Karmê Chöling Sakyong Mipham, leader of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, shares a light moment at the Karmê Chöling meditation center in the Northeast Kingdom town of Barnet.
Sakyong Mipham can tell you an epic story about how his father, Chögyam Trungpa, was 20 when he fled the 1959 Chinese Communist takeover of his homeland of Tibet. How he hiked nine months over the Himalayas, eating yak leather to survive. How he moved on to India, then England and finally Vermont, where in 1970 he set up the first Tibetan Buddhist meditation center in the United States.
But the eldest son instead starts with the day, at age 12, when his father told him who he would grow up to be: The next leader of the Shambhala lineage. One of the world’s highest and most respected incarnate lamas. A spiritual master who “wakes people up to their own basic goodness.”
Back when Chögyam Trungpa first settled in the Green Mountain State, he attracted a few dozen followers to an old dairy farm in the Northeast Kingdom town of Barnet, population 1,708. By the time he died in 1987 at age 48 — staring into the eyes of his son, then 24 — his flock had ballooned to what today totals 250 sanghas (or spiritual communities) in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
“I have done what I can; now you must do the rest,” said the man credited for seeding Tibetan Buddhism in this country long before the Dalai Lama became a household name.
In his new book, “The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure” — set for national release Tuesday — Sakyong Mipham, now 50, recalls the childhood questions he asked his father — and the answers that continue to resonate with growing numbers in Vermont and around the globe.
“We humans have come to a crossroads in our history,” writes the Sakyong, a Tibetan word meaning “earth protector.” “Given the speed and aggression of our world and the tenuous state of our ecosystem, it appears that humanity has forgotten its innate goodness. Yet despite degradation, cruelty, and a life constantly inundated with anger and jealousy, human goodness does remain intact, hidden within. It was my father’s wish to remind humanity that it is good.”
Vermont reports the country’s lowest church attendance — 23 percent of residents worship regularly, according to Gallup pollsters, compared with 42 percent nationwide. But while the state’s five largest religions (in order, Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Episcopal and American Baptist) all report declining membership, its number of Buddhists is increasing.
Statewide, one out of 20 residents who claim a spiritual affiliation belong to an Asian tradition, according to the North American Religion Atlas. In Caledonia County, that number totals a high of 15 percent.
Credit that last statistic in part to the town of Barnet, 10 miles south of St. Johnsbury. The old farm at which Chögyam Trungpa first taught has morphed into Karmê Chöling, a 717-acre Shambhala (the word means “source of happiness”) meditation center with seven shrine rooms, a Zen archery range and meditation cushion store that has shipped products as far as Antarctica.
“I have many fond memories of both my father and the Buddhist community over the weeks I would spend there each year,” notes the Sakyong, who grew up traveling the world. “It has become a backdrop not just for my personal development but for the flourishing of Shambhala and meditation in the West.”
The Sakyong emailed the above memory last weekend from Chicago’s Malcolm X College, where he was hosting an Imagining Peace Conference with Mayor Rahm Emanuel to combat street violence.
“I think meditation and spirituality have been primarily focused on the self, the individual,” the Sakyong told a Chicago Tribune reporter. “But I feel it can be a powerful medium for social transformation.”
He learned that from his father. Chögyam Trungpa spent his childhood in a Tibet monastery studying the 2,500-year-old practice of Buddhism, which professes that human problems and suffering arise from confused or negative states of mind that can be explored and eradicated through contemplation.
The first Tibetan to publish a book directly in English, Chögyam Trungpa shattered stereotypes upon his arrival in America. The lama traded his monk’s robes for a layman’s suit. He mixed with the likes of poet Allen Ginsberg and singer Joni Mitchell. More surprising, he smoked, drank and sired children.
Some deemed such behavior scandalous. But Chögyam Trungpa, whose 1987 cremation drew more than 3,000 people to Barnet, today is considered “the most effective teacher, the greatest comet, ever to pass through America,” according to Helen Tworkov, founding editor of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle.
His son has returned to wearing robes. (Leader of Shambhala since 1990, the Sakyong was recognized in 1995 as the incarnation of the 19th-century Buddhist master Mipham the Great.) Like his father, however, he strives to cast ancient teachings in a contemporary light.
A marathon runner, the Sakyong was on the road promoting the paperback release (and smartphone app) of his 2012 hardcover “Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind” when bombs exploded last month at the Boston Marathon.
