Open Letter of Concern from Bill Karelis re: Shambhala Mountain Center’s need for support.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Aug 5, 2008
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Due to the sensitive nature of this Open Letter, some numbers have been removed. The essence remains.

To the Noble Sangha:

About four months ago I published a report on Shambhala Mountain Center to the international Shambhala Community, to which I received a flood of supportive written responses (from over 60 individuals).  I wish to thank those who wrote and others, beyond this number, who stopped me in person to provide feedback.   All told, many hundreds of you have written supportive letters to me of all kinds during the two-and-a-half years I have offered these SMC reports.  This positive reflection has kept me going.

There is some good news.  Chakrasamvara drupchen [advanced meditation practice for small numbers of longtime Buddhist practitioners] is officially back on the SMC map, hopefully at an affordable price; the SMC strategic planning committee has declared a policy of no new buildings until the funding is in place; there is a generosity policy of $40/day, which may make it possible for more of the people to attend programs; SMC opened a website to receive feedback this year; and a third, annual dathun is planned. 

Unfortunately, however, the good news is dwarfed by other accelerating karma.  That story should be evident below.

SMC officers have provided some corrections to my last update of earlier this year.  I invited and continue to invite corrections of fact.  Some are minor but should be published: 

I stated that the Stupa and the Encampment ground had been cordoned off from the rest of the property within the last two years (as of my report).   It appears that the cordoning was done prior to Allan Cross’s tenure as Director, which began over three years ago now.

I stated that SMC had been sitting on about thousands of dollars of bills, as of March 2008.  Subseqently this spring, I was told that the accounts payable had declined (as it does every year at that time).   

The bottom line is that SMC is up to its eyeballs in debt–the last official figure I was given is $6.8 million.  

It appears that the operational loss figure I took from the SMC balance sheets in 2005–$750,000 per year–remains close to the real figure (recently stated as $800,000).  There is a current campaign aimed at SMC major donors to raise a needed $900,000 by the end of 2008.  In addition, there are immediate needs for staff housing contruction, repair to the sewage system, and kitchen renovations.   

In sum, there are unadmitted but significant financial deficits, that are in fact driving programming and pricing decisions at SMC, and driving the nonstop fundraising campaign; I believe these deficits also explain, in part, a recent SMC vision statement, authored by Shambhala International President Richard Reoch, which justifies broad-based programming.   

About the new residence for the Sakyong and the Sakyong Wangmo, and family at SMC, the Gesar Palace, I stated previously that the eventual cost had been publicly described as $6 million. I see no denials of this, or contradictions to this statement, although SMC has taken to describing the envisaged residence as “decent” housing for the royal family, and this week two people told me that the Gesar Palace has been “postponed.”  

I believe SMC owes the sangha and its donor base a full, understandable accounting, including the costs of the SMC Development Division from 1999 to 2006.   As I wrote in my last report, those costs appear to have been about 50 cents of every dollar donated to SMC for operations in those years, or around $2 million (out of about $4 million donated for operations). This problem alone explains a percentage of the SMC debt position. How much was spent on salaries, expense accounts, cars, rooms reserved year-round (and seasonally) in the Shambhala Lodge, high-rent fully staffed offices in Boulder, and so forth?

The main conclusions to be drawn do not lie in the financial realm, nonetheless. The deeper impact here regards the following:

1)   Communication from SMC (and from Shambhala International as a whole)with the sangha at large, has evolved into an expanding publicity campaign, despite the opening of the SMC website for feedback, which seems intended in some large measure to drain criticism off into a controlled place.This publicity campaign has generated a sore need for the free flow of information, which will have to be provided, and which will be provided by the sangha at large from this time forward.    

2) The sangha has, generally speaking, been priced out of our contemplative centers, and is no longer invited in primarily on a practice and study basis. If you look on the SMC website, you will see today highlighted a three-night, perhaps Dharma-related program, which it is possible for an individual to attend for between $580 (tent or dorm, with access to a bathhouse) and $1,000 (suite in a Lodge, with private bath).   Or two people can share a suite for $1,535.  (That comes to $511.67 per night.) 

At SMC the regional sangha no longer has a home practice base. There is nowhere for the sangha to gather in Colorado to practice, outside of Feasts in the Main Shrine Hall in the Boulder Center, without paying a great deal per night for the privilege. As a direct result of this and other styles of marginalization, many are going on retreat elsewhere, and following other lineages, which are more affordable and inclusive.   

In response to this reality, as previously stated, SMC has just this summer announced a generosity policy, whereby, it is said, one can stay on the land for $40 a night.  ($40 is about 50% higher than the the minimum price I found at a comparable Dharma enter.)  We shall see how this statement actually pans out–to which programs and times of year it applies, and how much it is actually executed in practice.   

