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Jan 03
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The Once and Future King

Merlin Tutoring Arthur, photo courtesy of Bridgman Art Library

Guest article on King Arthur and Enlightened Leadership

by Gregory Lubkin, Director of the Shambhala Center of Los Angeles

People yearn for a society based on fundamental human goodness, an enlightened society that is brave, compassionate, honest, wise, dignified, playful, and creative. A vital element of that society is leadership, and enlightened leaders need to be just and fair, with vision and empathy for all, in addition to embodying the uplifted qualities of their society. Enlightened leaders also need to be powerful, inspiring, generous, skillful, and capable of working effectively with obstacles. Such leaders accept the counsel of others, but they take full responsibility for their own decisions. Enlightened leaders must love their society without reservation, because they are never really off duty.

Arthur draws sword from the stone and is crowned, photo courtesy of Alison Stones

In Western culture, the most prominent and enduring example of an enlightened leader is the legendary King Arthur, termed “The Once and Future King.” The shadowy “historical Arthur,” who lived around the early sixth century C.E. (A.D.), was probably a Celtic chieftain from southwestern Britain who fought to protect the last vestiges of sophisticated Roman civilization from invading Germanic tribes. He left few historical traces but gave rise to a legend.

The period 500-1000 C.E. in Europe featured a long succession of invasions, incursions, raids, and feuds, punctuated by occasional efforts to establish a decent human society. It was an age dominated by aggression and ignorance. When a sense of stability and prosperity began to return, a more sophisticated society developed. The warrior aristocrats and spiritual leaders who benefited most from the recovery worked to re-establish a society ruled by laws rather than weapons, with a strong sense of decorum and cultural manifestations such as art, music, poetry, and soaring Gothic architecture. In this world of new confidence, the Arthurian legends spread widely in many different versions and languages. Some versions emphasized chivalric skills, others spirituality, and others again the new concept of romance. These stories reflected the best of humanity as seen by the medieval warriors.

Arthur and Guinevere at banquet, photo courtesy of Lessing Photo Archive

The Arthurian world continues to be reinterpreted through the eyes of every era. It is a world of archetypal figures, centered on the court at Camelot and featuring the regal King Arthur, the magical Merlin, the gracious Queen Guenevere, the potent Morgan le Fay, and the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table, especially Lancelot. It is a world of lessons learned, skills exercised, and faith rewarded – and where human confusion can result in tragedy.

The legendary Arthur was born in a magical way arranged by Merlin and reared in a knightly household as a relatively ordinary person. Ultimately, Arthur’s fitness to be king was demonstrated magically by drawing a sword from a stone, but magic alone was not enough to make his reign meaningful. Arthur had seen the oppressive nature of a world in which “might makes right.” Once he could command an army, he subjugated the chaotic feudal lords for whom personal domination meant more than societal well-being.

Holy Grail at the Round Table, photo courtesy of Bridgman Art Library

King Arthur fought for basic human dignity. Shattering his society’s pattern of self-serving brutality, he inspired warriors to place their martial skills in the service of peace, justice, and goodness. He and Guenevere encouraged and rewarded heroism and service to others, with a commitment to the sacredness of enlightened society. Sacredness was an integral part of the Arthurian view, reflected also in respect for the natural world and the dominant religion of the time (including the quest for the Holy Grail).

As the young king vanquished those who ruled solely by force, many great warriors were magnetized to his just cause, the most famous being Lancelot, son of a Breton king. Arthur also brought friends and family into his royal household. His knights sat at a round table because he sought to emphasize the equal dignity of all his sacred warriors. In the usual medieval arrangement, the king would sit at the head of a long table, and everyone’s status could be measured visually by how far away from him they sat.

Tintagel Castle, photo courtesy of English Heritage Photo Library

King Arthur wanted his knights to be daring, willing to renounce the comfort and safety of Camelot for risk and adventure on their own individual paths. He insisted that they obey the code of chivalry, the rules of warriorship, which applied both on the field of battle and in the decorum of daily life. That code reflected a due regard for lineage and natural hierarchy, and it tested a knight’s commitment in each moment to integrity, fairness, and respect for others’ dignity. Those who joined Arthur’s court generally enjoyed the advantages of a fortunate birth, and they were expected to be generous, patient, and noble-hearted. These warriors had a capacity for tenderness and open-heartedness that might be impossible for someone whose literal survival was a daily struggle. With that open-heartedness came a capacity for passion, sadness, and vulnerability, taming arrogance, igniting compassion, and motivating warriors to serve even in the face of discouragement and personal embarrassment. Every year, in full court with the King on his throne, the knights renewed their vows to pursue these goals.

Guenevere & wounded Lancelot, photo courtesy of Mail Online

Daring warriors came to Camelot because that court was the model and embodiment of enlightened society, where valor was celebrated and good cheer refreshed their minds and hearts. Camelot manifested the splendor and creativity made possible by the prosperity of Arthur’s peaceful realm. Camelot also became a training ground for courtesy – literally, the behavior appropriate to a court, which required mutual accommodation and respect, as well as an appreciation for the arts and social graces.

