Sakyong Mipham: King of His World
The Tibetan lama--also a golfer, marathon runner, and sharp dresser--on why worldly success is compatible with spiritual growth.
BY: Interview by Ted Rose
Gandhi, George Washington, Tusum Khyenpa, JFK, MLK. What draws us to these people? There was a moment when each of them overtly cared for a large group of people. They provided protection. We respect that compassion. They each had that quality. If you can't protect their own mind, you can't nurture it for others. When you are peaceful or you are acting for the benefit of others, you have ziji, confidence. You have authentic presence. People gather around you because there's something bigger, something selfless, which is different than someone who is completely arrogant or self-obsessed.
These aren't standard Buddhist teachings. You call them Shambhala teachings. Where did they come from and how did you get them?
These are high teachings. When the Buddha was very old, a king visited him from the northern kingdom of Shambhala. The king wanted to learn from the teacher but he had worldly responsibilities and told the Buddha all his subjects couldn't go off and become monks and nuns. The Buddha taught how you can engage in the world through a mind of understanding. It's very challenging. We have to have enough wisdom to see how we are conducting ourselves, but the kingdom itself can be an oasis of virtue, the energy of the land can increase, people become more efficient, and they work harder.
There were also kings in Tibet who practiced these teachings. They were known as dharma kings. One famous example is Gesar of Ling whose teaching stream ran in my family. More recently my father [Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche] wrote about these teachings extensively.
Was there actually a kingdom of Shambhala where all this happened?
There were various kingdoms. Above Tibet there was an actual country called Shambhala.
Do you believe it's still there?
It could be. People are looking for the place. Shambhala is very intriguing because they did practice the Kalachakra tantra. The tantra itself became one of the main staples of the kingdom. Everybody practiced and the society became an example and an inspiration for others.
Do you consider looking for Shambhala a worthwhile goal?
It's only worthwhile if it fortifies people's trust in the teachings. When you hear about Shambhala, it's very inspirational. We all long for a place that has a level of harmony. The physical place is important to see that it really did happen somewhere, but when you go there what's going to be most enduring is that people really did practice this way and we get down to teaching this approach which is what we need to carry on.
You have had an unorthodox life. What gifts and challenges has your unusual upbringing brought to your mission of teaching meditation?
I studied with real experienced masters-foremost in my mind is my father. Before the Chinese invasion, Tibet was like Shambhala. People practiced these teachings and realized things. I realize more and more how fortunate I was to study with people who literally escaped at the last minute. To be able to have been given that milk and honey of the teachings is a rare situation.
In the west, the old stuff is no good and the new stuff is always better. My job is not to give either up. That's always challenging. How do you take ancient wisdom and present it now?
You live like a king. You drive in large cars. You have an entourage. Why?
I have a lot of large people around me! You wouldn't want to be stuck in a car with these people! In Tibet, some people manifested as monks and ascetics while others manifest as God-kings. They ruled their land and they were also spiritual leaders. The Dalai Lama was such a king and there were other lineages. I inherited one of them.
People expect a Buddhist teacher to be a monk with simple robes, but you dress well. You've got very nice shoes. For many people, this feeds many people's fear of spiritual gurus: you are enriching yourself at the expense of desperate seekers. Your father faced this same criticism when he was around. What's your response?
You said it right at the beginning. It's about people's expectations. In Tibet there are married lamas and monastic lamas. There are many kinds. People like to hold onto one type that's the best kind, but you can't change the history because people have a concept about what they will and won't accept.
What do you think of George Bush? Is he ruling his world?
Well, he should read my book. I'm sure he'll only benefit.
Do you think the separation of church and state is a structural problem?
In the past, churches have abused their power. People want to be safe and separate those two. Spirituality is defined as benefiting others you can mix that with the secular world [It is an interesting challenge. We are asking politicians to do more than fix bridges and collect taxes. We're asking them to be some kind of moral leaders. We are asking them to have spiritual understanding without getting into religion. What I'm saying is if an individual doesn't have heart and mind in sync with what they doing in the world then it's always going to feel off balance. In Shambhala, there were leaders who practiced that and disseminated that. Here that's not necessarily possible, but people can do it within their own framework.