Maybe It Wasn’t the “Shambhala Teachings” That Changed Your Life: A Brief Note on False Attribution

“But the Shambhala TEACHINGS are precious. They changed our lives. We CAN’T let them go. We HAVE to separate them from the organization and its leadership.”

This is the active-ingredient argument you may be hearing from some of your fellow community members. It’s based on the premise that beneath all of the human imperfections and “conventional realities” of Shambhala International, there was something essentially good and true communicated by Trungpa and his followers, and that that essence was what changed lives.

A further premise is that that essence can and should be isolated and mobilized.

Those who talk about the “essence” of the teachings are those who are still in one way or another within the learning community or high-demand group. They might believe that the essential teachings were universally clear; they could test this belief by asking those who left the group what they believed the teachings were. 

They would be also be the ones who would be least likely to consider the placebo effect of the teaching content.

If the active-ingredient argument were true, there wouldn’t be a wide range of responses to Trungpa’s writings and the “Shambhala teachings”. I appreciated parts of Spiritual Materialism, for instance, but none of the rest of it sounded right to me. And I had full-on nausea response when I walked into Karme Choling in Vermont in about 1994 or so. I can’t explain why I didn’t have the same response to the high-demand groups I did actually join, except that when I crossed those thresholds, I was particularly vulnerable. 

It’s useful to investigate the possibility of false attribution. If the Shambhala teachings seemed to work for you, fine. But ask yourself: what else was involved? Did you meet new people and form new bonds over shared aspirations? Did you change self-regulation patterns, diet, sleep? 

In the Ashtanga world, people grappling with Jois’ abuse will sometimes say “but the practices are medicine”, even though they know they’ve been injured or accumulated repetitive stress through the postures.

What I believe they’re really saying is “I love this place and these people with whom I do this refined activity that gives me relief from the conventional world and relationships.”

Further, they may be saying: “I really love the things that weren’t bad.”

Can you really say that there were core Shambhala ideas or visions that were separable from the relationships that communicated them? Was there a single part of Shambhala ideology that came to you as it seemed to come to Trungpa — spontaneously, from no one else, as if in a dream? Did you believe that because it occurred spontaneously to him, it had its own reality from beyond him, and Shambhala should exist for you in the same way?

The irony of false attribution combined with essentialism is that when mobilized in an attempt to preserve neo-Buddhist teachings in the midst of an abuse crisis, basic Buddhist philosophical principles are ignored. As far as I understand the Middle-Way metaphysics that most Tibetan sources try to teach, there is no such thing as an essential object, message or teaching. There’s just a series of changing relationships within which, with great difficulty, you (who also have no findable unchanging essence) can try to orient yourself ethically and with empathy.

I believe what people are really saying when they say “But the Shambhala TEACHINGS are precious” is:

“The experiences I had with those people at that time were so compelling, so charged, so complex — they inspire me, through my imperfect memory, to this day. I really don’t want to let them go.”

There’s absolutely no shame in that.


  • Actually, Matthew, from someone who is completely sitting on the fence here, there are some points where I don’t agree with you on this. I’m neither a die hard shambhalian, nor one who has entirely left the community. I’ve practiced with many other buddhist communities, especially within the tibetan buddhist tradition, but also some others. What I’ve gotten out of shambhala, and I don’t think this can be attributed to new friends or a change of diet, has been a deeper understanding of basic buddhist principles, put into different language and without a lot of the trappings of more traditional tibetan buddhism, that spoke to me deeply and still do. I’m talking about principles like impermanence, interconnectedness, essence of mind. These are not principles that magically came to Trungpa in a dream, but somehow, and perhaps despite his pretty unsavoury and controversial lifestyle, he was able to communicate them in a way that makes more sense to me, and many thousands of others it seems, in a way that more conventional tibetan buddhist teachers have not been able to. So, do I think we should separate the teachings from the teachers? Well, to some degree, yes. But, Shambhala isn’t just, or even mostly, Chogyam Trungpa and “the Sakyong”. It’s a large community of practitioners, teachers, therapists, artists. We have all created Shambhala Buddhism and will continue to create it, or help it to dissolve.

  • I believe what people are really saying when they say “But the Shambhala TEACHINGS are precious” is:

    “The experiences I had with those people at that time were so compelling, so charged, so complex — they inspire me, through my imperfect memory, to this day. I really don’t want to let them go.”

    Actually, it could be both: precious teachings and the experiences you’re speaking of.

    • That’s true, although the discourse of “separate the teacher from the teachings” that emerges during every abuse crisis begs the question of how these are to be told apart.

  • Chogyam Trungpa put the message about spiritual materialism and perhaps Shambhala in a new way that was enlightening for practitioners and still is, but the message itself is not his, but goes back to more historic figures and it is at that level (of Milarepa, or Shakyamuni Buddha say) that we cannot separate the person from the teaching, not at the level of CT himself. At his level you can separate them, as we do, but that is not to say the teaching is any less. This is the same in my tradition (Catholic), we can separate the teaching from all the miscreants down the ages that have used it in mixed ways, but we can’t separate the teaching from Jesus himself. The buck stops (and starts) there. So I would say “we can and we can’t.” In that sense, there is an “essence” but it traces back to a founding figure, thus to a relationship. So the argument from relationship and compelling experience at the time with people is true as far as it goes, but the “essence” of the teaching is not reducible to these contemporaneous relationships.
    If we flip the examples it becomes clearer. We wouldn’t separate the crimes of Stalinism from Stalin, or of Nazism from Hitler; nor would we say that the relationships people had then were generative of the ideologies that held them in sway.

  • I find your analysis to be simplistic insofar it reduces enthusiasm for the Shambhala path down to some sort placebo effect and states that our appreciation of Shambhala teachings is to be attributed solely to relationships within the mandala. There is no recognition on your part of how Shambhala might be a genuine path of working on oneself, of the ongoing journey of working on one’s own emotional maturity utilizing these teachings as a template for becoming a genuine, decent person. Furthermore, you imply that people gravitate to Shambhala teachings as a way to “feel good” and escape the nastiness of the conventional world. This is a gross misunderstanding! Shambhala urges us to open our hearts and minds to whatever arises and to be willing to suffer by being in direct contact with difficult situations. I am no longer part of SI (nor have been since 2010), so therefore do not fit into your cookie mold that people who value Shambhala must still be part of the group. I find your “analysis” to be patronizing, with a lot of assumptions and without any personal experience to speak of other than your feeling nauseous upon entering Karme Choling in 1994. Perhaps it was something you ate? Or did you use this anecdote to legitimize subsequent and present conclusions?

  • “in the midst of an abuse crisis, basic Buddhist philosophical principles are ignored.”

    I tend to agree that this is occurring, but I can’t quite put my finger on what teachings have been ignored. Perhaps someone could provide some examples?

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