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Shambhala Rising by Konchog Norbu

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Around 1000 years ago, an extraordinary spiritual composition called the Kalachakra Tantra appeared in northern India. Its mysterious origin, profound practice system and dire prophecies would deeply impact the Buddhist world across Central Asia up to and including an obscure, sandswept corner of Mongolia's eastern Gobi desert. There in 1853, at his seat in Khamar Monastery, a tremendously charismatic lama named Danzan Ravjaa, the 5th Wrathful Dharma Lord of the Gobi, called his disciples together. Sharing with them his meditative insight and disturbing visions of the future, including the premonition of his impending early death, he declared the necessity for swift construction of a temple and stupa complex symbolic of the mystical land where the Kalachakra had once been secretly preserved: Shambhala.

A mammoth devotional effort completed the construction of a temple, three entry gates, 108 stupas and an ovoo (sanctified stone cairn) in a mere 124 days. For the next 80 years, pilgrims flocked to the Shambhala site from as far away as Japan until it was completely demolished in the Stalinist religious purges of the late 1930's. Though the Red Army razed the structures, along with every other one at Khamar, they could not destroy the devotion and faith in the Gobi people's hearts, even over the course of three generations.

Upon Mongolia's independence from Soviet-style Communist rule in 1990, devotees ofDanzan Ravjaa immediately set about rebuilding Khamar, one piece at a time, with whatever meager resources they could pull together. For the past two years, hundreds of people from across Mongolia have worked tirelessly to cause Shambhala to rise once more, exactly according to Danzan Ravjaa's vision. This September a mass gathering of Mongolian Buddhists will offer two days of prayer, recitation of scripture, song, and masked dance to celebrate their new-found religious freedom and the completion of this sacred task.

But what is Shambhala? And why has it so ignited the Mongolian spiritual imagination in general and that of the Gobi people in particular?

The Kalachakra Tantra (Tantra of the Wheel of Time), and its commentary the Vimalaprabha (Stainless Ornament), tell that Shakyamuni Buddha bestowed the teaching it contains, as one of his final acts, to King Suchandra. The king had journeyed for that purpose to the Dhanyakataka Stupa in India from a faraway land called Shambhala. Returning to Shambhala's capital at Kalapa, Suchandra wrote down what he had been taught and propagated the teachings and practices among his people.

Many of the major religious traditions describe our current time as one of degeneration, when people's inclination towards virtue and compassion is weak, and selfishness and conflict are rife. By contrast, Shambhala is portrayed as a sumptuous land where enlightened kings rule over prosperous subjects brimming with health who are well on their way to enlightenment themselves. The descriptions of such a place would understandably be tantalizing to Buddhist seekers in this age. This has been true since the Kalachakratantra entered our world sometime in the 10th or 11th c., an era when Muslim armies from the north were well on their way to obliterating Buddhism in the land of its birth.

The next natural question is: where is Shambhala? Is it somewhere on this Earth? That puzzle has proved even more vexing over the centuries. There are several extant texts purporting to be guidebooks to Shambhala. Their directions, however, are full of place names lost to antiquity, shrouded in mystical language, and describe numbers of fantastic beings both friendly and hostile. They also demand of the one who embarks on the journey such a high level of yogic accomplishment and knowledge that not only would most people be foolhardy to attempt the journey, but the overwhelming likelihood is that Shambhala exists on a much subtler plane than the world most of us know. Since the Kalachakra's transmission began among the Mongols in the 17th c., though, they have strongly suspected that the directions' northward indicators establish Mongolia as a strong candidate for the location of Shambhala's ancient physical existence and ongoing spiritual resonance.

Among Central Asian Buddhist lamas there is little dispute about the contemporary reality of Shambhala, however rarefied it may be. The prophetic elements in the Kalachakra literature detail the names and length of reigns of the Shambhala kings, with special focus on the 25th Rigden King, Rudrachakrin. The texts predict a time in the not-too-distant future (estimates range from quite near to about 400 years) when the whole world will be overwhelmed with pervasive suffering. Nations will steadily be absorbed through relentless war waged by those of barbaric ways and beliefs. Buddhist practice will wane until it barely exists except in obscure lands like Shambhala. It's said that the female Buddha, Arya Tara, will skillfully emanate to become the barbarian ruler's queen. At just the time when that ruler feels he has achieved supreme dominion in this world, his queen will reveal the hitherto unknown existence of Shambhala in all its incomparable magnificence. Bursting with envy and rage, the barbarian ruler will loose his armies at Shambhala, at which point Rudrachakrin will counter-attack, leading his own legions of Shambhala warriors in an epic battle which will utterly crush the barbarian forces. The victory of the Shambhala armies will usher in a golden age of Shambhala on Earth. This age will provide people with an excellent, but final opportunity to gain release in supreme enlightenment from their suffering round of rebirths before an 1800-year decline culminates in a world-ending cataclysm. Danzan Ravjaa's specifically directed his Gobi activity toward this aspect of the Kalachakra's Danzan Ravjaa's reputation during his lifetime and beyond was that of an unusually gifted mahasiddha, one who has gained supernormal powers through accomplishing the practices of inner tantra. These may include clairvoyance and precognition. According to A. Erdenebat, a member of Tavan Dokhio, the organization of those dedicated to the preservation and propagation of Danzan Ravjaa's spiritual legacy, Danzan Ravjaa was supposed to have lived to age 83. He foresaw that if he lived that long, however, Mongolia's Manchu overlords, whom he was wont to provoke in a variety of ways, would end up assassinating him, massacring his followers, and destroying his lineage forever.

