Shambhala Buddhism is an evolution of the entirely secular Shambhala meditation movement originated by the late Chögyam Trungpa in Colorado in 1970, blending it into an adaptation of a variety of formal Buddhist religious traditions. As Professor Clayton explains, it's not always clear to outside eyes just what has been adapted, and from where, within Shambhala. What is clear is that within the demands of the monastic life, the Shambhala monks and retreatants at Gampo Abbey have a great deal of fun at their annual July 1 baseball game against the local townspeople; and though they are Buddhists from a variety of backgrounds, they play to win.
Convivium: In Renouncing the World to Get Engaged? Gampo Abbey and the Role of Monasticism in a Lay Bhuddist Movement, you make the point that it is a really curious kind of renunciation that Shambhalians are engaged in because they are very much engaged in the world, even if it is a pretty remote part of the world in Cape Breton.
Barbara Clayton: As I tried to outline in the paper, the idea of Shambhala is that its aim is enlightened society. [Shambhalians] really are interested in the idea that you become enlightened in order to create a better society. I think that explains the whole idea behind Shambhala. It helps explain their idea that you can be secular, that you can be married. I think it partly explains the effort that Trungpa made at the beginning. These are Buddhist teachings, but he didn't want to call them Buddhist teachings. He wanted to create what he called a "lay yogan" society: people who were spiritual practitioners but who weren't renunciates. In a way, he was shifting the whole Buddhist tradition.
C: Wasn't his metaphor the warrior? We are all essentially warriors? We don't have to carry spears or some sort of weapon, but in a spiritual sense we are all engaged in the courage of the warrior, the path the warrior follows.
BC: Definitely. One of the things I didn't say in my paper is that Shambhala may be shifting direction and that the new leader [Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche] may have a more traditional understanding of what monasticism is and its role.
C: What would that mean for Shambhala and Shambhalians?
BC: Under Trungpa, they had their Shambhala teachings and their Buddhist teachings. Sakyong is bringing those together. They used to even have separate shrines. Sakyong is bringing those together so that there will be one shrine. I've heard people say they think he is really focusing on the Shambhala teachings, but I don't know. It's always been, from a scholarly perspective, a kind of false dichotomy that Shambhala teachings aren't Buddhist. They are clearly Buddhist. It almost seems to me that Sakyong is acknowledging this. The statement on the website for Gampo Abbey from Sakyong really seems to reinforce the value of traditional monasticism within Shambhala. I am wondering if he actually would endorse a more traditional understanding of monasticism as the way to get enlightened. I'm not sure about that.
C: Would it be fair to say that the real difference between Shambhala and traditional Buddhism was more a force of Trungpa's personality than any serious theological difference?
BC: I have a hard time agreeing with that in part out of deference to what is said about the Shambhalic teachings by Shambhalians themselves. A lot of people are attracted to Shambhala because it claims to be secular teachings that don't require any particular religious allegiance and they like it because it's not religious. I have met people in Shambhala who say that but as a Buddhist scholar, I am like, well, but this is clearly Buddhist teaching. Look at the religious elements of it; they're obvious. The ritual, the Tibetan cultural elements are very strong, not to mention the use of a whole bunch of Zen symbolism and practices. Yet for practitioners, I think it is important to a lot of them that the Shambhala teachings are secular.
C: You use the phrase westernized Tibetan Buddhism and I am wondering if Tibetan Buddhists, without any qualifier, would look at something like Shambhala and say 'This is just Buddhism light. This is Buddhism for Westerners who can't do the real thing.'
