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May 27
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The Community Survey: Why It Matters

By Mary Whetsell

A little over a year ago, the Shambhala Community Survey was distributed as a way to take a snapshot in time of our worldwide sangha. At that point, President Reoch had visited almost every Shambhala center in the mandala. And while he reported that most Centers were delighted with the first and second jewels (Buddha and Dharma), many Centers were actively grappling with how the third jewel (Sangha) works in non-monastic Western practice settings. In particular, he heard over and over again throughout the mandala that issues of community care, working with divergent viewpoints among sangha members, and creating good inter-sangha communication were our growing edges.  

Based on this, a group from the Sakyong’s Council set out to ask Shambhalians about themselves and about their Shambhala communities. What are some of the characteristics of our communities? What is working well? What could be improved?

Five hundred and fifty people from our international mandala, or roughly one out of every thirteen Shambhala members, responded to these questions and many others. This is the first time we have gathered this type of information of on this large of scale, and that is significant. But as we know from our study of dharma, one should be careful not to confuse the map with the actual territory. It is hoped that these results will be the starting point for conversations around the mandala, among those in governance and among sangha brothers and sisters. Do these results reflect your experience? Do they suggest ways to deepen your sense of community or to work with ongoing sangha concerns? Only a small segment of the survey results are highlighted below, but all Shambhala members are highly encouraged to look at the full results for themselves.  


We’re not getting any younger, that’s for sure. If the survey results accurately reflect the sangha at large, sixty-seven percent of us are over forty-six years old. Three-quarters of us do not have children living in our homes, and among those of us who are parents, most of us have gotten our children through school and out into the world. Although we are an older sangha, two-thirds of us have not yet retired and we are enjoying good health. The large majority of us live in North American, with only twenty percent of Shambhalians living elsewhere. A lot of us have been part of the sangha for a while; almost one out of six of us have been Shambhalians for over thirty years! Less than half of us, forty-three percent, have been involved in Shambhala for ten or fewer years.


Over half of us (54%) are vajrayana practitioners; four-fifths of us contribute to our local Centers is multiple ways, including practice, volunteering and financially supporting our Centers. The large majority of Shambhalians – over eighty percent – attend programs, talks and/or community events at their Centers at a rate of two or more times per month. While by far most of us support our Centers financially, still one out of every six members do not pay regular dues to the local Shambhala Center. Most of us seem to wish we could be more active at our Centers, with only 20% of us reporting no barriers at all to participation. For slightly over half of us, work obligations prevent us from participating at our Centers more frequently.

But what about barriers to participation that Centers may have a bit more control over?

One out of ten respondents said they could not afford the cost of programs. Warmth and perceived friendliness at the Center seem to also make a huge difference to the rate of participation. Those who are Shambhala Buddhist teachers and meditation instructors tend to practice less at their Shambhala Center and to attend fewer events than the general membership. Across the sangha, dharma teachers and meditation instructors are highly respected and regarded as important role models. In their comments, many respondents said it would be very helpful to them if senior practitioners came to the Shambhala Center more frequently.


A sense of belonging to the Shambhala community is very important to most of us, with two-thirds of us saying that we feel we are a part of a community as a member of Shambhala. Ninety-four percent of respondents said they feel their sangha is harmonious enough that it remains basically healthy. Members of younger and smaller Shambhala Centers have a higher sense of belonging, and a higher rate of participation, than those of us who belong to the larger, older Centers.

If we want our Centers to grow without sacrificing a sense of belongingness among members, what are the key elements according to this survey?

First, our Centers must be family friendly. Second, there must be a sense of warmth and welcoming. And third, respondents said there must be regularly offered, community-wide practice and social activities. Harmony in our sanghas seems to be strongly related to the qualities of our leaders. Harmony is higher in sanghas where the leaders are respected, understand the needs of their communities, communicate well to their members and deal effectively with disagreements/conflict.

So what about conflicts and disagreements in our sangha?

