Shambhala Buddhism

Shambhala BuddhismThe term Shambhala Buddhism has come into use as an umbrella term referring to the teachings of Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, mixed with the various Shambhalian teachings and practices revealed by the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (the 11th Trungpa Tulku and first Sakyong), as propagated by the Sakyongs. The present head of the lineage is Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Trungpa Rinpoche’s eldest son and heir.


Distinguishing Characteristics of Shambhala Buddhism

At the heart of the teachings of Shambhala Buddhism is the belief that “there is a natural source of radiance and brilliance in the world, which is the innate wakefulness of human beings. This is the basis, in myth and inspiration, of the Kingdom of Shambhala, an enlightened society of fearlessness, dignity and compassion.”

The Shambhala Buddhist sangha continues its ties to contemporary Kagyu and Nyingma lineage holders, among them His Holiness the Karmapa, H.H. Penor Rinpoche, and other important lamas. Many prominent lamas come and offer teachings to the community on a regular basis. However, there are also aspects of Shambhala Buddhism that are unique to the sangha, known as Shambhalian practices. Among them are:

Shambhala Training

Main article: Shambhala Training

In 1976, Trungpa Rinpoche began giving teachings, since gathered and presented as Shambhala Training, inspired by his vision (see termas) of the legendary Kingdom of Shambhala. Shambhalian practices focus on using mindfulness/awareness meditation as a means of connecting with one’s basic sanity and using that insight as inspiration for one’s encounter with the world. Shambhala Training is essentially a secular approach to meditation rooted in Buddhism but accessible to individuals of any, or no, religion. In Shambhala terms, it is possible, moment by moment, for individuals to establish enlightened society. His book Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior provides a concise collection of the Shambhala views.

Shambhala Terma

Certain Shambhala Buddhist practices derive from specific terma texts of Trungpa Rinpoche’s such as Letter of the Black Ashe, Letter of the Golden Key, Golden Sun of the Great East, the Scorpion Seal texts, Lightning of Blessings, Roar of Werma, and others. Trungpa Rinpoche is believed by Shambhala Buddhists to have received these teachings directly from the Rigden king, an assertion confirmed by the esteemed Nyingma master His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

The Shambhala dharma practices derived entirely or in part from these texts include those of werma, drala, windhorse (Tib. lungta), and meditations on four “dignities of Shambhala”: tiger (tib. tak), lion (Tib. seng), garuda (Tib. kyung) and dragon (Tib. druk). Ju Mipham the Great, a great 19th century Nyingma lama and the predecessor of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, wrote about many of these practices and concepts as well.

The Kalachakra, the Rigden Kings and Gesar of Ling

The Kalachakra tradition is central to Shambhala Buddhism. Trungpa Rinpoche requested that the Kagyu Kalachakra master Kalu Rinpoche perform the initiation for the Shambhala Buddhist community, which he did in 1982 in Boulder, Colorado. The Rigden Kings of Shambhala are central figures to the community, and a thangka of the Rigden king is the centerpiece of all public Shambhala Buddhist shrines. Gesar of Ling, a mythical Tibetan king, is also an important figure to Shambhala Buddhists, to whom he represents an example of enlighted wisdom manifesting in the world as a leader.

Zen and Japanese arts

Trungpa Rinpoche was highly influenced by his friend Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Zen master who was one of the first accomplished teachers to present dharma to Westerners. As a result of this influence, certain attributes of form in Shambhala Buddhism are derived from Zen rather than Tibetan Buddhism. The shrine rooms in Shambhala Buddhism, reflecting the Zen aesthetic of kanso (simplicity), tend to be sparsely furnished and decorated, whereas traditional Tibetan Buddist shrine rooms are eloborate, ornate, and colorful. As in Zen but unlike in Tibetan Buddist practice, meditators engage in group practice of shamatha-vipashyana.

In addition, Shambhala Buddhists have adopted the practices of kyudo, ikebana (kado), tea ceremony, oryoki, calligraphy, and other traditional Japanese arts as a means of extending the mind of calm-abiding and awareness to more active practices.

Elements of Bön, Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto

To a lesser extent, Trungpa Rinpoche incorporated other elements into Shambhala Buddhism that he thought would be beneficial to practitioners. From the Bön religion, the lhasang ceremony is performed; other elements of shamanism play a role. From Confucianism comes a framework of heaven, earth, and man for understanding the proper relationship between different elements of compositions of all kinds. From Taoism comes the use of feng shui and other incorporations. From the Shinto tradition comes the use of kami shrines to honor natural forces in specific locales.

