What is “Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior”? Part I

As many no doubt know, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the shambhalaWarrior is not an idea but a book, authored by Chogyam Trungpa. In the past three decades (first published in 1984) it has no doubt sold as well or better than any spiritual book on the market. Amazon has 178 reviews of the book online – nearly all praise it for its wisdom, practicality, and for the fact that it is not attached to a particular spiritual tradition. As one reviewer put it, “This is Wisdom that anybody could practice anywhere, at any time. I am awed by (Trungpa’s) subtlety, poetry and delicacy of touch.”

As a student of Chogyam Trungpa since 1976, I know a good deal of what went into making the book, and how much Chogyam Trungpa intended Shambhala to be as secular as it was spiritual. By “secular” he meant no division between the sacred and the so-called profane; by “spiritual” he meant simply the human capacity for goodness.

In 1997, Chogyam Trungpa and his students developed a program called Shambhala Training. Heretofore, Trungpa’s message had been Vajrayana Buddhism and all his students were Buddhists or becoming-Buddhists. With Shambhala Training he (and we) taught meditation as a secular path available to anyone. For many years the participants of Shambhala Training were primarily Buddhists, many of them Trungpa’s own students (some of whom took the program reluctantly). Slowly this began to change.

By the early 1980s the program attracted more and more of the public at large. Trungpa would come to Berkeley – where I was the “resident director” of the program – on an annual basis to teach Shambhala Training. So interested was Trungpa in the general public, these “non-Buddhists,” that he would often ask me how many were taking the program. When I’d answer, “Quite a few,” he would smile with a kind of glee.

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior was compiled and edited from talks Chogyam Trungpa initially gave to his students, who then went on to share them with the public through Shambhala Training. Shambhala Training is still being offered through Shambhala International, the organization Chogyam Trungpa founded. The Shambhala message is not confined though to people who have taken Shambhala Training, but is one that also circulates through the book. It is common for one reader to recommend it to another, and so on — one reviewer wrote, “I’ve purchased this book seven times and consistently give it away.” Like the word-of-mouth for a good movie, the book proliferates. Just last week in a coffee shop I frequent, I saw a young man reading it, diligently taking notes.

The foundational message of Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior is that human beings (and all beings, all phenomena) possess basic goodness. Basic goodness is found at the basis of our being as something unconditional. In Tibetan Buddhist terms, Chogyam Trungpa was considered a “terton,” someone able to receive (rather than author) “hidden teachings” meant for this time. The Shambhala books open with these passages from his “terma”:

From the great cosmic mirrorgesar-thagha-2
Without beginning or end,

Human society became manifest.

At that time liberation and confusion arose.

When fear and doubt occurred

Towards the confidence which is primordially free,

Countless multitudes of cowards arose.

When the confidence which is primordially free

Was followed and delighted in,

Countless multitudes of Warriors arose…

The “cosmic mirror” is primordial; something, in Trungpa’s words “not caused by any circumstances.” Through meditation, one glimpses this, an awareness that is the basis of all experience but that, in itself, it is unchanged by experience. If two men fight in front of a mirror, the mirror reflects the fight but is not affected by it. Trunpga described how to relate to the cosmic mirror this way: “The way to look back and experience the state of being of the cosmic mirror is simply to relax.”

What could be more human, more gentle, more needed than to simply relax? This is also the instructions of Mahamudra and Maha Ati, the highest stages of meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist path. Likewise, the experience of God could be seen as ultimate relaxation, a letting go of control but also a awareness of the divine; “Not my will, but thine.” In foregoing spiritual labels, the Shambhala Teachings embrace all traditions – a fearless stance in itself.
To be continued in Part Two.

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

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