“I clearly remember running that race myself,” he wrote to his Facebook and Twitter followers. “In the face of this pain and confusion, we must allow ourselves to touch our own strength and goodness and open our hearts, generating love and compassion for the victims of this tragedy. As well, we must not give up on the spirit and courage of humanity, which this marathon so exemplifies.”
‘We are challenged’
Those themes permeate the Sakyong’s new book, which the Random House imprint Harmony Books is releasing on the 50th anniversary of his father moving to the West to study in Oxford, England.
“Externally, we are challenged by poverty, wars, famines, pollution, and climate change, caused, in large part, by systemic failures of our society to take responsibility for the planet,” the Sakyong writes. “Internally, we are challenged by our doubt about our nature, by complex ethical questions, and by a mental culture of speed and aggression that overwhelms us with information, possibilities, and distractions.”
“If we are advancing at a rate that outpaces our ability to handle the accompanying stress, we need to self-reflect: Is this truly progress?” he continues. “Even though we live in a time when science and practicality dominate, if we want to be happy and successful, we must rely on human qualities as well.”
The Sakyong plugs into the Internet to spread his message, be it through social media or YouTube, home to his recorded talks and “What about me?” music video (“Do one simple thing,” it goes, “Change ‘me’ for ‘you.’”) But he also sees how too much technology can disconnect people from their true nature.
“We rush through traffic so we can get home to the comfort of our television,” he writes. “Despite the modern world’s efficiency and industry, at an emotional level, the human spirit has been dampened, pressed down.”
Puritanical beliefs about religion don’t help.
“When my father moved to the West, he noticed that sometimes we think that in order to be ‘spiritual,’ we need to shut down our sense perceptions,” the Sakyong writes. “He said, ‘We feel we have to convert them into some sort of mythical idea of what things should be like.’ Without feeling, we are no longer fully being on this planet, because we have lost the capacity to care.”
The solution, the author asserts, is easily within sight — or sound, smell, touch and taste. Pause to be present, he says, “being here now.”
“When humanity comes to its senses, literally, we can use them to tune into ourselves, other people, and the environment,” he writes.
The 224-page hardcover moves on to chapters on improving the economy, education, health and “Shifting Global Values.” In all cases, the Sakyong says collective change starts one person at a time.
“There are many things happening all around us — traffic and weather, for example — that we can’t control,” he writes. “But we can control our own intention and involvement. If we doubt the power of human thought, we must remember that current important themes in the West — human rights, freedom, the relationship between the individual and the state — all stem from one person having had a theory about what it means to be human.”
Consider his father. After the lama’s death, the Sakyong traveled to Tibet to see the roots of his spiritual tradition.
“In our modern world, it may be hard to trust qualities that cannot be hurried, measured, or even located,” he writes. “Although the meditation tradition is ancient, it has endured because humanity has not changed. Our questions about who we are and how we feel about ourselves are as relevant today as they were centuries ago.”
Likewise, Buddhism might appear exotic to some Vermonters, but its values should seem right at home: Life is interconnected, so communities and compassion are important. And the world, like the weather, is impermanent, so change is always possible.
“Even if it is only finding time to take a shower or to feel good that we made it to work after missing the bus,” the Sakyong writes, “we need to find small victories in the day — and slow down enough to appreciate them.”
In his own words:
“When I am teaching in the West, people talk about self-loathing and self-aggression. That is coming from a sense of unworthiness. There seems to be a lot of evil in the world, and many of us experience great skepticism about human nature. In addition, we may have been taught at home, school, or church that simply by having been born, we are inherently faulty or incomplete.
Without a feeling of worthiness, human society and communication naturally become vehicles of manipulation and deception, and we use every activity to shore ourselves up or outdo someone else. Through this false sense of power, life becomes a perpetual unfolding of doubt, which only confirms the inadequacies we perceive and elicits a feeling of alienation.
My father called it ‘the setting sun.’ This term describes a time when humanity’s sense of dignity and purpose is diminishing, like sunlight at the end of the day. What is setting is our ability to recognize our goodness.
If humanity is to survive — and not only that, to flourish — we must be brave enough to find our wisdom and let it shine. We uncover it by beginning to examine our assumptions. We may never before have considered human nature, but in order to move forward as a global community, it is vital that we do it now.
Is it really our nature to be fearful and aggressive, or could it be that we are actually gentle and fearless at heart? Underneath the stress and anxiety, is it possible there is peace? If our self-reflection turns up an inkling of that, we can draw power from it, daring to shift our destiny.”
— From Sakyong Mipham’s “The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure,” available from the Random House imprint Harmony Books to buy or order at most bookstores.
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