[23 June 2013]
It’s not just one more Saturday night in the Bay Area’s cutting edge music and culture scene, because there’s a special visitor holding a unique event. An “enlightened dance party” with DJ Dragonfly is to be included, but that’s the afterparty component. The main event is a talk by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche titled, “Is An Enlightened Society Possible?” Sakyong translates to “Earth protector” and it’s a highly relevant question to pose during the tumultuous times of 2013, where it’s all too easy to view modern society on the brink of a titanic global meltdown.
Yet one could simultaneously suggest a plethora of evidence to indicate that humanity is on the precipice of a new golden age. Which way will we go? Exploring the spiritual philosophy behind these questions is a key element of Mipham’s Buddhist teachings. The Saturday night event is part of a weekend of teachings titled “Creating Enlightened Society” with the Shambhala Northern California chapter. Mipham, a Tibetan lama who is somewhat akin to a Gen-X version of the Dalai Lama, is the leader of the international Shambhala organization. His presence in the Bay Area is therefore viewed here as rare and auspicious. He’s promoting a new book The Shambhala Principle, that builds on the wisdom of his previous books such as Turning the Mind Into an Ally and Ruling Your World.
Mipham’s work also continues to build on the trailblazing work of his famous father, the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who escaped Tibet in 1959 at the same time the Dalai Lama was forced to flee due to the Chinese invasion. Trungpa helped bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West, launching the Shambhala organization, an international community of meditation centers. “Shambhala vision is rooted in the contemplative teachings of Buddhism, yet is a fresh expression of the spiritual journey for our time; it is available to practitioners of any tradition”, says Shambhala.org
The concept of putting a fresh and accessible spin on ancient teachings is a large part of what makes Mipham such a compelling figure. In contrast to his father’s generation, Mipham (who was born in India in 1962) grew up in both the East and the West and is thereby able to put a modern spin on his insights that resonates to the hectic 21st century lifestyle. This has been readily apparent in each of his books, and so he has gained a devoted following of spiritual seekers that dig the contemporary flavor of his insights.
The evening event begins with a musical warm-up from the Friction Quartet, a contemporary string quartet that features a musical composition dedicated to Mipham by composer Alex Van Gils. The piece straddles a line between classical and jazz, making for a unique way to bring everyone into a focused mindset. Cellist Mark Summer of the Turtle Island Collective follows with a dynamic solo performance featuring his interpretations of Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing”, Paul Simon’s “Maybe I Think Too Much” (an oft stated lament of meditators at all levels), The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”.
Everyone gathered stands in reverence when Mipham is introduced, but one gets the sense that he feels he’s just a humble monk without desire for such formality. He starts right off by recognizing the Bay Area as a special place that has long been on the cultural cutting edge as a trend starter. He then jumps right into addressing some of the deepest issues facing humanity.
“The notion of human nature really is the most important global issue,” Mipham says, invoking a recurring theme.
“The foundation of human consciousness is good”, he says with full confidence, dispelling the shallower view of some that human consciousness is inherently sinful or corrupt. “Are we at a point in human history… where we regard ourselves as faulty? And then what does the future bring? … There has to be a social environment that encourages thinking about these things… It’s clear now that as technology increases… expression of human softness needs to as well. We have to shift the culture so we can figure this out to survive”.
Much like when the Dalai Lama speaks to large public audiences, the speech feels like being addressed by a wise teacher who nonetheless feels that we are all on the same level. Mipham jokes about a desire to find the most powerful mantra of all, where invocation would solve any personal problems. “I would give it away for free” Mipham says. He goes on to talk of how deep problems necessitate deeper solutions. “If there’s a deep sense of hurt, then temporary solutions are just a band aid”.
This quote might remind Phish fans of one of the Vermont band’s deepest lyrics from their song “Sand”, where guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio sings, “If you can heal the symptoms but not affect the cause, then you can’t heal the symptoms.” It’s surely no coincidence that Anastasio has played benefit shows for the Tibet House, a non-profit in New York City that works to promote and preserve Tibetan culture.
