Conversations on the Convergence of Buddhism, Technology, and Global Culture

BG 170: Enlightened Society


Episode Description:

This week we’re joined by the President of Shambhala, Richard Reoch. Along with overseeing the Shambhala organization, Richard is also a long time human rights, activist, and environmental leader. With this unique background, we thought it would be particularly relevant to explore the topic of “enlightened society.” Enlightened society was an idea presented by Chogyam Trunpa, but which he said was originally taught by the Buddha. We explore what Trungpa meant by the term, and how it has evolved over the past few decades in the Shambhala community.

We also look at the parallels, between the path of the activist and the contemplative path. With one we are trying to fix ourselves (often), and the other we are trying to fix the world. As Richard says, both are paths where one moves first from a position of arrogance toward one of humility.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vince Horn, and I’m recording live today and the Boulder Shambhala Center. We’re up in the top floor in a suite that I’ve never seen, and it looks like there’s some pretty amazing pictures of Chogyam Trungpa in here and some calligraphy work. The right setting for our interview today with Richard Reoch. He’s the president of Shambhala currently, and he’s got a long history, not only as a spiritual practitioner and leader but also as a human rights leader. He was formerly the Global Media Chief of Amnesty and also has held and holds now a host of other leadership positions for various human rights and environmentalism organizations.

So, Richard, thank you so much for taking the time. I know you’re busy teaching and traveling and doing work., hanks for chatting with us today.

Richard: It’s my pleasure to join you, and probably when you broadcast this it won’t be the 20th of April, but I’m sure that all the Buddhist Geeks out there will be delighted to know that we recorded this on 4/20. And instead of being out at the CU campus in a blinding haze of wondrous smoke, we are here where the only smoke is incense.

Vince: [Laughs] Absolutely, absolutely. And so, today, I thought it would be really interesting to speak with you about topics that I know you’ve spent a lot of time considering, and that are probably close to your heart.

The first was the original idea that Chogyam Trungpa taught a lot on of enlightened society. And the name Shambhala itself, I know, is a reference to Shangri-La, which is a mythical, sort of, enlightened culture—an Asian culture that existed somewhere where everyone was, sort of, enlightened. And as far as you understand it, what was Trungpa’s vision, or his, sort of, teaching on this idea of enlightened society?

Richard: Well, Trungpa Rinpoche, as I think everybody knows, was an extraordinary figure in the history of the Tibetan Buddhist world. And he said that when the Chinese Army first entered Tibet, when he was a young man, he was in his teens. As soon as he heard this news he said the he immediately realized that there had to be another way to organize human society. And he said that from that moment, what he called his Shamhbala vision never waned.

So, whereas some strands within, you know, the huge family of Buddhism are, to some extent, you could say, like, a personal path. Such as the Path of the Yogi, or the Path of the Solitary Scholar, which of course, does not mean that the motivation of those practitioners is not to help vast numbers of human beings, but the manifestation tends to be more personal and more individual. Well, in contrast to that, you could say that Chogyam Trungpa’s vision, as he described it at that moment, was in fact profoundly societal. That he was concerned with the profound issues of human aggression. What he referred to later as manifestations of materialism. He talked about our living in a dark age. And part of the legend of Shambhala you could say is that, that it is precisely in such dark times, which are characterized by extreme aggression and extreme greed, that these precious teaching arise. And the essence of those teachings are said to lay the foundation for, as you said, enlightened society. So, rather than the notion that you get enlightened first, and then, as it were, help society. Really embedded in this extraordinary set of teachings is the notion of group enlightenment.

So, even within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, when he came to the West, Trungpa Rinpoche was, some might say, was like a heretic, or some might say he was just an iconoclast. Because, for example, so much of the practice had been individual. Even in the large monasteries a tremendous amount of the practice is done, especially the advanced practices, on one’s own. And one tends to gather for large ceremonies, and that’s what most photographers photograph, but a tremendous amount of the practice takes place in monk’s small rooms. Well, from the social point of view, Trungpa Rinpoche as soon as he came to the West, really began to look at a group meditation. And although many of us would take group meditation now as kind of normal—what’s so surprising we don’t realize what a break it was for him to introduce this. Because he was interested not just in bringing people together to hear the teachings and then go off and practice them on their own for their own benefit, but of actually creating a completely different social environment, and not just for those practitioners, but actually for the whole of humanity.

Vince: Nice. And I was wondering if you could say a little more about that term, “group enlightenment,” because it seems like there’s something in that that’s very fascinating. I don’t know what it is.

Richard: Yeah. Well, I think since we’re all Buddhists here, and at least some of us are geeks, we would have had the experience that, supposing you’re very fresh in the experience of meditation, and you go to a mediation session where, say, there’s 10 other people, or 20 other people, or whatever. You might be, on the inside, literally trying to crawl outside your skin. You might be experiencing intense emotion. You might be experiencing a profound weight of self-hatred. And you would go, “I’ve got to get out of here. I absolutely have to get out of here.” Well, if you were all on your own, that’s you do [laughs], you just get out of there. But, I think we all know, that because we’re sitting with 10, or 20, or sometimes a very small group, 5 other people, who’re all trying to do the same practice, there’s a curious thing which happens, which is first of all, you don’t want to be the first to leave. It’s kind of like chickening out. And actually the energy of everybody else supports you in your practice. And you may not realize, but your energy, too, is supporting the others in the practice.

