2016-06-30
Sakyong Mipham is not your grandfather's Buddhist lama. The man called the Sakyong (a Tibetan honorific which translates as "earth protector") is a rakish 42-year-old who looks equally comfortable in the white oxford and khakis he wears for golf outings as he does in the brocade vest and maroon robes he assumes to travel the world to teach meditation. The Sakyong spent his earliest years in a Tibetan refugee camp living with his mother, but the majority of his childhood in Boulder, Colorado, under the tutelage of his father, the renowned meditation teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. While Trungpa introduced the poet Allen Ginsberg to the Vajrayana, he made sure his eldest son received an eclectic education mixing contemplative pursuits such as meditation practice and Japanese archery with all-American activities like movies and private school classes.

Trungpa epitomized the crazy wisdom guru, living hard, drinking copiously and dying relatively young of a worn-out liver in 1987. His son inherited the spiritual leadership of his father's Shambhala community, which includes more than 100 meditation centers around the world. The son has pursued a generally more moderate approach than his famous father. His favorite hobby these days is marathon running. I joined him on a visit to his father's homeland in Tibet last year and despite the dizzying altitude and the locals' expectations for sedentary, corpulent lamas, the Sakyong insisted on squeezing a few Himalayan training runs. (Last November he ran the New York Marathon.)

While Trungpa's popular books were compilations of his oral teachings, Sakyong Mipham prides himself on writing his books. His first effort, the national bestselling Turning the Mind into an Ally, focused on the basics of meditation.

I spoke to him recently about his second book and his contention that the familiar struggle between spiritual development and pursuing worldly success is a false dichotomy.

In your new book Ruling Your World, you dispense advice for how we can become kings and queens. It seems like a pretty radical departure from the standard Buddhist emphasis on selflessness. Why?

The title of the book is intentionally provocative. Kings and queens take charge of their world. There's a sense of power. One of the epitaphs of the historical Buddha was universal monarch. Once you are a Buddha, you are a king. We can handle everything once we've established some kind of seat of sanity in our own mind. One doesn't have to have any fear, whether one has a family and job and is totally engaged in the world.

Doesn't calling ourselves kings and queens add fuel to the egoistic fire?

It could. When I talk about kings and queens, I am redefining the terms. What do genuine kings and queens do? They bring peace and prosperity to their subjects. The word "king" has a negative connotation: Someone who has too much power. Of course that happens, but power isn't going away. The question is how one uses it. Once someone uses power to benefit others, you have a king. There is a danger of people becoming too self-obsessed, but that happens on a conventional spiritual journey too.

So each of us needs to establish a seat of sanity in our minds and engage the world from that place. That's a tall order. I have been meditating a few years and I sometimes doubt my ability to bring the wisdom I've gained on a meditation cushion into the rest of my life.

You don't have a choice. You have to engage. There's not much of an alternative. It is more and more difficult to remove yourself from the world. We need to acknowledge our engagement, instead of being scared of it, and look for ways to utilize our participation in the world to do some good. It is possible to practice meditation and look at our own minds, to develop these qualities and realize, `Oh this is actually a journey.'

We've limited these teachings to the arena of meditation retreats, but it isn't like that in Tibet. You saw on our trip. Everybody practices in Tibet. Some people practice as monks, others practice as businessmen. Worldly success isn't opposed to Buddhism. People go to lamas so they can be successful.

When we begin to have peace and wisdom in our minds, the world is a different place. It's a lot less aggressive. People have run countries based upon this approach as well as navigating their daily lives.

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  • Can you point to some leaders who you admire?

    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.

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