December 5, 2012

Shambhala in Crisis: my interview with Executive Director Carolyn Mandelker.

The Halifax Shambhala Center. From my recent visit. More images: @waylonlewis on Instagram

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Inspired to support Shambhala? If we all gave a little now, it’d be on its feet overnight. Click here.

Need more transparency before giving? We hope to dig into that further with Carolyn and others (interview with my friend Michael Gayner of Shambhala Mountain coming up), but for Shambhala members only, some financial info here.

Editor’s introduction.

Shortly after the publication of Shambhala in Crisis (click for context), which listed Three Seeming Obstacles & Three Possible Antidotes, and the following sangha discussion of where we’re at and where we’re going and where we’re coming from, and how to keep all synchronized…I was honored to hear from our Executive Director, Carolyn Mandelker.

She reached out in a spirit of friendly openness and devotion to our mandala—rather than the kind of unnecessarily defensive patriotism I’ve seen on the one hand, or preconception-fueled haterism on the other. Our “middle way” discussion is below.

While I don’t feel like I got in-depth answers on anything, particularly, it was a warm, interesting hourlong conversation (we’d budgeted for 30 minutes to start, so Carolyn was more than generous) and I welcome all such communication (check out her new blog on Shambhala Times, linked below). As with person-to-person relationships on a micro level, raising worries and concerns and needs makes open, uplifted, constructive, forward-looking dialogue possible. And it’s always healthy, though not always easy or “neat.” Chaos, a wise man once said, should be regarded as extremely good news!

Carolyn tentatively has offered a second interview to get into some more depth—if you’d like that, leave a comment below asking specifically what you’d like answered, and if we get enough interest, I’m sure she’ll be up for it. On the other hand, if it’s not needed, that’s okay too. This is all meant to be helpful, and to move things “east,” with communication. If it’s not helpful, I’m happy to go back to blogging about kittens and naked yoga.

Note: As with Shambhala in Crisis, elephantjournal.com passionately welcomes any and all comments and discussion, as long as fair, respectful. This is far more about the sangha as a whole than it is about any point of view, “right” or wrong, that I might hold. I’m interested only in the strength and health of this mandala, and the less I’m a part of this discussion, and the more we can focus on questions and remedies, the better by me. Rude + anonymous comments will be deleted. That said, constructive criticism of anyone or anything (except for myself, I only accept love letters) is welcome and helpful.

With thanks to our executive director and all of us who serve the critical, inspiring vision that is Shambhala, and the teachings of the Kagyu-Nyingma and Shambhala lineages of Chogyam Trungpa and Sakyong Mipham. ~ ed.

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

A Conversation with: Carolyn Mandelker, Executive Director of Shambhala International.

Waylon Lewis, elephant journal (inspired by VCTR’s vision), “Dharma Brat,” student of SMR: So, first of all, Carolyn, I want to thank you for reaching out following my crude attempt at summing up some of the challenges to our community, and some proposed solutions.

Carolyn Mandelker, Executive Director of Shambhala International: Well, I think one segment of the interview should be about Shambhala’s financial situation. 1) Is Shambhala hemorrhaging? 2) What plans are there to rectify the financial model?  3) Do you feel Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings are included in the current curriculum and how?  4) Are the senior students excluded from teaching in Shambhala?

Waylon Lewis, elephant journal, “Dharma Brat,” student of SMR: I’m more than happy to start with the questions you suggested we address first—there’s an endless number of questions—many were sent in from the sangha, and I hope to get to them if we do another interview—and solutions and issues we could go over, so we’ll just do what we can and we can do another interview if you have time and interest, and we feel like we didn’t get to anything.

Carolyn Mandelker, Executive Director of Shambhala International: My pleasure, Waylon.  I know that you care deeply about Shambhala and want to help work on the  challenges of our growing community.

Waylon Lewis: You bet I do! I love Shambhala, always have, and owe it everything. Trungpa Rinpoche reminded us always to retain critical thinking, that our devotion can’t be theistic but has to retain a sense of inquisitveness and humor and that we actually have to all contribute if we want to see GES [Great Eastern Sun—the vision of society and human nature as always waking up, fundamentally good] vision accomplished.

So, first of all, Shambhala’s financial situation: Is Shambhala International struggling, or as I put it “hemorraghing?”

Carolyn Mandelker: Yes and no.

Last year we experienced about 10% growth on average throughout the mandala. That means that the centres and groups, on average, grew in terms of the number of people attending programs and becoming members.

However, that growth did not make its way to the centre of the mandala, because of the way we are structured.  So the centre of the mandala had to reduce its staff at the same time that the mandala as a whole is growing!

Waylon Lewis: So that sounds like a healthy year after all. Is the “federal” level struggling, then? If so, how can we help?

