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Shambhala Sun | March 2011
You'll find this article on page 21 of the magazine.

Confined by Cowardice

The way to free ourselves, says Sakyong Mipham, is to face life head-on without the seductive companionship of habitual patterns.

My father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, introduced the teachings of Shambhala to the West. These teachings are called “the sacred path of the warrior” because they emphasize bravery as an important factor in determining not only our personal future, but that of the world. Bravery is defined as “the act of both personally and socially manifesting.” If we manifest our potential, liberation will arise. If we do not manifest, confusion arises. Bravery is that moment when we manifest 110 percent. It is the act of wholeheartedly having the courage, relaxation, and insight simply to be. We arrive at this ability to be by cultivating a steady and forthright attitude toward the present moment.

To be a warrior is to experience life on our own two feet, without the companionship of habitual patterns. To engage in bravery, we must be willing to be free of deception. The Shambhala tradition regards any aspect of life as a potential path of warriorship. But if we use our activities as a buffer that prevents us from being, those same activities become a nesting ground for habitual patterns and cowardly traits—elements of deception that allow us not to be fully present.

If our lives are based on deception, they are rooted in a serious fabrication. To equate deception with riding posture, we are slightly askew. In a jousting match with an oncoming rider—who we could equate with genuineness, egolessness, and cheerfulness—we would fall out of the saddle. If we are to face these principles and incorporate them, we must be properly mounted in our minds and in our lives.

The self-deception that prevents us from being brave is based on not living wakefully, in the moment. It is the result of avoiding relative virtue and absolute virtue. At the relative level, because we cannot be strong in our social and personal situation, we deceive our spouse, children, or friends. Then, at the ultimate level, when it comes to following a spiritual path, we are already accustomed to a somewhat deceptive momentum. It is hard to be totally honest, and difficult to follow the instructions.

It makes sense that the prerequisite for facing the facts is known as bravery, for to face the facts is brave. We cannot continuously hide in excuses. The excuses we use fall into three categories.

The first is speaking with a double tongue. Because we are unable to face the facts, we avoid them. The schism in our mind has reached our lips, and we are constantly saying one thing and doing another, using words to cover our life with a web of deception. There is a feeling that if we continue to elaborate the deception, it will eventually become true.

The second is being cowardly. Being cowardly means being content within our own cowardliness. We have no motivation to go beyond it with bravery. It is similar to being lazy or stuck, when we feel as if we can be no other way. In meditation practice, we have no real intention of stabilizing our mind, generating kindness, or discovering our inherent goodness. Socially, we have no desire to meet new people or experience new things. Therefore, just as bravery is a state of being, cowardliness is a state of being. We actually feel like we are simply being, but because it involves tremendous deception, we are only fooling ourselves.

The third is deception itself. Deception has become our game plan. We might even take a perverse thrill in it. While a feeling of embarrassment may mark the previous excuses, this one is tinged with pride. It takes on an intellectual twist, whereas being cowardly is more emotional, and speaking with a double tongue is slightly more paranoid. Deception indicates some cleverness. It has a hint of inscrutability. Thus we attract other people with similar intellectual deceptiveness.

These self-deceptive patterns allow us to hide in any experience. For example, we can use our religious belief as a place to hide. Rather than becoming more compassionate and considerate, we contort the doctrine into a veil to support our narcissism. We can use any religion to perpetuate deception when we are not relating to its deeper principles.

Or we can hide in a scientific black hole. Because we feel uncomfortable, especially in the body, we try to have a sense of being in the mind. Since science in general relates to two areas—the micro level and the macro level—we are therefore always in another dimension. We have not learned how to be. In science there is a tendency to relate to nihilism. Therefore, to be brave is to relate to the manifest quality of goodness that is imperceptible, hard to locate, and impossible to measure—but is nonetheless absolutely necessary if one is to engage in life fully.

We can also engage in deception at the kitchen-sink level, where cooking, cleaning, and parenthood become a form of escape. When layered with a self-engrossed pride in staying busy, these worthy but mundane aspects of life shelter us from a greater sense of bravery.

An obvious form of deception is relying on drugs, alcohol, and other stimuli. This indicates the basic inability to relate with our minds, and thus with our lives. We feel high and good, but we are not moving forward. This form of deception can penetrate all walks of life, keeping us hibernating in a certain cowardly attitude. Eventually we have to be brave, sober up, and move on.

Deception is not a sign that we have karmic difficulties. Rather, it indicates a lack of honesty and insight. Constantly seeking a high in a desperate search for love or some fantastic new experience, we lack bravery regarding our lives. Trying to avoid boredom, pain, hard work, aging, and other traits of samsara and impermanence, we lack bravery regarding the reality of the world. Tricking ourselves into thinking we are having various meditation experiences because we are unable to sit with the simplicity of our mind, we lack bravery regarding the fathomlessness of our own being. In all these cases, deception is the result of a general state of cowardice, which indicates a lack of strength. It keeps us from relating to things in a forthright, steady way.

In reality, life is perpetual motion. We cannot apply the slow-motion feature, or push the “save” button and deal with it later. Life is always coming at us, or more accurately, we are always heading into life. Being hesitant, not approaching life engaged in forwardness, has a ripple effect. Life buckles behind us and builds up pressure, forcing us to move forward. With cowardice, we are then forced to deal with issues at an accelerated rate, beyond what is comfortable or convenient.

The Shambhala vision is that human beings possess basic goodness, and therefore, like birds, are designed to move forward. In an interesting twist of logic, the teachings tell us that in order to always be journeying forward, we must first turn back to our origin: the primeval ground of basic goodness. That reverse journey begins with the steadiness and forthrightness we apply in our meditation. Here we become familiar with bravery free of deception—no hidden corners in our mind or our life. Such intimacy with ourselves eventually brings the ability to engage in life without manipulating, glad-handing, or squirming. Free of deception, we can move forward on every level—with vision manifesting as bravery.


Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the spiritual leader of Shambhala, an international network of Buddhist meditation and retreat centers. He is the author of Turning the Mind into an Ally and Ruling Your World.


From the March 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.


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