlds.
Here for instance is a poem by Su Tung Po who was one of the great exemplary scholar-poet-officials of the Song Dynasty. His life was subject to the rigors of political instability and his accomplishments were scholarly, artistic, and administrative which last include re-designing the system of dams and channels in the West Lake district. He wrote this poem:

On a Boat, Awake at Night
Faint wind rustles reeds and cattails;
I open the hatch, expecting rain – moon floods the lake.
Boatmen and water-birds dream the same dream;
A big fish splashes off like a frightened fox.
It’s late – men and creatures forget each other
While my shadow and I amuse ourselves alone.
Dark tides creep over the flats, I pity the cold mud-worms;
The setting moon, caught in a willow, lights a dangling spider.
Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;
How long before you’ve lost it, a scene like this?
Cocks crow, bells ring, a hundred birds scatter;
Drums pound from the bow, shout answers shout.
Burton Watson, Su Tung-p’o, 1994

Moon, water, sleep here have a presence, a mystery and are pregnant in a way that it might be difficult for a contemporary man or woman to contact within this modern world.
This moment has disappeared more irrevocably than perhaps even the poet could have imagined. And yet, here it is, so true, so poignantly alive that we are bound together in that one moment across time.

About the Author
Douglas J. Penick

Douglas J. Penick

Douglas Penick utilizes historical research with a solid understanding of Chinese culture and Buddhism to make stories accessible, beautiful and enlightening. In his words, "I contribute to the mischief, longing, satisfaction, lust, sorrow and fascination which make our presence in this world a discovery of true love." The Website of Douglas. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.

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