Obviously, this was not a desirable scenario. So, Erdenebat says, Danzan Ravjaa compressed and channeled the merit of the last 30 years of his life into the building of the sacred Shambhala site (he claims that another incarnation constructed an identical site in Tibet at the exact same time, but he couldn't provide a name, location, or other reliable reference). His intention was to offer his followers the means by which they might take rebirth with him in Shambhala, join the victorious battle against the barbarians, and then take advantage of Shambhala's uniquely conducive environment for the attainment of final spiritual liberation.

Danzan Ravjaa's autobiography contains the statement that:

" the future, when the Panchen Lama reigns as the king of Shambhala, when many enlightened Buddhas, commanders and officials are waging battle against the mlecchas, I received a prophecy that I will (reincarnate) as the commander Sanjay Dorje Gyalpo and take under my command the soldiers and officers of the outer, inner and secret [places].

It is widely believed that Tibet's Panchen Lama will reincarnate as Rudrachakrin, the king who will lead this battle, and that countless other realized beings will take form as commanders within his army. In his lifetime, Danzan Ravjaa was especially close to the 7th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Tenpay Nyima. He personally visited Danzan Ravjaa at Khamar and there are a number of sites said to be blessed by him, including at Shambhala, with relics of those occasions still visible.

Danzan Ravjaa's selection of the Shambhala site was no accident. The actual Shambhala is described as emanating from the central capital of Kalapa in a shape resembling eight lotus petals spread out in the four cardinal and four intermediate directions. It intersects much of our planet, says Erdenebat, but not in a way our gross senses can perceive. Those with purified perception, he continues, would see that that specific spot in the eastern Gobi which Danzan Ravjaa intuitively selected is the closest our physical world comes to one of the eight Shambhala regions (curiously, he mentioned that London, Madrid and Istanbul are nearly as close in parallel proximity to Shambhala). This means that while this site is not exactly Shambhala itself, it provides a wide-open portal for spiritual access to Shambhala's enlightened qualities and opportunities.

According to Z. Altangerel, the primary steward of Danzan Ravjaa's legacy, the reconstruction of the site is an exact replica of Danzan Ravjaa's original layout, using updated building materials. It was designed to be used by pilgrims as a symbolic entry into Shambhala and to create the causes for their actual rebirth there in the future. If one intended to engage in the full pilgrimage sequence, one would begin at Khamar's temples with prostrations, offerings, and the chanting of auspicious prayers. The pilgrim would also write down on a clean, white piece of paper a confessional list of his or her misdeeds in this lifetime. Then one would prepare more offerings and set out on foot to walk the rocky two kilometer path to the Shambhala site, accumulating purifying mantras along the way.

Ascending the final low rise, one would behold Shambhala, a breathtaking sight against the mottled, dusty blacks, reds, sage greens, sulfur yellows, beiges and greys of this post-volcanic Gobi landscape. On a flat expanse, one hundred and eight gleaming white stupas form a large outer square, symbolic of the ring of snow-capped mountains said to encircle the actual Shambhala. The square is punctuated in the centers of three of its sides by massive entry gates. If one were an ordinary pilgrim, one would enter through the central gate; if a monk or a lama, the one to the right; if nobility, the one to the left.

The pilgrim might choose first to circumambulate outside the stupa square at least three times, making prayers for the auspicious completion of the pilgrimage. When one felt ready to enter, upon facing the gate there would be a choice of two thresholds. The pilgrim must enter the one on the left, the "Golden Door." Here all doubts and other negative thoughts are left behind bringing the focus entirely to bear on the journey's spiritual purpose.

Once inside, the first stop is a peculiar, low rock protrusion with a concave depression known as "The Stomach of the Hungry Ghost." Here one burns the paper with the previously prepared confessional list and it's said that the smoke attracts beneficial beings from non-physical realms. Proceeding further in, there are three small rock cairns in a diagonal line. These point toward Khan Bayan Zurkh Uul, the sacred mountain of Jamyn Danzan, the third in Danzan Ravjaa's Gobi incarnation lineage. Jamyn Danzan's spirit is believed to abide in that mountain, ever ready to grant wishes. Facing toward the mountain, one pours vodka into a silver cup, makes one's aspirations, and offers the vodka in an arc of ablution across the cairns.