3)   The programming at SMC is increasingly designed to earn income, regardless of whether or not that programming falls within either the umbrella of the Shambhala teachings or the Kagyu/Nyingma Buddhist stream. The publicity department at SMC celebrates the vacation aspect of visiting, in direct contradiction to the founder Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s 1979 instructions–when he stated he did not wish the Center to become a haven for Buddhist vacation-goers.

4)   The continuity of our pure Buddhist and Shambhala teaching streams at SMC is in question. In this regard, SMC serves as the “flagship,” as it has been called, for the rest of Shambhala International. Rather than propagating the Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching streams and oral transmissions, we have a system of tenets, known as “Shambhala Buddhism.”   This presentation overtly superscribes the received tradition of the Shambhala teachings from Trungpa Rinpoche.  It also reinterprets the 2,500-year-old Buddhist tradition, including the Kagyu/Nyingma schools, in light of the Shambhala teachings. It treats the Shambhala and Buddhist streams as largely interchangeable–for example, it interlaces the two terminologies, simplifying the subtlety and depth of the individual upayas.   

Recent changes to our Vajrayana path appear to challenge the future of our beautiful, profound and effective Karma Kagyu practice tradition.  

The preparation of the entering student for pointing out instruction up through 2,000 included between seven to nine weeks of Seminary; now that Seminary preparation has been reduced to about two-and-a-half weeks (all of Sutrayana plus a few days of Vajrayana).   Shambhala International has made the path easier at all levels, apparently worried about attendance.  But it is not people’s potential for renunciation which has changed–it is Shambhala International’s orientation.  What happened to traditional practice and study, which Trungpa Rinpoche so meticulously preserved?  He cared for us so much; now, it seems, we do not care for his aspirations. 

In these realms, I am concerned for the welfare of the new students, and for the contribution of our lineage to the world.

5)   The vision for SMC lacks earthy reality. For example, the buildout appears to reflect a hundred-year plan of some kind, such as an enlightened city in the wilderness (eg the Gesar Palace), but it does not connect with the realities of the present or the next twenty years. Heaven and earth are not met. This problem obviously puts into question the hundred-year plan as well. 

In making these criticisms, I hope it is clear that I am not saying individual practitioners do not experience the magic of the land at SMC, or the power of the teachings–of course, we all do experience that magic and power. The remarks here have to do with the degeneration of the base, which is to say, the Dharmic underpinning of the Center. The effect of this kind of degeneration is, like all karma, not obvious; it is usually delayed; later it will be almost impossible to reverse.   It is that later irreversibility which requires acuity now.

With loyalty and devotion, Bill Karelis


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


8 Responses to “Open Letter of Concern from Bill Karelis re: Shambhala Mountain Center’s need for support.”

  1. Two points: I’d like to thank Bill for his bravery in researching all this and putting it on the line, putting himself out there. Please comment if you feel anything is unfair or untrue, Bill welcomes any such feedback. Please keep all comments civil and helpful.
    Secondly, I personally (having worked at Shambhala for three.three years before getting involved in this magazine racket) think $40 is a killer deal for a one-night stay at a retreat center. I can’t think of any motels, when you cross the US, that are less than $50. It’s a minor point, but one worth making perhaps.

  2. admin says:

    I think it is interesting and perhaps not inappropriate that my post about Shambhala Mountain Center has turned into a dialogue. I did omit asking people to respond to me off-line (as I had done in previous posts), as I thought it would be obvious to do so. However, the dialogue, insofar as it has gone, seems healthy. I understand that sangha-announce is not intended for dialogue, and so this will be my last contribution to the current exchange. I suppose I should say, please respond to me privately at [email protected].

    I have received four strongly questioning responses, and about thirty generally supportive ones, so far. Two of the questioning ones were sent to sangha-announce.

    To Mr. Manley: I think your experience of doing the Rigden ngondro and following that with Kagyu ngondro by the numbers is a beautiful and powerful one, as well as very well expressed–and well worth hearing. So thank you! I agree it provides a good counterpoint to my concerns about the loss or our Karma Kagyu practice stream. If your experience is widely shared by others, I would have to agree that I am wrong in my judgment of the problem. I would be delighted to be proven wrong by such experiences. But I do have to say that having gone to Seminary in 1999, as confusing as that may have been for a while, is key to having done Kagyu ngondro by the numbers. It is quite unclear how recent Seminarians will find that direction. Overall, I do thank you again very much for your story–it is quite heartening.

    To Mr. Congo: you express concern that you might be fanning the flames of dispute here. I agree that you might be. You seem to be defending something that does not require defense. For example, I said nothing about the Sakyong’s aspirations, and very little about him. I trust the Sakyong’s aspirations as pure, and I love him personally. I trust that his mind is big enough to absorb good feedback. I don’t think he needs or wants to be defended against deeply considered observation, not just mine but many peoples’ in the sangha. In fact, I approached him with problems such as the ones at issue here two years ago, and he welcomed hearing them, and also asked me for suggested solutions. I think it is very valuable to present well-thought-out criticisms, and in fact all healthy communities have a mechanism for this.

