Another Way of Doing Things?

I went to St. Louis to sight-see with my girlfriend last year. It’s only a few hours away, really. It was the city my father came from. It’s the city where I was born. We moved when I was still very young, before I was old enough to start school.

I went there to try to visit my dad’s favorite places. And also to see a few things around the city, like the giant eyeball in the sculpture park (totally awesome). We tried to go to my dad’s favorite bar, where I remember playing shuffleboard as a kid. But it had transformed into a sports bar and, alas, the shuffleboard wasn’t there anymore. (is the table you play shuffleboard on called a shuffleboard? I don’t know.)

And we ate at one of his favorite restaurants, Hodak’s, where they gave us far too much food.

While we were there we visited the St. Louis Shambhala Center.

We wanted to experience something different, something not available here in Kansas City. We don’t have a Shambhala Center here.

And I was recognized there, for the first time, as a Dharma teacher. A woman from the center said, “Aren’t you Daniel, from Daily Dharma Gathering? I love your talks.” I couldn’t believe that happened.

Am I a D-list Buddhist celebrity?

That doesn’t sound right.

Anyway, that’s not really the point of this story.

The point is this.

I entered that room in the Shambhala Center and saw a breath of fresh air. First of all, the room. The “shrine” was a really simple table with some glass on it and water. It was not this big ornate thing. It was just simple and nice looking. The guy that led the meditation was just a dude in a sweater instead of robes. His name was Tobias.

He gave a little instruction and we sat. Then we did walking meditation and he talked to us about keeping our attention on what we were doing. He talked a little bit about what Shambhala is and who Chogyam Trungpa was. I remember him saying, “That’s a picture of Chogyam Trungpa, he’s dead.” with incredible emphasis on those last two words.

(My girlfriend remembers a little bit less emphasis, but still a weird amount.)

Then, we all sat in a circle and took turns reading aloud from “Turning the Mind Into an Ally” by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

And then we left.

Now, why the hell did I tell this story?

Am I declaring that I’ve become a Shambhala Buddhist? No.

But I am saying this. I spend a lot of time worrying that maybe we’re doing Buddhism wrong, that we’re focusing on the wrong things sometimes. I wonder sometimes, why isn’t this more down to earth? Why am I looking at an elaborate shrine and people in robes?

Does this help me relieve the suffering of myself and others?

And why are we bowing and droning in monotonous chants, sometimes in foreign languages?

What if there’s a better way of doing things and we’re missing it?

Not too long ago a friend said to me, in the context of how we practice Buddhism, “I’m really not interested in pretending I’m something I’m not.”

When we cling to these old forms, are we pretending to be something we’re not? When we take on a foreign name? Or wear robes?

I just want to be real.

I wonder if things would be different if a kind of homeless Buddhism had emerged in the west, as people like Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac envisioned. I imagine a Buddhism that isn’t tied to things like lineage and tradition.

I think we, as modern Buddhists, should be taking a good hard look at the things we are doing. Some things we’re doing because they help us cultivate compassion and wisdom. But other things we’re just doing because that’s the way it’s always been.

Are robes and chants and lineages and talks about rebirth and spirits helpful to us on the path?

If they are for you, that’s fine. They aren’t for me.

 


 

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Shambhala Road

I set off on my journey at 4 in the morning, hours before dawn. I was not on a road trip. I was on a pilgrimage. I was not traveling with family or friends, I was taking this journey alone.

I was crossing the empty and desolate plains of western Kansas to enter Colorado. I live on the eastern edge of Kansas, so I would have to cross the entire state. My destination was the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, the final resting place and shrine dedicated to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He was the founder of the Shambhala lineage and one of the first people to bring Vajrayana Buddhism to the west. He was the first Tibetan Buddhist teacher to really and truly embrace western culture and teach in that context.

 

Being a devout Buddhist, I decided that’s it’s silly that there’s this great Buddhist holy site 10 hours away and I’ve never been there. I know a few people that have, but I don’t know if they’ve seen the journey as a great pilgrimage, as I see it. My friend Ray Porter, who taught me “The Way of the Bodhisattva,” said that he donated to the stupa project when they were building it, but he’s never taken the trip to see it.

Being a 36 year old man, I decided it was silly that I had never seen a mountain and never gone west of Kansas.

It was a year ago that my marriage ended. Since then I’ve realized that a lot of loneliness sometimes comes with a lot of freedom.

It’s been one year since the end of my marriage. There have been some big struggles but some good times too. I’ve made mistakes along the way but some good choices too. Everything is different now and I am different too.
I drove 1500 miles in a weekend so I could go to the mountains, so I could see a Buddhist holy site, so I could have a big experience to help me put down my emotional baggage.

My plan was to go to Red Feather Lakes, to the Shambhala Mountain Center to see that stupa and maybe hike a little. Then, go sleep in Fort Collins in an Airbnb. Then, travel to Boulder Saturday to explore a little. Then, stay at the Airbnb again and return home Sunday.

