Basic goodness, Basic shadow. Part II

group shadowIn last week’s post, I started setting the scene for my recent contemplations: whether a view that focuses on the basic goodness of humanity might get distorted and become the root of harm. Many Tibetan Buddhist lineages and schools hold fundamental the view that all beings are “basically good”; yet there is a seeming paradox. Only this week, news reports detailed how the Dalai Lama has met with survivors of Buddhist teacher abuse. How can this be?

Shambhala is one Buddhist organisation currently dealing with the news of sexual impropriety and abuses of power. I’m curious as to how this happens in a community that emphases Basic Goodness. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala, taught that if practitioners could see Basic Goodness in their experience, we could build an “enlightened society”. This is not a group of enlightened beings, but rather that the awake society – that like basic goodness already exists – just needs polishing up and brought out. Not only are we social animals, compassion is part of our birthright and we can live that out in community. This Enlightened Society has a name – Shambhala. You might know of it as “Shangri-La”, made famous by author James Hilton. From very early on in the Shambhala path, we practitioners are encouraged to think about how we can contribute to Enlightened Society: not as a fictional place that we are preparing to leave our lives for and inhabit one day, but rather how we make it manifest here, now. It is an inspiring vision. But even before events within Shambhala were reported back in June, I’ve often felt resistance around how Enlightened Society is presented. Let me back track a little….


The Tibetan schools of Buddhism, of which Shambhala is one, view the Buddhist path as a “three yana” path: in other words, there are three ‘vehicles’ toward realising our inherent, wakeful nature. The Hinayana; the Mahayana; and the Vajrayana. Each has its own view and associated practices. Briefly, the Hinayana is essentially the path of “non-harm”, and we work especially diligently on looking at our own ethics and behaviour. As Chogyam Trungpa would say, we work on tidying up our own backyard so we don’t take our shit in to the world! With the Mahayana we go in to the world and we learn to relate to others with wisdom and compassion. The Vajrayana (sometimes known as tantra) has the same view as the Mahayana but offers a “fast track” to attaining enlightenment – basically, we use life itself to wake up. The teachings describe this three yana model as akin to three ways of dealing with proverbial poison…

peacock treeThe first, the Hinayana option, is to avoid it. If we have a poison tree in our yard, chop it down. If we feel rage welling up in us, refrain from venting it.

The Mahayana sees how the poison – if used wisely – can be a medicine, we put down the axe down and let that tree in the yard live. We have to be skillful to employ this method. To use the leaves of the poison tree as medicine, we need to know the correct dosage to use and the right time to take it. Wisdom teaches how to use it, and compassion as to who needs it.

The Vajrayana practitioner is like a peacock. The peacock struts over to that tree in the yard and just gobbles down a whole venomous branch because, to the peacock, poison is no other than nourishment. It’s what creates the brilliant plumage.

We are taught that this 3-yana system is not linear: we don’t move through them sequentially, needing to graduate each before moving on. We NEVER move on from the Hinayana. It is tempting to speed to “level 3” because it looks more interesting – visualisations, mantras…more entertaining than “just sitting with the breath” perhaps!

Cutting to the chase…

Does a path espousing the Basic Goodness of all beings attract a certain type of person? The promise of goodness perhaps offering the avoidance of shame; or maybe it feeds the arrogance of the narcissist? In the therapeutic environment, we might consider the former as a fragile presentation, the latter somewhat more grandiose. Yet both have at their root the lack of a healthy sense of self. These people could do with tidying up their own yard before eating all the leaves on the tree. I’m hoping that this gets across the trap for potential Buddhas on the path: Basic Goodness, if not felt from within gets seen as a holy grail outside of oneself to pursue. And the consequence? People don’t realise they are caught up in their own poison, and even worse perhaps, dishing it out to others.

Carl Jung was perhaps the person who offered the West the biggest guidance on this matter. He saw that for the human being to truly individuate (his version of becoming actualised or waking up), the only way was through the shadow.

‘‘The shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors and so comprise the whole historical aspect of the unconscious’’. Jung (1963)

The shadow is a primordial part of our human inheritance, which, try as we might, can never be eluded. Most people deny their shadow, unconsciously projecting it’s contents onto others so as to avoid confronting it in oneself. Such projection can happen not only by individuals but groups, cults, religions, and entire countries. Jung saw the shadow like a building: we can only go as high according to how willing we are to enter the basement. The taller the building, the deeper the foundations of that shadow.

My concerns within Shambhala is how we are encouraged to bring about Enlightened Society potentially at the risk of not having excavating deep down: to have explored our shadow and know how we get caught and triggered. I’ve often shared with friends my anecdote of being on retreat – we’ve just listened to a talk on basic goodness and enlightened society, we exit the meditation hall, and while queuing in the refreshment tent, people are pushing one another out of the way to get the coffee and biscuits. Something doesn’t match up. Equally, as well as projecting shadow, we also avoid it by supressing its existence. This can look like serving others at the expense of themselves or to save themselves. I know many therapists who work as “wounded healers”, its often the way in to the work. However, sometimes that healing work on self has not been ‘deep down’, and there is a risk of helping others simply to feel okay about oneself, to “leap” the shadow as it were.

I continue my study and practice of the lojong slogans, a daily practice of remembering the wisdom of the Buddhist Dharma. This blog post by teacher Judy Lief really speaks to the work a Bodhisattva warrior on the path must undertake. She explains how the slogans, with their aim to develop loving kindness, allow us to live more sanely in the world; how they develop true compassion for others. She asks the question “If the slogans are about cultivating virtues and helping others, why not just go ahead and do it?” She goes on to explain the importance of training in the basics, training in understanding our own minds. In the Buddhist view, we sit and meditate to become familiar with the absolute nature of all phenomena: recognising the empty and insubstantial nature of our experience. Only through this recognition can benevolence be cultivated that, in her words, “is not simply another form of goody-goodyness”

spiral stairs down

To set about creating Enlightened Society without this groundwork is, in my view, a risk. In my own meditation practice, I am beginning toexperience more directly that when I sit I can watch the stories, the scripts, the beliefs, and even the contents of shadow material being processed. Holding those contents lightly, letting them pass through, I can bring awareness to the empty yet clear nature of the mind below that flow. I continue to see the value of knowing the what and why of the contents of the flow through therapy; and then meditation allows a resting in  inherent wakefulness below the flow. From that place a very tender experience arises. THIS is a very natural connecting to life, to others, to suffering, to the wish to alleviate others from suffering. This isn’t compassion because “I should”, but because its a natural expression of basic goodness…nothing needs to be fabricated, simply cultivated.

I want to end with a note. There is nothing but wisdom in the view of Shambhala. We DO all have basic goodness; and I am inspired by the vision of an Enlightened Society. My comments here are purely a pondering on how we manifest these two truths. I would offer that the path requires work in 3 domains: on self, on self-in-relationship with others, and then expanding out to how we are a sane human being in community, society, the world.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and last week’s blog.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *