Across the Buddhaverse
Phung Huynh

Across the Buddhaverse


On this damp summer morning, the question beams out from bulletin boards and bathhouse doors all over Shambhala Mountain Center. It's a rhetorical question, of course -- a Xeroxed Zen koan. Because right now, no one is talking much at all: The bumper stickers on cars in the parking lot are more expressive than many of the Buddhists and master meditators at the center today. On a bench beneath a large pine tree, two guys in suits play mute chess. In the dining hall, a breezy white tent filled with casually ominous warnings (BEARS have been taking from the refrigerator! If this happens to you, please be understanding!), a woman greets a friend by nodding benevolently and pointing to a button pinned to her shirt: SILENCE.

People come from all over the world to shut up at Shambhala -- from Australia, South America, New York, Greeley -- and methodically cut out the mental chitchat of their lives. A vast, leafy Buddhist mecca in the green-fuzz hills near Red Feather Lakes, the center sits on 600 acres of mostly undeveloped wilderness. Army-tent encampments lie in shanty-style neighborhoods across the land, which is carpeted with wildflowers and overrun by squirrels. Many spend months on this mountaintop with limited contact with the outside world, keeping it zipped through rituals, prayers, meals and meditations.

I plan to start with a more reasonable increment of time for my self-imposed vow of silence: five minutes. Inside one of Shambhala's many meditation tents, I take a spot on the floor, surrounded by about thirty people -- adults, teenagers, and a few kids who look as young as four. They've all got their legs folded and are staring softly ahead, toward a small statue of Buddha flanked by flowers. It's as if they're tuned into the same invisible movie screen, a spiritual drive-in. Aside from the occasional cough or sniffle, there's just a slight hum in the room -- a collective human frequency radiating from measured breath and focused concentration.

Suddenly, I want very badly to join the hum, so I run over the tip given to me by Barb, the friendly Shambhalan I met over breakfast: If you find your mind wandering, just repeat the word "thinking." Then stop thinking.

Turns out that this is much easier said than done. My first minute on the mat goes something like this:

Hm-mm. (Clear throat.) Okay. All right. Check me out! I'm meditating!


If the bears can open a refrigerator, surely they can find their way into the tent I'll be sleeping in?


Don't Buddhists believe in respect for all sentient creatures? Does that mean I can't swat at the swarm of canary-sized mosquitoes buzzing in my ears?


Seriously, what about West Nile? Is my cat going to pee on my bed while I'm gone? Why is "Addicted to Love" looping in my head?

Thinking, thinking, thinking.

After a few minutes, I might as well face it: I am a sucky meditator.

When I report this to Daniel Hessey, a Shambhala teacher who helped establish the center almost thirty years ago, he doesn't attempt to hide his amusement. Sitting at a picnic table near the meditation tent, he strums a guitar and smiles, emanating the sunny charm of someone who's spent a good portion of his life in the lotus position.

"That's an old Buddhist joke: 'I tried to meditate and nothing happened,'" he says, chuckling. "The point is about developing a healthy approach to developing your mind -- the way that you would do yoga or work at the gym. It's not meant to be some esoteric thing. It's not meant to revolutionize your life overnight. Like any genuine training, it's a gradual process. If nothing happens, you're on the right track."

In fact, Hessey explains, nothing much is meant to happen at Shambhala Mountain Center at all. That's the point: The place is a minimalist's amusement park, where the Matterhorn is in your mind.

But in its quiet way, Shambhala Mountain Center is one of the most happening places in Colorado -- a sacred site in a Western Buddhist community that germinated in Boulder and has exploded nationally over the past three decades.

There's plenty of energy in the stillness. It's just that people don't talk about it too much.

If Shambhala Mountain Center is Buddha's summer camp, Boulder is most certainly his adopted home town.

