March 23, 2009

The evolution of an American Buddhist Lineage—and the ixnaying of an article.

In the Summer of 2005, I think it was, I visited Halifax, Nova Scotia to visit my mom. Halifax also happens to be the capitol of my world, the center of Shambhala Buddhism, and thus the home of many of my dearest friends and institutions.

One day I visited with Ben Moore, a fellow “Dharma Brat” (child of American Buddhist parents). Ben has always been one I admired—that rare soul back when we were children who managed to be both “cool” with the clique and “nice” to everyone. Now, Ben was about to be a husband, then a father…I don’t remember if he was married in the summer of ’05, yet, or not…in any case we went by the Vajradhatu Publications, which he was the boss of at the tender age of 30, and had a meeting about The Dot, our Shambhala community’s paper.

To his credit, and the credit of the editor-in-chief, they wanted to get my anarchic, outside hit on how it could be better. To my credit, if I may, I said exactly what I thought. “Right now it’s well-designed, great information…but it’s basically a nice brochure. You’re not daring to talk about, to air, any of the issues our sangha [community] is consumed with. You have the power to uplift our gossip, but you’re not doing so.” So they asked me to write about some of those issues.

At the time, I had a small, successful, steadily growing magazine—what’s since become elephantjournal.com. Our next issue was coming out in a few months, and I didn’t have time for anything, even relationships. But I love my community, it’s given me everything (sanity, for example) and I agreed to write about the troubling issues that were, well, troubling our community. I wrote the following, only with a bunch of quotes from senior teachers such as Khandro Rinpoche, Lady Diana…which got edited out. Too controversial. Otherwise, they loved it—full steam ahead.

I worked up a second edit, though I was in the midst of production of our next issue, working night and day. That, too, got edited down, taking out more quotes. Finally, the editor judged that my third edit—what follows, I no longer can find the first two or I’d gladly print them here—was “too much me, too much an opinion piece.” I said “Well it’s all ‘me’ because you took out all the quotes!” Fact is, they’d got cold feet—it’s hard to go from glorified community brochure to quality journalism all at once, rather like taking a cold shower (something I’m no fan of).

I was furious—all that time, sticking my neck out there because they asked me to—and then they didn’t back me up, or care enough about our community (in my opinion, that is) to be bold and let a little fresh air of dialogue in. The other day this story came up with some Buddhist friends, and I realized I might have a draft of the article sitting around on my laptop. We all excitedly decided to publish it here, now, years later, on elephantjournal.com. And only this morning did I remember, upon first waking, and come downstairs and search “Khandro Trungpa Sakyong Reggie” and…all I could find was the third draft, the one without half the controversial quotes.

So, here ’tis, a humble offering of honest open air and dialogue, four years too late. May it be of some benefit, or at least a grin or two:

Two Legacies, One Sangha

By Waylon H. Lewis

It may well be ironic, in a community founded upon the notion of impermanence—a community formed by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the rug-pulling, cocoon-popping pioneer who first succeeded in making the genuine Buddhadharma fully accessible to the modern West—that we are still so excited, and upset, by change.

For change, we know, is the only constant.

You want to talk about change? Trungpa Rinpoche, in 17 years, created something very much like a kingdom. Just when Rinpoche was really building this wonderful Buddhist community, he discovered the Shambhala teachings, including that of the Rigden and the primordial Ashe—to the consternation of many of his students. In translating his Tibetan Buddhism into our Western way of life, he promulgated the Dorje Kasung (to the consternation of many of this students), the Dharma Arts including promulgated Kyudo, Miksang, Ikebana and Mudra theater and poetry. He designed a new, Western/Japanese/Tibetan Buddhist shrine, encouraged his early hippie students to tame their hair and dress like bankers. He founded the Vajradhatu Seminary (where he prepared Western students to receive the Vajrayana teachings for the first time). He formed the deleks (designed to further communication within an ever-growing sangha), as well as groups for businesspeople, for those dealing with addiction, and for the mediation of disputes, including divorce. He founded a preschool, Alaya; a middle and high school, Vidya (forebear to the Shambhala School in Halifax); the first Buddhist college in America, Naropa; and nearly 150 meditation centers, both rural and urban, including the Boulder Shambhala Center, Shambhala Mountain, and Karmê Chöling. In his final coup de grace, he asked many of his students to move from the liberal, hip, affluent Boulder, Colorado to the traditional, ocean-bound, relatively poor Canadian city of Halifax.

