Awaken: Firstly, thank you so much for spending this time with us. It is a great honor, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoché.
You founded Naropa University, as well as the Shambhala training method, as a platform for carrying forth the wisdom of the ancient Tibetan Buddhist teachings of which you are a double lineage holder. What best expresses the heart of the Shambhala spirit?
Chögyam Trungpa: The first principle of the Shambhala vision is not being afraid of who you are. Ultimately, that is the definition of bravery: not being afraid of yourself. Shambhala vision teaches that, in the face of the world’s great problems, we can be heroic and kind at the same time. Shambhala vision is the opposite of selfishness. When we are afraid of ourselves and afraid of the seeming threat the world presents, then we become extremely selfish.
Awaken: And why “Shambhala?” Wasn’t Shambhala part of a legend?
Chögyam Trungpa: In Tibet, as well as many other Asian countries, there are stories about a legendary kingdom that was a source of learning and culture for present-day Asian societies. According to the legends, this was a place of peace and prosperity, governed by wise and compassionate rulers. The citizens were equally kind and learned, so that, in general, the kingdom was a model society. This place was called Shambhala.
Awaken: And how did this kingdom become connected up with Buddhist teachings?
Chögyam Trungpa: It is said that Buddhism played an important role in the development of the Shambhala society. The legends tell us that Shakyamuni Buddha gave advanced tantric teachings to the first king of Shambhala, Dawa Sangpo. These teachings, which are preserved as the Kalacakra Tantra, are considered to be among the most profound wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism. After the king had received this instruction, the stories say that all of the people of Shambhala began to practice meditation and to follow the Buddhist path of loving kindness and concern for all beings. In this way, not just the rulers but all of the subjects of the kingdom became highly developed people. Among the Tibetan people, there is a popular belief that the kingdom of Shambhala can still be found, hidden in a remote valley somewhere in the Himalayas.
Other legends say that the kingdom of Shambhala disappeared from the earth man centuries ago. At a certain point, the entire society had become enlightened, and the kingdom vanished into another more celestial realm. According to these stories, the Rigden kings of Shambhala continue to watch over human affairs, and will one day return to earth to save humanity from destruction.
Awaken: So, Shambhala is completely mythical?
Chögyam Trungpa: In recent years, some Western scholars have suggested that the kingdom of Shambhala may actually have been one of the historically documented kingdoms of early times, such as the Zhang-Zhung kingdom of Central Asia. Many scholars, however, believe that the stories of Shambhala are completely mythical. While it is easy enough to dismiss the kingdom of Shambhala as pure fiction, it is also possible to see in this legend the expression of a deeply rooted and very real human desire for a good and fulfilling life. In fact, among many Tibetan Buddhist teachers, there has long been a tradition that regards the kingdom of Shambhala, not as an external place, but as the ground or root of wakefulness and sanity that exists as a potential within every human being. From that point of view, it is not important to determine whether the kingdom of Shambhala is fact or fiction. Instead, we should appreciate and emulate the ideal of an enlightened society that it represents.
Awaken: The key word being “ideal?’ It seems we need these teachings more than ever, as the world is in such disarray right now on so many levels! The Russian aggressions in Ukraine, the pandemic, monetary inflation, not to mention environmental degradation, and social and political issues that should’ve been resolved years ago, like discrimination and women’s rights over her body.
Chögyam Trungpa: The world is in absolute turmoil. The current state of world affairs is a source of concern to all of us: the threat of nuclear war, widespread poverty and economic instability, social and political chaos, and psychological upheavals of many kinds.
Awaken: Do the Shambhala teachings hold that there is hope to turn this chaos around?
Chögyam Trungpa: The Shambhala teachings are founded on the premise that there is basic human wisdom that can help to solve the world’s problems.
Awaken: What is the basic approach toward problems that seem to be distending into levels that are beyond our reach?
Chögyam Trungpa: We must try to think how we can help this world. If we don’t help, nobody will. It is our turn to help the world. At the same time, helping others does not mean abandoning our individual lives. You don’t have to rush out to become the mayor of your city or the president of the United States in order to help others, but you can begin with your relatives and friends and the people around you. In fact, you can start with yourself. The important point is to realize that you are never off duty. You can never just relax, because the whole world needs help.
