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Mar 11
Arts and Poetry
A Brief History of Shambhala Art

by Steven Saitzyk, International Director of Shambhala Art

How does one begin to tell a story that no one person can tell? Even finding a starting point for this tale is a challenge. I could start when I first met the Druk Sakyong, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1974, or a little later when he gave talks on iconography at Naropa, many of which became the foundation of our teachings on art making. Or, maybe still later, when he called those teachings Visual Dharma, or after that when he named them Dharma Art because the teachings where bigger than just one sensory perception or art form. After that he formed a group of students who connected with Dharma Art and called them the “Explorers of the Phenomenal World.” We helped during the late 70’s and early 80’s with his installations in Boulder, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. (You can read “Rinpoche’s Gauntlet” on the Shambhala Times, a personal story I wrote surrounding a particular challenge with the Los Angeles installation. There was also a video called “Discovering Elegance” that documented the Los Angeles exhibit, but sadly is now difficult to find.) However, if I start at any one of those points in time, this is going to be a book instead of an article.

I am going to choose a very sad time to start because it became the driving force to create a means to pass on these teachings. It is the time after Trungpa Rinpoche’s death when the Dharma Art teachings seemed to all but disappear except for an occasional event. Years of stagnation followed with particular regard to developing an organized system of passing on the full breadth of these teachings. There were even students who felt that because the Druk Sakyong did not establish a systematic way of transmitting these teachings in his lifetime as he had done with the Buddhist path and Shambhala Training that none should be created. One longtime student when asked why he did not teach Dharma Art was quoted as saying, “only one person can teach Dharma Art, and he’s dead.”

For myself I felt this could not be true. My experience was that these particular teachings were especially close to his heart and he certainly would not have wanted them to die with him. Besides, he and I had actually worked out a basic outline for a Dharma Art program that would convey these teachings in the late 70’s. We came up with the bones of what later became Parts 2-4 of the current Shambhala Art Program. It was not until the mid-1990’s, that the dark ages of Dharma Art began to lighten up. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche called for some Dharma Art Conferences to be attended by what came to be known as “old Dharma Art dogs,” longtime students of Dharma Art. At one point I recalled him saying, “I am tired of the United Nations of Dharma Art. Make something happen!” He may have used a bit more colorful language than that. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche later explained that his father charged him with completing the manifestation of Dharma Art. Out of these conferences and with Rinpoche’s guidance, the Dharma Art Program was developed in order to pass on these unique teachings in an experiential way to a new generation. Some “Dharma Art dogs” got on board to begin with and many others did later on.

Teacher trainings were offered and programs began to pop up in various cities in North America and Europe. As Dharma Art grew within the Shambhala mandala, we became aware of a problem with the name, Dharma Art: we could not trademark it. It had been in the public domain too long with too many people using it in many different ways. As we expanded internationally, we also found that “Dharma Art”, in most cultures means specifically Buddhist religious art. So, we had to change the name to clarify who we are and more importantly, to protect the Dharma Art teachings. In our crazy legalistic world we had to change our name from Dharma Art to something else to protect the Dharma Art teachings. At that time we had a Dharma Art Council and we managed to come up with more than three times the number of titles than there were Council members. No two members would agree to any one of them. Some suggestions were: “AhaArt,” “Sun Art for the Darkest of Times,” and “Sane Art Training.” After several rounds of submissions, Rinpoche came back with Shambhala Art.

Today, we have programs, classes, and festivals scattered around the world with about a hundred authorized Shambhala Art teachers. We have a very small administration with a very large vision, and significant need for financial support. Within the Shambhala mandala, Shambhala Art is entirely self-supporting. As for those interested in donating, we are a 501c3, with our own charter as a part of Shambhala. We are still growing and the interest in receiving these teachings has never been higher. Shambhala Art’s mission is to pass on the Dharma Art teachings through perceptual exercises, meditation, study, contemplation, non-objective calligraphy, object arranging exercises, and more, all of which build toward creating an installation, a feast, and celebration at the end of the program. This is all in the service of awakening our senses, clarifying our creative and viewing processes, and building a more enlightened society. Shambhala Art does not teach a specific art making discipline. We share the fundamental basis for all creative disciplines. (At the same time there is a loosely defined group of art making disciplines that people refer to as the Shambhala “Arts.” The Shambhala Arts are disciplines that embody the Dharma / Shambhala Art teachings.) Shambhala Art hopes someday to have its own retreat center, and a Shambhala School of Art and Design that would teach specific artistic disciplines in light of these teachings. We also plan to not only offer these teachings at all Shambhala Centers around the world, but to take them into Colleges and Universities, as some of us have already begun to do.