So, this really goes to the heart of what in the classical Buddhist tradition is called, “Sangha.” And Sangha means literally in the Sanskrit, “holding together.” And you know the Buddha realized that the path that he had traveled himself, and that he was offering to others, was literally going against the stream of the society that he was born into, and it’s very hard to be all on your own going against the stream. You really need the companionship and the strength of fellow practitioners.

So, the notion here, which has been held by our lineage is, for example, if you go to an intensive mediation practice program, you are actually all kind of creating a mutually supportve energy field, which lifts everyone together, sort of the way the sea comes in a lifts all the boats, and that’s the notion here of group enlightenment. We could all get there together.

Vince: That’s really fascinating. As I hear you describe that, it makes total sense. I was recently on a Zen Sesshin, and there was a period where the teacher really emphasized not moving, and I swear I thought I was going to die, but I wasn’t going to be the first one to move in there. [laughs] So, it’s sounds something like that.

Richard: Exactly.

Vince: Yes.

Richard: Well, it’s the same principle as the marathon. Most people, they train hard for it and everything, but on the day, it’s actually this gigantic energy field of thousands of others doing the same thing and the people cheering along the way, that carries you through. You hit the wall, and you get across the finish line.

Vince: Nice. I didn’t want to stop just at Chogyam Trungpa’s original vision. I wanted to also talk to you about how that vision has continued to change, maybe even evolve, under the leadership of Sakyong Mipham, under leadership of yourself and many other teachers and leaders. So maybe could you say a little bit about that, and how it’s changed?

Richard: Yes. Well, I think there’s an interesting sort of historical point here, which was that when Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche came to the West, he initially began teaching what you could call classical Tibetan Buddhist teachings and offering those sorts of practices. And it was only after a few years that he then said, “There is another set of teachings which emanated from the Buddha, but were specifically given to, it is said, the first king of Shambhala.” It is said the first king of Shambhala, this legendary, or perhaps historical kingdom to which he referred, came to the Buddha and said, “Look, you’re gathering all these followers, and they’re all wearing their saffron robes. I can’t follow that pat h, because I have a kingdom to run. Are there any teachings you can give me that would be helpful for my kingdom?” And the Buddha is said to have dismissed his entourage of monastics, as we would now call them, and conferred upon the king of Shambhala what we now call the Kalachakra Tantra, which is one of the most profound teachings in the Vajrayana tradition. We were talking about the societal vision. It really is a set of teachings and practices which relates to how would he as a king lead his society—when we talk about group enlightenment… I’m not sure what the adjective for a city is here, but it would be some early Asian version of urban enlightenment. So, he told the people that he was teaching in the West, “In addition to all these classical Tibetan Buddhist teachings, which essentially are part of the monastic tradition and yogic tradition, I also have these other teachings which the Buddha gave to King Dawa Sangpo.” You know, it was sort of profoundly shocking, because it’s a little different, because the Buddha taught in so many different ways. Of course the essence of these teachings is the same.

Both these traditions have flourished within Shambhala, but what makes Shambhala distinctive these days is that there has been a growing, sort of flowering of these Shambhala teachings. We refer to the Shambhala tradition now as the Shambhala Buddhist tradition to indicate that the fountainhead of these teachings is still Lord Buddha, but the whole tradition of the Shambhala teachings, which often is referred to as the cultivation of the warrior Bodhisattva path is what has really come to the fore.

And I think sometimes when other Buddhists hear this term, “warrior Bodhisattva,” it sounds like they’re experiencing a cognitive dissonance. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Buddhists are against war. What’s with this ‘Warrior Bodhisattva’ thing?” The key point here is that when we talk about the profound tradition of the genuine great warrior, this is ultimately what the bravery, you could say, or the courage of that sort of warrior is not to fear oneself, and not to fear others, because the swamp which gives birth to aggression, and which in which it festers, is fear. So, here is a notion of a fearlessness, which does not mean we’re not afraid of anything. We’re not even afraid of our own fear. And that, combined with the tradition of the Bodhisattva serving all sentient beings, creates an extraordinary quality of vulnerability and gentleness which ultimately is far more powerful, both in terms of creating a good human society, being able to work with others, being able to lead others, and ultimately being able to transform aggression into sanity and compassion.

Vince: And are there any specific forms that have emerged to support that vision? You sort of mentioned the certain aspect of the Shambhala teachings flourishing. Are there any new forms that have come along with that?

