Earth Protector: An Interview with Sakyong Mipham (complete interview)

Sakyong Mipham and Ray Hemachandra in Vancouver, British Columbia
Sakyong Mipham and Ray Hemachandra in Vancouver, British Columbia

What struck me first about Sakyong Mipham was his quiet, stealthful presence. Mipham serves as temporal and spiritual director of Shambhala, a global network of meditation and retreat centers. After waiting for the Sakyong — a ruler, or earth protector, who rules by balancing heaven and earth — to join me for an interview in April 2006, Mipham seemed to apparate smoothly at my side.

Gentle, grounded, focused, with a generous, free laugh, and then in his mid 40s, the head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage married the formalities of his station with a sense of personal ease and a free laugh. He exuded a vibrant beauty and youthful physicality. Mipham is an archer, a horseback rider, and a runner. Shambhala’s leader had completed the New York City Marathon the previous fall in 3 hours and 26 minutes.

Mipham is the eldest son of the late Chögyam Trungpa, an important figure in popularizing Buddhism in the West. Trungpa authored dozens of books, and he founded The Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and more than 100 meditation centers.

The Sakyong was born Ösel Rangdröl Mukpo in Bodhgaya, India, in 1962. He lived with his mother in a Tibetan refugee village in northwest India until age 7, when he went to live with his father in Great Britain. He moved to the United States with his father in 1972.

In the year before this interview, in 2005, Planet magazine named Mipham one of 30 global visionaries of our time.

In the 2005 book Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies for Modern Life, Mipham outlines how to both lead your life and contribute to the lives of others based on the teachings and mythology of the warrior kings and queens of the ancient kingdom of Shambhala.

“The basic intention of a ruler (is) to ensure others’ welfare,” Mipham writes. “Contemplating how to be helpful opens our hearts and our horizons.”

Mipham declares good rulers to be benevolent, true, genuine, fearless, artful, and rejoiceful. He outlines ruler archetypes of tiger (representing discernment, contentment, exertion, and confidence), lion (discipline, joy, and delight), garuda (letting go and equanimity), and dragon (knowing selflessness and wisdom).

Mipham’s earlier work, Turning the Mind Into an Ally, gave clear advice on developing a meditation practice to master the mind. The practical meditation handbook is utilized as a basic part of Shambhala course work. In 2012, Mipham authored the book Running with the Mind of Meditation, about merging mindfulness and physical movement to benefit body and soul.

I interviewed the Sakyong at a Shambhala residence in Richmond, British Columbia.

Ray Hemachandra: Rinpoche, many great teachers — Jesus, the Buddha, Socrates — have not written books. You have written two books, and you are the incarnation of Mipham the Great, a 19th-century Tibetan who wrote 32 works.

What are the uses for books, and what are their limitations? Do you view your books as teachers, as ambassadors, or as proselytizers?

Sakyong Mipham: The Shambhala tradition has a long history of presenting books as contemplations, as renewals. A book very much is the center of the road, so people always can refer back to it.

Books are essential. They present the view. They present the attitude. They keep the teachings intact. Books are a way to go in depth.

We always say books are the best teachers. Your regular teachers will get mad at you. If you keep asking something again and again, they will get tired of saying the same thing. A book will not do that. A book always will be there for you. In whatever you want, the book will be there.

On top of that, though, inherent in a book is the requirement that you have experience. A good book really is saying, “Learn this, but then you have to experience it.”

Certain teachers have tremendous amounts of experience. They are articulate, and they give wonderful discourse. But at some point along the road, they themselves learned from and studied a book.

In this kind of tradition, the book also is the source of the transmission. Everyone in Shambhala has studied my book Turning the Mind Into an Ally, for example. It has been passed along to everyone. Then you make your own decision about whether it is important.

I feel like these days, because we live in a world in which we are so inundated with information, it is important to have some of these books out there, so people have reference points. If you are looking at a lot of things coming at you, you may not hear the words “compassion” or “basic goodness” that much. Where is it that you begin to?

I think we are very environmental people. We need to be supported environmentally. Books very much have that imprint on the mind.

Ray: Please describe Shambhala’s character. What distinguishes Shambhala from other Buddhist traditions?