The guy's big here, like some kind of cosmic mascot. His gently smiling face is stuck to flagpoles and SUV bumpers across the University of Colorado campus. Two Tibetan gift shops on the Pearl Street Mall are flush with paintings and statues of him: He comes small or large, made of bronze, silver, marble or clay. Along 13th Street, Japanese, Chinese and Indian Buddhas peer out from shop and restaurant windows. Sometimes he's pot-bellied and mischievous; other times, he's slender and serene.

How did this austere avatar become such a celebrity in a landlocked, Western mountain town founded by rugged Christian miners and farmers? How did he get from the bodhi tree to the Flatirons?

According to Shambhala International, the umbrella organization that operates Shambhala Mountain Center, he arrived draped in the gold-and-burgundy robes of an enigmatic monk named Chgyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a reincarnated descendant of the Trungpu Tulkus school of Buddhism in Tibet. One of the first lamas to translate Tibetan works into English, Chgyam Trungpa brought Buddhism to the West when he moved to Boulder in the early '70s. During his more than ten years here, he flew around in helicopters, drank heavily and once punched the poet W.S. Merwin at a Halloween party. He also founded the Naropa Institute, launched a wildly successful worldwide meditation movement, and introduced Buddhism to millions.

Today, Chgyam Trungpa's influence lingers in Boulder like musk from an incense cone. Copies of his many books line the shelves in the Boulder Book Store. His portrait hangs in the hallway of the Boulder Shambhala Center, one of hundreds of urban meditation centers he opened as part of the Shambhala International network. It's estimated that a quarter of the four million Buddhists practicing in the United States are affiliated with Shambhala. In the Tibetan Buddhist world, and particularly in Boulder, Chgyam Trungpa is as beloved as the Buddha himself.

"Chgyam Trungpa was an extremely magnetic person, and many, many people moved to Boulder just to be around him," says Judith Simmer-Brown, a professor of religious studies at Naropa who studied with Chgyam Trungpa in the '70s. "Boulder was a university town with a kind of new-age curiosity about it. The pursuit of happiness is, and was, really very strong here. In 1974, the first summer of Naropa, that was very much the environment.

"Boulder is, of course, yuppified now," she adds. "It's more unreal now than it was then, in the sense that people who are here are in many ways less diverse now, particularly economically. But Boulder is a mecca for many Tibetan Buddhist teachers who see it as a place where there's really a Buddhist culture; they view it as an important pilgrimage point. A large amount of credit for that is due directly to Chgyam Trungpa himself."

Wild, worldly and eccentric, Chgyam Trungpa hung with hippies and Beats in a scene shaped equally by intellectualism and hallucinogens. His close friend, Allen Ginsberg, helped start the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics as a literary ancillary to Naropa, which opened in a one-room building on the Pearl Street Mall. The guru loved drink, Western culture and women: He was known to hold special sessions with young female students who showed special promise. It's possible that a large portion of his divinely inspired vision of Shambhala Training -- a non-religious path to mindfulness, open to people of all faiths -- was colored by copious amounts of sake.

But he was also a brilliant teacher who found a loving, receptive audience in Boulder. The town swelled with students and seekers drawn to the mystery of Eastern traditions, who were understanding it for the first time under his instruction.

"Chgyam Trungpa recognized that there is a lot of inherent wisdom in the West. He wasn't a Tibetan chauvinist," says Daniel Hessey, who studied and worked with Chgyam Trungpa for more than a decade before the latter's death in 1987. "He wanted to bring out the wisdom that's inherent in each person's cultural inheritance. There was a very exciting element of cultural give-and-take that was happening."

"He was not culturally limited," adds Simmer-Brown. "He was not merely a Tibetan; he had a delight in Western culture, and he was very interested in relating to people who had no particular desire to become Buddhists. He had lots of students who were Christians or Jewish or what have you."