Awaken: You are saying that it’s not theories and large scale advocacy that will save us, but rather, individuals and our own individual commitment toward betterment and change?
Chögyam Trungpa: The Shambhala teachings are not based on converting the world to another theory. The premise of Shambhala vision is that, in order to establish an enlightened society for others, we need to discover what inherently we have to offer the world. So, to begin with, we should make an effort to examine our own experience, in order to see what it contains that is of value in helping ourselves and others to uplift their existence.
Awaken: It starts with us, as always… but how do we balance our own individual upliftment with our responsibility to the world?
Chögyam Trungpa: While everyone has a responsibility to help the world, we can create additional chaos if we try to impose our ideas or our help upon others. Many people have theories about what the world needs. Some people think that the world needs communism; some people think that the world needs democracy; some people think that technology will save the world; some people think that technology will destroy the world…
Awaken: This is an important point… Helpfulness has to go hand in hand with tolerance. But we humans seem to have a collective inability to appreciate the value of diversity and the right that everyone has to their own experiences. Maybe we would find common ground if we were more open-minded with each other?
Chögyam Trungpa: If we are willing to take an unbiased look, we will find that, in spite of all our problems and confusion, all our emotional and psychological ups and downs, there is something basically good about our existence as human beings. Unless we can discover that ground of goodness in our own lives, we cannot hope to improve the lives of others. If we are simply miserable and wretched beings, how can we possibly imagine, let alone realize, an enlightened society?
Awaken: I would like to better understand what you really mean by “discovering goodness” in our lives, and how this extends and translates into a better world…
Chögyam Trungpa: Discovering real goodness comes from appreciating very simple experiences. We are not talking about how good it feels to make a million dollars or finally graduate from college or buy a new house, but we are speaking here of the basic goodness of being alive—which does not depend on our accomplishments or fulfilling our desires. We experience glimpses of goodness all the time, but we often fail to acknowledge them. When we see a bright color, we are witnessing our own inherent goodness. When we hear a beautiful sound, we are hearing our own basic goodness. When we step out of the shower, we feel fresh and clean, and when we walk out of a stuffy room, we appreciate the sudden whiff of fresh air. These events may take a fraction of a second, but they are real experiences of goodness. They happen to us all the time, but usually we ignore them as mundane or purely coincidental. According to the Shambhala principles, however, it is worthwhile to recognize and take advantage of those moments, because they are revealing basic nonaggression and freshness in our lives—basic goodness.
Awaken: I love this. There is a necessary relationship between beauty and goodness.
Chögyam Trungpa: Every human being has a basic nature of goodness, which is undiluted and unconfused. That goodness contains tremendous gentleness and appreciation. As human beings, we can make love. We can stroke someone with a gentle touch; we can kiss someone with gentle understanding. We can appreciate beauty. We can appreciate the best of this world. We can appreciate its vividness: the yellowness of yellow, the redness of red, the greenness of green, the purpleness of purple. Our experience is real. When yellow is yellow, can we say it is red, if we don’t like the yellowness of it? That would be contradicting reality. When we have sunshine, can we reject it and say that the sunshine is terrible? Can we really say that? When we have brilliant sunshine or wonderful snowfall, we appreciate it. And when we appreciate reality, it can actually work on us. We may have to get up in the morning after only a few hours’ sleep, but if we look out the window and see the sun shining, it can cheer us up. We can actually cure ourselves of depression if we recognize that the world we have is good.
Awaken: It’s the appreciation of beauty and goodness. There’s a power in the act of simply appreciating! I love the palpability of what you are describing. You’re talking about real, everyday moments that we all experience. Genuine experiences. Not ideas in our heads from books or movies or other people’s secondhand stories…
Chögyam Trungpa: It is not just an arbitrary idea that the world is good, but it is good because we can experience its goodness.
Awaken: How do we expand this capacity for delight into global effectiveness?