BC: I'm not sure. There has been a connection between Shambhala and Bhutan since Trungpa because he spent a lot of time there. One woman who spent a lot of time in Bhutan told me that they think Shambhalians are weird. I don't know what that's about. It's a hard question for me to answer because I'm not a Tibetan Buddhist scholar. My area is really Mahayana Buddhism, so not knowing Tibet and Tibetans culturally and how they view things, it is hard for me to make a judgment. Is it Buddhism light? I don't know. It's based on a Tibetan monarchic perspective and Tibetan aristocratic views. There's a real hierarchy there. It's not straightforward humanistic secularism. I find it interesting that people can be part of it and think of it simply in the terms that Trungpa used, which is in terms of basic human dignity. Don't get me wrong, I go on Shambhala programs and I get a lot out of them. I've started a meditation group that's become a Shambhala group. I'm a practitioner, too, so I see it as an insider as well, with some respect for these teachings, because I do think they have a lot of value. It's interesting to me that there are all of these elements of it that are obviously cultural and/or religious that people seem to accept as well as the veneer or label as being secular.
C: It really is an inside/outside perception isn't it? As you said, geographically the Abbey is distant, yet what happens there is not in any way disengaged from the world or an attempt to escape what's real. Even in its relation to its own religious tradition, there's ambiguity. There are two sides to the way it presents itself. How often do you go up to the Abbey? I imagine it's probably only once or twice a year because it's a long way from where you are.
BC: I have a young child, so I haven't actually been up in a couple of years, but I'm going to go this summer. I will probably go twice this summer. It is quite far and they really are very busy with programs, and in the summer they have inhouse retreats. I've done an in-house retreat there and I've taken students up there. My time to go up is really in the summer when they are more open to non-residents.
C: You really participate in the life of the community when you are there? I love the story you tell about the July 1 baseball game. They really get into the spirit of it, if not the strategy. And you caught a ball in one of the games.
BC: Yes. I'm very proud of myself.
C: Do they actually play in their robes?
BC: They do. It's pretty funny.
C: Do they know how to play baseball?
a BC : Some of them do, of course. But when I was there, they had this fellow from Britain who had never played. There are people for whom baseball is totally new. They don't know the rules; they don't know anything about it. They do have a few weeks of training leading up the game. They do try to win.
C: I wonder what a Buddhist approach to baseball would be? Because you should actually try to not try to swing, right? You should actually try to not catch the ball. Or maybe it's not try to not catch the ball. Is there a Buddhist approach to baseball?
BC: [Laughs.] It would probably be to not be attached to winning or losing.
C: No crying after you lose?
BC: No crying after you lose. Being in the moment. Not comparing yourself to the player ahead of you or the player behind you. It's interesting, though. It's a competition, [but] are you really trying to win? They put their hearts into it. I mean they really do try. But they also avoid seeing winning or losing as reflecting something inherent about themselves.
C: Tiger Woods, when he was losing way more than he was winning, said that part of the reason was that he'd moved away from the Buddhist precepts his mother had instilled in him when he was a boy.
C: Yes. He was apparently very reliant on what she'd taught him. As much as or more than his father shouting at him and playing tricks on him when he was learning to play. It was the movement away from his Buddhist engagement or understanding of the world that was at the root of a lot of his problems. If there is a Buddhist way to golf, there must be a Buddhist way to play baseball.
BC: I'll have to ask the Shambhalians.
C: And they also buy and release local lobsters? You describe how when they first arrived [at Pleasant Bay] and began doing that, there were rumours going around among the townspeople that the Shambhalians were worshiping lobsters. Did they seriously think that?
BC: That is what I was told by some of the monks. Maybe it's an urban legend in the Abbey. I don't know. It's a story. You can see it as some kind of misunderstanding occurring around that practice.
C: But the purpose of the buy-and-release campaign is really a serious one, isn't it? Do they actually interfere, eco-warrior style, in the lobster catch?