Now one is drawn toward the center of the enclosure. In Danzan Ravjaa's time, there was a small Kalachakra temple housing an image of the tantra's intricate mandala. This mirrored the mandala King Suchandra was supposed to have created at the center of Shambhala when he returned with the Kalachakra teachings. There are plans to replicate this temple with its mandala as well, but not this year. For now, there is a symbolic stone mandala resembling a Native American medicine wheel. One can circumambulate this and pray to be able to practice the Kalachakra or, if one has had Kalachakra initiation and instruction, perform the visualizations, mantra recitations and meditations indicated in the text.

Finally one reaches the furthest part of the site, a small rounded hill surmounted by the Tarkhi (Brain) Ovoo. This is the primary power spot of Shambhala. The hill resembles the top part of a skull, called the kapala in Sanskrit, with an ovoo placed just where the crown fontanelle chakra would be located. Here one circumambulates the ovoo, making offerings and intense prayers to Danzan Ravjaa to be able to join him in Shambhala immediately after death. With some diligent planning, one might also get Altangerel to join one's pilgrimage party with Danzan Ravjaa's own solid jade cup. Sitting in a circle, each person would drink a full draught of vodka from this cup, passing it along clockwise. By this act, one shares in the direct blessing of Danzan Ravjaa, especially his ability to transform ordinary alcohol into wisdom nectar and open subtle channels of awareness. After the rituals, this is the place for deep meditation.

When one feels one's time in Shambhala is complete, one returns toward the gate through which one entered. On the way, there's one more important task to complete. One should find a small white stone and consider this as representative of one's own purified being. Near the gate is a small heap of other white stones left by previous pilgrims. One says one's full name, blows on the stone, and adds it to the hundreds already piled there. In this way it is said that, barring heinously negative karmic acts, one can be just about certain about being reborn in Shambhala, directly into Danzan Ravjaa's entourage.

Finally, cultivating the compassionate wish that all of one's accumulated virtuous activity might bring benefit and liberation to all sentient beings everywhere, and the intention to maintain this enlightened attitude, one exits through the "Silver Doorway" on one's left, looking from the inside out, and returns, transformed, into the world.

Though thousands from across the globe have already made the Shambhala pilgrimage to this remote site, one compelling aspect of its reconstruction is how it's being accomplished almost entirely by Mongolians. Of the 100 small stupas erected since late last summer, only two were sponsored by non-Mongolians (one being action film star Steven Seagal). Altangerel said it got to the point that potential stupa sponsors had to be turned away or diverted to other aspects of the project. In one dramatic example, Ts. Sukhbaatar solicited his friends and employees at the Signaling, Communication, Information & Power Supply Dep't of the Ulaanbaatar Railway and collectively they raised about $10,000 – no small sum for civil servants in Mongolia – to fund one of Shambhala's entry gates. Sponsors and their families were also encouraged to participate in the sacred act of filling their stupas. Since even before the time of the Buddha, stupas have functioned as reliquaries for the remains of honored individuals, with the hollow cores filled with rolls of printed prayers, Buddhist texts and images, and abundant auspicious and pleasing offerings. Sometimes several generations in a family helped with the preparation of the offerings for their sponsored stupa, with the children being carefully taught about the significance of each item to be sealed within it.

On September 10 and 11, hundreds if not thousands will gather from all over Mongolia and many other countries for two days of prayer and celebration to re-consecrate the Shambhala land. Monks will chant the entire Kalachakra Tantra and its commentary; all those gathered will accumulate Avalokiteshvara's compassionate mantra Om Mani Padme Hung throughout the night with tsam masked lama dancing commencing at dawn; choirs will perform Danzan Ravjaa's profound song compositions; and various other ceremonies performed, including offering to each sponsor a special edition of the Mongolian Kangyur, the entirety of the Buddha's recorded teaching, preserved in a 10-CD set.

The event will recall the time in 1854 when this Shambhala land was first blessed and opened. The number of devotees who gathered at that time is almost unimaginable. At one point, Danzan Ravjaa asked them all to form a straight line to make a path toward his predecessor's sacred mountain. Each person separated him- or herself one arm length from the shoulder of the one in front. The trail they created spanned more than 20 kilometers.

Exactly as he predicted, Danzan Ravjaa met an untimely death by poison two years later. But his lineage of enlightened activity never perished. Shambhala's revival is evidence that it is far easier to destroy a people's structures than to extinguish their deep cultural roots and spiritual yearning. This year, the Buddhists of the Gobi have further rekindled the embers of their faith and created a holy site that is unique in all the world. Sources:

Bernbaum, Edwin. The Way to Shambhala. New York: Anchor Books, 1980.

Berzin, Alexander. The Berzin Archives. An online archive at

Croner, Don. Website: Don Croner's World Wide Wanders at

Gyatso, Khedrup Norsang; Kilty, Gavin, trans. Ornament of Stainless Light: An Exposition of the Kalacakra Tantra. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004.

Sardar, Hamid. Danzan Ravjaa, The Fierce Drunken Lord of the Gobi. Unpublished article to be presented at the 11th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Königswinter, Germany, 2006.

Wallace, Vesna. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Entry prepared for "Kalacakra."