Shambala Center and Dharmadhatu Buddhist Meditation Center of Columbia

Information about this center is no longer updated. This data was last updated on 12 December 2013.

Phone: 803-254-9048
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The Columbia Shambhala Center was founded in 1974 by Dr. Kent Friedman, who was then a professor at the University of South Carolina. (Friedman has since moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the location of Shambhala International headquarters.) The Shambhala group is one of the two oldest Buddhist groups in Columbia, the other being the Soka Gakkai community. The Shambhala group originally met at Friedman's home in Blythewood, S.C., about 20 miles north of downtown Columbia. Sometime in the early 1980s, the group hosted a visiting Tibetan teacher who was a principle student of Ch�gyam Trungpa, the founder of Shambhala. According to Donovan, the teacher was in Columbia for about a week to present some programs, and he advised the group to move their center to downtown Columbia. The group met in a large house on River Drive In Columbia for some time in the late 1980s until four of the members (two couples), who were the principle administrative and organizational force of the group, decided to move to Halifax. Donovan, who began attending Columbia's Shambhala group in 1988, said the four members who moved to Nova Scotia in the late 1980s represented a third of the membership at the time, so there was some concern about the future of the group when they left Columbia. He said the group started looking to cut back on expenses, and one of the group members happened to be part owner of the building where the Shambhala center is currently located (in the Five Points area of downtown Columbia). The group relocated to its current location at 2065 Blossom Street in late 1990 or early 1991, and it had no problems in acquiring the space, especially because of the connection they had through the member who was part owner of the building.


Attendees of the Shambhala center are primarily male Caucasians, according to Donovan (as of the summer of 2003). He said the group was around 80 to 90 percent male at that point. He said there had been women who were very active in the center in the past, but currently the group seemed to be particularly male-dominated. He said there was one Japanese woman, a professor at USC, who attends the center. Age-wise, the group is mostly over the age of 35. Donovan said recently the group has seen more people coming in who are in their early 30s. Some university students do drop in out of curiosity, Donovan said, but he said the students tend not to stay very long and not be very serious about the practice. Some of the founding members of the group who are still involved are now in their 50s or early 60s.


The Shambhala Center is located in several upstairs office suites above several storefront businesses in Five Points, the area of downtown Columbia known as the college hang-out area. The entrance to the center is beside Groucho's, one of Columbia's most beloved local sandwich shops. Upon entering a gray door on the side of 2065 Blossom Street (a large brick building), there is a staircase with a copper or brass plaque attached to a stair in the middle of the staircase that says, "Shambhala and Dharmadhatu Meditation Center." At the top of the staircase, the entrance to the shrine room is several doors down to the left, past the bathrooms. There is a shelf outside for shoes. Inside the shrine room, there is a Shambhala altar at the front of the room. The most noticable characteristic that differentiates it from any other Buddhist shrine is that it has no Buddha statue on it. (Indeed, Donovan mentioned that there are practitioners of the Shambhala teachings who would not consider themselves Buddhist at all.) However, much of the other traditional symbolism is there, including the offering bowls, although in this case there are only five instead of the traditional seven, representing the five senses: sight (a magnifying glass), sound (a conch shell), scent (saffron water), taste (strawberry hard candies--Donovan explained these are easy to keep since they never "go bad" like organic foods), and touch (a chopstick with a ribbon tied around it). Again, following traditional Buddhist altar arrangement, there are two candles, one on each side of the center of the altar, to represent awareness. A small stand in front of the altar holds incense and an incense burner. Donovan explained that incense represents the confused mind, until it is lit with awareness (the candle). In the center of the altar, where a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha would normally be, is instead another bowl like the offering bowls, only larger. In this bowl stands a large paintbrush. Donovan explained that the significance of this brush relates to the practice of calligraphy taught at Shambhala International's two-week training program, "warrior assembly." He explained that in this program, students practice making a particular mark, the stroke of ashay. In front of the brush in the bowl is a piece of paper with an ink jar placed on top of it. Two additions to the Columbia center altar that Donovan said would not be found in a strictly Shambhala altar are two "relics" of the founder of Shambhala, Ch�gyam Trungpa. The first is a vial of salt used to pack the body of Trungpa when he died, which is sitting in a bowl of rice beside the central paintbrush. The second relic is a piece taken from the pekong (the device used for cremating bodies) after Trungpa's cremation. This piece is enclosed in a gold-colored stupa, a part of traditional Buddhist altars that represents the Buddha's mind. This highly sacred object could not be shipped, so Donovan had to travel to Vermont (Shambhala's United States headquarters) to receive the stupa. To the left of the altar is a small shrine to Trungpa, including his picture and a candle in front of it. To the left of this shrine is the teacher's seat with a bell bowl and long wooden stick for signaling the beginning and end of meditation sessions. On the walls of the shrine room are banners with pictures depicting the "four dignities," or aspects of a warrior in the world. The first two dignitaries represented are stages of the path on which one is still operating from a perspective of or on the basis of confusion, Donovan explained. These two stages are the dignity of "meek," represented by a tiger on an orange banner, and the dignity of "perky," represented by a snow lion on a white banner. The second two dignitaries represent the stage in which one accomplished some breakthrough in transcending confusion. The first of these two is the dignity of "outrageous," represented by the guruda, a bird-like creature similar to the phoenix, on a red background. The guruda is said to emerge from the egg fully-developed and can soar through space. Its ability to move freely in all directions and its lack of fear are seen as characteristics of a person who is beginning to transcend his or her confused mind. The last dignity is the dignity of "inscrutable," represented by a dragon on a blue background. At the back of the room are chairs for those who do not wish to sit on the floor to meditate, and a shelf with a picture of the current teacher of Shambhala, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, taken at the center in Vermont. Beside the picture of Sakyong is a fan, since Trungpa, the founder of Shambhala, was known to hold such a fan while giving his teachings. Behind the fan and picture is a large framed calligraphic Tibetan word, dorjay, meaning "indestructable," which was sent to the Columbia center by Sakyong himself. Sakyong did this calligraphy when he was in Durham, N.C., recognizing the center there. One of the calligraphic works he completed while in N.C. he specifically designated as a gift for the Columbia center.