Mipham: The Shambhala teachings are coming from the point of view of integrating spirituality into everyday life, as opposed to being monastic. Shambhala is a Buddhist tradition — in particular, a Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. The first king of Shambhala was taught by the Buddha.

Over the years, Buddhism has adapted to various cultures. What distinguishes Shambhala is its intention of trying to create a society based upon certain principles. So, Shambhala’s focus is not just on the individual, but on society as a whole.

Shambhala does have unique teachings, as do many Buddhist traditions. For example, certain teachings within Shambhala have to do with raising the personal windhorse, or the energy of the individual, so a person has good fortitude to be able to live a good life. Shambhala teachings say we all have the potential to accomplish our enlightened nature — our basic goodness.

Ray: How do you increase personal windhorse?

Mipham: A lot of people talk about the spirituality of Buddhism, and it is a spiritual discipline. But in Shambhala there also is a notion that you have to be synchronized with both heaven and earth. You have to be synchronized with earthness in the sense of the practical, day-to-day aspects of life — very basic things like taking care of your body, exercising, and meditating.

If you do these things, then your personal life-force energy increases. Your strength increases. You achieve good windhorse. In Tibetan, we say people who have good windhorse have the sense they can accomplish what they want to do.

Many people think spirituality has nothing to do with success or accomplishing — that it’s something you do with removal, with leaving the world.

Part of the notion in Shambhala teachings is that everybody can live their lives so they get weaker and more stressed out as they go along, or so they get more fortitude and strength.

Ray: How do you balance developing and nurturing good qualities within yourself and engagement with the modern world? Do they happen side by side — is one here and one there — or are they interconnected and entwined?

Mipham: Initially, you have to live a period where you are developing your attitude. I would consider that a meditation: determining what you want to do. You have a period where you meditate and you get the strength.

You then infuse that attitude into your everyday life situation. Whatever you are doing — if you are taking care of your family, or driving, or traveling a lot — you see the potential in it and how to make it part of your journey.

A lot of people do their practice. They meditate on compassion. Then they yell at people afterwards.

That is not quite working. One of the things I try to emphasize is contemplative meditation — bringing your thought and intention into meditation. You can do exercises to raise windhorse with visualization meditations on raising personal energy.

But you also can meditate on things like feeling fortunate, so you feel a sense of fortuneness as you are entering into your life, as opposed to, “I’m not worthwhile, and life is very depressing.” You change the energy.

Ray: Your first book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally, serves as a guide for training the mind with meditation practice. Your second book, Ruling Your World, is more broadly philosophical. At the same time, it seems designed to help people make their practice practical and relevant to day-to-day life. I already am using one of the tools you recommend, counting breaths when focused on breathing in meditation, which has brought me into the breath in a deeper way. What was your purpose in writing the second book, and how do you envision it being used by Shambhalians and others?

Mipham: I hope it is used! (He laughs.) We have this deep tradition of teachings about how to be better people. The point is to bring the understandings into experience.

Part of my inspiration was to say — to Shambhalians and other people who have been practicing meditation for years — has your life improved? Are there signs of your development? There should be signs.

Your life and your practice should not be separate. You bring your practice into experience. You bring it about.

I wanted to bring the Shambhala terms out of their mystical background and make clear they are very practical. Understandings about the tiger, the lion, the garuda, and the dragon can be used to help out with everyday life situations. And I hope the notion of virtue I promote includes a sense of people living virtuous lives — lives of compassion.

A lot of times people do spiritual practice just for themselves. I try to turn that a little bit. I try to make spiritual practice more a part of the community. I write about infusing people with compassion.

If we are going to live in a society, there has to be an attitude where people really do care for others. And if we are going to create a community, including a Shambhala community or a meditation community, there has to be some kind of warmth or energy that is very sustaining, appealing, and helpful. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing it.

Ray: What prompted you to write Ruling Your World at this time?

Mipham: The first book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally, was about how you meditate. But Ruling Your World is about how you live your life. I feel like we are at a crossroads now as a society and as individual people. What are the guiding principles for making decisions about your children? For how you act? For what kind of job you choose to have? This book is more of a guide in terms of life and how you apply your practice in your life.