Carolyn Mandelker: Well, we will be piloting the new “unified giving model” which structures things so that there is a clear relationship between the centres and the centre of the mandala. When the centres grow, then so too will the funding to the centre of the mandala. In turn, the centre of the mandala will be strong and able to further support growth in the centres.

So each piece supports the whole.

Waylon Lewis: So centers would pay a portion of their income to the “federal” level?

Carolyn Mandelker: Yes. This model has been in place in Europe for some time, with the centres funding Shambhala Europe.

Waylon Lewis: And centers are open to this? I’m sure it’s hard for them but they value the “federal” support.

Carolyn Mandelker: There is a lot of support for this model within the community. It makes sense to people. The centre of the mandala has not had its own independent revenue source. We exist to support the centres, yet we had to fundraise from individuals to support our activity.

We already have about five centres who will begin to pilot within the next month or so. There are more who have asked to be included. So yes, I think there is a lot of support. One centre, Victoria, has already offered to increase its transfers to the centre to a 10% level, even before the full Unified Giving Model is piloted.

Waylon Lewis: This speaks to the heart of my first concern in “Shambhala in Crisis”—overwhelmed administration. I think we clearly have good, well-intentioned people with tons of talent. But we haven’t been able to pay them sufficiently. This is an aggravated problem at Naropa [University], too.

We have a surfeit of devotion and talent, but not paying folks well enough leads to burnout and turnover. Not sure if that applies to Shambhala International, but when I was (unpaid) on board of Boston Shambhala Center many years ago, as Rusung, I saw it firsthand. But then when I worked with Jeff Waltcher at Shambhala Mountain Center, we tried to pay folks well and it was a whole new ballgame, with increased accountability and professionalism.

Carolyn Mandelker: Yes, we have tremendously devoted people who are willing and inspired to work for less than market pay. Myself included! There isn’t anything I’d rather be doing, frankly.  We do work hard, but we also allow ourselves some flexibility and we’ve received a wealth of teachings and practices aimed at working with our energy.  That’s inspiring!

Waylon Lewis: On a local level in Halifax, NY, Boulder etc, there seems to be a split between “new” administration, students, curriculum, and “elder” students, elder teachers, and traditional programs. Is there a way for both to work together?

Carolyn Mandelker: Yes, there is somewhat of a split in some of the larger centres particularly. It’s unfortunate. While many senior students and newer, younger students do work together and practice together, there are some people who are clearly within one group or another–along the lines you mention. It’s interesting that this line has formed (at least in Halifax) between the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa and the new curriculum.

One of the intentions of the new curriculum, was to overcome divisions of any kind on our path–the intention was to go forward with one path, without asking people to choose Shambhala or Buddhism, Trungpa Rinpoche or Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.  Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings are included throughout the new curriculum.  if you look at the new Basic Goodness classes, there are many more readings from Trungpa Rinpoche’s books than from the Sakyong. The first course is based primarily on the very early teachings on the arising of the 5 skandhas. The core reading is the classic development of ego for the first three classes.

Waylon Lewis: When I was in Halifax, recently, as I mentioned I think in the first article, I went to the rather poorly attended birthday celebration of the Sakyong one day, and got to see most of his awesome recent public talk given to a packed house in San Francisco of newbies. It was a good talk, and it was great seeing him connect with the greater public, which is a part of our mission—offering the teachings and practices of sanity to all, without proselytizing.

The next night, I went to VCTR’s video of his talk at Naropa in 1975, at the Shambhala School—even more poorly attended, with zero newer students, but a number of amazing elders. I was told it was held there because there was no longer room for Trungpa’s video night at the Shambhala Center.

The split of old and new, as I said in Shambhala in Crisis, creates the worst of both worlds—a lack of continuity, a cutting of the thread of training and tradition, and learning and humor, and heart, and a separation between those with new ideas and those with rich experience.

The new curriculum, as far as I’ve heard, has exacerbated that split by replacing what little was left of the timeless, time-tested curriculum. Is there a New and Classic [see suggestion here] option—a way to have two tracks so that older students can fully appreciate the Sakyong’s innovation and newer students can access both?

Carolyn Mandelker: Waylon, I wasn’t involved in those discussions about the location of the Trungpa Rinpoche video night…I do know that we have many more activities than we can house at the Halifax Shambhala Centre, and that we have to hold some of our programs outside of the Shambhala Centre–other kinds of programs in addition to the Monday night video classes.

Waylon Lewis: The same sort of split happens here, and in NY—young and old students alike gathering separately to study more Rimé style—teachings by SMR, VCTR, other teachers. That doesn’t seem welcome at Shambhala Centers, these days?

I’m a student of the Sakyong, and a personal fan and friend, as it were. And I don’t see why we need to lose so many senior students, so much teaching and financial resources, so much wonderful rich time-tested curriculum…how can we reestablish Shambhala as a powerful center for American Buddhism, and not just a wonderful club for Shambhalians?