Relations With Other Buddhist Communities

Donovan and a few other members of the Shambhala group float freely between some of the other Buddhist centers in Columbia, specifically the South Carolina Dharma Group and the Ganden Mahayana Buddhist Center. This interaction is rather informal, including visiting other groups' gatherings and listening to their teachers. He did mention, however, that people sometimes may feel "guilty" for visiting another Buddhist group beacuse they "belong" to the Shambhala Center. Donovan attributed this kind of perceived "pressure to pledge allegiance" to the dominant Christian evangelical culture, since such groups are often the type of religious community where newcomers are expected to make an exclusive commitment the first time they visit. "That doesn't happen [here]," he said. "And yet, I guess people are just so used to that kind of approach, you know, a lot of people's concern is that, 'ah, well, if I go over and spend time with this other group and see what they're doing,' well, then, somehow they're being 'unfaithful' and they have to make a choice," he said with a laugh. "You know, it's like, 'I can't do this and this, I have to do one or the other.' And it's like, 'No!! Nobody's asking you to do anything, it's up to you! How much do you want to know?'" Donovan said the more one wants to know, the more sense it makes for him or her to visit many different Buddhist communities, to see other presentations of the teachings, since everyone responds differently to different things. He said he tries to discourage the "pressure to pledge allegiance" and encourages members of the Shambhala group to visit other Buddhist communities in Columbia.

Interfaith Relations

The Shambhala center occasionally sends people to speak about Buddhism at area churches, as requested. Usually, the church shows a genuine openness to learning about other religions. Donovan noted that people are beginning to recognize that they know next to nothing about other religious traditions, and that if they can find a practioner of that faith, they would prefer for them to come and explain it in their own words. Donovan also sensed that there is a subtle motivation for these churches, i.e., that in hearing someone else speak about their faith, it will naturally illuminate things about their own faith, confirming their beliefs through clearly seeing the areas in which they disagree with a neighbor of another faith. Donovan said he and one other member of the Shambhala center had been involved with the Partners in Dialogue interfaith group at USC when it was first founded in the early 1990s, but after a while they had drifted away from the group because they felt such a fundamental difference between their nontheistic faith and the theological discussion on "concepts of God" that dominated the interfaith meetings. "There is a fundamental difference between this approach to Buddhism and every other religion on the planet, that I'm aware of," Donovan said. "And that distinction is that all other religions are based on theism. There's a concept of a greater, larger being and that, you know, our responsibility is to somehow make some sort of relationship with that being. We don't buy that whole notion. That theistic view of spirituality is just not where we're coming from with this at all. And I even actually, at one point, mentioned this in some, I think it was a meeting where we were all going through the training for the small group moderators and, I don't know, I just felt like it was worth mentioning. So I pointed out that, you know, for Buddhists, it's kind of like we're the odd man out here, because we don't have anything to compare." Donovan said he was curious to see what the response to such a statement would be, but he said there was essentially no response at all. "I don't think anybody really knew how to respond," Donovan said. "There doesn't seem to be any grasp of the possibility that a religion cannot include the idea of God, or a god of some kind. Isn't that what makes a religion?" Because of what he felt was a fundamental gap between his understanding of spirituality and the theistic visions of his neighbors, Donovan said he eventually drifted away from the group because he felt the conversations often did not pertain to Buddhism. While he said he had nothing against attending interfaith meetings, he finally decided it might be more beneficial for him to use his time to further his own spiritual practice rather than attending dialogues to which he really could not contribute.