I also want people to know you can live a life that is less aggressive and still have success. A lot of people feel like, “If I’m going to be successful in the conventional world, I have to stop being a Buddhist or a practitioner. I have to go get ’em and be aggressive.”

Shambhala is a tradition where there were rulers, kings, and powerful people who actually were very benevolent and kind. They got things done, and they didn’t abandon their tradition.

I think we can do it, too.

People can be introduced to these principles and realize, “The principles are applicable to my life. It’s not necessary for me to become a Buddhist or anything else. But I can put the principles into work as actions.”

My hope in writing is that something in the book invigorates them to do what they are inspired to do. So, they read this and say, “Yeah!” It’s almost like it is empowering people with what they already know, to a certain degree. There are practical things they may learn. But a lot of it is empowering people to say, “We can do this. We should do this.”

There are so many people out there who I think have the right intention but are not quite doing it. A little bit of effort is going to go a long way.

Ray: Many people outside the Shambhala community will read Ruling Your World. Also, you mention in the book that there are Shambhalian Christians and Shambhalian Jews. When people from other religious or spiritual traditions encounter Shambhala, do they experience any tensions, and, if so, what are they?

Mipham: People sometimes don’t like organized situations. Sometimes people need to be left alone more. Sometimes people need environmental support.

Within our community, one of the things I try to encourage is the notion that we are a community in which everybody at the same time is somewhere along the path of life, and everyone still is doing their own thing. A majority of people within our community are Buddhist. But the Shambhala vision respects all traditions and the ability for each individual to live a life built on basic goodness.

There are people who will say, “I feel like I have a solid spiritual practice in my Christianity that is good, and at the same time I like the principles of warriorship in Shambhala.” They try to mix the two.

But it is very individual. You cannot dictate how people mix it. So, when someone says to me, “There should be a lot more people who practice Shambhala and Christianity,” I say, “Well, it’s really up to them in terms of how they mix it.”

But I also am very honest and clear in saying the tradition comes from a Buddhist tradition and approach, so people know what the source is.

My books definitely are ambassadors, as you called them. They express what the vision is, what the purpose is. For myself, it was interesting writing Ruling Your World, because I was writing the book for a broad audience to say what it is we do and how you can approach and utilize these teachings.

Ray: You write about people being leaders in their lives and communities. What are the most important qualities of a good leader?

Mipham: I would say courage first; then wisdom, which is a sense of knowledge and confidence; and also the wish and desire to uplift. The underlying notion is “How do I help?” That attitude really is a spiritual journey and a path.

Then, you have to have the courage to be able to do it. We can talk about compassion, but we need the courage to do it.

The difference is somebody can have the good idea and the level of compassion but not the courage. You will not always be received in a particularly positive way in terms of what you are trying to do. Courage here means overcoming obstacles and having the ability to sustain.

Ray: As the son of Chögyam Trungpa, you had a lifetime of training before you became the head of Shambhala, Rinpoche. What has surprised you most as a leader — about yourself and about leading this community? With all that training, what hadn’t you anticipated?

Mipham: I think … it was … that you can’t make people happy! (Laughs.) At a certain point, it’s about their happiness, but at others it’s not. It’s about what they are willing to do.

People can be trained in certain principles, but then they actually have to apply them and try them out. I found out for myself in my own life that if you do the principles — like if you try to be genuine — it actually works.

As a leader, people push you. They really want to keep pushing you until you get aggressive. Then they say, “Oh, see, it doesn’t work.”

But, really, the teaching here says you need to become more gentle. You need to become more genuine to who you are. So, people pushing you can help take you to the level where you really understand the principles and enter them into action.

A good surprise for me was if you maintain certain principles — such as being genuine and true — then people see that. They realize. They know inside that being selfish and aggressive is not a good thing to do, but they may not always be able to stop themselves. But when they see a leader trying to do it, then they can draw inspiration from the leader.

What is amazing is how stuck people are in their own habits. It is really hard to get people out of their habits. But once they shift, it also is amazing how rapid the progress can be.

The Shambhala community includes a lot of baby boomers, people who got involved in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s — a generation of people who are very well-educated and intelligent.

They want things to happen. They expect results. I keep saying, “You know, you guys have to put the effort in.” This generation of people has had some of the best teachers ever. So, a better teacher is not going to do it. That’s not the fault, although they may need different varieties of teachers.