Because Shambhala Art is not focused on any specific discipline it draws people from all walks of life. In addition to visual artists, we have had performers, writers, therapists, attorneys, surgeons, actors, teachers, and students; and everyone interested in not only waking up their creativity, but also their viewing process to better appreciate and celebrate the art and life all around us. Join us.

Please see us at www.shambhalaart.org and like us on Facebook.

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7 responses to “ A Brief History of Shambhala Art ”
  1. rita ashworth
    Mar 29, 2012

    Mr Saitzyk thank you for your come back post. Many questions in my mind are brimming about what you have written.
    Firstly are we not dealing with apples and pears re Dharma Art/Shambhala Art and the actual practice of the meditational forms of Shambhala Training –why would one want to make a connection between the two forms that indeed had not been made officially by the Vidyadhara in his life time as far as I know. I think this systematisation of Art somewhat still goes against the very open teachings about Dharma Art given in several publications for the public by CTR. It also goes somewhat against the spirit of his will where he did not want his teachings re Art to be put in this form.
    Your further point about other Rinpoches wanting to practice the Shambhala teachings is highly intriguing, I had never heard about this before. Who were these Rinpoches and is this a matter of public record? Indeed if they still wanted to practice Shambhala Training(!?) could we then hope that they would be apt preceptors for transmitting the shambhala teachings in the west. It is also highly interesting because it shows that the Vidyadhara did want these teachings to spread further through other means than the present SI organisation aswell- so something indeed to think about. Hope you or others can come back on this point.
    So yes now we have the ‘official’ Shambhala Art and now we know of other Dharma Art teachers and practitioners out there. For myself I am not a kudos kind of person, levels I think I dont want to take any whatever again, but what would interest me would be ‘experience of community’ with others on a greater scale than has occurred in the past –so what I am looking for now is not systematised Art persay but should we say ritual –that is indeed why plays interest me highly. So yes fortunately at this present time there does seem to be ways one could approach this –that have edges of dharma permeating this very public discipline. Well best rita.

  2. Anne Saitzyk
    Mar 28, 2012

    From the Karme Choling website where the Shambhala Art Intensive will be starting April 6th…with Acharaya Hayashi and Laura Simms. http://www.karmecholing.org/program.php?id=4637

    “Art has long been an expression of the very best society has to offer. Shambhala Art provides an opportunity for artists and for people to see their life as ‘art in everyday life’. In many traditions, artists have trained not only in their discipline, but they also have trained their minds in awareness, confidence, and compassion. Shambhala Art allows us to experience the profound teachings on art developed by the great Tibetan meditation teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.”

  3. Anne Saitzyk
    Mar 28, 2012

    I wonder if there is misunderstanding about what the purpose of the Shambhala Art program is.

    It’s a series of experiential workshops designed to introduce people to a way of working with their art, their day, thier life, as meditation in action, appreciation and non-aggression. It is a marvelous gateway program for new people who don’t think they can meditate, but soon learn that they can sit quietly and notice the world around them – and then play with it. As well as make discoveries about their perception, expression, about what “art” might be and the teachings of the Vidyadhara and the Sakyong. For me, it was my first introduction to Shambhala, which is a vast mandala of teaching, styles, practices, celebrations, expressions and forms.

