Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory

Nestled behind a Burlington Coat Factory in Columbia, South Carolina is the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory, a Soto Zen tradition that traces itself back to the Buddha. Its head monk is Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke who established the priory in 2001. It is home to an undeniably unique community of Buddhist, able to find enough support to sustain itself in the Bible Belt. My surprise over its existence and success was surpassed by the Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke’s surprise regarding the faith of its two visitors on a November evening: my 14 sister and myself 20. Upon explaining our agnostic upbringing in the “back woods of South Carolina”, Rev. Rokuzan Korenke remarked that the majority of visitors to the priory are staunch Christians. At first this made sense, but as my visit to priory continued it became abundantly clear that the priory’s faithful congregation is composed of overwhelmingly middle class white Americans. Though the congregation is roughly a dozen members they are extremely devoted to the Priory, attending 5 AM morning meditation services six days a week. I was amazed to learn that the priory, which houses two monks and is situated on a large piece of property, receives its funding solely from non-compulsory donations.


            After coming to understand the makeup of the priory’s congregation, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke explained to us the fundamentals of Buddhism. He began by explaining the Three Refuges in a way truly unique to this South Carolina based community. Taking refuge in the Buddha was explained as doing such in an essence rather than a sentient being. The Buddha as Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke explained, is not like the Abrahamic God as much as it is like the force of good itself. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then explained that the Buddha, as the essence of goodness, can only be attained by taking refuge in the Dharma. The Dharma of the Buddha provides the pivotal path to recognizing this ultimate goodness. Lastly, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke explained the necessities of taking refuge in the Sangha as a way of preventing oneself from falling into “dark places.”

While the Three Refuges are staples of Buddhism, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke explained them as the fundamentals that meditation must also be based upon. He explained that while Buddhism is ultimately striving for goodness and that meditation should be aimed at the realization of such goodness, mediation often leads to evilness and depression. It is therefore important to always take refuge in the Buddha when meditating by thinking of the Buddha as a force of goodness. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then pointed out that the idea of “goodness” is itself subjective and can often be claimed in the guise of evil. Because of this, refuge in the Dharma is essential to Buddhism. The Buddha’s teachings serve as touchstones for practitioners to base meditation on. Lastly, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke paused and stressed the importance of taking refuge in the Sangha. It was then explained to my sister and me that without a community to support and guide you on the path to ultimate enlightenment, you would be much more susceptible to the dark recesses of the mind.

                                                Bud 2

            The topic of meditation was one that Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke was quick to use as a critique of other Buddhist communities. He made it abundantly clear that American Buddhist communities not only focus too much on the act of meditation, but in a manner that he deemed harmful. Without focus on Buddhist scriptures and teachings, American Buddhists tend to lose sight of Buddhism’s core values. Without truly taking refuge in the Dharma, American Buddhists misuse Buddhism to fulfill selfish desires. This then lead Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke to explain that “meditation without guidance is dangerous.” As the Buddha was able recognize how individuals must be taught in order to attain enlightenment, a teacher must intimately know his disciple and how they need to be taught. Without a dedicated teacher providing guidance, practitioners will become lost and ultimately misunderstand the use of meditation.

After explaining the dangers of unguided meditation, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then led my sister and me in meditation. It was a task rife with ceremony and displays of respect. We bowed to a shrine dedicated to his teacher, to the representation of the Buddha, and lastly to the other members of the priory. In every action we were asked by Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke to facilitate deliberate and thoughtful behavior. He explained that this was essential to Buddhism in order to destroy our own prejudices and recognize the inherent good in all. Once the proper steps were taken we gathered our mats, bowed to them and recognized their purpose, we were seated in a position of roughly our own choosing. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke demonstrated the full lotus and half lotus positions but said if we were unable to properly sit in these positions we could simply kneel. He explained that the position itself is not what is important but the act of successful meditation. The members of the priory sat facing outwardly from the room’s center at the walls. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then instructed us not to stare at a fixed point on the wall but through it into nothingness.

Bud 3

Once some time had passed we put up our mats and convened in front of the shrine dedicated to Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke then explained to us that she was the true founder of the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory and she had named him Master of the Order in 1987. Though she spent no time at the Columbia Priory itself, her influences were certainly present in Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke. Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennet was ordained into the Chinese Buddhist Sangha in Malaysia and was later invited to study under the Very Reverend Keido Chisan Koho Zenji in Japan. She received her certification as Roshi from Very Reverend Koho Zenji in the late 1960’s. After becoming a certified Roshi, Master Rev. Jiyu-Kennet received a First-Kyoshi and a Sei Degree. She also became the Foreign Guestmater of Soji-ji and Abbess at her temple in Mie Prefecutre. She later founded the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives with seven branches in the US, including the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory.

