The "Land of Snows," the place we know as Tibet, was the mysterious "forbidden land," during much of western expansion. Even so, strange stories occasionally leaked out through various world travelers - some commercial adventurers, others fervent missionaries trying to spread the gospel in the East - some as early as the late Middle Ages, Tibet was said to be a place of magic, where strange powers were manifested by ancient lamas who, in the western view, acted more like primitive shamans than the sophisticated Buddhists they now appear to be. That remote part of the world witnessed a struggle between Europeans powers, especially Russia and England for control of this “roof of the world.”
The Europeans, pushing rationalism, colonialism, and commercialism world-wide, saw much of Asian religion as mere superstition, yet individual world travelers were fascinated by legends that showed human life with another, unsuspected dimension to it, something beyond mere political or commercial power, and yet not a theistic religion in the western sense. So, while our scientists and our leaders scorned mystery and magic, ordinary people, just as now, eagerly sought every wispy trace of it.
The Shambhala story, in contrast to western utopias, has deeper and more ancient roots than either the political or religious communities that came to the New World. The name "Shambhala" comes from ancient Tibetan legends about an enlightened kingdom that was believed to exist some time in the past and either disappeared or, because of the materialism of this age, become invisible. Some versions express a belief that Shambhala will return some day, led by a victorious warrior who will conquer the forces of darkness. James Hilton read some of this history before he wrote Lost Horizon, with its Shangri-La.
Hilton, in a curious addition to the legend, westernized the story. If you have seen that movie, you may recall that the founder of Shangri-La, a country buried somewhere deep in the mountains that run through and around China and Tibet, was a Benedictine monk who had come to convert the Tibetans to Christianity. The hero of the story, 'Glory' Conway, is a westerner who has been hand-picked to be the new leader. Curiously, this vision of an enlightened world reflects western beliefs during Hilton's day, that the East is even incapable of starting or running its own utopias.
The original Shambhala stories have come down through a number of traditions preserved in Tibet. The version most commonly accepted by Tibetans identifies Shambhala with the Kalachakra tantra, one of the commonly held tantras among all of the Buddhist lineages of Tibet. Other traditions lead us to think that the Shambhala legends may be older than Buddhism in Tibet, that they have a common source among countries as diverse as Iraq, Afghanistan, Persia, China, and even Siberia. However, the main story is similar in meaning whatever the source. This kingdom once existed and preserved within it the very highest possibilities of being human.
Though we call it an "enlightened" kingdom, we do not mean simply that it was a successful religious culture, attaining more than most a high degree of personal spiritual realization. This spiritual realization is not excluded, of course, but the legend specifies in most cases that the kingdom itself was successful in terms that we usually use to measure secular societies. Perhaps we could call it a successful cooperative society with highly developed insight and great skill. That means, as I see it, that both the people, their enterprises, and their government were functioning at a high level of both efficiency and compassion.
In his version of Shambhala, Chogyam Trungpa chose the story that links its origins with the Buddha and a King named Dawo Sangpo, though at times he too referred to the Shambhala legend as older and more extensive than Buddhism. In this story, the king wanted the teachings, but he wanted to retain his kingly prerogatives - ministers, musicians, dancers, feasts, the arts, and so forth. The Buddha, according to this version, dismissed his monks and gave special teachings to King Dawo Sangpo based on enlightened "rulership." Whatever their origins, the teachings have remained a part of Tibetan legendary history, and Chogyam Trungpa was inspired to renew them in a form that could be used in the twentieth century.
Consistent with the legends, the most important part of the Way of Shambhala, as Chogyam Trungpa presented it, is the vision of a society that could be created in this age with sane, intelligent, and gentle people. This vision is to be realized through the disciplined application of meditation practice to our daily life. Shambhala Training, which is the method of this way, is based on traditional Buddhist meditation practice. However, instead of exploring the origins of mind and the development of ego, as Buddhism does, Shambhala begins with our actual sensual existence in the ordinary phenomenal world. It sees this existence as permeated with good energy beyond the individual self and, at the same time, blocked and distorted by our neurotic relationships to ourselves and the world.
Chogyam Trungpa sketched in the outlines of what a Shambhala culture means. “Shambhala is our way of life. The Shambhala principle is our way of life. Shambhala is the Central Asian kingdom that-developed in the countries of the Middle East, Russia, China, and Tibet altogether. The basic idea of Shambhala vision is that a sane society developed out of that culture, and we are trying to emulate that vision. That particular system broke down into the Taoist tradition and Bon tradition of Tibet, the Islamic tradition of the Middle East, and whatever tradition Russia might have. It has broken into various factions.
“What we are trying to present here is that there is a comprehensive philosophy and wisdom which is not necessarily that of the West or the East. We are trying to present the possibility that we can actually bring together out of those different factions the warrior tradition of basic goodness.”