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Shambhala Launches Visa Card with Ashoka Credit Union

Alex Halpern

Alex Halpern

Over the past few years, a number of community members have suggested that Shambhala offer a branded credit card to support our work and increase our visibility in the world. Many large and well regarded environmental and social groups have credit card programs for this reason.

To this end, Shambhala began partnering with Ashoka Credit Union – founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1975 to facilitate Shambhala’s growth and to help community members meet personal, professional, and practice needs. The Kalapa Council of Shambhala and the Board of Directors of Ashoka Credit Union are pleased to announce our partnership in launching a Shambhala Visa credit card this week!

Here, Mr. Alex Halpern, who worked closely with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at the time of Ashoka’s founding and current President and Chairman of its Board of Directors, answers questions about Ashoka Credit Union, the view of lending-borrowing, and the new credit card program.

Was it Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s idea to start a credit union?

Well, it was more like the model of a credit union fit with Rinpoche’s aspiration. In 1975 there was a surge of activity around establishing institutions and businesses – Naropa University is an example of that – and Ashoka Credit Union was founded at the same time to combine the community’s financial resources in a really cooperative and effective way to advance itself. That’s completely consistent with the cultural vision of credit unions, which were first created in the United States in the early 20th century as a populist approach to community building.

Originally, and for a long time, Ashoka’s lending assets were at about $100,000, and were used mostly to help people get to seminary. These students couldn’t get loans anywhere else because they’d quit their jobs to attend a three month program! So when this got started, credit unions were viewed as superior to any other banking concept and Rinpoche liked that. We’ve now grown to $2.5M, so we can support many kinds of lending opportunities at this point.

Are credit unions not-for-profit institutions?

Yes. Unlike banks, credit unions are not owned by investors but by the members who deposit money and earn interest. There are no extraneous investor groups looking to make a profit. When we make a loan, the interest income goes to pay interest to our depositors and to cover the expenses of running the business itself. As members’ accounts grow, there’s a greater ability to lend money to other members and Shambhala entities who need it. In a credit union, the members are the owners of the bank; equal owners, regardless of the size of their account.

What about the concept of debt? Did the Vidyadhara share any point of view on this?

I would say he considered debt a practical matter. He certainly was not averse to it. We borrowed money to buy Karma Dzong, (in Boulder) for instance. And there never was a concept that if you had a family and needed to buy a house that you wouldn’t take a loan to purchase it. Borrowing money shows confidence in the future. Am I going to live hand-to-mouth forever because I can’t think 20 years into the future? Because I don’t think I’m going to build something going forward?

Working with money, with livelihood, and with the future means working with prosperity. Rinpoche was the one who told me to become a lawyer. A week before I got started I called him and asked him to remind me why I was going to do this. He said, “Because it’s prosperous.” Even in 1973 he was talking about prosperity – working with enlightened society goes back to day one. Living in the world and being prosperous is our path. Ashoka as a lending institution represents confidence, commitment, and the sophistication of engaging with the greater financial system. Founding Ashoka was a dot that says we have confidence in our future.

How does the new Shambhala Visa credit card change things?

Credit cards are just a convenient way to do banking. It’s not fundamentally different. It’s just another way of borrowing and lending. That said, every credit card transaction pays a small fee to the bank who issued the card. With this card, these small quanta of money will get routed to Ashoka, rather than to Bank of America, for example, and from there a percentage of each credit card purchase will go to support Shambhala.

Why would someone choose to have a Shambhala Visa credit card instead of some other credit card?

If you think you own Wells Fargo and that Wells Fargo holds a vision you support, then there is no difference! Functionally, a Shambhala credit card operates like any credit card, but, as an instrument of a credit union, the earnings are recycled within the Shambhala community, making us stronger.

Also, inescapably, there’s a symbolic quality to our entering the credit card realm in that we now have a minor but genuine presence there. The names of Shambhala and Ashoka have appeared in that world – which I don’t think is insignificant. If you want to change something, if you have a vision of how enlightened society and finance can work, the only way you can develop that is by completely engaging with that world. You don’t stand outside with your good idea and say “you should” or “I think” – nobody cares. But if you participate, not only do you become more sophisticated, you have a place from which you can effectively communicate with the larger system. You have to be in it to see it; then the vision might become that “small spark of fire [that] consumes the jungle of enemies”.

And what about on the nitty-gritty level of interest rates and fees? Is the Shambhala credit card a good deal?

Judging Card A vs. Card B vs. Card C, there isn’t ever going to be a lot of difference due to extensive regulation and competition – it’s pretty strictly defined. Our goal is to offer competitive rates. We even offer rewards!

Both the Shambhala and Ashoka names are on the card. What does this mean?

Ashoka could have issued a credit card without Shambhala and Shambhala could have arranged a credit card program with another bank. Those would be business decisions – but when you put our names together, there is a real vision of a united community making a statement about its place in the world.

A good way to think about Ashoka’s relationship with Shambhala is that Shambhala is the owner; not in the sense that Shambhala is pulling money out as dividends, but that Shambhala holds the space in which Ashoka happens. Ashoka doesn’t have any purpose outside of Shambhala. As I said, the idea is that the credit union expands the prosperity of the whole Shambhala community.

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In solidarity with the people of Nepal, Shambhala will be donating our first month of credit card revenue to the long term relief and rebuilding of Nepal. More information will be forthcoming.

To apply for a Shambhala Visa card, please download and print up an application.

For further information, please review the financial terms of the Visa card, as well as a Shambhala Visa Fact Sheet.