BC: No, they don't interfere. The practice is part of a wider Buddhist practice called Liberating Life. People will go into a market and buy birds that are caged and release them. They often do the same thing with fish. [Releasing] fish is actually the common one. If you go to Bodia in India, if it's a Buddhist festival, there will be people selling fish in little bags that you then release into a local stream or river or pond. The practice is really about showing care for sentient beings and freeing them. Buddhism is about freedom. Nirvana is really about release from suffering, so this is releasing life, liberating life. When I did the release and talked to the director, who was then a monastic, he said it was creating a contact between that living being and the Dharma. Hopefully at some point, in another rebirth, the lobster, maybe as a human, would then connect with the Buddhist teachings because this sort of seed had been planted in its life as a lobster. It's considered one of the roots of virtue. Because life is so precious, not harming life and preventing the killing of a life is one of the strongest roots of virtue you can plant for yourself as a practitioner. It's interesting because the focus really, in the explanations I've read, is on the virtue of the practitioner, of the person doing the releasing.
C: Do you store up virtue by doing that? Or is it a virtuous act that in and of itself cultivates a disposition for you, but you don't do it for a reward in a future life?
BC: In planting the roots of virtue, you are creating the disposition to have that habitual trait of caring, of compassion. There's probably also, though, the idea that it's meritorious; it's a beneficial thing that will have rewards. It's planting the roots of virtue that are going to hopefully come to fruition in enlightenment, but on the way to enlightenment you need a lot of merit. By doing meritorious things like that, you're accumulating good Karma. It's tricky, the distinction. There's a more technical question of a wholesome act and a meritorious act. Something that's wholesome is going to be meritorious unless you're already a Buddha, and then you don't accumulate any more good Karma.
C: Something that you do in order to achieve merit is not necessarily wholesome and, in fact, could not be wholesome if you are not doing it for the right reasons. In the Christian tradition, we're taught, 'If a man asks you for your cloak, give him your shirt also.' The expectation is you don't give love with the expectation of love in return. You give love because God gave it to you as a gift. Is there a distinction for Buddhists that accumulation of merit is in itself worthy?
BC: You're not supposed to do it for that reason. You diminish the meritorious value if you're doing something good for selfish reasons. I think they would still say it was good, you should do it, and hopefully you'll get to the point where you actually are doing it for unselfish reasons.
C: The meditation practice that you described, particularly the three-year retreat that you were talking about, nobody would call that Buddhism light. That sounds really tough.
BC: Again I don't know what the schedule is, the daily schedule. I'd be surprised if there were excessively long periods where you are really supposed to be sitting, although I guess in Zen tradition they do that, right?
C: There's a popular concept of monastic life, and especially the meditative part, as a retreat from reality. But those who've done it would argue it's a safeguard to sanity. Would you agree?
BC: That's one of the things with Trungpa. He talks about basic sanity and there does seem to be something about this so that we can be sane and feel in a humane way with reality.
C: There is a great line, I think it's in the Sacred Path of the Warrior, where Trungpa says, 'If I am seated properly in the world, what need have I of fear?' That is the equation, isn't it? If you're sitting properly, where you're supposed to be sitting, what do you need to be afraid of ? Things are going to happen or they're not, and you're sitting observing them. There's Pema Chödrön's description, too, of Shambhala being an effort to bring peace to a troubled world. Do you think they're successful in that effort? Do they go back out into the world better prepared, more committed to easing the troubles of a troubled world, bringing peace to a troubled world? Are they able to do that?
BC: That's really difficult to answer. I guess an observation that might be relevant is that one of my research projects that has been occupying me for the last few years is actually looking at environmentalism in Shambhala. When I moved to the Maritimes, I noticed that the only Buddhism in town was Shambhala, so I got involved in it. Then I started noticing there were a lot of Shambhalians involved in environmental projects in the Maritimes. Often they have professional positions where they're consultants at environmental companies or they're advisors to the government on provincial recycling programs and things like this.
I focus on one in particular, called Windhorse Farm, where they do environmental forestry and organic gardening. They have a little community that they support. It seems to me they are fairly effective in the world in acting these teachings. I don't have statistics or anything to back that up, but I'm quite interested in the impact Shambhala has had in Nova Scotia, especially because it is where they're concentrated. My sense is that they are making some kind of impact and that it's positive. Is it all positive? Probably not. But they've had a significant impact in the province.