After our meditation and observation of Master Rev. Jiyu-Kennet’s shrine, my sister and I were led upstairs to review the Ten Great Precepts. These were quite what one would expect from the Zen tradition: do not kill, steal, commit sexual misconduct, lie, intoxicate oneself, speak against others, being prideful, withholding dharma, anger, defaming the three refuges. When asked which of these ten were the most troubling for members of the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke noted that refraining from intoxication was one of the more troublesome ones. He remarked that it is particularly difficult for Buddhists living in secular America to withhold from indulging in the intoxications of decadence and delusional thoughts. Whether it be deluding oneself into a false sense of security related to the minute stresses of life or telling oneself love is what it is not, delusional thinking is omnipresent. In all these instances meditation helps to eliminate false realities while helping cope with the harsh realities. When asked about adhering to the monastic precepts, Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke said “we do our best.” However, as he said this he notably adjusted a pair of golden glasses.

After explaining the Ten Great Precepts Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke spoke about the Bodicitta within us all. While we all have the potential to find enlightenment, he cautioned us it would not be easy. Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke said that in fact it would take the rest of this life at least. He then remarked that he has found Buddhism cannot mix with another faith. Eventually one must choose Buddhism or another faith. Although we can ultimately become enlightened through Buddhism, another faith will not necessarily lead to this.

The Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory appears to be a contradiction within itself. While it is a part of the American Soto Zen faith, the priory does not recognize itself as one of the four types of temples. This is the essence of the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory, in that the priory is by all means a community that follows Zen beliefs but with the adaptations necessary for its survival in South Carolina. For example the “fire and brimstone” style of Christianity that is so common in the Columbia area saturates Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke’s teachings. While this type of language is absent from the online doctrine of the priory, it is undeniably present in the underlings of Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke’s speech. The uniqueness of the priory’s beliefs don’t end here, continuously appearing in the subtleties of Rev. Rokuzan Kroenke’s words. While outwardly the Three Refuges appear straightforward and perhaps intentionally marketed as comparable to the Holy Trinity in Christianity, his elaboration upon these points gave a different view. In each one of the Three Refuges it felt as though they were saving off an impending doom. It appeared as though each of the Three Refuges were saving practitioners from evil and depression, while those who do not adhere are doomed to Samsara. While the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory is Buddhist, it endures as an entity inseparable from the region it calls home.

Works Cited

“Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory.” Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

“Order of Buddhist Contemplatives.” Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

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List of books recommended at the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priory:

Pioneer Valley Shambhala Center

“The history and legend of Shambhala is based upon a great community that was able to reach a higher level of consciousness. This community could occur because its individual members participated fully in creating a culture of kindness, generosity, and courage.” – Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

The Pioneer Valley Shambhala Center is located in Northampton, Massachusetts, which is a part of the Pioneer Valley Shambhala that serves the Western Massachusetts region. Areas include Springfield, Amherst, Holyoke and many others.  It has been in the Pioneer Valley since the late 1970s; it consists of over sixty members and is experiencing exponential growth as Shambhala practice becomes more popular around the globe.  Only one of over 220 centers around the world, it provides Buddhist meditation, community, retreats, classes, and events that celebrate human compassion.  This center includes a diverse community, ranging from senior teachers who have practed the Shambhala way for years to newcomers eager to learn.  Shambhala was founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who believed that human goodness is innate and can be cultivated through meditation and other Shambhala practices to promote positive social transformation.  The current director of these centers is Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, who preserves the Shambhala teachings and continues to fulfill Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision of a better world.  Programs are held for individuals of all religions, or no religion at all, that focus on self-reflection through meditation and teachings.  Advanced programs, such as Sky Lake Advanced Programs, are also offered here for individuals who are interested in the more intricate aspects of the Shambhala practice.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on Changing our Attitude

History of Shambala Wisdom and Compassion, Ancient and Modern

The legendary ancient kingdom of Shambhala was well known for its wisdom and compassion, qualities that were a result of unique teachings passed down from the Buddha himself to King Dawa Sangpo, the first ruler of Shambhala.  The hereditary lineage of teachers who preserve these instructions are called “Sakyong,” meaning “Earth Protector.” Currently, the holder of these teachings is Sakyong, Jampal Trinley Dradul who was enthroned as Sakyong in 1995.  Born in 1962, he is unique because he bridges the Asian and Western worlds. In the West he serves as the spiritual director of Shambhala centers, while in the Asian world, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is greatly believed in the Tibetan tradition to be the incarnation of Mipham the Great, one of the most praised meditation masters of Tibet.  The current Sakyong stresses the importance of global self-reflection about our core principles, as humanity is at a crossroads.  Enlightenment in society is burdened by our current greed and aggression towards each other.  In order to be an enlightened society, we must trust and believe in the value and importance of our society as we move forward.