Ultimately, as individuals we each have to ask ourselves to be courageous and apply certain principles.

Ray: You write that the most helpful instruction in how to be ruler of your own life is, “Upon rising, have a positive and open attitude.”

Mipham: Yes, you go into life, and your life really is determined by your intention or view — by your attitude.

If you rise with a positive attitude — because everything is possible, everything is doable — if you have that level of confidence, you exude it. It actually inspires the people around you.

But what if you get up slightly hesitant, or you feel like, “Oh, it’s just another day,” and you get kind of down on yourself? The only person doing that is you. It is not inherent in the day. It is not inherent in any situation.

As a leader, you have the choice to determine what you are going to do and how you are going to engage others. You can decide to act compassionately regardless of what the weather is — whether it is cloudy or sunny — or whether things are inspirational or not.

Sometimes it seems like most people are being pulled into a negative energy, but then you meet strong individuals or strong leaders and they are free from it. How does that happen? It really is by the power of their intention as developed through their practice, their discipline, and their understanding. It’s something you cannot just hope or wish for. It is a process of intelligence and understanding what’s going on.

Ray: What surprised me most in Ruling Your World, and what has stayed with me most, is the passage on exertion as a virtue. Why do you describe it so?

Mipham: Exertion sometimes is seen a little bit negatively — as putting yourself to the grindstone. The exertion I am talking about is if you see the challenge of your life as something wonderful, as an opportunity, then you want to do it. If you see life as an opportunity, or if you see helping others as an opportunity, then all of a sudden you become joyous. You want to go forward.

One of the characteristics of every great teacher I’ve known is that tremendous exertion. It’s interesting: You may see them as spiritual people or compassionate people, but the driving force is that incredible exertion — and their ability to sustain it.

Personally, developing that has been a very important aspect of my life. Once you have it, it gives you a deep confidence, because you have a sense you really can accomplish anything. It’s not going to lessen, as opposed to having to hang on for dear life. That’s why exertion brings a sense of joy.

Exertion is a virtue in that it propels you forward in life. And exertion is a virtue because it binds you to other people. It helps expand your mind and expand your heart.

Exertion also is the catalyst. It is the one thing that makes compassion doable. If you have exertion in meditation, it makes it doable.

If you have exertion in love or intention, it makes it doable.

If you don’t have exertion, it is not going to happen.

Ray: What is auspicious coincidence, and does exertion help it come about?

Mipham: Auspicious coincidence is the right thing happening at the right time. The most important thing is having the right mind — a mind that can see it. Once you have an open mind, you see a lot of auspicious coincidence taking place.

It isn’t always something dramatic. There’s a lot of auspicious coincidence in just everyday mundane life, I think.

We are putting actions in motion perpetually, and what’s happening in front of us is a result of those actions continuously happening. The notion of auspiciousness is something positive, something with forward momentum, coming out of our actions.

For a lot of us, the opposite of auspicious coincidence is obstacles. Life usually is a mixture of both, but as we begin to exhibit exertion, more and more auspiciousness happens.

Ray: Rinpoche, you are a skilled poet. May I violate a basic expectation of many poets and ask you to talk about short passages from two of your poems that really strike me? In “The Sun, the Moon, the River,” you write:

A sharp moment is when someone

has told you the truth,

A dull moment is when you try to respond.

Mipham: Mm-hmm. When truth strikes, you are speechless. There is no point in elaborating on it. There is a quality within that situation that is like sunlight coming directly into your heart.

But as soon as you try to respond, it becomes very conceptual. It’s almost like the truth is very unconceptual, and then when you try to respond, you have to have a conceptual response.

My poem is trying to play with that reality a little bit. For me, poetry — trying to be a poet — is an enjoyment. I write about whatever is timely — whatever is happening at the time for me — with what the expressive feeling is.

Ray: Another great passage, from “Night in Kalapa”:

This time it happened —

I was caught in a thunderstorm

I spun and twirled

I was dizzy, I was happy

I was caught off guard.

This whirlwind caught my heart

At just the right moment.

Mipham: Again, it was a feeling and an experience and trying to put words on them. The words just pull you in a certain direction.