Richard: Well, for example, quite early on, and we follow this tradition, Chogyam Trungpa insisted that the walls of the Shambhala center should be painted white. And so when he would invite distinguished Tibetan teachers who were first coming to America, for example from Tibet, who were used to having their monasteries red, and they would come in and go, “Uh, wait a minute. I thought we were coming to a Buddhist place, and the walls are white.” It was hard for us, as Westerners, to understand the level of undoubted shock that this produced. And of course, the color white which he asked that the walls be painted in was to represent one of the highest teachings in the Buddhist tradition, which is the teaching on the primordial purity, which is that from beginning-less time, which is also endless, all beings and all phenomena are fundamentally and inherently pure, or wholesome. There’s nothing to fear from the ground or indeed the complexity of all phenomena. So, in fact, he was teaching at an extraordinarily high level by painting the walls white.

Vince: One of the things that you have been engaged in for years, and are still engaged in is in the field of human rights and activism, environmentalism. I mentioned your position at Amnesty. So, you clearly have a really hands-on, direct experience with this.

Richard: Yes.

Vince: Which isn’t that… I would say was not that common to see a leader of a spiritual organization that has so much experience also in that field.

Richard: It’s true.

Vince: So, I wanted to ask you if you’ve found any parallels since you’ve been so deeply involved with both fields, between the path of the activist and then the contemplative path?

Richard: Yeah. They have certain characteristics in common. They are disappointing. They are painful. They’re bewildering. And they both have a sense of hopelessness.

I think where this kind of comes together is kind of like you’re life is a mess, and you decide, “Oh, I need to become a spiritual person.” So, you head off to your Dharma center, and you’re intent on becoming spiritual person, and you have a fixed idea about what a spiritual person is, or more importantly, should be like. And then you meet a bunch a whackos. It’s not immediately obvious that they’re whackos, because you’re all mediating away together, but it soon becomes clear over the tea break, and certainly once a fight breaks out in the kitchen, that there are some really some disturbed people there. [Laughs] And then the idea crosses your mind that, you know, you might be completely at home there. And for a lot of people this kind of encounter is really shattering, because as someone said to me recently, an older gentleman who came to one of our centers—he came to tell me how disappointed he was, because he’d been looking for holy people, and he thought that he would find them in Shambhala, and he hadn’t found any, and so it was almost like we were doing false advertising.

The same thing is like, you think about yourself being a mess, well, it’s not difficult to listen to a podcast, or go on the Internet, or watch the TV, whatever, and immediately conclude that the world is a mess. So, with that same tremendous kind of Prince Valiant, or Don Quixote quality, you set off to fix the world in the same way that you were going to fix yourself by becoming a spiritual person. And then you have a very clear idea of about how those people should be, or how the world should function. So, you go with this tremendous idealistic attitude off to your local whatever, environmental group, or human rights group, or “Stop Drug Abuse” group, or whatever it is you’re motivated to do. And guess what? You find a bunch of whackos there. [Laughs] And it might not be obvious that they’re whackos just the minute you walk in the door, and you’re doing some work, and somebody has some pious sounding words about saving the whale, or something. But, when you get down to work, you find at least as high a level of aggression, distrust, mistrust, interpersonal conflict, greed, confusion, and violence in that outfit as you thought you were trying to escape from. And so the level of disappointment then can be even more stunning, because then you’re led into a complete sense, well, “My god, these people… you know, I thought these people were all like me. They all wanted to save the world. And then I find out that I’m with a bunch of whackos.” And so it’s almost a complete intersection with your experience when you’re at the meditation center. And then you have to either go, “Well, look, either I’m the only pure and trustworthy person on the planet with a clear idea about a spiritual life and how to fix the planet, or the bad news is, that the next person who’s like me who comes in through the doors, whether it’s to your Dharma center or to your “Save the World” group is going to see you’re just one of the whackos, too.”

And this is a very… I’ve tried to describe it in kind of lighthearted terms. This is very shattering for a lot of people. This is the foundation of the bitterness, and the burnout, and the self-hatred, and the deep despair and hopelessness that you encounter among people who say to you, “I tried that,” whether they’re referring to mediation or whether they’re referring to, for example, trying to stop the Iraq war. And who conclude there’s no point in engaging in politics, because the whole situation is corrupt, or there’s no point in following a spiritual path, because the kind of people you meet are so weird.

So, there is a profound personal journey that we all have to go through. Now, there’s many ways of characterizing that journey, but at the heart of it you could say that’s the journey from arrogance to humility.

One of the greatest challenges if you think about the world of human rights or environmental destruction, the cruelty that we are capable of inflicting on each other or on Planet Earth comes from a profound level of self-absorption and arrogance, which reduces other people, other races, other cultures, and other life forms to mere things, which we seek to control and are quite comfortable about destroying. And it’s a long and profound journey to get to the point where you actually have the humility to be willing to share the planet with people who think differently to you, who look differently to you, and to other species who behave differently. And it’s a very touching. In the history Zen Buddhism, for example, there’s the great Zen Master Dogen, who went to China for many years, which, of course, was the sort of heartland in eastern Asia for the meditation tradition, and when he came from Japan after these years of extraordinary study, one of his fellow monastics asked him what he’d learned, and he said, “I have come back with empty hands. All I learned was a little gentleness.”


Richard Reoch