King Arthur’s accomplishment as an enlightened leader owed much to his friends and family, but it was his personal allegiance to them that led to his downfall. He was betrayed particularly through Lancelot and Guenevere’s uncontrollable passion for one another, and through his illegitimate son Mordred’s uncontrollable resentment and greed. Nonetheless, even death could not stop Arthur’s commitment to justice and social benevolence. Mortally wounded, he was carried away to the mysterious Isle of Avalon by his half-sister, Queen Morgan le Fay, a fierce embodiment of protector principle who was his nemesis when times were good but saved him when the need was greatest.

For the legend tells us that she saved King Arthur from death, and that someday he will arise and serve again as an enlightened leader – “The Once and Future King.”

Glastonbury Tor, photo courtesy of Greg Lubkin

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12 responses to “ The Once and Future King ”
  1. Eric Wilson
    Jan 13, 2012

    I am not a big fan of one person having all the power or the other extreme -which is in vogue now- in which decisions are completely done by consensus. I think we can see in Arthur and other native cultures a tradition of strong and wise leadership manifesting with an emphasis on group process and inclusion. Great article.

  2. Greg Lubkin
    Jan 10, 2012

    I previously submitted a long response that disappeared when I tried to post it, so I’ll try again.

    First of all, thanks to everyone who commented for their interest and insights. I can’t give a fully detailed response to everything but am happy to continue the dialogue with anyone who wants to e-mail me at [email protected].

    With respect to the request for sources, there is a vast literature on the Arthurian legends, and what appears above draws from dozens of different works. I used to be a professor of history, and the topics of chivalry and court were my specialties. My motivation for both studying medieval history and entering into the Shambhala sacred path of the warrior was an early childhood encounter with Arthurian tales that left me with an enduring sense of human dignity, splendor, and tenderness. The only “Shambhalian gloss” (or original thought) I’ve really added in the article above is the characterization of Morgan le Fay as embodying protector principle. Rather than direct people to secondary sources (i.e., studies about the medieval world), I would suggest reading some of the earliest (12th century) Arthurian literature — Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (just the chapters on Arthur and Merlin), the Arthurian Romances of Chretien de Troyes (except Cliges, which isn’t very Arthurian), and the Mabinogion (Welsh tales). These works are rich with human wisdom and confusion, and full of magic. The Quest of the Holy Grail was integrated into the Arthurian legends slightly later and is more pious and moralistic in tone.

    Regarding the nature of the Holy Grail, the relationship between Tintagel and Glastonbury, and other specific questions, there is too much to say, and most of it is speculation. Arthur and his world are difficult to nail down historically or geographically, but they have been a part of the Shambhala tradition since the 1970s. Chogyam Trungpa mentions King Arthur as a Shambhalian figure in the book Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, and he named one of his sons Gesar Arthur Mukpo. This article is not the first on Arthurian themes to appear in a Shambhala community publication.

    The question of what might happen when Arthur returns is very interesting, because the world has indeed changed since the time when the Arthurian legends arose. The topic deserves more discussion, but it is worth noting that monarchy is still with us in many forms. Shambhala itself has always been an enlightened monarchy, and many of the world’s most socially progressive countries, including the Netherlands, the UK, and most of the Nordic countries, are headed by hereditary monarchs. Arguably, any nation or organization in which a single person has the ultimate authority is a monarchy. But even in the 12th century, monarchy was not the only model of governance; for the merchant-run city-states of Italy and northern Europe, the concepts of political liberty and republican government were central.

    Ultimately, the key question about leadership is how those who possess power of whatever kind choose to use their authority.

  3. vincent Bardet
    Jan 8, 2012

    It’s very amusing to imagine the ultimate Arthur and the ultimate Sakyong having tea together. Actually Trungpa did half of the way since he loved scottish highlander apparatus ! The historical parallel for Arthur is clearly Gesar. And its eschatological figure the last kalkin of Shambhala. In the contemporary lineage of Shambhala inaugurated by the Dorje Dradul of Mukpo, it seems like a new cycle of time is inaugurated after the fall of Tibet and the penetration of dharma in the West, but these matters are still very mysterious and we are acting into it. We can legitimately consider these figures as anthropological models of the sacred warrior and priest-king, warrants of awakened chivalry.The Grail litterature is very rich, and inaugurates the courteous litterature in the Western World. It was first an oral tradition, situated in the 6th century of our era near Gladstonbury, then redacted in the 12th century, it proliferated like termas. It represents enlightened quality of warriorship.
    Merlin represents the ultimate figure of the lost druidic knowledge, which can be carefully compared to bönpo in the lost kingdom of Shangshung. And both may have received persic influence. Both have the classic ritual of the sacred drink. In Siberia shamans used to put psychotropic mushrooms into it. So they could practice windhorse in the sky and meet spirits, but that’s another story …

