Shambhala in Crisis: & 3 Ways to Fix It.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Nov 23, 2012
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Update: All updates have been moved here.

Shambhala Mandala in Crisis: & 3 Ways to Fix It.

A Sense of Urgency; We Can No Longer Afford to Brush Concerns Under the Rug.

The unsurpassable teacher is the precious Buddha,
The unsurpassable protector is the precious Holy Dharma,
The unsurpassable guide is the precious Sangha
To the unsurpassable Three Jewels I make this offering.
~ Buddhist Opening Chant


For those of you who may not know, and those of us who may forget why we care, Shambhala is more than a Buddhist community. It’s a worldwide, diverse container in which meditation, and the accessible (and actually fun) teachings of sanity, are made available to all. As the UN doctrine states, it’s in the minds of men where wars begin—and therefore, it’s in the minds of men where we must create peace. Meditation does that. Furthermore, the Shambhala mandala takes this kind of peace-making off the meditation cushion, in what we term “post-meditation”—you know, everyday life.

From Shambhala Centers in every city to rural meditation retreats, to the Dorje Kasung service organization (kinda like…grown-up Buddhist Boy/Girl Scouts, pretty much the best thing ever), to translation committees and books and Dharma Art and schools, the Shambhala mandala has been a strong, but vulnerable society for decades, now.

For the first time, over the past year, I’ve heard whisperings (never publicly acknowledged) that Shambhala is in trouble. I’ve heard more than just the usual complaints—I’ve heard reasonable, wise, experienced and young leaders alike talk about organizational, financial problems. I’ve been hearing this for a year, waiting for someone knowledgeable and wise to communicate with us about what’s going on and what we can do to help.

But positive change comes from the bottom, up, sometimes. Lately, I’ve talked with senior students and the new generation of leaders, and heard the same problems described from different points of view, all united by a sense of exhaustion and a resigned willingness to “let it all go.”

I’m not cool with that. Shambhala isn’t about us, or our community. It’s for the world. Trungpa Rinpoche and the Sakyong both regarded their teachings and our community as a vehicle for offering sanity and real joy to a world beset by unnecessary suffering and neurosis.

Shambhala can be fixed. While I may not have an accurate handle on the problems, or solutions, here’s my best shot. I invite you to offer your *constructive* evaluation of our challenges and solutions below in the comments section.

Yours in the Great Eastern Sun,

Waylon Lewis


First, two videos each of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his son and heir, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche—both worth listening to in the spirit of getting past our projections of them and remembering their fundamental message.

Shambhala appears to be in nothing less than crisis—still fixable, however.

I grew up in Vajradhatu, now known as Shambhala, the biggest and strongest and loudest Buddhist community in the United States. Thirty years later, it’s falling apart.

Shambhala is hemorrhaging money month by month (I’m not at liberty to name numbers, but hemorrhaging is apt, and without hyperbole). We’re insecure (we now exclude teachers from other traditions at our many Shambhala Centers, whereas before we were a big tent, the umbrella under which all Buddhist lineages drew strength). We’re staffed and led by valiant but often overwhelmed, head-down, passionate (it’s impossible to generalize—Shambhala is led by many responsible, kind servants—but by and large appointments seemed characterized not by a desire for leadership or entrepreneuralism or outward-facing, magnetizing troublemaking…but rather by enthusiastic allegiance to new curriculum. Everyone’s doing the best they can, and better. Everyone’s trying). We’re divided in two: the Sakyong‘s innovation (which is profound and needed) has step-by-step replaced his father, Chogyam Trungpa‘s teachings, classes, paths. And elder students, with their enthusiasm, deep training, joy and…money…have left in waves, wave after wave after wave over the years. Another wave of “culture loss” and diaspora just occurred.

For the first time since I was 16 or so—when the Shambhala sangha (community) was painfully split by Trungpa‘s death and then his successor’s inglorious fall and, then, saved by the Sakyong, young and uneager to teach, riding forth as if on a white horse to lead and heal our community—my community seems poised to fall apart, to dissolve, to become a fractured shadow of its former mainstream, well-known, joyful, outward-facing self.