With Chgyam Trungpa at the spiritual helm, Tibetan Buddhism boomed in Boulder. And it's still booming. In theory, a Buddhist Boulderite can practice contemplation from before birth until death: Prenatal yoga classes are abundant, and the area is home to two Buddhist hospices. More than fifteen meditation centers, countless discussion groups and small sanghas, Zen gardens and shrines are staggered throughout the city. Yoga, calligraphy and flower-arranging are practiced widely -- by stragglers on the Pearl Street Mall, little kids, old people, even convicts: The Shambhala Prison Community and the Prison Dharma Network both have headquarters in Boulder.

"I would imagine that if you set up something like Naropa or Shambhala in Salt Lake City or Provo or Colorado Springs, you'd have more trouble getting people in the door," says Mark Silk, who directs the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Connecticut's Trinity College.

"In Boulder, there seems to be, in the grand metaphysical scheme of things, a sense that place and landscape have a kind of very powerful religious significance," Silk adds. "Where is religion in Boulder? Well, look up: It's up on the Flatirons. It is an awesome landscape, and it's no great surprise that it should inspire awe and a kind of religious state that sometimes transcends consciousness."

Chgyam Trungpa's own consciousness extended far beyond the university town. In the late '70s, he began articulating plans for his own world -- a meditation oasis set in the wilderness near the tiny town of Red Feather Lakes, Colorado.

"Chgyam Trungpa had a vision that Shambhala Mountain Center would grow into being one of the largest of its kind and be a resource for a lot of traditions," says Hessey. "I spent a lot of time trying to convince him not to do something so bold, because it would be more work for me. We were trying to make ends meet with a peashooter budget. But he was consistently unconvinced by my hesitation. I'd say, 'I understand the big vision, but it's really not practical.' "He'd just look at me and say, 'I think we should build a bigger one.'"

Early progress was slow on the land, which had been occupied by a ramshackle community of hippie craftsmen who wove, smoked weed and built expressive cabins with heart-shaped floors and ying-yang roofs. The building that currently houses Shambhala Mountain Center's kitchen, as well as a shrine and yoga studio, was once used to manufacture hash pipes. Over time, Hessey and a team of volunteers built cabins, raised money, planted gardens and bought water rights to secure luxuries like running water.

"It was an enormous challenge just to get the place so it could work at all," Hessey says. "And Chgyam Trungpa didn't particularly attract the easiest bunch to work with. People kind of had to fight their way into the community; we were a rough, grouchy bunch. But there was a tremendous amount of willingness to deal with difficulty."

Today, clusters of solitary cabins are nestled into valleys and groves all over the mountains. Tattered prayer flags hang from the aspen and pine trees that grow thick on the land. There's a sense that nature, though far from tamed, is cooperating: Everywhere there are plots for future gardens, new trees and native plants ready to go into the ground.

"The beauty of the land has been there all along," says Simmer-Brown. "But if you were spending time up there in the early days, you had to be rugged physically. Because of the elements, you really felt like you were a pioneer. Now you can stand up in your tent, go for a hike. Enjoy it. It's really become a place where there's the possibility of living with some dignity."

In 1986, Chgyam Trungpa split Boulder for Halifax, Nova Scotia, taking a sizable number of followers with him. Shambhalans contend that the guru was simply moving the movement's center in order to broaden its reach; indeed, centers in Europe and South America opened after his relocation to Canada. But others say he'd grown weary of the very spiritual zealousness that shaped the early Shambhala practice. Some in the community had begun to treat their proximity to Chgyam Trungpa and other high lamas as a credential: Buddhism in Boulder had become a kind of brand name.

"Chgyam Trungpa was averse to the notion of spirituality as a possession as opposed to a tool that's quite ordinary," says Hessey, "and he magnified that kind of energy, as every spiritual teacher did.

"He didn't want to create a sort of walled society like Tibet," he adds. "He wanted to take a bunch of shlemiels, help train us as people so that we could become educated in this tradition. But it wasn't our little piece of personal property. The Buddha did not get enlightened for the sake of the white guys in Boulder. That wasn't the fruition of his dream."

