Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has just published his fourth major book, The Shambhala Principle, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend a good deal of time reading and rereading my now-wrinkled advanced readers’ copy over the past few months. I love it. It adds a needed volume to the growing canon of core Shambhala teachings available in print. It weaves together the view of contemplative practice with a deeply societal message.
In this book, the social impact of the teachings seems particularly urgent, as the Sakyong dedicates the book to humanity itself, and discusses the link between dharma practice and a wide variety of social fields, such as the arts, economics, ecology, western philosophy, education and more. He proposes the clear manifesto that global society must embrace the belief that humans are fundamentally decent and trustworthy if we are going to survive and thrive on this planet. This is what he calls the “Shambhala Principle”—that our basic goodness should be the guiding premise of life: of our personal lives, our family lives, and every social institution we share.
Despite the social movement implicit on every page , each chapter is narrated in a deeply personal manner, through the sharing of a short, intimate interaction from Sakyong Mipham’s early life with his father, the legendary Chogyam Trungpa. While the recollections of early life lessons from his father are incredibly touching, the Sakyong’s writing is at its very strongest when establishing the link between personal practice and societal implications, as well as when he is able to simplify and clarify opaque philosophical ideas with a few streamlined insights, such as nonduality or interdependence. Unlike his father’s often mystically poetic sense of language (have you ever heard of the Blue Pancake?), the Sakyong’s strength is the pragmatic clarity he brings to profound topics. This clarity may not be as sexy as Trungpa Rinpoche’s early writings, but like the Sakyong’s excellent meditation manual Turning the Mind into an Ally, you leave each page of The Shambhala Principle feeling like you truly understand the reasons you might practice, and that the world we share is a workable enterprise. Nothing feels beyond my comprehension. When the Sakyong clarifies an idea, I get it. For me personally, this clarity feels like a great gift.
It is precisely the relationship between the personal and the societal that this book brings home so elegantly. Sakyong Mipham does this by analogizing each of our societal and cultural institutions to a form of ceremony or ritual, ceremonies which we might not even be aware that we are participating in (How often do we bow to the cashier when we buy our groceries?). But just as a spiritual ritual is a human agreement that privileges certain values (mindfulness, generosity, respect, etc.), our social institutions are just shared rituals that also convey a hierarchy of values. Our broken financial system is just a chosen ritual to which we’ve given our economic power, and our televisions are our familial shrines, dominating our living rooms. We have chosen these rituals, and like any spiritual practice, it is we that imbue the the ritual with its value. “Society” is a creation of the minds of those who inhabit it; it always has been and always will be. Thus, we have always been and will always be empowered to change society for the better. We could just as easily create a world that prefers generosity to greed, mindfulness to escapism, and sustainable ecology to irresponsible consumerism. We just have to change our relationship to our shared rituals, and practice awakening in every single aspect of life (no big deal, right?).
A beautiful passage from the Shambhala Principle fully illustrates the two-way nature of the relationship between a personal practice and our social institutions. It’s not just that our practice affects how we engage in society; society constructs the mind we bring to the meditation cushion. This full interdependence of personal practice and the world we live in is hammered home by this quote:
Often how we feel about something is so interconnected with our social conditioning that we are unable to distinguish between our own thoughts and values and what is socially accepted. We do not even allow ourselves to think or feel things that might stray from the social norm. A lot of this is due to how we are educated, in terms of our formal education as well as our personal upbringing from our parents. There is also a collective human upbringing through the centuries. We are brought up to value individualism, and thus there is a constant need to be separate or distinct from others. However, no matter how we were raised, many ideas we consider to be our own are actually coming from social ceremonies that have been grafted on our mind.
Given that we bring our entire culture and society with us when we meditate, given that when we think, we think the thoughts of our social conditioning, it follows that escaping our social setting is no longer an option for meditation practitioners. We only have one choice: we have to engage as fully as we can in our society – in art, in culture, in the economy, in creating a sustainable future. As the Shambhala Principle makes clear, it might be the degree to which a meditator engages in every aspect of society that becomes the new standard for measuring our “enlightenment.” Thus, enlightened society would be something quite simple: enlightened society is a group of people who fully understand the degree to which we are empowered to create our world. WE made this world, and we can change it together.