Let me be clear: I’m not partisan, here. I’m loyal to the Sakyong, my teacher, and have personally experienced that he’s a profound vehicle for the Dharma, the teachings of Buddhism, and the Shambhala lineage. I’m also born and brought up in the spiritually-rich society that his father, Chogyam Trungpa, created. There is no conflict. In this phenomenal world, on both practical and spiritual levels, there’s plenty of room for both styles and manifestations—of course, both strengthen one another.

@waylonlewis on Instagram: Photo taken at Shambhala Sun offices.

That said, mistakes have been made and continue to be made, and the Sakyong would be the first to say that as our community’s leader, and first servant (service is the ultimate smile), responsibility is his first. And, simultaneously, any blame and responsibility belongs equally to myself, and all of us in the Shambhala mandala. It’s up to us. All of us.

The problems, as I see them—having talked with those close to the Sakyong, as well as those more on “the outside”, as well as those in administration—are few, and workable. But our problems are urgent, and will kill the sangha, if not fixed now, by leader servants who can address them.

Three Problems, Three Solutions.

1. While the Shambhala Sangha is vast, and led ably by President Richard Reoch and many devoted servants, money is beyond tight. Changes to curriculum have encouraged old students to defect, taking their donations, energy and service with them, and a few of the large rural centers are buckling beneath hard luck and incompetent business administration. Our umbrella is small—we don’t invite enough new energy in, we squash programs and replace them with less-attended substitutes, we have actively disinvited teachers from other traditions and communities.

Problem: overwhelmed administration.

Solution: appoint leader servants who are devoted not just to the Sakyong, but to the actual fulfillment of his vision—which means we need folks happy to get dirt under their fingernails, to reach out and invite involvement from our community, who know how to smile, and mean it, and to be tender and hard-working, all at the same time. We need to do a better job supporting, paying, training, and connecting with our hard-working leaders.

2. Senior students and teachers are leaving in droves—taking with them their money and training. They could and should be mentoring, passing the baton to the next generation, and teaching publicly. Instead, they’re bitching and moaning, disrespected, unable to teach (unempowered by the Sakyong‘s new teachings), curriculum changed again and again until they’re irrelevant. Only, the aren’t irrelevant—they’re our core, our base, the heart that pumps blood throughout the corporeal mass that is a healthy Shambhala.

Problem: We need our elder students and our newer students and curriculum to be interconnected.

Change happens; it’s fine and inevitable. But it need not happen at the expense of worthwhile tradition and experience, or you get what we got: the worst of both worlds, where Shambhala Centers are under-loved and burnout is a constant danger, and elders are disrespected and pushed aside, taking their teaching and money with them. 

Solution: when Coca Cola came out with New Coke, there was a rebellion. Smartly, Coke listened, reacted, and brought out Coca Cola Classic to assuage the (wallets and) loyalty of their countless, yet fickle fans. We need a “Coke Classic” track: a renewal of Lineage and Devotion and the countless other programs and teachings and practices that have been shunted aside as new replaced old timeless. Then Trungpa-loving folks, satiated, would realize the Sakyong can and should innovate all he likes. The Sakyong’s teachings are profound and timely, I’m told (I’m one of many who, despite not being a hater, has fallen behind and beneath wave after wave of curriculum change). If I could send my future children to Seminary, Alaya, to Ikebana or Kyudo, to Shambhala schools, to Shambhala Training, to video talks by Trungpa Rinpoche to the mandala that I grew up within, that would be glorious, wonderful, amazing. If simultaneously, newer students could enjoy the Sakyong‘s new teachings, his new books (which deserve devoted, professional campaigns behind them—they’re great books) then the Sakyong would become what he should be, and what the world needs—a teacher of Buddhism, meditation and Shambhala values and practices to the world, to millions and not just our little community—his books renowned and his face on the cover of magazines, a guest of talk shows (he’s funny, wise, eloquent…and, ladies, cute), etc. A reference point for joyful sanity in a world beset by strife and suffering.

3. On a practical level, the Shambhala mandala is losing vast sums of money, monthly. Time is urgent.

Appoint folks who can handle money, magnetize morale first and donations second and money-making New and Classic curriculums, third. Cut unnecessary expenses (like airfare and extravagances for extended family, perhaps). Invite other teachers to use (and contribute) to our mandala. Well-loved President Reoch and the many devoted directors of centers, and acharyas (senior teachers) deserve help, and better pay. Reconnect with a weakened Naropa, a strong Shambhala Sun/Buddhadharma/Mindful, elephant, Shambhala Pubs—any sangha-created organization that can help.