Chgyam Trungpa didn't live to see the fruition of his dream. In 1987, he died in Halifax at the age of 47, from a heart condition compounded by drinking. But in the Buddhist view of death and reincarnation -- where every sentient being is destined to live out untold cycles of lifetimes -- he'll probably be back at Shambhala Mountain Center, in some form, before long.

"A lot of things he did at the time didn't always make sense in the short term," Hessey says. "But now the vision is happening. There's this alchemy of things coming together. It's really becoming something that's a lot more 3-D."

"I can't see Buddha, Mama," says a three-year-old girl who's sliding around on the tile floor, using a meditation cushion as a magic carpet.

"Well, Buddha can see you, so let's be quiet and practice peacefulness," her mother says. "People in here are trying to pray."

More than 2,500 people attended the consecration of the Great Stupa in August 2001: students, yogis, members of the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce, monks from India and Tibet. Also there was Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Chgyam Trungpa's son, who now leads Shambhala International. In one of the Stupa's chambers, his father's skull is preserved alongside several thousand other sacred objects. The Stupa is considered one of the most important Buddhist monuments in the United States; since it opened to the public, it's drawn thousands to Shambhala Mountain Center.

But the Great Stupa, like the rest of the center, is far from finished. Much of the work is done by volunteers: At Shambhala, day-to-day labor -- whether it's scooping out lentils, doing dishes or pulling weeds and painting mandalas -- is all part of the path to enlightenment. During the summer, many of the volunteers are yoga-toned twenty-somethings weaned on Buddhism by parents who studied with Chgyam Trungpa.

"I think we're working on a second generation," says Patricia Rackas, a longtime Shambhalan who helps lead an advanced-studies seminary at the center. "There are kids who've been coming up here all their lives. But there are also new people: Buddhism has been around in America for thirty years, so everyone knows a little. That leads to a certain curiosity and an openness in American culture that more people are actually pursuing, especially young people."

The entire place is utopia in progress -- a truly alternate, mostly functional, largely impermanent world. Increasingly, it's also a successful world. A few years ago, director Jeff Waltcher, a Harvard-educated MBA, boosted Shambhala's bottom line through fundraising and expanded marketing efforts, reaching out to non-Buddhists and the "Nones" -- people who don't claim any religious affiliation. In Colorado, Nones account for a quarter of the population. That percentage is even higher in Boulder, which remains a major feeding source for the center.

Waltcher's strategy is working. In 2000, just over 2,000 people visited Shambhala Mountain Center; in 2003, the site logged more than 15,000 visitors. The center is currently in the midst of the busiest summer in its history. The place is crowded; lines in the dining hall and the bathhouses move at tai-chi speed. Extra tents have been flown in from across the country to accommodate all of the overnight visitors, and the staff has had to refuse reservations because of a lack of space.

"Shambhala Mountain Center was really just a summer camp when I got there," Waltcher says. "Our catalogue was an 8 x 11 Xerox copy. We had maybe fifteen or twenty programs that targeted a small community of people who practiced in a Buddhist tradition, many of them from Boulder. The Stupa was only half built, so there really was no public destination. In six years, we've come from that level and developed our program, seeing what people like and what they don't. We wanted to discover ways to bring the basic discipline into a relationship with the passions of people who live in our neighborhood."

Waltcher has expanded facilities and programming while keeping content relatively cheap: Prices range from about ten dollars for a day visit to a thousand or more for month-long programs. Overnight guests are fed three meals a day, and daily yoga classes are free. A percentage of the center's income is used to finance scholarship funds.

Waltcher says he expects revenues to keep going up -- a mixed blessing from a spiritualist's point of view, since the increased interest in the center coincides with increased concern over current events. "We've seen a real increase in aggression, in hatred of the United States," he notes. "There's a terrible amount of tension, and that has an impact on our world. In a way, we have to view that as being good for our quote-unquote business, because people seem more and more concerned about what's important to them, finding meaning in their lives."