Carolyn Mandelker: Well, gathering to study teachings by SMR, VCTR, of course that’s welcome and frequently done! We don’t tend to organize events to study teachings by other teachers because we have a vast curriculum and body of teachings that are unique to us.

Most of the other teachers have their own groups and centres in North America nowadays, and those are the best places to study their teachings.

[some questions and answers are a bit jumbled, order-wise—we had a lot of going back and forth! ~ ed.]

Waylon Lewis: Growing up, we welcomed teachers and teaching from many traditions—Suzuki Roshi‘s portrait was on the wall at Karma Dzong, along with the Karmapa, Dilgo Khyentse, etc. Now we don’t even welcome Dzigar Kongtrul’s wife, Elizabeth, to teach at the Shambhala Center. It makes us feel insecure and small, and we’re neither.

Carolyn Mandelker: [in answer to different question] The new curriculum is a dance of both of [Trungpa Rinpoche and the Sakyong’s] teachings, and feels appropriate to this time. It’s a living tradition, and it includes both!

Waylon Lewis: It is a living tradition, of course—but it’s also a tradition of continuity, of thread.

And so many senior students have left, now, because they’re told they can no longer teach, or have to teach a certain way, that it’s become more and more difficult for me on a basic level to have confidence that when I send my public friends to the Shambhala Center for an Open House that they’ll have a good experience. I now always go with them, having found out who the teacher is first. In another five years I’ll likely have children, and I’d selfishly like to see my children be able to participate in and learn from and give back to a world that can help them train and tame their minds and hearts and be of real use to a wonderful world that’s full of suffering.

As senior teacher Michael Chender [one of many no longer empowered to teach] said in a comment or question in my blog,

“Building an “enlightened society” over the de facto muting of a large section of its pioneers is a strange idea.

[Mr. Chender’s full comment is in the comments section here]

I’ve known Adam since Boston and like him. There is however some dynamic where the Sakyong is innovating at the expense of his father’s teachings, students and legacy, when [if there could be New & Classic options both offered] they are in fact both profound, rich, amazing…and fundamentally complementary.

Carolyn Mandelker: I was speaking with Acharya Lobel yesterday. We spoke about the new curriculum and this particular question that you raise. He gave the example that the teachings that Trungpa Rinpoche gave from 1971-1974 were amazing, but that it takes work to integrate those teachings with a changing world and with the Sakyong’s up to date teachings. That’s what he has done in the new curriculum, in consultation with several acharyas [empowered senior teachers] who worked on the original curricula. To teach it, senior students would have to look at what the Sakyong is teaching right now.

I know what you mean about checking out the teachers first before taking your friends to the Shambhala Centre…I was doing that way back in the 80’s, even when the senior students were the only ones teaching!  My daughter is now 17, and she is just exploring the Shambhala Training levels and recently took the first basic goodness class. She loved it, wants to do more, and came home talking about the skandhas, how she had begun to question what she thought of as her identity…I don’t feel worried about my children not benefiting from a profoundly transformative path when they go to Shambhala…

Waylon Lewis:
Amen. Good to hear. (But disagree)

Carolyn Mandelker: Okay!

Waylon Lewis: One of hundreds of questions from the public on our various blogs and FB pages, and twitter: a fun one.

Why does Carolyn do what she does?  What makes her love working for Shambhala? I think knowing this is knowing the key to what she thinks Shambhala has to offer.

Carolyn Mandelker: Hmmmm. I love working for Shambhala because it is an extreme sport!

Waylon Lewis: So, that will be the last question for this round. Thanks for your time. If there’s a call for more questions in comments and it seems there’s much we haven’t touched upon or dug down into thoroughly enough, Carolyn might be willing to do another half hour of conversation.

Carolyn Mandelker: I love working for Shambhala because Shambhala has played an extremely transformative role in my life, and because I see that it does the same for others. I believe in its power, I love the community, and I want to see it express its power to transform the world. I’d like to spend my life doing that. I am so fortunate to feel such a sense of joy and purpose–and I am characteristically undaunted by difficulties!

Waylon Lewis: Well thank you so much for your good cheer and starting your blog and video blog. We need more communication, which is something we (ironically) didn’t have time to get into this round. With more communication comes better morale, understanding, growth, fundraising…and less gossip and complaint.

Deep bow for everything and especially for helping my mommy today [my mom works with Shambhala, and recently broke her leg].

Carolyn Mandelker: Yes, please do check out my blog–there’s a lot of communication happening there.  I bow down to you, an accomplished blogger. Although I am just beginning, I am loving it so far.

And thank you Waylon, for asking the challenging questions and for your gigantic heart and work. And a deep bow to you too.


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


Bonus: a few videos from Carolyn’s new blog:


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