In STORYTELLING by Douglas J. Penick3 Comments

In several important texts, Trungpa Rinpoche gave particular emphasis to four rulers as exemplars of the spontaneous appearance of the Shambhala path:  Ashoka Maharaja who ruled India and lived from 304- 232 BC; Gesar, King of Ling who is semi legendary but whose dates would be in the ninth or tenth century AD; the third Ming Emperor, Yong Le who lived from 1360 to 1424; and Prince Shotoku Taishi who was Regent of Japan and lived 574-622 AD. Trungpa Rinpoche referred to these four as the ancestral sovereigns of Shambhala.

These rulers, whether knowing of Shambhala explicitly or not, took the secular world as the path of enlightenment. They were born into real worlds with specific social challenges. In the face of these conflicts, they embodied the principles of enlightened engagement and rulership in specific ways, and they worked unceasingly to uplift every aspect of their societies. Their lives soon became the subject of legend and soon it became difficult to distinguish between what they truly did and what in subsequent ages people longed for.

Ashoka was the son of a great conquering Emperor and continued his father’s military ambitions until, in defeating the Kalinga nation, he was overwhelmed by the suffering and devastation his wars had caused. He then renounced all forms of killing and made non-aggression underlying the law of India. He promulgated laws to foster respect and kindness and sought to ameliorate the living conditions of his subjects by sponsoring hospitals, – even veterinary hospitals, libraries, universities, and charities for the old and abandoned. Ashoka’s reign soon achieved legendary status throughout the East and he was particularly esteemed in those lands where Buddhism came to flourish. He came to exemplify the way in which a single being by changing his own outlook can change his world.

Whereas Ashoka’s life is a matter of historical record, the next ancestral sovereign, Gesar, King of Ling is known only though the legends in which his deeds are recounted. Gesar was said to have been born an enlightened being, and his purpose in coming into this world was to overcome the myriad forms of domestic possession that cause humans to degrade their own environment and lose their way. In order to do so, it was necessary for Gesar to submit completely to each of the realms of madness and delusion which he would conquer. Accordingly, he lost his kingdom, his family, his memory, his body and he broke his most sacred commitments. However, through everything, he did not abandoned his fundamental awakened nature. And he was absolutely unhesitant in cutting through all obstacles within his own mind as well as outside. It is for these reasons that his stories have remained current throughout Central Asia as texts and dramatic performances.

The Yong Le Emperor was an entirely historical personage and, on account of his usurpation of the throne, is viewed with considerable ambivalence by scholars and by the Chinese people in general.  Nonetheless, it was his own belief that in order to complete his father’s vision and to act in accord with the ancient ways of governance in China, he had no choice but to take the throne from his nephew. Yong Le’s great talents as a general and an administrator enabled him to accomplish this.

The Yong Le envisioned his empire as one which would provide a secure prosperity for all his people and a light to all the nations of the world. To these ends, he strengthened the education of the magistrates and officials, insisted on a highly trained military encouraged many forms of commerce. He fostered a vigorous foreign policy, sending emissaries throughout Asia and building the largest fleet then in the world (26,000 people) which established relations with countries in Java, India and West Africa. They carried with them a short form of the great encyclopedia of Chinese culture along with editions of the Confucian and Taoist classics all of which he had commission and overseen. He built the City of Beijing and extended the Grand Canal. He was a tenacious administrator and met with his ministers and so forth for 12-14 hours every day of his life.

The Yong Le Emperor lived according to the traditions of Confucius, Lao Tse and the Buddha and saw no essential conflict between their teachings. Throughout his life, he had many spiritual visions – most famously of the Vajra Crown which he saw as hovering above the head of Karmapa Teshin Shegpa who had come to the capitol to teach him.  But Yong Le’s life had no separation from any aspect of his world, and embodied a complete, unsparing and continuous engagement with absolutely all aspects of phenomena.

The fourth ancestral sovereign of Shambhala,  Prince Shotoku Taishi  lived at a time when Japan had only been literate for 150 years and politics were a matter of ongoing clan rivalry.  He was one of two regents of Empress Suiko and never took the throne. He is credited with being one of the first great patrons of Buddhism in Japan and of being one of the first Japanese commentators on Buddhist teachings. He was also active in promulgating Confucian principals and court hierarchy in Japan and accordingly wrote the first constitution or code for the nation. Additionally, he is believed to have founded the first dance system, archery school, and to have commissioned the writing of the first history of Japan. He is revered to this day as a seminal figure in the creation of Japanese national identity.

Without perhaps actively doing all the things attributed to him, Shotoku Taishi was the well-spring of a very central inspiration and without personal ambition, he was central to the foundation of an entire culture.

These are the varying ways in which the four ancestral sovereigns offer glimpses into the practice of secular enlightenment

The Kingdom of Shambhala is not just an enduring aspiration for enlightened society but is equally a kind of ongoing substrate within our social 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.

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.

Work of Palace Ladies by Gu Kaizhi
Photo of lion by Unsplash & art photo by Bonnyb Bendix

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    Hi Douglas,
    This is the best, most clarifying and pithy explanation of our ancestral sovereigns. Thank you so much.
    Kind regards,,

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    As a relatively new Buddhist and not enough progress made I consider this an extremely lucky opportunity to finally understand the core of the Kingdom of Shambhala teaching. I am very grateful! And I am looking for more such opportunities such as this one.

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    Thank you Douglas! This context clarified the four sovereigns for me , despite having heard about these things for many years.

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