    If there is any “system” in the Shambhala Art program, it is to allow for some continuity since one team of teachers will teach parts 1 and 2 say, but new teachers will be likely be brought in to teach a part 3 or 4. And a student could travel to another city and take part 4 or 5 and not be completely lost. We all present some of the forms that VCTR taught: calligraphy and object arranging to name two. But a dancer will teach exercises from her experience, a musicologist will create exercises from his experience. The point is to illucidate the unique teachings on art and process given to us by VCTR as best we can. How a student then continues this exploration for themselves is up to them!

    See Volume Seven of the Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa for an incredible collection of his writings on art and artistic process.

    Love and Cheers,


  4. Over the years there have been many misunderstandings with regard to the development of Shambhala / Dharma Art. Maybe this will help explain some of them.

    1. “Dharma art dog” was a term of endearment used among many such dharma art dogs like myself. It is an adaptation of the reference used to identify the final stage of Ati meditation: Old Dog.

    2. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche set up a number of requirements for those who wanted to teach Shambhala Art. (Note: Shambhala Art was previously titled the Dharma Art Program.) One requirement was only those people who took the Program and Teacher Training could teach the Program. He also asked that those people teaching under the title Dharma Art to please not use that title while the Dharma Art Program was establishing itself. At the time I appealed to Rinpoche to make exceptions to these requirements, he explained that many Rinpoches had asked the VCTR if they could teach Shambhala Training; and the VCTR said they must first complete Shambhala Training. SMR said this would be the model for our program.

    3. One of the reasons that many of us were happy when SMR changed the name from Dharma Art to Shambhala Art was that people who had been teaching under the title Dharma Art could return to using that title if they wished.

    I hope this helps.

  5. rita ashworth
    Mar 21, 2012

    yes been checking the SA website out -states SA ‘based on the dharma art teachings of the late CTR -the founder of Shambhala Buddhism(?!)’-so there we have it…..I wonder what CTR actually did say to Steven re the structuring of courses -perhaps we could have an article on that and also from others who were also involved in the art scene around CTR in the 70s and 80s….anyway hopefully in the future people can hear all sides of the story re Shambhala Art, Dharma Art or whatever term people wish to refer to CTR’s involvement in artistic practice and process…..re Art generally—-I try to follow CTR’s admonishment of ‘just doing it’ -this seems to work well with poetry and could also be applied to calligraphy, I believe….well hope to meet many more ‘meditative artists’ from the states in the future-why dont you begin to form your own schools and start giving classes?

  6. This is hardly a history of Shambhala Art as I know it. Saitzyk almost denigrates what he calls “dogs” who are actually the original students of what CTR taught and not dogs or hounds or any other type of four-legged creature. Having been one of these students and teachers at the original phase of these teachings I later found that when Saitzyk set up his codified versions, which he also taught in Pasadena, those he now calls dogs were strangely required to take his courses that were now being taught by himself and others. I and other so-called hounds were not allowed to teach Art unless we now took his new versions. No one has ever truly addressed this. I was authorized to teach dharma art at the time by CTR and had also been the director then co-director of what was then the Vajradhatu Banner Studio. I also taught workshops and classes as adjuncts to CTRs seminars. The whole story of this has left a huge hole in my heart. I am not a competitive person by nature and when pushed by this process I have simply left it alone and moved on, but when an article like this appears I feel moved to say something.

  7. rita ashworth
    Mar 12, 2012

    Art -yes another reason why I left SI- I think the forms we may begin to use in the future will have to spring more from our own culture and ‘religious’ experience(s) – I dont think they can be fixed in stone at the moment- re Shambhala Art and CTRs ‘instructions’ specifically on this could we have a longer article….if Parts 2 and 4 are directly from CTR that would be interesting but I am not interested in latter accretions to the prog.—-yes on Art and our encounter with Tibetan culture in the west I think we need to organise even more conferences to see how our views meet and differ in the expression of Art in the ‘western’ context. Systematising Art into any programme I am not sure is completely on -there are so many divergences in the world about artistic process…at the moment trying to explore my own culture re Art with the aid of meditative process -think at times it would be wiser to go this way than following a set programme -tho I am interested in what CTR said about Art and its processes of course.

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