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What Is A Shastri?

Shastri Ben Hines

Shastri Ben Hines

by Shastri Ben Hines, Seattle, WA

When you come to the Seattle Shambhala Center, you soon encounter a term never heard in the West until recently: shastri. It reflects a role and responsibilities conferred by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, spiritual leader of Shambhala, on certain senior teachers in many Shambhala communities around the world.

Speaking personally, I think of the work of the shastri as “positive passion,” both delight and beautiful burden. I take the title lightly and the role seriously. “Passion” here is positive in the sense that I constantly feel transformed by my interaction with others. I witness weekly in all those who come to the Seattle Shambhala Center and their longing to love, to feel free and to feel good about life. I wish to fan the flame of that desire and be it too.

Historically, shastris (Sanskrit: teachers of the sutras and commentaries) once served on the faculty of Nalanda University, India, at its height world-renowned with 2,000 faculty and 10,000 students (5th-12th centuries A.D.). The Sakyong considers the appointment of modern-day shastris in the Shambhala tradition “historical” and part of creating a lineage and role of teachers that is “correct” for this time (in history).

What are shastris for? What is their role? It is to explore the possibility of two-fold transformation: through meditation and through engagement with society. Thus, Shambhala communities are meant to be “incubators” for an enlightened society. Aligning a vision of outward societal transformation with the inner journey of meditation is unique in history and in the meditation lineages of the world today. This is the contribution the Sakyong desires Shambhala to make to the world.

In the Sakyong’s view, shastris should exemplify the fruition of the inward journey of meditation practice and embody goodness, basic goodness. He also says our Shambhala communities should be “beacons of goodness,” places where it is easy for everyone to connect with their own basic goodness.

The Sakyong is relying on us to share his vision of two-fold transformation to address the issues and challenges of our time: numbness and speed and a pervasive disheartenment and loss of joy, confidence and magic. So he has implored us to use “the privilege and power as shastris to open up and widen our community to the widest number of people.” His vision is societal and global.

It is also communal and householder based. One of the primary roles for the shastri in the Shambhala community is to oversee Practice and Education and the curriculum known as the Way of Shambhala. Another essential role is the training of meditation guides, instructors and teachers. Another is to emphasize the importance of households and families as the basic unit of society.

Engagement in the realm of larger society begins for the shastris within the Shambhala communities where the Sakyong has requested shastris to build “communities of trust, cradles of loving-kindness.” Then, at the intersection of community and the larger society, he expects us to “think less, manifest more” and be “change agents.”

Ben HinesSpeaking in 2010, the Sakyong said: “You are not returning to your communities only to carry out the curriculum (of Way of Shambhala) but also a vision of humanity. It is important to allow yourselves to think big and expand out. That will give energy.” And further, “(The shastris) should teach not just core Shambhala teachings, but social issues,” with special emphasis on diversity.

I was appointed as Shastri in 2010 along with my respected colleague and friend Shastri Matthew Lyon. There are now 80-90 shastris worldwide.

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3 responses to “ What Is A Shastri? ”
  1. There’s a major misunderstanding presented in this article. Shastri was not invented by Shambhala. It is an Indian word used equally in religious and secular contexts that has been in use for thousands of years!. It is the simple term–not a grandiose one–used to describe anyone who is well-read in any given subject. (The word is derived from shastra, meaning texts and treatises.) In modern-day shastri India is the name for a basic degree at a university; in other words, if we say batchelor of such and such in English, in India they will speak of a shastri.

    This article presents shastri as though they were something very special, for example quoting their high position at Nalanda. That is a major exaggeration. Shastri is a very simple and common word with the straightforward meaning shown above. The closest in English is someone who is well-read in a subject. For example, Nalanda, as a place of studies, had shastris as much as any other place, and they would not have been very special in a place like Nalanda. In fact, you have to understand that even a villager could and would be referred to as a shastri by his fellow villagers simply for being well-read.

    There’s too much breathy excited exaggeration in this article. It does not promote clear thinking.

  2. Manuel Medeiros
    Jun 4, 2014
    Reply

    Thanks Ben, for this expression of how the Sakyong envisions the role that shastris should play in our community. It’s a constant inquiry for all of us (shastris especially included!) to understand the intent behind the Sakyong’s selection of the title “shastri” for use within the Shambhala community, as well as the place that he expects the shastris to occupy as part of our mandala’s Pillar of Education. Your personal and delight-full explorations on this are very helpful.

  3. Nick Phillips
    Jun 4, 2014
    Reply

    Lulu, we all hope everyone’s cradle of loving kindness extends fully to women, to men, and to all beings. Why not? But selecting this specific hope for posting in an explanatory article about shastri, from among all the many other hopes we might aspire to and post, seems to indicate you have particular knowledge that such abuse as you describe is widespread and needs to be pointed out. If so, there are many channels through which specific behavior can be addressed, confronted, and stopped, and you should help us out by contacting them. Otherwise, to post vague implications merely fans rumors and can do nothing towards remedying the situation.

    Tony, thank you for your concern that I may have been duped by major misunderstanding and exaggeration here. I did review the article and could not find where it says that Shambhala invented the word shastri (it points out it was an Indian word), or that the only place shastri ever existed was at Nalanda (that was mentioned only as one place they once existed), or where shastri were being misleadingly elevated, (they were mentioned as having been part of the faculty). I don’t think etymology was the point of the article, but rather how the word and position are being used today. Shambhala uses many many words that are not of Shambhala origin (as does English). Shastri are a wonderful, inspiring addition to the vision of Shambhala (and all the ones I know are quite well read, too). Have you had no positive experience with any of them you could share with us or some ideas for how they might help enlighten the planet?


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