The very good news is most Shambhalians are not aware of much conflict in their communities, and the bad news is that they don’t know how it would be dealt with should it arise. Regarding serious infractions, particularly abuses of power by Shambhala Buddhist teachers and leaders, over half of the respondents were not aware that our mandala has a Care & Conduct Council that is empowered to investigate misconduct and to apply sanctions. And one out of three respondents were not aware that there is a mandala-wide policy that defines sexual misconduct and prohibits this behavior on the part of teachers and leaders.

Regarding the more garden-variety sorts of grittiness in the sangha, the largest source of disharmony is connected to the fact that too few people are doing too much of the volunteer work at local Centers. How we go about magnetizing, organizing, supervising and appreciating volunteers seem to be key to community harmony and also to a sense of belonging among members. Our members clearly state they want to contribute; where we sometimes fall short is in capturing this spirit of generosity and getting it mobilized.


A very large majority of us, ninety-four percent, said we prefer to receive information by email. If this survey represents how most of us feel, we are happy with how programs and other community events are communicated to us, both locally and internationally. We are less pleased with communications regarding governance process and decision, as well as community care issues. The good news is that when it comes to communication efforts, we’re about halfway there: roughly fifty percent of respondents said that the Shambhala.org website, the Shambhala News Service, our local websites and our local elists are “very effective.” Approximately another third of us rated these communication venues as “somewhat effective,” indicating that there is room for improvement.

How would you like to see our communications efforts move forward? Are there factors that would help you feel a greater sense of belongingness to your local and international sangha?

If you had a magic lamp, and had coaxed the genie free, what would your three wishes be for our Shambhala community? It would be so helpful if you would please reply in the comments box at the end of this article. Let’s get a conversation going!

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10 responses to “ The Community Survey: Why It Matters ”
  1. Ross Hunter
    Nov 3, 2009

    I don’t mean to diminish Pam’s comment, which I endorse totally and suggest we should take to heart – but Judy makes the most compelling comment here to me. It’s always good to hear the words of the newcomers, I’ve always thought they are the most important people. After all, if we cannot be selfless and solicitous towards our newest and potential sangha members, why bother thinking we can engage the world?

    All of our questions regarding future growth are answered in the quiet comments of the new people. Our problem is not so much eliciting this feedback but hearing it and actually changing our institutional dynamics to adapt to it.

    Sadly, and unhelpfully, I have to run, and have nothing else to add right now ;)

  2. Dan Magorian
    Nov 2, 2009

    Mary, I wish you’d stop using that eye candy pic of the Baltimore SC sangha just because it shows some black and hispanic members. In fact, Baltimore has serious divisive issues plaguing the sangha leadership down the decades, which I have discussed with President Reoch, and should not be held up even pictorially as a model of anything. A number of people pictured here are not even members anymore. It’s as if some Zen center kept using a pic of someone sitting perfect zazen on their web page, but actually that person
    had left years before. Not exactly false advertising, just kind of … inappropriate. Why not get some new pics from some of those people proud of their communities “where harmony reigns?” And if they don’t show the right racial profiling, well that’s what Photoshop is for. 8->

  3. Thank you for this overview.
    I am dismayed that sexual abuse/assault/harassment is listed under “conflict.” Sexual assault and harassment are not “conflicts”. They are aggressive behaviours that one person targets someone else for (usually of lower status and power such as newer students, youth/children, and women). This is not a disagreement between two parties; it is an aggressive individual’s expression of a global phenomenon, which is a social problem, a community problem, not one that is solved by dispute resolution focusing on two individuals. To address sexual aggression in our community we must take a broader and more informed view of the causes and conditions that lead to it and also address the secondary wounding of targetted individuals by community indifference/ignorance.

  4. Mary Whetsell
    Sep 29, 2009

    In reading over the comments that have been posted thus far, I notice some themes emerging. The first theme is that email and other means of electronic communications cannot replace face to face, person to person interaction. This sort of interaction is especially important in the case of newer students, who are quite understandably wondering about issues of lineage and devotion, as well as the Shambhala structure of participatory monarchy.

