i could say shambhala buddhism (sb) is just not for me, and that would be true–but it would be even more true to say that sb is fundamentally flawed–that my dislike for a great deal of its dogma and trappings is not just a matter of opinion but based on observation of some actual problems that are detrimental to the well-being of its followers.
i’m not denying that there are many many people who find all kinds of comfort in sb. and i’m not denying that there are certain teachings within sb that are extremely helpful. i’m just saying that providing comfort is not enough–and no matter how many organically grown fresh vegetables you throw into a turd stew–it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a turd in it.
the main problem with sb (and tibetan buddhism in general) is that they have a hierarchy based on lineage. in most of tibetan buddhism the lineage occurs somewhat randomly–based on professed actual re-incarnations of such and such llamas, rather than any direct familial inheritance. in sb, the lineage is an actual blood-line lineage–it’s a freakin’ monarchy! i think it’s pretty obvious to almost everybody (besides monarchs) at this point in human history that, as far as hierarchical structures go, monarchy is shit.
hierarchy is unavoidable. there’s lots of ways it can be done, and almost all of those ways generate resentment in the lower ranks. the only way to minimize this problem is to ensure as much as possible that hierarchy is always based on merit–merit being the experience of past successes, achievements, or overcomings of woe–the having of confidence along with this history of successes as evidence to support other people’s faith in it–personal achievement–that is merit. i consider a hierarchy based on merit to be a natural hierarchy–this is how people self organize–one cannot help but seek guidance from those more experienced than one’s self–it wouldn’t make sense to go to anybody else–the natural process of learning creates a natural hierarchy based on the teacher/student dynamic.
in sb’s case, and in the case of buddhism in general, the main activity in which authority figures should be highly meritorious is meditation/mindfulness practices. and this is where the problem compounds itself. it goes something like this:
a hierarchy based on lineage allows one to be born into economic/social privilege. for instance, sakyong mipham rinpoche was born into a very comfortable life. he attained an elevated station in the shambhala hierarchy not through merit, but through bloodline. he was given all of the time and training necessary for him to excel at shamatha meditation, as well as other meditative practices. he was encouraged to dedicate the majority of his time to such practices. he was freely given countless hours of training that most other people would be charged a great deal of money for. and through this position of immense privilege, he was able to attain a very high level of merit that is, for practical reasons, all but unattainable to nearly all of his devotees. this high level of merit is then attributed to his being the reincarnation of some previously privileged and now dead figurehead of the past.
i recently spent 2 months at the shambhala mountain center, working first on the takedown crew, taking down the tents they had erected for their summer busy season, then as a fire mitigator, helping to thin their surrounding forests in order to…uh…mitigate fire basically.
in the first of these jobs it was our daily practice to end each period of work with a prayer of sorts called ‘the dedication of merit’. by chanting this prayer we were letting go of the merit we had accumulated through our hard work–sending it back into the universe so that it might benefit “all sentient beings” (which, as far as i can tell, in the parlance of tibetan buddhism, means everything in the animal kingdom plus some (pretty strange) other-worldly ways of being). the idea is that keeping the merit is somewhat selfish–while giving it away is a selfless act of compassion.
at first, i thought the practice of dedicating merit was just total bullshit–a nice gesture, but somewhat pointless and ultimately meaningless. but now i realize that the practice is actually very meaningful–and it plays an important role in maintaining the unnatural hierarchy that’s part of sb.
to clarify; the idea that “dedicating” your merit could have any measurable (actual) positive effects on anybody else out in the universe–i still think that’s bullshit. but i do believe that the concept of merit is meaningful and important. and that when merit is “dedicated”, even though it might not actually be received by anybody–or any being, the merit is still being given up. dedicating merit is the practice of putting aside one’s own personal achievements–the only thing we have that can legitimize our claim to any kind of authority–and saying that it is worthless to us–that it is more beneficial to us as something to be given up than it is to us as something that can empower us.
it’s the practice of dedicating merit–the very acceptance of the belief that merit should not be held on to–that makes the development of a truly merit based hierarchy–a meritocracy–within sb, next to impossible. the swiping away of the only natural, legitimate justification of hierarchy, leaves space for some alternate justification–in this, case–unbelievably–it’s bloodline lineage!
but bloodline only determines who’s at the very top of the shambhala hierarchy–the sakyongs–the literal kings of shambhala. others just below the level of…royalty? attain their level of privilege through the more traditional, non-familial tibetan buddhist methods of determining a lineage. below them there are the administrators; the board of directors, the heads of departments, etc.. and then, of course–the lowest rung on the ladder as usual–the laborers.
by denying the importance of merit, shambhala buddhists miss the opportunity to create a hierarchy within their organaization that is based entirely upon the ability to excel at the practices they declare to be the most important–based entirely upon their own professed values. instead they flounder in confusion, wondering at how difficult it is to maintain such a large organization while keeping their own teachings in mind. and amidst all the confusion, wherever hierarchy is not determined by their religious tradition, they default to the standard hierarchical structure of the surrounding capitalist society.