Problem: Money.

Solution: Leadership that can communicate; heal rift between Classic and New; fundraise and run Shambhala like the profitable social-benefit business that it could be.

Coda: I write the above reluctantly—I’m out of my depth on this, of course, though I took time to talk with old and new, in and out folks—but someone needed to say something and invite a constructive dialogue (douchey comments will be deleted). The many inaccuracies and faults in the above “problems” and “solutions” are my fault, alone. The above is offered out of devotion and enthusiasm for seeing Shambhala continue to offer a fun, practical, open community for meditation and social-benefit to all, everywhere, for another hundred kalpas.

The Sakyong and his Queen. A kitchen shrine is a wonderful way to honor the fundamental intention behind nourishment.

Without Shambhala, I would be suffering immensely and of little use to anyone. It taught and trained me to be human. I owe it everything—and like most of us those looking in from the outside, my ignorance about how to help does not mean that I wouldn’t happily answer a call to help in a capacity I have any energy and skill for. I’ve offered in various contexts, many times, as many of those inactive Shambhala students out there have done. That failing is addressed above.

We need flowering leadership, not lids.


By this merit may all attain enlightenment,
May it defeat the enemy, wrong-doing,
From the stormy waves of birth, aging, sickness & dying,
From the ocean of suffering may I free all beings.
~ Buddhist Closing Dedication of Merit


Update, some relephant perspective:


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.


112 Responses to “Shambhala in Crisis: & 3 Ways to Fix It.”

  1. […] honoring the past, or tradition, even as we stretch forward into the future. She reminded me of the struggles of my Buddhist community to innovate while respecting the old ways, lineage, the tried and true. We’re very good at […]

  2. Chuckie_Brookes says:

    We can feel contented no matter how great or small our circumstances. That's my experience of late.

  3. Harper says:

    I'm really sorry to hear that Shambhala is in trouble. I started my journey as a Buddhist there, but stopped practicing after feeling like I wasn't going to really be included in the community without spending thousands of dollars on training. I'm not sure if that's a common experience though or just my own… Later down the road, I was lucky enough to find my spiritual home in Nichiren Buddhism and received gohonzon with the SGI. I continue to be pretty astounded by what the SGI community achieves while being run (almost) entirely volunteer power. I think a lot of this success is due to a deeply rooted focus on member care. As a leader, the main priority is always about connecting on an individual, heart level with the members of your sangha, and making sure everyone feels genuinely cared for. Shambhala has some lovely teachings, and while there might be some systematic problems, I'm sure if your members strive to connect with each other in a sincere, heartfelt, and faith-filled way there shouldn't be any reason why the organization can't thrive. I know how rough it can be when a community you love is under distress and I hope Shambhala is able to get back on a good track soon.

  4. Joe P. says:

    Shambhala is the sangha but it's also an institution meant to "help the whole world"? You, Michael Chender and others are casting this as a group/social issue to be ironed out within a "community". But I think that there are a number of longstanding ambiguities and assumptions that confuse this issue. It's deeper than just an updating to "newer cultural patterns".

    Students of CTR were expected to become students of SMR. Vajradhatu Buddhists were expected to enter into Shambhala as a natural next step. On the one hand, as Buddhists, practice comes first. On the other hand, the project of building enlightened society is the raison d'etre of Shambhala. These are inherent, unresolved contradictions. You describe Shambhala as a "worldwide, diverse container" of teachings. Yet within Shambhala there's only one, narrowly defined path of practice. It's always been that way; sort of a Dharma academy, with a single, specific, graded path for all. But now that path is… to what? Is it the spiritual Path, or a path to becoming subjects in the Enlightened Kingdom, or is it training for a life of social action?
    That matters.

    The Sakyong himself has said that Buddhism is for getting enlightened and Shambhala is for creating enlightened society. Those are two very different things. Does the systematic purging of Buddhism from Shambhala, then, mean that spiritual practice is to be deprecated in favor of evangelism and church-building? Or maybe this is more a change in emphasis from "prayer" to "acts"?