Please don’t hesitate to contact Ashoka Credit Union with any and all questions related to this interview, the Shambhala Visa credit card, or how to become a member of our mandala’s very own financial cooperative. We will be happy to address your questions directly and in forthcoming communications.

Call 303-444-9003 or write [email protected]

For more information about Ashoka Credit Union, please visit: www.AshokaCreditUnion.org

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17 responses to “ Shambhala Launches Visa Card with Ashoka Credit Union ”
  1. Yael Codriansky
    May 7, 2015
    Reply

    Amazing! congratulations!

  2. Bravo! keep-the-money-in-the-family . . .

  3. Thanks for this very informative article. Gampo Abbey here in Nova Scotia Canada has had its US banking with the Ashoka Credit Union for many years. The addition of an affinity VISA card via Ashoka to support the Shambhala community will be very beneficial.

  4. Timaree Bierle-Dodds
    May 7, 2015
    Reply

    Fantastic idea manifesting! Congratulations!

  5. Chris Stockinger
    May 7, 2015
    Reply

    Awesome! We are applying.

  6. Nick Trautz
    May 8, 2015
    Reply

    I have no interest in the card, but interesting article…

  7. Nathan Railla
    May 8, 2015
    Reply

    This is such a great step forward! Thank you for trusting in our richness.

  8. Tom Gottlieb
    May 8, 2015
    Reply

    Great interview and teaching on the sanity of money! To be purchasing goods and services with our own Shambhala credit card is a real turning point. Thanks Alex!

  9. That’s interesting but the credit union is still not electronic. When I had an account there, and I did for several years, there was no way to put funds in or take them out except by snail mail. I finally had to close my account as it was too cumbersome. So if this card is to be useful it would need to be accessible at ATM’s. Is it? Besides the card is Ashoka Credit Union now online?? Some credit unions and banks also offer 0% interest for about 12 months. Will Ashoka be offering that as well?

  10. Sarah Luna of Ashoka
    May 12, 2015
    Reply

    Thanks for your question, Phyllis. Yes, the Visa card will be accessible online and you will have access to 640,000 ATMs worldwide. In answer to your other question, Ashoka will not be offering a 0% balance transfer option.

  11. Am I the only one horrified by this? What next, the Karmapa Amex card? The HHDL debit card?

  12. Shocking news, to say the least. Without going into vast detail of how credit cards actually function, a simplified version is that they create inflation — across the board, on all prices, for everyone, even those not using credit cards. It becomes even worse if there is a balance carried on the card, which is true for many.

    Thus what you are doing by issuing a Visa is forcing higher prices on those who cannot afford to pay more, e.g. “the poor”. Karma, anyone?

    If you pay off your credit balance every month then you obviously have the cash to cover your credit card purchases and should be purchasing with said cash instead of credit.

    This is a very serious, yet all too common misunderstanding of economics by Shambhala.

  13. Scott and Becky,
    May I ask if you have credit cards?

  14. Sorry, I didn’t finish my comment. I ask because I am interested to know how others handle various financial transactions without a credit card; for example, buying airplane tickets. No doubt there are other options. How do you handle these kinds of situations? It seems that so many financial transactions are organized around having a credit card and perhaps this is part of your concern.

    From a practical standpoint, it seems challenging to be without one in these times so I am genuinely curious.

  15. @Basia – yes I do have a credit card but rarely, if ever, use it. Credit cards are designed for ease, a perfect tool for the lazy consumer. There are different payment options available but if a CC is the only method available, then pay the balance IMMEDIATELY (within the hour) to minimise the negative effects.

    As you mentioned, CCs are the invasive species in the monetary system and the fear which is becoming reality is that the credit card companies will replace the sovereign money (aka cash); this is very bad.

    Hope people will do some of their own research and rethink their adoption of this credit card.

  16. Robert Reichner
    May 26, 2015
    Reply

    Dear Becky and Scott,

    Appreciate your comments here. I just wanted to post and see if you’d like to have a phone conversation about your concerns. I always find it helpful to hear other thoughts and perspectives. Let me know if you would be interested in talking and we can set up a time. My direct email is [email protected].

    Many thanks,

    Robert
    Head of the Shambhala Pillar of Economy

  17. Oyster Tamer
    May 30, 2015
    Reply

    Affinity cards are nothing new, though I have certainly never heard of another sangha that chose to create one. Yet given Shambhala’s affection for business and, implicitly, for conscious Capitalism, this comes as no surprise.

    But this article is shockingly tone-deaf for the way it talks about debt in this time of widespread financial crisis:

    “Borrowing money shows confidence in the future. Am I going to live hand-to-mouth forever because I can’t think 20 years into the future? Because I don’t think I’m going to build something going forward?”

    Wow, really? It’s tough for me to imagine a more tone-deaf statement in this time of crippling student debt. For starters, painting credit with this thin veneer of wisdom completely ignores how predatory the credit (debt) industry is in the United States. As well, a great many people heartily believed in their futures but, less established than the Boomers who continue to dominate much of Shambhala, got royally screwed by the recession. This statement from the article is shocking for its attempt to apply some sort of pithy universal to an issue that defines the very grounds of so many lives right now.

    It would be truly inspiring to see some Acharya have the gall or courage to take on this strange individualism that lurks in the background of Shambhala. To really examine how natural hierarchy unfortunately resonates with Ayn Rand et al. And to truly figure out how the dharma can be brought to bear on social forces that shape our individual experiences.


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