I think there is a quality that is nonsensical in terms of how life sometimes happens. Poetry is a language for when you can’t quite write prose about something, you can’t quite say it, but if you do a poem, it kind of gets to the point.

For me, language and how I use it are very important. I held back on doing a poetry book, walking the fine line between trying to be helpful and just putting more junk out there.

For example, on the one hand, there are a lot of meditation books. But, having taught a lot of people here in the West, clearly there is widespread misunderstanding about how to meditate. With Turning the Mind Into an Ally, I said, “Well, it’s not that difficult. Here it is.” And people found it very accessible.

I also notice when I’m reading about Buddhism in English, I myself find it very complicated and hard to understand. It’s not that complicated in Tibetan! When I’m reading in Tibetan, it’s very clear. I don’t know whether the difficulty is poor English translators or what.

There are certain themes and topics in Buddhism that are very technical and difficult and that take time to learn. But there is a lot that is very accessible and could be more in the mainstream in North America, if it were just made easier to access.

Ray: What English-language books would you recommend as starting points for learning about Shambhala and Buddhism?

Mipham: In terms of Shambhala, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, was probably the last book my father, Chögyam Trungpa, was actively involved in and holds one of the key messages. In terms of Buddhism, The Heart of the Buddha by my father is excellent. Also, Pema Chödrön is part of the Shambhala community, and she has written a lot of great books on Buddhism.

You have people who are good at English but don’t have the training in Buddhism or Shambhala, or they have the training but are not good in English. Getting that mixture is really rare. My father was a person who could communicate well in English, and he was trained and had the experience.

For general Buddhism books, I really like Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s books. I like some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. I like certain sections the Dalai Lama puts in both Ethics for the New Millennium and The Art of Happiness.

But, of course, most of my reading is in Tibetan.

Ray: Is dabbling in Buddhism a good thing or a concern? Here’s what I mean: Practitioners of some spiritualities, especially indigenous ones such as certain Native American spiritualities, often think people who just read a book or take a workshop — dabblers — are trivializing the spiritual path. They say a book or a class cannot give someone the meaning or the insight of a lifetime on the path — a lifetime of spiritual work and being.

By contrast, take the Christian notion of the virtues: If you dabble in the Christian virtues, it might not make you virtuous, or Christian, but it’s better than not dabbling in them at all.

So, what do you think of Buddhist dabblers?

Mipham: Well, there are a lot of them! (Laughs.)

With the principles in Buddhism, we say that even if people hear one word, it’s beneficial, in the sense that it puts a certain karmic motion in mind.

Maybe somebody hears the word “compassion” or the word “nonaggression.” Then, the person is about to yell at somebody, and the word pops up in the mind. The person might not understand the totality of it or be able to sustain it afterward, but I think it’s a seed. That seed has to be watered.

I do this ceremony called the refuge ceremony — the ceremony where you actually get a name and you formally become a Buddhist. I always tell people, “After this, when people ask you if you are Buddhist, you can say yes.” It’s the hardest word to say. Otherwise, they just say, “Oh, I like Buddhist ideas and themes.” That’s fine, but at a certain point you have to decide what you are going to do.

If you decide to go on a Buddhist path, you have to be careful if you start mixing a lot of different traditions you are not totally familiar with — mixing this kind of meditation with that kind of practice or this kind of visualization with that kind of mantra. Then you really are concocting your own thing, and you have no idea what is going to happen.

From that point of view, people should be careful. They should understand what the tradition is.

But I also think we live in a culture where the ideal scenario is very hard to come by. Fundamentally, Buddhism is for the awakenment and benefit of beings. So, you can’t say, “Oh, you can’t have it because you’re not ready for it.” That goes against the fundamental principle.

At the same time, you have to be honest in saying if somebody reads a book or a sentence, the person may understand it a little bit but is far shy of understanding the totality of the whole situation. It truly is a lifetime — or lifetimes — amount of work.

There are people who are in retreat during a lot of their life. They are very well-trained and meditated, and they have a lot of understanding. There are places for those people. There also are places for busy individuals who have families. They want to apply certain Buddhist principles in their lives and are inspired to do so.