"[Shambhala Mountain Center] has learned from Naropa, and they've realized that there are many people who would like to be there and study meditation there but aren't interested in pursuing Buddhism," says Simmer-Brown. "There are just more people who know about the place, and they feel welcome without having to feel like they're joining something."

"We've had people call up the center and sign up for a program because they've seen a picture of the teacher and they felt they had a connection with that teacher," says Alex Grimes, who schedules visitors to the mountain center through the Boulder Shambhala Center. "It used to be that you'd know everyone, through your parents, just from coming up here. But a lot has changed. Now there are people here from all over the world.

"The majority are looking for a place to go to quiet their lives down," she adds. "It's hard to stop and recognize that you need to slow down. They'll call and say, ŒI work so hard, I just need to relax and quiet my mind.'"

Patricia Rackas has been coming to Shambhala every summer for years. This time she's here with her two young children, who spend most of the day at the Shotoku Children's Center, a dharma-centered daycare. It's definitely not the kind of vacation package that shows up on Travelocity. Showers are taken in shared spaces. Canvas tents are the common form of lodging. Most days, the most exciting moment comes when a gong signals mealtimes, when everyone shuffles in for buffet-style spreads -- feasts of fish, tempeh and organic vegetables grown on-site in a huge geodesic greenhouse that resembles a gigantic plastic locust at rest.

Rackas loves the simplicity, the lack of options.

"I wouldn't choose to be anywhere else," she says. "In the outside world, there are so many pulls: You've gotta be there, you've got to do this. There's a joy that comes from the opportunity to make space in the mind. You don't always realize that until you take yourself out of it. It's not a deprivation; it's an inner luxury."

It's easy to lose track of time in the wordless world of Shambhala Mountain Center, where the most popular activity is sitting on your duff and staring into space, honing the art of emptiness. Clocks are few at 8,000 feet. Newspapers and magazines strewn about the dining hall are no help: There are dog-eared volumes of the Buddhist journals Tricycle and Shambhala Sun dating from the '90s, food-smeared sections from a week-old edition of the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

This lack of connection to the outside doesn't bother Bella one bit.

Bella is about three and a half feet tall, with slightly mussed chin-length hair and a mushy reservoir of banana goo pooled in the left corner of her mouth. She is nine years old and a much better meditator than I am. Like a lot of other kids at the center, her parents have a shrine room in their home, and when she gets back there, she intends to start using it. Meditation, she's learned, is a handy trick to mellow a nine-year-old mind.

"If you're feeling frustrated or angry, it can help calm you down," she says, brushing hair off her round face. "If the meditation is making you angry or tired or something, then you probably just don't understand what meditation is all about."

This year, Bella is one of eighteen children enrolled in Shambhala's Rites of Passage program, a week-long camp where kids under ten learn about the art of quietude through meditation, haiku, Japanese archery and other contemplative, Buddhist-based concepts. For the past ten years, the program's been led by Kerry Lee MacLean, a Boulder author and former student of Chgyam Trungpa. In the spring, MacLean works with kids at the Boulder Shambhala Center. But in the wild of Red Feather Lakes, Rites of Passage takes on a primitive quality, using the natural environment to help kids get in touch with Buddha.

"The program was developed to help our society create more sane adults," MacLean says. "We do it at an age when kids naturally begin separating from their parents. In primitive cultures, kids are expected to help and pull their weight. But in our culture, kids have become whiny little brats. We give them the opportunity to participate in something that they can feel good about. In many cases, they go home and start playing a more active role in their homes -- cleaning toilets and cooking and things like that."

MacLean recently published The Family Meditation Book, which posits that ten minutes of family sitting help keep families closely connected. The formula has worked in her own family, she says: MacLean's children were raised with meditation, and all three of her daughters completed the Rites of Passage program. This year, her seventeen-year-old daughter, Kelly, is helping teach Rites of Passage.