 The first Sakyong in the modern world was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.  Born in 1939 he was the eleventh descendent in the line of Trungpa tulkus, important teachers of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.  This lineage is one of four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.  Before escaping Tibet in 1959, he held multiple meditative lineages and was the leader of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet.  Having experience the downfall of his own culture in Tibet, Chogyam Trungpa delved into meditation and self-reflection and realized that the ancient teachings of Shambhala were more important than ever.  As a result in the 1970s, he presented a societal vision solely focused on secular values that stressed global respect for human dignity in order to create a better world for the future.  This Shambhala vision can cure the crisis by meeting worldly challenges with generosity and compassion. It also shows a possibility of creating a shift in human behavior from greed for materialism to kindness to one another.  After Chogyam Trungpa’s death in 1987, he passed down his teachings and vision to his son Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

Founder of Modern Shambhala

Founder of Modern Shambhala, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

The Shambhala Path

At these centers, students begin and continue their Shambhala path with both Buddhist and Shambala meditation. At practice and retreat centers, individuals can deepen meditation through longer and more advanced programs, as well as participating in intensive study.  This path is specifically designed to strengthen and sustain meditation and to clarify the meanings of certain teachings.  As learned in class, the practice of mindfulness is stressed in the Shambhala path. This allows individuals to maintain a family and occupation without having to renounce their lives.  There is a Shambhala monastic order, however, for anyone to join. This provides another level of flexibility along with accepting individuals of various religions.

A typical program outline for the Shambhala way includes the Everyday Life Series, Shambhala Training Series, Rigden: Unconditional Confidence Retreat, Basic Goodness Series, and the Sacred Path Series.  Courses are designed to be interactive, communal, and create an intimate learning environment among students and teacher. Similar to most college courses, these courses are meant to be taken sequentially, with certain prerequisites for the more advanced courses and meditation retreats.

Certain students can join simplicity retreats to further deepen their experience of meditation. These retreats are called Weekthun (week session) and Dathun (Tibetan for “Month session”).  The Weekthun provides a powerful introduction to mindful-awareness meditation, which is open to anyone.  To deepen their experience even further, students participate in Dathun, where they meditate in a group and follow a schedule to optimize their practice, which includes talks, study and a short work period.  Following Dathun, students are able to do a solitary retreat.  Although a shrine is present to represent the Buddist nature, individuals do not need to be followers of the religion; it is meant to arouse natural wakefulness and compassion.  This is a great feature of the Shambhala practice that has attracted many followers.

A specific group retreat called the Enlightened Society Assembly emphasizes the Shambhala vision in that it focuses on how humans can enlighten society at any instant, whether it be at home, in a city or a nation.  Students participate in a practice called the Shambhala Sadhana aimed to expand the strength and warmth of their hearts.  This group practice illustrates the crossroad of humanity and how to approach it through realization of inherent goodness of oneself, others, society and the phenomenal world.  Students are able to make a personal commitment by taking the Enlightened Society Vow.

Simplicity Retreat

Simplicity Retreat

 Shambhala on a World Scale

Due to its great influence on all facets of life, Shambhala practice is revered by individuals around the globe.  Over the past centuries, these teachings have been preserved and also translated into more than a dozen major languages through books, live teachings and countless other mediums.  Currently there are over 200 Shambhala communities that work together to sustain dignity and sanity in an ever-increasing problematic world.

One global project of the Shambhala practice in particular is called the Chogyam Trungpa  Legacy Project.  This project is aimed to preserve and promote the dharma legacy of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche by continually teaching the dharmas he instilled upon the Shambhala world.  Its goal is to provide more projects and programs to present and future generations as well as creating a financial base to sustain this mission.  This project is supported by the Shambhala Trust and the Sakyong Foundation, which pool resources, inspiration, and other helpful means to sustain the Shambhala practice for centuries to come.  Other funds, trusts, and foundations around the world also participate to sustain Shambhala practice such as the Konchok Foundation, Gesar Fund, and Surmang Foundation.

Current Events

After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, Mingyur Rinpoche from the Tergar Learning Community relayed a message regarding plans of actions.  The best way to help others in dire times such as this is to improve our own Shambhala practice and our charity for others.  We can help personally by incurring loving-kindness and compassion to help the victims who suffered from the tragedy.  Right motivation is imperative to do this, so practice hard to help those in pain and other beings suffering from worldly problems.  On the other side, we can help others by physically aiding them. Although we cannot help everyone, we can begin with family and friends who were affected by the attacks. Donating to the victims is a viable option as well as sending emotional support. Through the domino effect of compassion, our positive influence can in turn influence others to do the same, which eventually leads to an ideal Shambhala vision of shifting human behavior from evil to good.

Mingyur Rinpoche

Mingyur Rinpoche

Even though Chogyam Trungpa envisioned this great Shambhala practice in the modern world, the ancient ways are still very relevant in teaching humanity the basic inherent good of oneself.  As much tragedy as there is on Earth that is being highlighted by the media, there is way more good being done by individuals. This practice is paving the way for a loving-kindness and compassionate future, which is one giant step for humanity and society.

Works Cited

“Pioneer Valley Shambhala Center.” Pioneer Valley Shambhala Center. N.p.n.n.d. Web.

     30 Nov. 2015.

“Shambhala International.” Shambhala: Making Enlightened Society Possible. N.p.n.n.d.

     Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

“Sky Lake Retreat Center.” Sky Lake: A Shambhala Meditation & Retreat Center. 

     N.p.n.n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

“A Message from Mingyur Rinpoche About the Recent Terrorist Attacks.” Tergar Learning

     Community. N.p.n.n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.