Chögyam Trungpa: Experiencing the basic goodness of our lives makes us feel that we are intelligent and decent people and that the world is not a threat. When we feel that our lives are genuine and good, we do not have to deceive ourselves or other people. We can see our shortcomings without feeling guilty or inadequate, and at the same time, we can see our potential for extending goodness to others. We can tell the truth straightforwardly and be absolutely open, but steadfast at the same time.
The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything. We can never say that we are simply falling to pieces or that anyone else is, and we can never say that about the world either. Within our lifetime there will be great problems in the world, but let us make sure that within our lifetime no disasters happen. We can prevent them. It is up to us. We can save the world from destruction, to begin with. That is why Shambhala vision exists. It is a centuries-old idea: by serving this world, we can save it. But saving the world is not enough. We have to work to build an enlightened human society as well.
Awaken: The big question… What is enlightenment?
Chögyam Trungpa: It is the realization that we can directly experience and work with reality, the real world that we are in. Experiencing the basic goodness of our lives… You realize that you can uplift yourself, that you can appreciate your existence as a human being. Whether you are a gas station attendant or the president of your country doesn’t really matter. When you experience the goodness of being alive, you can respect who and what you are. You need not be intimidated by lots of bills to pay, diapers to change, food to cook, or papers to be filed. Fundamentally, in spite of all those responsibilities, you begin to feel that it is a worthwhile situation to be a human being, to be alive, not afraid of death.
Awaken: It’s more than simply adopting a positive attitude… it’s once again, a deep and genuine appreciation of being alive.
Chögyam Trungpa: We should feel that it is wonderful to be in this world. How wonderful it is to see red and yellow, blue and green, purple and black! All of these colors are provided for us. We feel hot and cold; we taste sweet and sour. We have these sensations, and we deserve them. They are good.
But then we should look further and more precisely at what we are, where we are, who we are, when we are, and how we are as human beings, so that we can take possession of our basic goodness. It is not really a possession, but nonetheless, we deserve it.
Awaken: You speak of “taking possession of our basic goodness.” But I’m wondering, in practical terms, how does tasting the simple delights of being alive—what you call “goodness”— relate with the ongoing experience of living, especially when life is full of continual challenges?
Chögyam Trungpa: What is lacking is a sense of humor. Humor here does not mean telling jokes or being comical or criticizing others and laughing at them. A genuine sense of humor is having a light touch: not beating reality into the ground but appreciating reality with a light touch. The basis of Shambhala vision is rediscovering that perfect and real sense of humor, that light touch of appreciation.
If you look at yourself, if you look at your mind, if you look at your activities, you can repossess the humor that you have lost in the course of your life. To begin with, you have to look at your ordinary domestic reality: your knives, your forks, your plates, your telephone, your dishwasher and your towels—ordinary things. There is nothing mystical or extraordinary about them, but if there is no connection with ordinary everyday situations, if you don’t examine your mundane life, then you will never find any humor or dignity or, ultimately, any reality. The way you comb your hair, the way you dress, the way you wash your dishes—all of those activities are an extension of sanity; they are a way of connection with reality.
Awaken: So, being awake is about this moment, right here, right now, and how we decide to see it, and what we decide to make of it, consciously and freely?
Chögyam Trungpa: As human beings, we are basically awake and we can understand reality. We are not enslaved by our lives; we are free. Being free, in this case, means simply that we have a body and a mind, and we can uplift ourselves in order to work with reality in a dignified and humorous way. If we begin to perk up, we will find that the whole universe—including the seasons, the snowfall, the ice, and the mud—is also powerfully working with us. Life is a humorous situation, but it is not mocking us. We find that, after all, we can handle our world; we can handle our universe properly and fully in an uplifted fashion.
Awaken: It’s so simple, but we make it so complicated… We look to big theories, political ideologies and religious institutions for solutions, but we have so much power to create anew, every single moment of our lives…
Chögyam Trungpa: The discovery of basic goodness is not a religious experience, particularly. Rather it is the realization that we can directly experience and work with reality, the real world that we are in. Experiencing the basic goodness of our lives makes us feel that we are intelligent and decent people and that the world is not a threat. When we feel that our lives are genuine and good, we do not have to deceive ourselves or other people. We can see our shortcomings without feeling guilty or inadequate, and at the same time, we can see our potential for extending goodness to others. We can tell the truth straightforwardly and be absolutely open, but steadfast at the same time.