And in the 17 years since his death, time has not stood still. When I came of age, having completed the 16-year-old Rites of Passage with Will Ryken and Mitchell Levy, the kingdom in which I had been raised was falling apart. The sad controversy surrounding the Regent was just fading, and the various gates, or spokes of Trungpa Rinpoche’s dharma wheel were spinning off from one another. Then, as if on a white horse, the young Sawang (now Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche) arrived on the scene, and took his seat. Suddenly, the various elements of our mandala had a sun, once again, to revolve around. I attended his first seminary that next year, in 1992. He was, by most accounts, a little green for the job of leading 500 students through the first two yanas and, with the pointing-out transmission, into the Vajrayana teachings. He was known to mumble a little, to go off on tangents, to clear his throat an awful lot. But he sat up there on his father’s black lacquer teaching chair, and instructed a new generation of hungry students in the best way he knew how—by example.

“Every other day someone comes up to me and says, ‘Did you hear the latest?’ ‘Did you hear about Reggie?’ It’s all so gossipy. Our sangha as a whole has no uplifted public communication. I don’t know. I think something could be put out there in a way that addressed people’s confusion and what’s genuinely going on without stirring the pot any further.” —anonymous student, November 2004

For some years many of us have remarked that, among the many wonderful qualities our Shambhala sangha has found itself uniquely blessed with, an uplifted forum for open, non-discursive communication has not always been one of them. When the Regent controversy began, Rick Fields, editor of the Vajradhatu Sun, resigned in protest when he found his coverage circumscribed. The paper you now hold in your hands is, of course, the descendant of the Sun. So let’s get to it: how do we discuss good and bad, happy and sad events in a manner that serves to increase understanding, rather than solidify viewpoints? That is the hard, but not unwelcome task I have been given with this article.

“Last night we were watching a video of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche talking about Shambhala ngöndro. He was talking about how in Tibet, there wasn’t particularly a whole lot to do. And people in the audience laughed. And he said “But here, we’re all busy-busy.” He was saying, “Something like 25% of my students aren’t completing the traditional preliminary practices. So let’s shorten them.” It seems like that’s a radical Westernization, or adaptation of Buddhism to Western culture. Or would you say that’s an adaptation from Tibetan culture?” —anonymous student, Fall 2004

When he was only 28, his father died. Trained from birth to rule the kingdom of Shambhala—Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche must have felt, once again, lonely indeed. For his was a tremendous responsibility. He had shoes to fill that were unfillable. His father, Trungpa Rinpoche had wanted the Buddhadharma to be promulgated through Westerners, and had appointed a regent, Thomas Rich, to do so. But Mr. Rich, known as Ösel Tendzin, contracted HIV, and his death only a few years after Trungpa Rinpoche’s left a community divided more than anyone might have imagined only a few years before, when Trungpa’s passing merited the cover of the New York Times and features in the biggest magazines in America.

Three mornings ago, I left my job behind, hopped on my bike, and wheeled down to the Boulder Courthouse. There, I waited with a few hundred other sangha members and Boulderites to greet Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and his fiancée, Semo Tseyang Palmo, a lovely Tibetan Princess, gifted in the historic dances of Gesar of Ling, and fluent in five languages. Later that night, at Shambhala Mountain Center, nearly 1,000 of us greeted the newlyweds—seated regally on a stage with the great Tiger-Lion-Garuda-Dragon and GES flag behind them. It felt less, perhaps, as if I were in cowboy country in the 21st century than as if I were in Camelot…it felt as if the Kingdom of Shambhala were being realized, on the spot. Old and young friends greeted each other with open eyes and slightly stunned smiles.