"When Kelly was in kindergarten, she'd sit on the playground and meditate," MacLean remembers. "She'd try to teach her friends. She said, 'If you don't, you can't be my friend.' That's not really the attitude you should take to meditation, but it is pretty telling."

Sitting on a giant boulder surrounded by eight youngsters, MacLean reads through a book about the young Buddha before leading the troops to their home base for bananas and milk. Then they all head over to a meditation tent, where many of them join their parents. Once a year, Shambhala opens for family camp, where moms, dads and kids meditate, sleep, eat, hike and hang out together.

"This is a place where the main value is openness and good communication, and that's something every family can benefit from," says Bryan Kemler, an attorney from Boulder at Shambhala with his wife and eleven-year-old daughter, Marley. "This is a kind of vacation from vacation. Normally we'll travel to another country or do something very involved. This is a different experience. The whole goal is just to be gentle with yourself."

Siri Hustad came to family camp with her ten-year-old daughter, Skye, who's one of MacLean's students in Rites of Passage. The two drove to Colorado from Minnesota, where Hustad is a youth minister in the Episcopalian Church. On a visit to Laramie last year, she found a copy of the Shambhala brochure. She and her daughter decided to make the trip this year, partly to step inside another faith.

"I'm always struggling to come up with ways to teach children to meditate or to pray," she says. "From my perspective as a Christian, I knew that Buddhism was based on respect, peace and love. I thought, 'What better way to teach yourself and your child than to immerse yourself?'

"At first I felt a little like, 'I shouldn't be here. I'm not a Buddhist,'" she continues. "But I don't believe that people should be so compartmentalized. I'm learning things here that I'll be using in my own ministry and my own family: When we get home, we've got to teach her dad and brother how to meditate."

In the meditation tent, the kids take their places next to their parents. Most of them sit quietly for a full ten minutes. There are a few twitches here and there, and one discernible yawn. For the most part, though, it's a miraculously still group. Afterward, MacLean gathers them in a circle to ask them how they liked it.

"I wanted to fall asleep," one girl says.

"Sometimes I'm really bored," says another.

"Well, sometimes when you're meditating, you're supposed to be bored," MacLean says. "It's because your mind isn't used to the peace. That's a new thing we're learning in America -- that we can stop and rest."

"I get bugged by bugs," says a little boy in a green shirt.

"Well, don't think about them," offers the girl next to him, plaintively.

"I can't help it. I think about them a lot. They bother me."

"That's the whole point of doing it," says another girl, sucking on a lock of blond hair. "You learn how to not let things bother you so much. You're just like, 'Oh. Yeah. Well, okay. Goodbye, dumb thought.'"

Just before lunchtime, MacLean has the kids do one more exercise. They're to write haiku based on this morning's journey to the maitri building, where the kids sat in rainbow-hued rooms and attempted to absorb the energy of color. After about ten minutes of Crayola scrawling, they stand and recite their poems, one by one. Later, Bella gives me a copy of hers. It goes like this:

Stairing up at the sealing

Swearling downwerd but staying still

blue just Blue

There's very little light in my Army tent, thanks to the dollar-store batteries in my flashlight. Shambhala Mountain Center is so quiet tonight, I feel completely out of touch with one of my senses: I zip the tent door open just to hear a sound.

Sitting on my foam-padded cot, I'm determined to give meditation one more go. I cross my legs, look straight ahead, try to settle my mind.

Hello, dumb thought.

I can't do it. After two days among the yogis and the budding bodhisattvas, in the lingering patina of Chgyam Trungpa's teachings and a light summer rain that fell all afternoon, my mind is everywhere but in the tent with me. I'm thinking about how much gas I've got for the ride home and whether my cell phone died while I was up here. I try to center on images of the Great Stupa, but instead come back with pictures of my apartment on fire.

Fortunately, I've got several hundred lifetimes to figure it out.


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