C: I suppose in some ways it's like asking if Catholics go to Heaven. Some do; some don't. We don't know which is which until we get there.
BC: It's a really interesting question. Does that mean that they're not neurotic people who still have issues? Of course not. But I interviewed a woman and her husband who started GPIAtlantic [Genuine Progress Indicators for Atlantic Canada]. Basically, they're looking for alternative measures of development and progress. A whole bunch of organizations are networked with it. This man, Ron Colman, started it, and his wife is very involved, too. He was contacted by the Government of Bhutan because they were working on an index, like a happiness index to measure human well-being, that wasn't just an economic indicator, or that wasn't an economic indicator in the standard way. The Government of Bhutan's happiness index, which is used to support their policy of gross national happiness, is actually based on the GPI index. Now, Ron Colman lives in Bhutan most of the time and advises the government.
C: He's involved with Shambhala?
BC: Yes, he is a long-time Shambhala practitioner and student of Trungpa's. His wife is as well. It's one example, but I think a significant example. They're actually promoting it globally. I went to a meeting at the UN last spring where the Government of Bhutan hosted people from all different disciplines around the world to announce this project to make gross national happiness the basis of a new economic paradigm. There were all of these government and UN representatives endorsing this idea. Ron Colman was one of the lead organizers for the Government of Bhutan.
C: They're out there spreading the gospel, so to speak.
BC: Well, they don't want the Shambhala connection highlighted because they don't want to put anybody off. They don't want it to be seen as a partisan thing or having any particular religious basis.
C: It's not there for proselytizing; it is there to spread the technique or the means. You talked about the real mission, if I can use that word, of integrating into the fabric of Western society, not in terms of going out and evangelizing people but actually transforming or at least shifting the way we understand a good life. How are they active around the world in, if I can put it this way, spreading the word?
BC: Well, the headquarters of Shambhala International are in Halifax, but they have centres in Europe and the U.S., some in Canada. When I started, we were this meditation group. It was like 'Let's just get people in who want to meditate.' It attracted some Shambhala practitioners and so now they've requested to become a Shambhala group, and so we are. It wasn't as if anybody was coming to us and saying, 'We want you guys to be a Shambhala group.' It was more like 'Could we be affiliated with you?' My sense is they're happy to help facilitate new centres and that kind of thing. They do try to do that, and attract people to programs. They have, I think, 170 centres in the world.
C: I didn't realize it was that large globally. What role does Gampo Abbey play within Shambhala International? BC: The Abbey is unusual. I don't think there are any other monasteries associated with Shambhala. But there are several retreat centres. There's one in Vermont; there's one in Nova Scotia. They are really oriented to laypeople.
C: You cited a wonderful phrase they use: temporary monasticism, or what some have called 'meditating off the cushions,' meaning to take meditation practice back out into the world of daily life.
BC: That's what they encourage you to do. The point is not to be on the cushion. It is to be mindful in your life and bring those qualities into your daily life. That's definitely their main focus, and the whole idea of renouncing to get engaged. The point for them is not just individual enlightenment at all.
C: 'Life is a container for each practitioner's effort to wake up.' Isn't that the phrase? Has it been beneficial to you in terms of waking up?
BC: Yes, definitely. I love that idea of being a temporary monastic. I think it makes so much sense. It's definitely beneficial.
C: I got a great sense of being a 'temporary monastic' many years ago at a Catholic retreat. At the end of it, I called my wife to pick me up as we'd arranged and told her on the phone, 'Come when you are ready; it has been a wonderful retreat and I am sort of on fire here.' And she said, 'Well I'm glad you're on fire because Etienne [our son] had a friend over who threw up all night and I have been down on my hands and knees cleaning the floor. I'm glad one of us had a wonderful retreat.' It was a terrific reminder that there's the need to retreat and get energized, but there's also the need to recognize that...
BC: Somebody's got to clean the floor....