by Greg Lubkin, Los Angeles
Some of my friends in Nova Scotia have been talking about the idea of Western Ancestral Sovereigns and wondering why there hasn’t been more written about that topic. One of them asked if I might take a stab at writing something for the Times, so here it is.
The Shambhala teachings are universal in application – all humans have basic goodness and can create enlightened society by their interactions. As part of those teachings, we celebrate ancestral sovereigns who provide examples of warriorship and rulership that can help us to rule our world – starting with our own household, on a day-to-day basis. The “Homage” and “Invocation” chants invoke “Gesar Norbu Dradul [of Tibet], Ashoka Maharaja [of India], Emperors of Japan, China, and so on….” Other Shambhala sources name the key Chinese and Japanese ancestral sovereigns as Emperor Yung-Lo and Prince Shotoku Daishi, respectively. Shambhalians have been encouraged to learn about these inspiring leaders, and leading members of our community have written about them.
The chants describe some essential qualities of an ancestral sovereign: “those who possess great wisdom, brilliant and profound, who are ever just and benevolent to their subjects, who subjugate their enemies and are supremely powerful….” Thus, an ancestral sovereign must make efforts to improve people’s lives and uplift culture in addition to showing strength and power. The Asian ancestral sovereigns, among other achievements, all supported the establishment or strengthening of Buddhism. For many of us who grew up in the Western tradition, though, those Asian sovereigns may not have the same resonance. We can learn about them and honor them, but they may not yet feel like part of our own cultural heritage. So we could ask whether Shambhala also has Western ancestral sovereigns who might seem more familiar and accessible. Although we cannot determine who should be designated as ancestral sovereigns, we can contemplate the question of which historical Western warriors might help us to rule our world.
Perhaps the most obvious example of a potential Western ancestral sovereign is the legendary King Arthur, who was specifically mentioned by Chogyam Trungpa in the book, Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, as an example of warriorship. (For more on King Arthur, see the Shambhala Times article, The Once and Future King, dated January 3, 2012.)The Shambhala book also mentions the warriorship of “Biblical kings such as David.” King David is thought to have lived around 1000 B.C. He united the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, with Jerusalem as capital, and presided ultimately over a period of relative peace and prosperity. He has traditionally been seen also as a poet and musician, and is attributed authorship of many of the Biblical psalms. In general, he has been viewed as one of the great figures in establishing the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus was supposedly his lineal descendant.
A more recent candidate is Charlemagne, or Charles the Great. Charlemagne lived around A.D. 800, at a time of great violence and ignorance in Western Europe. While repelling attacks from all sides by aggressive cultures, he united much of Western and Central Europe into what was later called the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne encouraged both the Christian and classical traditions of Western civilization, supporting a “Carolingian Renaissance” of education, art, philosophy, and literature.
Reaching back to the 18th century BC, we might also consider King Hammurabi of Babylon. Hammurabi is famous for providing one of the earliest written law codes, which included the presumption of innocence. As a warrior-king, Hammurabi extended the Babylonian empire from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, then devoted himself to fostering prosperity. Throughout his long reign, he personally supervised government administration, navigation, irrigation, agriculture, tax collection, and the erection of public buildings.Another dimension of rulership in the Western tradition is the role of great couples. In A.D. 527, Justinian I was crowned Emperor of what was left of the Roman Empire (that is, the Byzantine Empire), based in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Justinian was a thoughtful, caring ruler. His signature achievement was also the issuance of a law code, which brought together all of classical Roman law and provided the foundation for many legal systems still in use today. He did not rule alone, though; Empress Theodora played a vital role, her decisive voice speaking courageously for what she believed. When riots threatened Constantinople, Theodora persuaded Justinian to quell the violence and re-establish peace instead of withdrawing to safety. Her youthful experience as a stage performer (and possibly prostitute) apparently motivated her to improve the lives of women. Among other things, she was responsible for laws prohibiting forced prostitution and granting women more rights in divorce, as well as establishing homes for prostitutes. Justinian and Theodora strove together to make Constantinople a worthy capital, with many public works including the Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), one of the world’s great architectural achievements. The couple did not agree about religious ideology; each supported a different Christian doctrine in a very polarized era, but they treated their differences with respect. After Theodora’s death, Justinian worked to maintain harmony between the feuding religious factions. Another ruling couple worthy of consideration is the twelfth-century King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry was a successful warrior who pacified endemic violence in his realm, which included much of France, and established the foundations of law and administration still operating in Britain and many of its former colonies today. Eleanor presided over the flowering of a new culture, with music and literature celebrating chivalry, courtesy, and romance.
The list of possible candidates is long. Consider Harun al-Rashid, a contemporary of Charlemagne, whose vast, cultured Arabic Empire built on classical Greek learning to lead the world in astronomy, philosophy, and medicine. Alexander the Great, whose tutor was the philosopher Aristotle, created an empire that spread classical Greek culture from Egypt to India. We might also consider women warriors who sat alone on Western thrones, such as Elizabeth I of England or Catherine the Great of Russia. And, without naming specific rulers, the Shambhala book points us to the warriorship of native societies in both North and South America.
This article does not argue for inclusion of any particular person among the Shambhala ancestral sovereigns. It does encourage members of the Shambhala community to think about great rulers in the Western tradition whose warriorship might serve as sources of inspiration to complement the Asian ancestral sovereigns whom we already honor.