  4. vincent Bardet
    Jan 8, 2012

    Yes it is a very exciting topic. In mid february I’ll publish a book in France called “Le Livre du Tantra” in which I discuss some of these topics, including my trip to Tibet with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Matthieu Ricard in 1990. The Kalachakra Tantra dates from the Xth century AC, its transmission from the historical Buddha is legendary, it is the only major tantric intitiation open to the public, we could say an introduction to the sacred world of vajrayana.
    In the harbour of Lerwick, capital of Shetland Islands, up north of Scotland, last summer, I met a tridimensional figuration of the grail quite striking, a brilliant metallic vessel overflowing in the four cardinal directions, I took the picture and would like to know how to send it to you. It was built as an ex-voto by a whale hunter and has clearly a messianic connotation, like the overflowing of the grace of Redemption, the Holy Spirit.
    There is also a magical dimension pre-existing to Christianity. We can rejoin ancient celtic rituels. It reminds me of the vedic amrita, and in a folkish way the magic potion in the french celtic comics Asterix. Sherab Chodzin told me Chögyam Trungpa was very fond of this comic strip !

  5. Gailmarie Kimmel
    Jan 6, 2012

    Greg, thank you. I’ve always read and seen everything I could on Arthur et al…the “legend” has loomed large in my heart and imagination since childhood. “Enlightened society” is what drew me to Shambhala so I look forward to the continued exploration of what this can mean and look like in our times. A cheerful new year to you.

  6. Angela Pressburger
    Jan 6, 2012

    Greg, this is wonderful! I am so glad you have begun to share your enormous knowledge on this subject. We need to know more about Western heroes and our ideas of heroism altogether. The Druk Sakyong once launched a ‘history project’ with the hope that we would explore Western warriorship, and now the Kongma Sakyong has suggested we set aside a day to explore our heroes, so this is very timely. I am hoping you will be inspired to offer more articles in this vein on such topics as Courtly Love, the development of the ‘White Knight’, Roland, Charlemagne, and so on. Go for it!

  7. Actions speak volumes where words fall short. Monarchy, in one form or another, was pretty much the only form of political leadership in the Buddha’s day. And the Buddha crafted his teachings for the time and place and the recipients. Clearly, he had more important things to teach back then than politics, although it certainly made great sense for kings to accept and apply what he taught. And I believe he encouraged it. Ashoka would be a great example. But the world has changed a great deal since the Buddha’s time. Monarchy is a thing of the past. Where it does exist, it’s pretty much in form only. It’s striking how the Buddha’s example of rejecting the royal trappings is dead-on applicable in today’s world, much more so than in his own time! As if he was looking into the future. What an enlightened teacher! My point is simply that real leadership in today’s world, spiritual or otherwise, has no need for such trappings. Kings, or their equivalents, that demonstrate humility and equanimity by playing down the “royal” routine, the royal garb, the palaces, etc. are true leaders in our world today. The Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of humble leadership. What the monarchy has done in Bhutan is another good example.

  8. Nick Trautz
    Jan 4, 2012

    While the Buddha did renounce his own royalty, he is never recorded in the sutras as having encouraged others to do so (at least not that I have seen…) In fact, the Kalachakra teachings were given specifically to a line of kings by the buddha himself to allow them to pursue enlightenment while continuing to serve as rulers (if you believe what the Vajrayana tradition says about itself…). Anyway, those teachings are premised on the notion of rulership over one’s own mind, with the enlightened king serving as the example and inspiration. So as far as I see, no problem with kings and dharma (although there are certainly plenty of examples out there of unenlightened kings…)

  9. Nick Trautz
    Jan 4, 2012

    Greg, what are your sources for this information? Can you recommend some historical scholarship that discusses the enlightened ethics of the Arthurian court? Just trying to sort out what is a Shambhalian gloss on the Arthurian legend and what is historically sourced…
    Otherwise, thanks for an offering that is interesting and unusual.

  10. vincent Bardet
    Jan 4, 2012

    refreshing !
    i suggest you read nikolai tolstoi’s “quest for merlin”
    graal could be glenffidich happy hours !

    you know michael remember in tantra
    beggarship and kingship is a state of mind

  11. Titilia Cakau
    Jan 3, 2012

    Thank you for this great article. i have family who reside near Glastonbury, and my parents have visited Glastonbury as they were both fascinated with King Arthur, and the legend of this society. My late father attempted to explain what drala is after visiting, and he said “there is something extraordinarily magical about this land. ” I have never visited Glastonbury myself, and would be curious about drala there. That is great to hear, especially about Lancelot and Guinevere, and Queen Mary le Fay, the protector. Is it possible for you to explain the relationship between Glastonbury & Tintagel castle? How are they connected? What is your interpretation of the holy grail? i have learnt that it is a cup, also, it could be a scroll of secret teachings and so on. When King Arthur does arise again to rule, will we have a system equivalent to the Tibetan Buddhist system in the world at large, where he is recognized and enthroned? Will he come to Shambhala? Just some simple ?uestions.

  12. Didn’t the Buddha himself reject the trappings of royalty? If a society is truly enlightened, they need not follow a “king.” And if a “king” believes that equanimity is more than a word, he sets aside his crown.

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