The principles of Buddhism and Shambhala can be effective in helping the course of what is happening in the world. A lot of people dabbling means Buddhism has come into the mainstream, where people begin to use these terms and ideas, and they become less foreign. The principles of Buddhism have become more commonplace, which is a good thing.

We also live in a culture where information is becoming easier to access. Certain special practices have been kept very quiet and secret, and those traditions need to be respected. But there are a lot of teachings people can access that would benefit them greatly.

Looking at the time of where we are in the world, I feel like each tradition has to figure out what it can contribute. We can’t just hold back and let the world go to chaos.

Ray: What is the most common misconception about Shambhalian Buddhism you encounter among non-Buddhists in North America, and then what’s the most common misconception about Shambhalian Buddhism you encounter among Shambhalian Buddhists?

Mipham: (Laughs.) OK, that’s a good one! Many people think Shambhala is not Buddhism, much like many people think Tibetan Buddhism isn’t really Buddhism. They think, “Oh, I guess it’s Buddhism, but it only has a certain kind of applicability, because it has grown up in a certain culture.”

Shambhala is a Buddhist tradition with its own unique view and approach. Shambhala existed in Tibet and has been continued over the years, and now it is in the West. At its core, it is very much dedicated to the basic theme of benefiting others.

How do you create a society where individuals can flourish? The first thing you have to do is acknowledge the basic and fundamental goodness of all beings. If you don’t, then you are going to have conflict. That’s at the core of Shambhala.

For Shambhalians, the most common misconception probably is the same thing! (Laughs.) They might not recognize Shambhala as coming from Buddhist roots. They might think it’s something my father taught or that it is some kind of mixture of things.

I also think there is a tendency sometimes within the Shambhala community to make it just about meditating and, so, less about compassion. Shambhala is based upon compassion, but a lot of people come in and say, “I need to get more meditation. I need to do this for me, me, me.” That’s fine, but the view here is much more societal.

It is much more about how we actually influence the world, which is very challenging and sometimes overwhelming.

Ray: In Turning the Mind Into an Ally, you write that your father’s death made you face squarely the reality of death and think seriously about how you were going to live out the rest of your life.

How are you going to live out the rest of your life?

Mipham: (Laughs.) Hopefully I will! (Laughs more.) I have had to do a certain amount of traveling and teaching. Our community is very broad-based. It is an international community. So, I have had to do a lot of binding in the community. That’s part of why I wrote the books: to help bind the community.

My strength is to be more of a bridge, including a cultural bridge. I was born to my father. I was born at this particular time and raised in two cultures. I feel like being a bridge is something I can offer, and I feel like I can do that at any level of expertise or training.

At the same time, there will be a period when I probably will do more of my own in-depth retreat. Also, I’ll be having a family soon — I am getting married in June — so that will be another interesting thing. Whatever plans I had before are changing now!

[Note: the Sakyong and the Sakyong Wangmo, Khandro Tseyang, had their third child born in April 2015. Their three children are all girls.]

Ray: Marriage certainly does that, doesn’t it? Finally, Rinpoche, what is your intention for the Shambhala community?

Mipham: Right now the main theme is how Shambhala can be relevant in terms of what is going on in the world. A lot of these centers started with people just getting together and meditating.

I think Shambhala can be a very strong force as a social example of how you can try to live a life balanced in terms of both the spiritual and the secular. Not all people will do it, but at least we can strive for everyone to do it. Then we can ask, “How do we as a culture find that balance?”

Having that balance adds to the ability of people to live together. I think there is a tendency for people to become more isolated as they move along a spiritual path. With more development, people get more isolated. Also, as they have more wealth, they get more isolated.

Clearly, that can’t keep happening in the world today. We have to have greater integration, and the teachings of Shambhala can help.

It’s a challenge. Right now, people tend to want to sink back and say, “The world is too much, so there’s very little we can do about it.” So, with Shambhala, and prefacing this with the fact we all have flaws, I hope we can set good examples for how people should be trying to live their lives.

I do feel like we can make tangible shifts. Meditation and certain Buddhist principles, themes, and words — all these things are becoming much more commonplace and mainstream. They are becoming normal.

We are just at the beginning of all this work taking effect in terms of actually shifting what the world needs.

What we are trying to do, and what is my great wish and intention, is to make a base of compassion and to encourage people to work to shift the energy.

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