Introducing the New Director of Shambhala Europe
Interview with Christoph Schönherr
by Sarah Lipton, conducted live and in-person at Karme Choling
all photos by Christoph Schönherr, unless otherwise noted
Congratulations on your upcoming new post as Director of Shambhala Europe, which you will begin on Shambhala Day! Many of us in Shambhala recognize you as having traveled with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche as a continuity kusung for quite a few years, and more recently as the Kusung Arm Commander. Could you please share your particular vision for pursuing this role of Director for Shambhala Europe?
Networking is where my mind goes. As a mainly volunteer organization we need to integrate our incredible worldly skills, knowledge and wisdom into how we manage Shambhala.
We have incredible resources among our sangha members who have knowledge and wisdom along with the willingness to help. For instance, we need to think about our resources in a much bigger way than simple fundraising, and find more ways to further include people’s skills and knowledge. At the same time, we need to create a situation in which people feel connected to each other and to their center. It’s not that Shambhala is happening somewhere else – it’s right here! Also, with the Sakyong becoming more prominent on the international stage, we need to prepare for being more visible as a community and organization, which is a good sign.
Here is a short address to everyone that we just produced:
On a very earthy level, a very important aspect of our mandala is that in many places we are reaching a size and importance on the world stage that requires more professional ways to relate with the outside world. We need to be able to work with the culture and laws of the country we are in. In Europe there are about fifteen different systems to deal with. We can’t integrate with the wider world in a naive way.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background before you became so involved with Shambhala?
To pursue my academic career, I went to University in both France and Germany. After spending one year as an exchange student in Paris, I went back to Germany where I graduated from the University of Heidelberg with a Masters degree in Physics. I was trained both as a physicist and environmental scientist. I thought I would go back into those fields after my time traveling with the Sakyong, to pursue a PhD and save the world from climate change and destruction. My first time at the Kalapa Court (the home of the Sakyong and his family) was in 2003, when I was asked to take a portrait of the Sakyong for seminary students, and I was very nervous. I was also attending Vajrayana Seminary, and at this time the Sakyong was training for his first marathon. I told one of his runners that whenever the Sakyong was in Europe, I would be very honored to run with him, as I was also a marathon runner.
In 2004 and 2005 he was in Europe recording his Mipham CD in a studio an hour away from Heidelberg where I was living at the time, so they asked me to run with him. I did, and from then on I started training as a kusung (personal attendant). In 2008, I was asked if I would be willing to travel with the Sakyong as a continuity kusung. I was honored and surprised, and it felt perfect. Besides saving the world, this was what I always had wanted to do. I then spent two years traveling with the Sakyong and his family.
What was it like traveling with the Sakyong?
One aspect was that I realized how big the Sakyong’s life is and how much responsibility he has. We see how he is and what he does in the West, but not much of how he is in the East. I was very fortunate in getting to spend seven months in Nepal and India with him and saw him there as completely at home in both worlds – East and West. Just being at the court for a long period of time was very helpful in the sense that I could see how a court situation works. The Sakyong and his family live as a household, and that is how they wish us to lead our lives – as individuals and as families. After seeing all of this, I could see how our Shambhala society is based so much on the example of the household, and the court exemplifies that.
Can you explain what you mean by that?
Household is such a big part of the Shambhala teachings, and is embodied in the way the Sakyong and the Sakyong Wangmo live their life. The Sakyong and the Sakyong Wangmo offer so much of their privacy, in that they are constantly surrounded by those of us who serve them. They make themselves available as much as possible. It is an incredible teaching tool to be more available than just giving a talk once in a while.
What did you do after serving two years as a continuity kusung?
First I went into solitary retreat! Then, last year on Shambhala Day, the Sakyong appointed me to the post of Kusung Arm Commander. That means that I am responsible for all of the kusung, which is one of the three arms of the Dorje Kasung. The kusung are responsible for service to the Sakyong and his family, and making sure it is excellent. I have also been overseeing the training of kusung, and am part of the Council of the Makkyi Rabjam (CMR), which is the highest governing body of the Dorje Kasung.
Will you have to step down from this role as you take your new post of Director for Shambhala Europe?
Yes, I will. The switch will occur on Shambhala Day, 2012. I believe I have held the post for the shortest time in history.
The Shambhala governance structure is based on three pillars – essentially the church, the military, and the government, which translate to Practice and Education, the Dorje Kasung and the Government of Shambhala. How do you feel about switching pillars from the Dorje Kasung to the Government pillar?
I am actually quite sad that I’m leaving the position in the Dorje Kasung. I will of course still be a kusung, but I am sad that I’m leaving the CMR because it’s a fantastic group of people. But at the same time, with my new role I am looking forward to working with another fantastic group of people! I will be able to devote much more time to it and hope that I can be of more help to the sangha and the Sakyong’s vision in my new position. In my deepest heart, I am a kasung. Having worked in the kasung pillar for so long, I know I can bring that practice into the whole of the mandala. There is a particular sense of being uplifted and precise, but there is also a simplicity that the Dorje Kasung can bring to any role in the mandala.
What inspired you to apply for the Director role?
The fame and the salary! (Laughs) That’s a joke, of course.
My inspiration really was that I thought a lot about how to go back into my trained career as a scientist, but every time I thought about it, I realized my whole heart and mind and blood was with the sangha and Sakyong Mipham’s teachings. Even though many of us are asked to go out into the world and do something there, whenever I put my mind towards going back to school for four years to get a PhD and start a full fledged career with environmental organizations, it felt very vague. At the same time, I believe that I will feel more fulfilled in a leadership role rather than a lab research role. Going back to school would mean a lot of time commitment and a lot of lost time to invest in the sangha and the Sakyong’s world. So at the end of the day the question was: where can I be of the most help right now?
In fulfilling this role, what motivates and excites you?
My main motivation is that it is really worthwhile working full time for Shambhala because of the preciousness of it. I will have the opportunity of working with the European leadership and Shambhala on the international level. The exciting point is that I will get to do both and be a bridge between those two entities that don’t always feel connected. From North America, Europe feels far away and vice-versa, so my role has a bridge quality. I will also act as a bridge between Europe and the Sakyong’s view. Unlike at a retreat center in a rural area, like Dechen Chöling or Karmê Chöling, one really interesting aspect for me will be to live in a cosmopolitan city, go to work in an office and work for Shambhala. This will be a new experience for me. I feel that acting as a bridge like this is a true turning of the flower outwards. I am very excited that I will have a place to live again. I will have an apartment, and will be taking my stuff out of my parent’s basement after 6 years of traveling! But I still love traveling and will get to a lot of this with this job.
Is there something funny about you that people don’t know?
There’s nothing funny about me, of course, I’m German! We’re serious! (laughs)
That is funny! Thank you very much. The Shambhala Times wishes you great luck as you pursue your new role for Shambhala Europe! Keep us posted on how things go for you.