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Dec 18
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Taking off the Roof

Some thoughts on the occasion of opening a new Shambhala Center

by Alice Goguen Hunsberger

photo by Irini Rockwell

photo by Irini Rockwell

As we prepare to open the doors of our new Shambhala Center here in West Chester next week, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do to not only cultivate the community we already have, but to also create a welcoming environment in which the basic goodness of all people can be recognized and uncovered.

The key here is all people – not just those who are already part of our community, or those who naturally feel comfortable coming to visit us for the first time. When I talked to my mother about this recently and asked her for advice, she told me of a quote that is a summary of Trungpa Rimpoche’s teachings:

“First sweep your house. Then invite your guests. Then take off your roof.”

This is, of course, speaking about our own minds: first you cultivate your own mind, then you invite in the teachings, then you open up and let go of all your prior assumptions. This is the path to enlightenment. But could we also look at this as a model for running a Shambhala Center?

Open GateWhat does enlightened society look like, and how can we think about bringing that about in our own society at the Shambhala Center? We’re very busy sweeping the house right now, taking care to prepare the environment of the new center correctly, and cultivating a sense of community with one another. We also try to invite our friends in, applying the principle of basic goodness to our interactions, making great effort to listen carefully and to be kind. We study together and meditate together, and we share our insights and inspirations.

But what does taking off the roof of a society or community consist of?

With fortuitous timing, I was also sent this article, Speaking Up and Speaking Out, published in the Shambhala Times last month. In it, Sai Wei tells us of the Chicago Shambhala Center’s Open Mic nights, titled Speak Up Chicago, and the youth community that has formed as a result and the questions they have been asking:

“Within Speak Up, we offer up something that expands the vision of what Shambhala can be. Shambhala can become more than a meditation center. There is an energy that magnetizes the space, where we continue to challenge the older, more senior folks in creating new ventures, new horizons to reach for. […]

What is Shambhala exactly then? What are we? These questions come up in the face of our existence. Because the fact remains obvious:  Shambhala is dominated by middle class, college educated white people. Why is it so hard to attract people of color or poor people? Even I, a fairly whitewashed, middle class Asian American college student, feel uncomfortable in the Shambhala Level classes because I am constantly surrounded by white people. And I am committed to and deeply inspired by the Shambhala vision. […]

What exactly attracts only white people to Shambhala? Maybe because it’s so squeaky clean and articulate, and offers an image of Eastern wisdom that Westerners long for. But what if that’s problematic? […] Is the very culture and language that we have adopted too sophisticated and wordy for the average high school dropout? What if people speak in different ways? How can we foster diversity in Shambhala? It seems our existence forces us to expand the vision of what Shambhala means, because it means different things to different people now.  Speak Up Chicago is a testament to a different kind of Shambhala.”

Being another middle class, college-educated white person, it’s a difficult thing for me to face. As the new Director of our Center, I feel it’s my responsibility to make sure that everyone feels comfortable at our space, and that we make a conscious effort to, as the Sakyong says, open the flower outwards, and offer our teachings and understanding of basic goodness to all of West Chester and beyond. 
photo by Tony Henderson

photo by Tony Henderson

Is there some way, after we’ve swept our house and invited all our friends, that we can take off our roof?  What can I do to challenge my preferences for scheduling community events that appeal mostly to middle class, college-educated white folks like myself? How can I make different types of people feel warmly invited? How can we, as a community, diversify? How can we welcome new kinds of activities at our Center while still making sure the root of basic goodness and meditation is firmly planted in all that we do?

These are hard questions, as ultimately I don’t know what would resonate with different types of people in West Chester. All I can do is try my hardest to reach out (and further out!) to let people know we’re here, and Yes! We’d love to hear your ideas, and Yes! You, too, can build our community! After all, we are still in the first phase here, sweeping our house, as a newly forming sangha and Center. But I hope that we can keep these questions in the front of our minds as we move forward in this new adventure together, and maybe we can cut away at that roof bit by bit.
Alice Goguen Hunsberger is the new director of the Shambhala Center in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
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5 responses to “ Taking off the Roof ”
  1. Thanks for writing this. As Director of our center in San Diego (and also middle-aged, college educated and white) I have been wondering the same things. I appreciate the metaphor of “taking off the roof” as that’s not one I’d heard before.

  2. Carol Henderson
    Dec 26, 2015

    Editor’s note:
    Here is the address you requested.
    120 N. Church St
    Suite 102 (ground floor)
    West Chester, Pennsylvania 19380
    It is between Chestnut and Gay streets in downtown West Chester, PA.
    Find out more about the center through their website: http://westchester.shambhala.org

  3. marguerite sands
    Dec 25, 2015

    Please tell me the address of your centre as my father is in care in West Chester PA
    Thank you!

  4. Alice, one idea might be to offer meditation (and meditation instruction) weekly, during a time of day or day of the week that works “better” for those who DON’T have a M-F 9-5 job. Even if no one came, it would be opening a door, laying a foundation, inviting the possibility. And perhaps other ideas or opportunities would arise from that.
    Another thing is to offer a program for a local community college or university class in religious studies or Buddhism, if such a course is ongoing.

  5. Great article, Alice. Thank you for your leadership.

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