In the 17 years between Trungpa Rinpoche’s passing and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s fully ‘coming into his own,’ as many have put it—much has changed. And every step of the way, we’ve been troubled, or excited, or hesitant. And all too often, we’ve processed these changes the old-fashioned way—through talking about it with our friends. It’s also known as gossip. For we haven’t always had the chance to communicate our feelings, confusions, etc. in a more open, public sphere. Is Shambhala Ngöndro a brilliant new synthesis, or is it merely a convenient shortcut, an Americanization that cuts us off from the ancient Kagyü and Nyingma lineages? Has Mipham Rinpoche blurred the Shambhala and Buddhist teachings in ways unintended by the Vidyadhara? Why is Reggie Ray, one of our most senior Buddhist teachers, leaving Shambhala Mountain for Crestone, and giving up his Acharyahood—a role he was asked to fill by Mipham Rinpoche? Why did Dr. Jules Levinson also give up his Acharyahood? What’s up with Gaylon Ferguson? And why do the Dorje Kasung now favor conventional suits and ties or even just white dress shirts and khaki pants—where once the Vidyadhara delighted in asking a senior Kusung to go to the airport in full, formal British-style uniform, chain-mail epaulets included? Why are Kyudo and Ikebana, cornerstones of the education of Shambhala warriors, gathering dust in many corners of our mandala? Why has Midsummer’s Day, formerly occasion for the full manifestation of Shambhala, become a 10-person barbecue in most sanghas, at best? Why are portraits 16th Karmapa, Dilgö Khyentse Rinpoche, Suzuki Roshi and Jamgon Kongtrül the Great absent from our shrines and places of practice? Why does the Sakyong emphasize following the ‘in’ as well as the ‘outbreath’ in meditation—when his father had chosen a more advanced version for his students, explaining that allowing space made all the difference? Why does the Sakyong emphasize a more literal understanding than did his father of the Buddha realms, and of reincarnation as essential to the proper Buddhist view? Why is the vision of Kalapa Assembly, including talk of King and Queen and Kingdom, now considered a matter for public discourse—where before these were matters of utmost confidentiality? Why is Naropa now a University, largely outside of the governance of our sangha, when before it was an Institute, designed and run by Trungpa Rinpoche and Company? Why is Seminary—once the immersive, flagship program of Vajradhatu, now paired-down into two one-month programs? Why is the Shambhala Training curriculum, including order, titles and content, changed—when Trungpa Rinpoche had put so much effort into designing a series of levels for the education of all? Why is Vajradhatu, for that matter, now called Shambhala?

All these questions—and many others—have the same answer. Change. The cosmic joke is that what we now view as Trungpa Rinpoche’s legacy—a legacy designed with painstaking efforts over 17 years, a legacy designed for the ages, and not merely for the ‘80’s—was an ever-evolving situation. Trungpa Rinpoche was a revolutionary in the tradition of Padmasambhava, Longchenpa, Marpa, Prince Shotoku and King Ashoka. He translated, and transmitted an entire set of teachings from one culture to another. And the Sakyong, his son and heir, is no mini-me—he is his own man, and guru, choosing teachings and forms for his students now. And while Trungpa Rinpoche taught that maintaining our critical intelligence is essential, the changes that occur are, from my experience, not only well-intentioned but conceived with a vision in mind so far beyond what I can see, that it’s as if I were second-guessing a master chess player’s decision to move a single piece.

Change happens to the best of us. The question is not whether it’s good or bad, but whether we can approach such change openly, with critical intelligence and an uplifted manner that does service to our vow to benefit all sentient beings.

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