When we cling to these old forms, are we pretending to be something we’re not? What about when we take on a foreign name? Or wear robes? I just want to be real. 


By Daniel Scharpenburg


I went to St. Louis to sight-see with my girlfriend last year. It’s only a few hours away, really, on the other side of Missouri.

It was the city my father came from and the city where I was born. We moved when I was still very young, before I was old enough to start school.

I went there to try to visit my dad’s favorite places, and also to see a few things around the city, like the giant eyeball in the sculpture park (totally awesome). We tried to go to my dad’s favorite bar, where I remember playing shuffleboard as a kid. But it had transformed into a sports bar and, alas, the shuffleboard wasn’t there anymore.

And we ate at one of his favorite restaurants, Hodak’s, where they gave us far too much food.

While we were there we visited the St. Louis Shambhala Center. We wanted to experience something different, something not available here in Kansas City. We don’t have a Shambhala Center here.

For the first time I was recognized there as a Dharma teacher. A woman from the center said, “Aren’t you Daniel, from Daily Dharma Gathering? I love your talks.” I couldn’t believe that happened (Am I a D-list Buddhist celebrity? That doesn’t sound right).

Anyway, I entered that room in the Shambhala Center and it was like a breath of fresh air. The “shrine” was a really simple table with some glass on it and water. It was not this big ornate thing, but actually just simple and nice looking. The guy that led the meditation was just a dude in a sweater instead of robes. His name was Tobias.

Tobias gave a little instruction and we sat. Then we did walking meditation and he talked to us about keeping our attention on what we were doing. He talked a little bit about what Shambhala is and who Chogyam Trungpa was. I remember him saying, “That’s a picture of Chogyam Trungpa, he’s dead.” with incredible emphasis on those last two words (my girlfriend remembers a little bit less emphasis, but still a weird amount).

Then, we all sat in a circle and took turns reading aloud from Turning the Mind Into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and then we left.

Now, why is this story important? Am I declaring that I’ve become a Shambhala Buddhist? No.

Shambhala has all sorts of odd things about it that give me pause, so I don’t necessarily endorse it as a good alternative (what’s with the fake military uniforms? really, I don’t get it). I have spent a lot of time worrying that maybe we’re doing Buddhism wrong—that we’re focusing on the wrong things sometimes. I wonder sometimes, why isn’t this more down to earth? Why am I looking at an elaborate shrine and people in robes? Does this help me relieve the suffering of myself and others?

And why are we bowing and droning in monotonous chants, sometimes in foreign languages? What if there’s a better way of doing things and we’re missing it?

Not too long ago a friend said to me, in the context of how we practice Buddhism, “I’m really not interested in pretending I’m something I’m not.” When we cling to these old forms, are we pretending to be something we’re not? What about when we take on a foreign name? Or wear robes?

I just want to be real.

Are robes and chants and lineages and talks about rebirth and spirits helpful to us on the path? If they are for you, that’s fine. They aren’t for me.

I think we, as modern Buddhists, should be taking a good hard look at the things we are doing. Some things we’re doing because they help us cultivate compassion and wisdom. But other things we’re just doing because that’s the way it’s always been.

I wonder if things would be different if a kind of homeless Buddhism had emerged in the west, as people like Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac envisioned.

A Buddhism that isn’t tied to things like lineage and tradition.


Photo: (source)

Editor: Dana Gornall