The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything. Within our lifetime there will be great problems in the world, but let us make sure that within our lifetime no disasters happen. We can prevent them. It is up to us. We can save the world from destruction, to begin with. That is why Shambhala vision exists. It is a centuries-old idea: by serving this world, we can save it. But saving the world is not enough. We have to work to build an enlightened human society as well. If we want to help the world, we have to make a personal journey—we can’t simply theorize or speculate about our destination. So it is up to each of us individually to find the meaning of enlightened society and how it can be realized.
Awaken: Let’s zero in now, on the practices you adhere to, so as to awaken our potential as humans and to nurture our willingness to dive into life… our capacity to cultivate this spirit of “warriorship”…
Chögyam Trungpa: You are here; you are living; let it be that way… Your heart pulsates and you breathe.
Awaken: You are saying, just be here? Be present with what is, in a nonjudgmental way… Is this what it really means to be mindful?
Chögyam Trungpa: Let it be that way — that is mindfulness. All kinds of things are happening in you at once. Let mindfulness work with that, let that be mindfulness. Let every beat of your heart, every breath, be mindfulness itself. You do not have to breathe specially; your breath is an expression of mindfulness. If you approach meditation in this way, it becomes very personal and very direct.
Having such an outlook and such a relationship with the practice of meditation brings enormous strength, enormous energy and power.
But again, it is necessary to say, once you have that experience of the presence of life, don’t hang onto it. Just touch and go. Touch that presence of life being lived, then go.
Awaken: … without running commentary on your experience, as we say in the Zen tradition?
Chögyam Trungpa: … just being in it without further analysis and without further reinforcement. Holding on to life, or trying to reassure oneself that it is so, has the sense of death rather than life. It is only because we have that sense of death that we want to make sure that we are alive. We would like to have an insurance policy. But if we feel that we are alive, that is good enough. We do not have to make sure that we actually do breathe, that we actually can be seen. We do not have to check to be sure we have a shadow. Just living is enough, if we don’t stop to reassure ourselves, living becomes very clear-cut, very alive, and very precise.
So mindfulness here does not mean pushing oneself toward something or hanging on to something, it means allowing oneself to be there in the very moment of what is happening in one’s living process and then letting go.
Awaken: What you are saying is that most of the mental machinations we bring to our experience is nothing but an attempt to have a sense of security about life… a sense of control… an assurance that everything will be good all the time?
Chögyam Trungpa: Our life is an endless journey; it is like a broad highway that extends infinitely into the distance. The practice of meditation provides a vehicle to travel on that road. Our journey consists of constant ups and downs, hope and fear, but it is a good journey. The practice of meditation allows us to experience all the textures of the roadway, which is what the journey is all about. Through the practice of meditation, we begin to find that within ourselves there is no fundamental complaint about anything or anyone at all.
Awaken: It is a good journey, even with the ups and downs…
Chögyam Trungpa: When we speak of basic goodness, we are not talking about having allegiance to good and rejecting bad. Basic goodness is good because it is unconditional, or fundamental. It is there already, in the same way that heaven and earth are there already. We don’t reject our atmosphere. We don’t reject the sun and the moon, the clouds and the sky. We accept them. We accept that the sky is blue; we accept the landscape and the sea. We accept highways and buildings and cities. Basic goodness is that basic, that unconditional. It is not a “for” or “against” view, in the same way that sunlight is not “for” or “against.”
Awaken: The basic wisdom is to accept what is, as it is…
Chögyam Trungpa: We should appreciate what we have. Without it, we would be in a total predicament. If we didn’t have sunlight, we wouldn’t have any vegetation, we wouldn’t have any crops, and we couldn’t cook a meal. So basic goodness is good because it is so basic, so fundamental. It is natural and it works, and therefore it is good, rather than being good as opposed to bad.
Awaken: With that, I want to thank you with all sincerity, for the honor of sharing this moment with you, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoché. I know our readers will treasure your words!