“My father said if you’re just tough, then you’re brittle. We have to be tough and soft… There’s an invisible network, like a matrix, of human thought… Much of the discord in the world is because of people’s feelings not being acknowledged… What was the breakdown of human dynamics that created these issues?” Mipham asks rhetorically, bringing up ongoing problems with the global economic meltdown, the disasterous effects of climate change, and the endless state of war.
“Can we evolve our society to create an enlightened society?” he asks. Mipham says he had once asked his father if there would be a time when humanity would get there, to enlightened society. “He said that’s not the point, but that we must pursue it and we must be brave in doing so to create an atmosphere of possibility”.
“This is a notion in Shambhala language of warriorship, the notion that in the moment where fear can take over, to act out of bravery… We have to come to the point where this is encouraged. By not giving up, we are at least in the conversation… We’re in a place where we feel engaged but also a sense of powerlessness, and that is where meditation comes in,” Mipham says, returning to the ancient Buddhist practice of calming and clearing the mind, as Buddhist teachings inevitably always do. He then reveals one of his pithiest thoughts of the evening when he speaks of engaging with the world’s political leaders, many of whom he meets in his travels as an ambassador for Tibet.
“As I travel and meet world leaders, I realize no one is in charge. I know this because they keep asking me what we should do,” Mipham says with a chuckle, to which the audience responds with their own appreciative laughter. “We’re all being asked to go beyond our comfort zone… It’s not necessarily saving the world all at once, but a little at a time, so that it’s not such a monumental task”.
These last points about bravery in pursuing change one bit at a time might be the key takeaways of the evening. It’s easy to look at the chaos of the world and become discouraged. Yet large gatherings of spiritually like-minded folks who are dedicated to a better world, like this gathering, suggest that great power still lies with the people, as musical prophets such as John Lennon, Jim Morrison and Bob Marley have suggested.
A short Q&A session follows the talk where Mipham makes a variety of insights including a suggestion that one of the antidotes to aging is hanging out with children, which inherently helps keep the soul young. He also says “Don’t underestimate the power of our own nature”, suggesting that our own inherent goodness and positive intent can indeed have larger social implications. The most popular question with the audience comes from one of its younger members, a man who asks about some of the big picture obstacles standing in the way of enlightened society.
“I’m really interested in what you said about meeting with world leaders and realizing that no one’s in charge… because there are some very dark institutionalized forces fighting tooth and nail to maintain the status quo at all costs,” begins the questioner. “The military-industrial complex has owned the White House since November ‘63 and now we’ve got these big banks that are deemed too big to fail, so they just keep pillaging the economy because they know they won’t be prosecuted, and so how can we hope to break through against these entrenched forces, unless we can get these new world order people into the Shambhala teachings?”
The question receives a near unanimous round of applause, to which Mipham responds by merely declaring “Hallelujah”, suggesting that the young man had answered his own question. Many in the audience waited in a long line afterward to get their new copies of The Shambhala Principle signed by Mipham, while others proceeded over to the “enlightened dance party” with DJ Dragonfly and the Ziji Collective, a Bay Area community dedicated to creating a better society through art, meditation and social justice action. Craft beer and wine are also available at a cash bar, indicating an understanding by organizers that music and alcohol are a popular combination and for good reason - the dance floor seems to loosen up after a round of drinks.
The DJ field has become heavily saturated in recent years, but DJ Dragonfly’s eclectic mix of global grooves and beats provids a fresh sound that lights up the dance floor. Dragonfly is fresh off a triumphant performance at San Francisco’s Howeird Street Fair two weeks prior, where he had a much larger crowd getting down on the good foot. But his dynamic blend of dubstep, glitch, house, funk and trip-hop is effective here as well. The Eastern-flavored melodies he mixes in seem particularly appropriate and add a spiritual vibe that many of his peers in the turntable game lack.
Early 20th century revolutionary Emma Goldman is often credited with a quote to the effect of, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Sakyong Mipham and the Shambhala organization seem to recognize that a spiritual revolution must have artistic components as well, which makes his teachings all the more compelling in this critical era for the Earth. Is enlightened society possible? The answer from the Shambhala community here in the San Francisco Bay Area seems to be a resounding yes.