Chögyam Trungpa was a Buddhist scholar and teacher born in Tibet in 1939. A high-ranking monk due to his lineage, he fled the Chinese occupation of his country at the age of twenty. He later renounced his monastic vows and began to work as a lay teacher to bring Tibetan Buddhist teachings to the West. In 1970 he moved to the U.S., where his simple and direct manner of instruction won him a wide audience. He founded Naropa University — the first accredited Buddhist university in North America — and more than one hundred meditation centers throughout the world. His many books include Cutting through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation and often address the common pitfalls of the spiritual life. He died in 1987 at the age of forty-eight. The following is excerpted from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, by Chögyam Trungpa, © 1984. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.
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. . . .
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. . . .
The first principle of 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. We want to build our own little nests, our own cocoons, so that we can live by ourselves in a secure way.
But we can be much braver than that. We must try to think beyond our homes, beyond the fire burning in the fireplace, beyond sending our children to school or getting to work in the morning. 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 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.
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. 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.
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?
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. . . .
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.
It is not just an arbitrary idea that the world is good, but it is good because we can experience its goodness. We can experience our world as healthy and straightforward, direct and real, because our basic nature is to go along with the goodness of situations. The human potential for intelligence and dignity is attuned to experiencing the brilliance of the bright blue sky, the freshness of green fields, and the beauty of the trees and mountains. We have an actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good. Shambhala vision is tuning in to our ability to wake ourselves up and recognize that goodness can happen to us. In fact, it is happening already.
But then, there is still a question. You might have made a genuine connection to your world: catching a glimpse of sunshine, seeing bright colors, hearing good music, eating good food, or whatever it may be. But how does a glimpse of goodness relate with ongoing experience? On the one hand, you might feel: “I want to get that goodness that is in me and in the phenomenal world.” So you rush around trying to find a way to possess it. Or, on an even cruder level, you might say: “How much does it cost to get that? That experience was so beautiful. I want to own it.” The basic problem with that approach is that you never feel satisfied even if you get what you want, because you still want so badly. If you take a walk on Fifth Avenue, you see that kind of desperation. You might say that the people shopping on Fifth Avenue have good taste and that therefore they have possibilities of realizing human dignity. But on the other hand, it is as though they were covered with thorns. They want to grasp more and more and more.
Then there is the approach of surrendering or humbling yourself to get in touch with goodness. Someone tells you that he can make you happy if you will just give your life to his cause. If you believe that he has the goodness that you want, you may be willing to shave your hair or wear robes or crawl on the floor or eat with your hands to get in touch with goodness. You are willing to trade in your dignity and become a slave.
Both of those situations are attempts to retrieve something good, something real. If you are rich, you are willing to spend thousands of dollars on it. If you are poor, you are willing to commit your life to it. But there is something wrong with both of those approaches.
The problem is that, when we begin to realize the potential goodness in ourselves, we often take our discovery much too seriously. We might kill for goodness or die for goodness; we want it so badly. 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 connecting with reality. A fork is a fork, of course. It is a simple implement of eating. But at the same time, the extension of your sanity and your dignity may depend on how you use your fork. Very simply, Shambhala vision is trying to provoke you to understand how you live, your relationship with ordinary life.
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.
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. . . .
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.