Dorje Kasung

The Dorje Kasung are a paramiltary organization within Shambhala Buddhism not unlike the Salvation Army in that they use the trapping of military life as a support for a very different sort of objective—in this case, meditation practice.

Maitri and Mudra

Maitri is a therapeutic program that works with different styles of neurosis using principles of the five buddha families. Mudra practice, first explored by the Mudra Theater Group, is based on traditional Tibetan monastic dance training and the teachings on mahamudra.

Other Practices

Trungpa Rinpoche experimented with many different innovations of practice, including practices of elocution and other disciplines which are still utilized in the community today.

History of Shambhala Buddhism

The term “Shambhala Buddhism” as used to describe the larger tradition of the community founded by Trungpa Rinpoche came into use in around 2000. The community itself first began in 1970 with the arrival of Trungpa Rinpoche in North America. The first established center of his teachings was “Tail of the Tiger” in Barnet, Vermont (now Karmê Chöling). When Rinpoche began teaching at the University of Colorado in 1971, a second branch of the community began to form there. In the early 1970s the community grew rapidly and attracted the involvement of such notables as Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, W.S. Merwin, and many others.

In 1981, the community hosted a visit of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to Boulder, Colorado. In 1986, Trungpa Rinpoche moved the international headquarters of Vajradhatu to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he died the following year. A large number of his disciples emigrated from the United States to Nova Scotia along with him.

The Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin (born Thomas Rich) assumed leadership of the organization until his death in 1990 (of AIDS, amid controversy over admissions that he had unprotected sex with students while knowing he had AIDS)(Butterfield 1994, pg 183), whereupon Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (then Sawang Ösel Rangdröl Mukpo) became spiritual head. In 1995 he was recognized as the reincarnation of Ju Mipham by Penor Rinpoche and enthroned as Sakyong.

In 2001, on a visit to Tibet, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche met for the first time with Choseng Trungpa Rinpoche, his father’s new incarnation (discovered by His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche in 1991).

The Shambhala Buddhist community today

Today the Shambhala Buddhist community is perhaps the largest community of Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. Presently there are a few thousand Shambhala Buddhist practitioners, with the largest communities in Halifax, NS; Boulder, CO; northern Vermont; and New York, NY. There are over one hundred Shambhala Meditation Centers around the world, mostly in the United States, Canada, Europe and South America.

Shambhala International

The umbrella organization that encompasses many of the distinct institutions of Shambhala Buddhism is called Shambhala International. Shambhala International, which is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, links a worldwide mandala of urban Buddhist meditation centers, retreat centers, monasteries, a university, and other ventures, founded by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher the Trungpa Rinpoche under the name Vajradhatu. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the present spiritual and executive head of the organization, which he renamed and reorganized in 1990.

Spiritual Teachers

  • Druk Sakyong Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
  • Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche
  • Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin
  • Acharya Pema Chödrön
  • Acharya Reginald Ray

There are presently thirty-two “acharyas”, or senior teachers, in the Shambhala mandala, including the two most well-known listed above.

Shambhala Land Centers

The Shambhala “land centers” are retreat centers, generally located in more rural settings around the world.

  • Gampo Abbey in Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Dorje Denma Ling in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado
  • Sky Lake Lodge in Rosendale, New York
  • Dechen Chöling in Mas Marvent, France
  • Karmê Chöling in Barnet, Vermont

Larger Shambhala Mandala

Many entities are considered part of the larger Shambhala International/Shambhala Buddhism mandala, although they may not be legally part of the organization. Choseng Trungpa, the Twelfth Trungpa Tulku, along with the other tulkus and leaders of Surmang, asked Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche to assume stewardship of Surmang Monastery and its people. The Sakyong has also been asked to assume responsibility for Weyen monastery, the Gesar orphanage, and the Mipham Institute in Golok, and Khamput Monastery in Kham.

  • Shambhala Training
  • Naropa University an accredited, private liberal arts university founded in 1974 by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
  • a school of Japanese flower arranging founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
  • photography based on the Dharma art teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
  • Maitri Five Wisdom Energies practice
  • supporting communities in Tibet

Shambhala International sponsors a number of publications, and others exist in some degree of relationship to the larger Shambhala International/Shambhala Buddhism mandala. For instance, Shambhala Publications was founded and is published by Acharya Samuel Bercholz, a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, but has no legal relationship to Shambhala International.

  • Quarterly Newspaper of the International Shambhala Mandala
  • Quarterly Journal of Buddhist Practice
  • Buddhist-Inspired Monthly Magazine of Buddhism, Meditation, Culture, and Life


  • Stephen T. Butterfield (1994). The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra. ISBN 1-55643-176-7.
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