A Brief History of Shambhala Art
by Steven Saitzyk, International Director of Shambhala Art
How does one begin to tell a story that no one person can tell? Even finding a starting point for this tale is a challenge. I could start when I first met the Druk Sakyong, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1974, or a little later when he gave talks on iconography at Naropa, many of which became the foundation of our teachings on art making. Or, maybe still later, when he called those teachings Visual Dharma, or after that when he named them Dharma Art because the teachings where bigger than just one sensory perception or art form. After that he formed a group of
students who connected with Dharma Art and called them the “Explorers of the Phenomenal World.” We helped during the late 70’s and early 80’s with his installations in Boulder, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. (You can read “Rinpoche’s Gauntlet” on the Shambhala Times, a personal story I wrote surrounding a particular challenge with the Los Angeles installation. There was also a video called “Discovering Elegance” that documented the Los Angeles exhibit, but sadly is now difficult to find.) However, if I start at any one of those points in time, this is going to be a book instead of an article.
I am going to choose a very sad time to start because it became the driving force to create a means to pass on these teachings. It is the time after Trungpa Rinpoche’s death when the Dharma Art teachings seemed to all but disappear except for an occasional event. Years of stagnation followed with particular regard to developing an organized system of passing on the full breadth of these teachings. There were even students who felt that
because the Druk Sakyong did not establish a systematic way of transmitting these teachings in his lifetime as he had done with the Buddhist path and Shambhala Training that none should be created. One longtime student when asked why he did not teach Dharma Art was quoted as saying, “only one person can teach Dharma Art, and he’s dead.”
For myself I felt this could not be true. My experience was that these particular teachings were especially close to his heart and he certainly would not have wanted them to die with him. Besides, he and I had actually worked out a basic outline for a Dharma Art program that would convey these teachings in the late 70’s. We came up with the bones of what later became Parts 2-4 of the current Shambhala Art Program. It was not until the mid-1990’s,
that the dark ages of Dharma Art began to lighten up. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche called for some Dharma Art Conferences to be attended by what came to be known as “old Dharma Art dogs,” longtime students of Dharma Art. At one point I recalled him saying, “I am tired of the United Nations of Dharma Art. Make something happen!” He may have used a bit more colorful language than that. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche later explained that his father charged
him with completing the manifestation of Dharma Art. Out of these conferences and with Rinpoche’s guidance, the Dharma Art Program was developed in order to pass on these unique teachings in an experiential way to a new generation. Some “Dharma Art dogs” got on board to begin with and many others did later on.
Teacher trainings were offered and programs began to pop up in various cities in North America and Europe. As Dharma Art grew within the Shambhala mandala, we became aware of a problem with the name, Dharma Art: we could not trademark it. It had been in the public domain too long with too many people using it in many different ways. As we expanded internationally, we also found that “Dharma Art”, in most cultures means specifically Buddhist religious art. So, we had to change the name to clarify who we are and more importantly, to protect the Dharma
Art teachings. In our crazy legalistic world we had to change our name from Dharma Art to something else to protect the Dharma Art teachings. At that time we had a Dharma Art Council and we managed to come up with more than three times the number of titles than there were Council members. No two members would agree to any one of them. Some suggestions were: “AhaArt,” “Sun Art for the Darkest of Times,” and “Sane Art Training.” After several rounds of submissions, Rinpoche came back with Shambhala Art.
Today, we have programs, classes, and festivals scattered around the world with about a hundred authorized Shambhala Art teachers. We have a very small administration with a very large vision, and significant need for financial support. Within the Shambhala mandala, Shambhala Art is entirely self-supporting. As for those interested in donating, we are a 501c3, with our own charter as a part of Shambhala. We are still growing and the interest in receiving these teachings has never been higher. Shambhala Art’s mission is to pass on the Dharma Art
teachings through perceptual exercises, meditation, study, contemplation, non-objective calligraphy, object arranging exercises, and more, all of which build toward creating an installation, a feast, and celebration at the end of the program. This is all in the service of awakening our senses, clarifying our creative and viewing processes, and building a more enlightened society. Shambhala Art does not teach a specific art making discipline. We share the fundamental basis for all creative disciplines. (At the same time there is a loosely
defined group of art making disciplines that people refer to as the Shambhala “Arts.” The Shambhala Arts are disciplines that embody the Dharma / Shambhala Art teachings.) Shambhala Art hopes someday to have its own retreat center, and a Shambhala School of Art and Design that would teach specific artistic disciplines in light of these teachings. We also plan to not only offer these teachings at all Shambhala Centers around the world, but to take them into Colleges and Universities, as some of us have already begun to do.
Because Shambhala Art is not focused on any specific discipline it draws people from all walks of life. In addition to visual artists, we have had performers, writers, therapists, attorneys, surgeons, actors, teachers, and students; and everyone interested in not only waking up their creativity, but also their viewing process to better appreciate and celebrate the art and life all around us.