    Also to Mr. Congo: you raised the question of how anyone could know the Vidyadhara’s aspirations. Please read the chant for fulfilling the Vidyadhara’s aspirations, composed by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche (at the Sakyong’s request), where Thrangu Rinpoche explicitly identifies the Karma Kagyu practice stream with the Vidyadhara’a intentions for us and for the world (and other aspirations are also named). It is not exactly a matter of speculation, and you don’t have to be a seer to know it. The Karma Kagyu practices are clearly among the principal practices the Vidyadhara directed us to engage, and he went to a great deal of trouble to ensure we did them properly.

    In terms of the degeneration of the Dharmic underpinnings at SMC, I understand that you see this development differently from the way I do. I hope I am wrong in my assessement. I hope that in 100 years SMC is a flourishing Dharma center. But hope isn’t enough. The whole point of my raising the issue is to prevent the degeneration, as I clearly wrote. The vision statement for SMC now says that the propagation of the Dharma is the first but not the only goal for SMC, and certainly the calendar has much non-Dharmic programming in it. SMC is intended now as a cultural gathering place and a vacation facility, to some degree, in addition to a place of Dharma.

    One could surmise that both the Dharma and the cultural side are valid activities for SMC–but it just doesn’t seem to be working that way. We don’t have good evidence to demonstrate that such a mix will work, and there is a Dharma teaching which indicates that if you mix non-Dharmic intentions and behavior into Dharma practice, it is like putting a yogurt culture in milk–it turns the whole thing to yogurt. There is much more to say about this, including examining what the Vidyadhara said he wanted for RMDC (SMC)–such as his explicit plans (including drawings) for a Vipashyana Center, his ideas for a Six Dharmas Retreat Center, and a Bardo Retreat facility. Those facilities are not on the site plan filed with Larimer County for the eventual, completed SMC facility.

    Mr. Congo, in terms of the use of concept, which you denounce, concept is necessary in order to communicate. The real question is whether concept reflects direct experience, in which case it arises as an expression of prajna.

    Bill Karelis

  3. admin says:

    Gayle Hanson at 5:06pm Aug 6
    Did you remove odd or even numbers? Prime numbers? Please explain. I want elephant to be uncensored…hate this editorial censorship…love the editor!

    Waylon Hussein Lewis at 5:19pm Aug 6
    Love you! The letter was writ by Bill for the Shambhala Sangha–if you are on sangha-announce, you’ll have a fully unedited letter. elephant’s audience is more public than what Bill wrote the original for–I only removed one number, the gist (debt numbers) remains.

    Suzanne Townsend at 5:33pm Aug 7
    Thank you for posting this for those of us who do not receive the sangha-talk or sangha-announce lists.

    Tara Jon Manning at 10:01am Aug 8
    Way- Thanks for including tis on and for posting an FB link. These are CRUCIAL questions and issues. I was just up there this weekend, and watched the whole situation swirl around just as Bill describes it. It was really interesting to look at things at SMC from the point of view of a “dharma vacationer” – as were the majority of the people on the land last weekend, in contrast with POV of the dharma brat who knows what the underside of every damn rock up there looks like. I got a lot of mixed feedback from my fellow program participants – it made me quite curious. Do we need two luxury hotels when the people in the downtown tent village don’t have a proper bathhouse? Just because we aren’t wealthy, we should have dirty accommodations and tents that won’t zip? These are the questions people were asking, and I don’t think they will plan to go back to SMC soon.

  4. Rob Graffis says:

    It is an eye opener. Thanks Waylon for publishing this.
    Rob Graffis

  5. doreen says:

    thank you…i feel exactly as you do and it is very sad.

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  7. upayacouncil says:

    "The necessary and welcome economic growth within our Sangha, in the form of business operations and commercial and domestic investments, has brought along as a by—product an increasing frequency of disagreements and disputes. There is a need for our society to provide resources for the sane, nonagressive resolution of such conflicts in keeping with the principles of Dharma and the Great Eastern Sun. Accordingly I have decided to institute and appoint the Upaya Council. The function of the Upaya Council shall be to mediate and/or arbitrate commercial and domestic disputes among members of the Vajradhatu community, as individuals, groups, or businesses. It shall be the initial task of the Upaya Council to propose to me and my Privy Council a set of guidelines under which it shall operate. There shall be no internal hierarchy within the Upaya Council and each member shall have an equal voice; the findings of the Council shall be arrived at by unanimous consent."

    ~ Vajracarya the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, Spring, 1979.

    Upaya Council

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