Book Release: The Shambhala Principle
review by Dixie Griffin Good
In Chicago for the Imagining Peace conference in April 2013, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche told a riveted audience at Rockefeller Chapel, “Right now, even though there are very important social, environmental, and economic issues, I feel like a fundamental and essential issue is how we regard human nature. In a sense, that is the most important global issue: How do we actually think about ourselves?”
This question, and the Sakyong’s theme for the talk — humanity’s inherent goodness — may seem overly simplistic at first glance. In Chicago, where youth homicides exceed those of any other city in our gun-saturated nation, was he actually saying the equivalent of, “I’m okay, you’re okay”? That some kind of feel-good approach will solve the crime, poverty, materialism, and aggression that plague the world? For a moment I held my breath and wondered if the street-wise citizens of the Windy City would laugh him off the stage, or even run him out of town.
The Sakyong’s confidence in basic goodness goes beyond pop psychology treatises on self-esteem. In fact, it is rooted in ancient philosophy and cultural wisdom that go back centuries, well before the term “new age” become a genre or derisive label. In his latest book, The Shambhala Principle, the Sakyong explores deeply this question about human nature and invites readers to reflect on their views as well. The Shambhala Principle posits that people and society are good, and that this universal theme runs through the great religious and philosophical currents of human thought.
“This universality is not a watering down of any tradition; it is the nucleus at the heart of all tradition. It is not something we create. It is something we discover.”
The book takes pains to describe the universality of the view of humanity as one of goodness or virtue. The Shambhala Principle and its correlates are rooted in the philosophies espoused by Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Mencius and Confucius, as well as various religious philosophies, including Buddhism.
Doubt about the goodness of human nature, however, dominates the current world view. The author exposes deeply-held notions stemming from our cultural milieu — that humans are selfish creatures, motivated only by self-interest and materialism; that we are inherently flawed, incomplete or lacking. Operating as we have been from this view of man’s fundamentally brutish nature, we’ve created a world of hurt and have damaged the environment. Now, the Sakyong writes, humans are at a crossroads where one road leads to fully destroying the world and the other leads to creating a good future.
We uncover our wisdom and discover our innate goodness by examining our deep-seated assumptions. The Sakyong writes,
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. In this way, the Shambhala principle is a socially transformative process through which confusion about human nature becomes confidence in human worthiness.
The book takes the form of an extended dialogue between the author and his father, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a key figure in the spread of Buddhism in the West and the founder of Shambhala. The Vidyadhara’s spirit, warmth and wisdom fill the pages, and we see him through the eyes of the Sakyong as a small boy growing into a young man.
The book opens with the father summoning the 12-year-old boy to his room, with the news that the youth would one day become the next sakyong, or earth protector. From there, conversations between father and son thread through the narrative, taking the reader through the land of Shambhala, and providing glimpses of the Vidyadhara’s insight and wisdom. Remarkably, Trunpa Rinpoche’s confidence in basic goodness remained unshaken even after witnessing, as a young man, horrific destruction and fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet. As the Sakyong poignantly describes it, his father courageously carried “this ember of goodness” across the world’s highest mountains to place it in his son’s hands and heart.
The Shambhala Principle describes the impact of our thoughts and feelings on our world through intention. When we choose to cultivate our wisdom and goodness through meditation, the mind is “full of gentleness and humor, precision and strength, and dignity arises.” We create a “sustainable internal environment that will have a potent effect on our world.” As chaos theory explains, a small change can create a dramatic long-term shift in a large system. The book charts a path where an individual — by paying attention, meditating, reflecting and choosing compassion — can affect her or his own body, speech and mind; in turn, these affect the world around us in small but significant ways.
Readers will find plenty of practical action steps: pay attention, be awake to the moment, get to know and trust one’s goodness. Those who have studied the Shambhala path will recognize many familiar concepts and instructions, from the four dignities to the terma references, to the cosmic mirror and more. For those who are new to Shambhala or Buddhist teachings, the author provides an excellent overview to the path of moving from “worrier to warrior,” from making friends with oneself to creating enlightened society one conversation at a time.
At times the book wavers between acknowledging the complexities of modern life and following Trungpa Rinpoche’s admonition to keep it simple. For example, the chapters on health and education seem to gloss over important issues. Perhaps these topics will be treated more thoroughly in future writings. The book’s strength is its ability to inspire the reader to join heaven and earth. “By working with the mind,” the Sakyong writes, “we align our spiritual aspirations with our daily lives for the benefit of the future.”
Sitting on the stage in Chicago, this slight figure dressed in golden robes had the audacity to proclaim human goodness just days after bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, hours before a weekend of discussions about ending youth violence. He was and is bold enough to question society’s prevailing mood of tension and anxiety, the dominant tempo of speed, the pervading influence of materialism, and the strong undercurrent of fear.
The Sakyong was not laughed at or run out of town. His message was not met with charges of Pollyannaism or unfounded optimism, because somehow he embodies the message. His genuine presence and dignity give people pause, opening enough space to say, “Could he be right? Is this true?” The audience gave him a standing ovation. He spent the next two days meeting with youth, activists, former gang members and followers of Shambhala. When he spoke about using meditation and reflecting on human nature as tools for fighting violence, people listened with respect. And gratitude. It was a gathering of enlightened society, based on the Shambhala principle.
Read more about the book and how to order it here: www.sakyong.com
Dixie Griffin Good loves the Shambhala Times and its amazing team of contributors. She lives in Denver with two Good teenagers and a pretty good cat. Her name translates to: Southern Garuda Sangpo. On gmail and twitter, she’s DixieGee.