    Many older students are dismayed over the purging of Buddhist teachings within Shambhala. They've travelled far along a path that's now seemingly being discarded. But it's not merely an issue of acclimating to change. Those people helped build the foundation and infrastructure that Shambhala the institution now uses, with the idea that they were embarking on spiritual Path. Those people bought the buildings, paid the mortgages, staffed the programs. On the one hand they're students of CTR. On the other hand, it's now the Sakyong's organization. The Sakyong is a different teacher who is taking things in a different direction. How does that work? People put their effort into Vajradhatu but now it's arguably not even Buddhist anymore. The Sakyong is the Shambhala heir. What about the Dharma heir? Is that Patrick Sweeney? Or has this Dharma lineage been ended? Did CTR himself perhaps ordain these developments? Or are they the result of top-level power struggles? Do the students of CTR "owe it to him" to stay with Shambhala? Is Shambhala by definition their path, no matter how it develops? Why? Does devotion extend to the guru's son?

    In the midst of all these contradictions, conflation or blurring of concepts, and apparent differences in priorities, Vajradhatu/Shambhala has nevertheless developed over the years as a single organization with centralized leadership and finances. How does that work?

    It's not for me to answer these questions (except for myself). And I daresay it's also not for you to answer them. Though I think these questions are worthy of practitioners' reflection. So perhaps it would help if you start with clarifying your own assumptions and views that underlie your own position.

    You seem to feel that Shambhala as institution is the most important aspect and must be saved, for the world's sake. If need be, it should be re-marketed to students of CTR. As someone who grew up in Vajradhatu/Shambhala you apparently also see Shambhala as a community or family, which you also feel needs to be saved by making whatever changes are needed to do that. Those views imply numerous, definitive assumptions and value judgements that are not necessarily shared by others.

    The word "community" is devilishly ambiguous. Like "love" and "faith", it's been assigned a positive connotation, despite its many shades of meaning. My circa 1980, pre-PC, Websters dictionary defines community as a group of people living together with common interests. As actual community has dissipated in modern society, the word community has become merely a valorizing, credential-bestowing label for any special interest group, no matter how trivial: artist community, anti-drunk-driving community, Safeway shoppers community, etc. Sangha is not necessarily a community in either sense. Sangha is the group of practitioners who orient their lives according to the Path rather than worldly interests. It's a group of people who share Path, acting as alarm clocks (as Gurdjieff put it) to help each other wake up. Sangha is not a club or a family or an institution. Awake comes first. Or as the tirelessly theatrical Zen followers like to put it: If you meet Buddha in the road, kill him. If either the institution or the "community" is pre-eminent then sangha (and Dharma) is not served.

    Some of us came for the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

  5. Minuteman says:

    The Shambhala organization and the approach it has created and refines seems, in my view, to overemphasize the growth of the organization (or, to take a more positive slant, "community") over the individual meditator's spiritual path. I recently visited a European city center where, during the breaks in the program, most of the discusssion among the participants was about the activities of the Sakyong and his spouse, rather than the teachings presented in the program. While this may give the participants some common currency in their discussions, it left me feeling that the atmosphere was much more cult-like than I remember from earlier years. I felt as if I was back in Boulder in 1982, but without the profound teachings that accompanied Trungpa's eccentricities. Given how many other sources now exist to obtain "certified" Buddhist teachings of various types, Shambhala no longer has the near-monopoly that its predecessor had in the early '80s on Buddhist teachings in the West. It is now, in my view, appealing to a much more limited segment of the population, both in Europe and North America than it did in the 1980s. In my region of Europe, attendance at programs is declining — two people per Nyinthun is common. (I would note however that there does seem to be growth in Shambhala programs in the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe — here of course Shambhala has no history and there are much fewer competing Buddhist resources). So "Let it fall apart"…this, in my view, primarily refers to an organization — if the teachings are valid, then people will continue to seek them out and there would still an audience, though perhaps in more humble digs.

  6. Leann says:

    Just wanted to say thank you for this article as well. As a very new practitioner (2011), my connection to this form of practice has been tempered with so many things left unspoken, that I'm not sure this is a lineage that wants people to commit to it, and your article hits on exactly the things I'm concerned about. I've heard talking about the course material changes (with heavy sighs and eye rolling), meaningful glances about the new courses vs "what we used to teach" (which I would *love* if someone could tell me what the difference is) and much hush-hushness about the way things are. Coming from a zen background for many years, I am left completely befuddled in all of this process. How can my heart feel so strongly about something that has this many layers of opinions/sideways glances/etc?