I went on 4th of July weekend, knowing I could get home Sunday and rest all day Monday before going back to work.

I wanted to sit and meditate under the rocky mountains.

So, away I went early in the morning. As the sun was rising I was driving through some interesting scenery called the Flint Hills. I saw rolling  hills of beautiful green grass. After that I entered the void that is western Kansas. The only thing that catches your attention driving through western Kansas is the giant metal windmills.

Endless time seemed to pass before I crossed the state line into Colorado. I knew I still had four hours left before I would get to Red Feather Lakes, but I still felt like I had accomplished something by driving across the entire state of Kansas.

Hours later I saw them. They were far away in the distance, so far that I thought they might actually be clouds. They were mountains. A new kind of excitement flowed through me as I continued. I turned onto a dirt road to go up to Red Feather Lakes. Mountains were all around me now. I could hear my little car working harder as the elevation increased. I don’t think little cars like mine are meant to go up in mountains.

It was 3pm when I got there.
I came to Shambhala Road and turned left. I parked my car in a parking lot with many other cars. There were signs marking the path up to the stupa, and flags all the way up the path, so I wouldn’t get lost. I could see it in the distance, poking out from behind the trees. It was majestic and beautiful. It was 108 feet tall. It was a long winding path, so the stupa kept coming into view and disappearing again among the trees. I think I walked a mile or more on this mountain path.

 

 

Eventually I came upon it. I noticed a dark statue standing toward the top, built into it. I walked around the stupa clockwise once, as a sign of respect. There was a spot just outside the door for my shoes, so I left them behind and went inside.

 

There was a shrine room inside. There, sitting in front of a row of cushions, (all gomdens, no zafus) was a giant golden sitting Buddha with a beatific smile on his face. And suddenly I had a beatific smile on my face too.
The floor, walls, and ceilings are covered in intricate sacred designs. My friend Lama Matt told me, “When you’re there, don’t forget to look up.” I did look up and there was a beautiful mandala on the ceiling. And there are little alcoves built into the walls all around, even behind the statue. These had different things in them, pictures of Trungpa, notes on his life, statues of Bodhisattvas. All these alcoves were very interesting.

I sat on a cushion at the feet of the Buddha and looked up at him. I noticed my heart was racing and I felt a little light headed. I wondered if it was from the walk up to the stupa and the high elevation, or if it was because of the sacredness of the stupa and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

My head was spinning as I sat there. Then I felt at peace. I felt oneness with the statue, and the other people around, and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the mountain. I felt oneness with everything. I felt a dropping away of body and mind. I heard the inconceivable thunderous silence of a mostly empty universe. My sense of self was gone.

I was empty and I was emptiness and everything was bliss.

I had a timeless moment of unconsciousness and I saw the golden eternity. There was no coming or going, there was no one and no path. There was only emptiness. And love. There was love too. I felt like I turned a corner in my spiritual journey. I felt like I had put down a lot of my emotional baggage. I felt light and free.

 

I felt like I was receiving teachings from Trungpa, and also from the earth and the sky. I felt so….connected. And aware.

I had a spiritual experience on Shambhala Mountain. Or maybe it was just the lack of oxygen from going up the mountain too fast. Either way I feel transformed.

After an endless and deep sit, I cam back to my body. I stood, opened the door, and stepped out. The sun was shining brighter, everything was infused with wonder. As I walked down the path, a deer walked right up to me. We stood for a moment, looking at each other. Then it ran off. Animals behave differently when they aren’t being hunted. In Kansas deer get the hell away from you as fast as they can. In Colorado they come up to you.

I made my way down the mountain.

I spent that evening exploring Fort Collins and I spent the entire next day exploring Boulder.

These were wonderful places. I saw a man in an African tribal mask dancing and playing bongos in the middle of downtown Boulder. I went to a jazz festival. They had food trucks, just like festivals here. But there was no unhealthy food. It was all kale shakes and salads and vegan burritos. (here in Kansas city it would be chicken fingers and ribs). That’s probably why everyone I saw in Boulder was fit and thin. That, and the bicycles. There are bike lanes on all the streets and I saw people riding bikes everywhere.

A cute hippy girl tried to sell me a pendant with a secret compartment to hide my stash in. I wondered why I would need such a thing in Colorado.

I expected Boulder to be full of Buddhist temples. I only found three and the only one that really seemed like it got a lot of visitors was the Boulder Shambhala Center. There were two Buddhist stores with Tibet in their names. And there was a new age-y bookstore that had a lot of Buddhist stuff too.

I didn’t travel to Colorado to party, but I did buy pot in a store, just because I could.

Sunday morning I came home.

The drive home was harder than the drive there. As you go from Colorado to Kansas on I-70 the scenery slowly gets less and less interesting. But I made it. I got home in the early afternoon.

I brought a little of the mountain back with me.