    A second theme is a call for senior students to be more active in the life of their local sanghas. An active, well-known and trusted senior teacher would be the perfect person to relate to questions such as those raised by Judy in the posting prior to this one. These sorts of questions are important and deserve to be discussed fully and thoughtfully in the context of an ongoing relationship.

  5. I am very new to Shambhala, and only became a member a few months ago.
    For what’s it’s worth, the 3 things that I feel most uncomfortable with and bewildered by so far in Shambhala that I would like to see change if I had a magic lamp would be:
    1) If we could all stop pretending that everything Trungpa Rinpoche did and said was selfless, perfect, enlightened, and for the benefit of others. If it could be acknowledged that he was in fact a human being, and we could all love and appreciate him *because* he was flawed like the rest of us.
    2) If we could have an organizational model other than a “royalty” one. All the language used of King, Queen, Court, Kingdom, Capital, etc. I find frightening and inexplicable. The implication for me is that Shambhala is some kind of “Nation State” that will one day go to war with other ‘Nation States’.
    3) If the seemingly endless numbers of community roles and duties could be rearranged, pruned down or re-scheduled so that the senior students could and would actually meditate and practice with the rest of the community.
    I hope I won’t be offending and angering people by expressing these things…!

  6. Mary and committee, thank you for compiling the results of the survey. I am very fortunate to be a member of a small to mid-size Shambhala community where harmony reins. What’s our secret? Senior members come to the center to public sittings regularly and are willing to be MIs and teach = visibility and modeling; it is friendly; there are frequent community events; we have our food act together (never underestimate: “no food, no dharma”); the center is in the center of town and very accessible. Our challenges? volunteerism, money, collecting cohorts of students, time, attracting new members in their 20s and 30s. Sound familiar?

  7. Reese McKay
    Sep 17, 2009

    Thank you, Mary. This overview of the survey was helpful. I would agree with Marc’s comments and add that the fact that we have so much communication (or at least information) through the web and by email may cause many people to feel that much more disconnected. For those who live far from any Shambhala Center this opportunity for frequent electronic messaging is probably a major plus. It provides a definite and immediate communications link.

    Yet, as a society (in North America at least) it seems that people are becoming more and more isolated from each other and drifting even more toward interacting only with those they agree with or those who do the same activities and share similar lifestyles. People are more and more polarized both politically and spiritually in the larger society. This is a troubling and perhaps even dangerous trend. Face book and similar things may have wonderful possibilities, but as always it is a two-edged sword. At the very least this electronic age may be further impoverishing society, stealing us away from the richness and subtlety of a multi-layered and nature-connected full five senses world.

  8. I am a sangha member since 1998. I am new to the Boulder sangha. For the last 6 years my young child has been a concern of mine when considering participation/volunteerism with my local sangha. I expected greater accomodations/provisions for my child (in the form of childcare at large community events, practice intensives) at this larger, well established center. Communication about childcare, inclusion of families/children at various events (Harvest of Peace for example) has been unclear/absent. I would like to see greater efforts being made to overtly include and encourage young families to participate in sangha activities that are meant for the whole sangha such as addresses by the Sakyong, and celebrations.

    I would like to volunteer my time/interest in family issues, though how, when and where has been unclear despite my verbal inquiries. Making it easier to capture the energy and interest of motivated sangha members seems integral to our continued growth and success as a community.

  9. Marc Matheson
    Sep 17, 2009

    Thank you, Mary, for this overview of the survey results. It’s splendid that our community has made such progress in being networked and able to communicate in so many ways. I am concerned, however, about the members of our sangha who, for a variety of reasons, opt out of electronic messaging – email, subscription to sangha-announce and other list options, and infrequent visits to informative websites such as Shambhala Times and Shambhala.org.

    While I don’t have any answers, I suspect the questions – Why do folks opt out, and How can we reach the non-techie or non-electronic messaging members of our community? – are key to ensuring a cohesive, informed and participatory sangha.

    Thanks again for the noble and no doubt enormous task of polling the kingdom,

    Marc Matheson

  10. James Northcote
    May 27, 2009

    The first wish for our Shambhala community that comes to mind is: remember the view.

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