    Waylon, I will buy you dinner if you would please explain to this new potential student just what the heck am I missing? What the heck is everyone *not* saying? Because as much as you don't say it and it gets tossed around boards like these, it makes it seem like the true dharma eye has become clouded. But because of this levels/ stages of a path type of system, I can't seem to get a straight answer out of anyone. And "anyone" is pretty darn limited out in the east coast where I am. The center I visit is 5 hours away. I have a 9-5 job and health concerns and can't just hop out to boulder for a week to see what I can see. So i have a home practice with what little I've been taught and have 3- 6 month gaps inbetween access to people at a center. I'm exploring other lineages but I keep finding myself connecting with articles and sayings that I find linked to Shambhala, so I keep trying to explore this connection.

    I just want to know what you and others are not saying. I'll be honest, the hiding of what things are like makes me feel like I might be contemplating joining something that's not going to help me get clear, but just cloud up my beliefs more than they already are. How can I get clear in a system that's working to keep things covered? I don't know anything about the Kagyu lineage practices, nor older students who can help me understand what everyone seems to want to say but won't.

  7. Janelle says:

    Thank you for expressing exactly how I feel, Jennifer. Your comments made me feel less isolated.

  8. Janelle says:

    I connected deeply with the teachings, but have had some utterly heart-breaking experiences in the sangha in terms of unkind behavior. I have seen a lot of awful shit too. I heard Shambhala described by others in different Tibetan Buddhist lineages as a well-known "toxic sangha" with more serious problems than other sanghas. I am wondering if this is true since this is my first experience in a dharma setting. Thanks

  9. Jonah says:

    I was heavily involved with Shambhala for about a year but then left. Shambhala has most of the signs of being a cult, albeit a very tame one under its present leadership. The potential for abuse is there. Shambhala shows an overzealous and unquestioning relationship with its leader – who essentially declared himself a Buddhist king and whose yearly salary is more than what the Prime Minister of Canada makes. If you question Shambhala teachings you are made to feel unwelcome. Excessive meditation in their programs (hours upon hours) puts people in a pliable altered state. It's teachings suggest how to act, think, and feel in everyday life. The group is elitist, based on what levels or programs you have done. They hold polarized teachings between warriors and cowards, enlightened and unenlightened, great eastern sun vs. the setting sun. In their programs they make participants do exercises that are weird and out of place. It's preoccupied with making money through programs and bringing new people in. Chogyam Trungpa was most definitely a classic cult leader – he had sex with his students, blew money on drugs and booze, made people wake up in the middle of the night, even forced people to strip down in front of groups. This isn't Buddhism.

  10. Rigdzin Chodron says:

    I was involved with Shambhala for about 3 years, and I completed the curriculum through Sutrayana Seminary, a hefty investment. Nearly all of it was completely joyful. Then I met another teacher and felt a strong karmic connection. I have deep respect for the Sakyong and would try to be his student id Shambhala did not demand that his students be devoted to only him and no others. The great siddhas and yogis of the past sought teachings from teachers all over India. Though the relationship with a root guru is special, I see no precedent in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism for disallowing a student to request or attend teachings from other teachers. Though I feel at home practicing in Shambhala centers, I am discouraged when people try to suss out who I am and where I am on the path in the guise of being welcoming, only to visibly shrink back when I am pressed and explain I spent a good amount of time Voluntering at another teachers land center. This sectarian divisiveness saddens me. Shambhala possesses an absolute truth, but it is a mistake to assume it is the exclusive holder of absolute truth. I am someone who happily would contribute my time, money, and labor to propagating the dharma, including Shambhala Dharma, if I didnt feel discriminated against based on my dharma path once I come into a Shambhala Center.

    I pose no threat. Despite having climbed through several tiers of Shambhala curriculum, I am treated like a distrusted outsider. I love Shambhala, I am just waiting for Shambhala to open its heart and love me back.

  11. Janelle415 says:

    I agree with you, Jonah. I came to Shambhala when i was vulnerable and it nearly ruined my life because of the Chogyam Trungpa imitators who did not respect the physical and emotional space of the female practitioners. When I dared complain, I was shunned and silenced.

  12. ashoka says:

    fuck im late on this but Gordon god damn your replies are soooo good