Exploring the Protector Principle

by Kaitlyn Hatch

Next month Dr. Shanté Paradigm Smalls and Dr. Claudelle Glasgow (Dr. G) are giving two offerings the weekend of December 13-15. Friday evening and all day Saturday will explore the relationship between the Protector Principle and habitual patterns of power and privilege. This offering is open to Dharma practitioners of all levels and anyone from a contemplative spiritual background. Sunday the 15th is a closed container for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to explore healing.

Both Dr. Smalls and Dr. G are members of the Dorje Kasung, which represents the pillar of protection in the Shambhala tradition, and have held the role of Rusung—the head of this pillar—at different Shambhala Centers. While this role has been part of the Shambhala community since the earliest days, it is probably one of the most ‘hidden’ roles.

As a member since 2012, first at the Shambhala Centre of London, then Vancouver, and now at Seattle, I was never told about the Dorje Kasung, nor taught about the Protector Principle and the role it plays in our practice. It wasn’t until I was listening to a recording of a series of talks given by Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown during a retreat at Gampo Abbey one year that I first encountered the origins of this sacred and incredibly important principle.

The talks, which were derived from Simmer-Brown’s book, Dakini’s Warm Breath, are full of wonderful stories she collected from ancient texts and various living teachers in the course of her research. One of the stories she shares is about Ekajati, a wrathful Protector, appearing to a monk preparing for a ceremony. He lacks a peacock feather, which the ceremony calls for, and she asks him why he doesn’t have this essential item. He tells her it proved to be a difficult thing to find, and so his plan is to simply visualize one instead. “No,” says Ekajati. “It says you need a peacock feather. So you will go find a peacock feather.”

Bear in mind, Ekajati, like most of the Dakinis, has an intense appearance. This is amplified in her singularities—she has only one breast, one fang, and a single lock of hair. This singularity, Simmer-Brown explains, is about her one-pointedness. Ekajati is discipline embodied. She is saying that one cannot simply make-up practices as we go along. The path may be personal, but it is not nebulous.

As an introduction to the Protector Principle, I have to say it’s stuck with me and encouraged me to learn more, particularly as my interest in Thangka artwork began to increase. As I explored other Protector Deities, I have come to appreciate the role they play in setting clear boundaries—not just for ourselves around our practice, but also in how we engage with others.

This is where my enthusiasm for this upcoming offering comes from. Privilege and power can seem like abstract concepts, and yet they have a clear impact with very real consequences. This is the nature of interconnectedness, particularly when looking at power structures that require creating a class of ‘those without’ in order for a class of ‘those with’ to exist. So what does it mean to apply the pillar of Protection and our understanding of healthy boundaries to power and privilege?

To walk this path is to be committed to liberation, which, because of our interdependence, is a collective project. The Buddha was not ambiguous on this. He taught that all beings suffer, and that the way out of that suffering is to let go of fixed ideas about ourselves and others. He also taught that anyone could become a Buddha. Anyone could wake up. Indeed, with the right causes and conditions, this is inevitable. When Ekajati shows up, she’s there to help ensure the right causes and conditions are there. Not an imagined feather, but one that was effortfully obtained.

Here is a great lesson, particularly when we hold an identity that gives us unearned privilege or power in society. We must put in the effort and not think that by simply joining a spiritual community, for example, we have left behind systems of inequality. Societies are made up of people, people are society, therefore the individual is both a sponge for and influence on societal ideas and beliefs. We can see that ultimately race and gender are concepts, but they are concepts that cause harm. And to embrace the Ultimate is not to skip over the Relative, but, to paraphrase Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, see how they fit each other, like a box and lid. The Protector principle is one of accountability, to keep us from such examples of spiritual bypassing and invite us to really sit and do the work of examining how we contribute to systems of inequality. We can’t just imagine equity, justice and liberation, we must put in the effort to manifest these things.

This collaborative offering by these two esteemed teachers is entirely new, and so I do not know the angle they will take as they lead us in exploring protection, power and privilege. What I do know is that I am curious and excited to have the opportunity to enrich my practice in their company and to connect with others on this path.

May it be of benefit.

If you would like to volunteer for this event, or help to fund it, please email Kaitlyn: faunawolf@gmail.com

Kaitlyn Hatch is a writer, artist, podcast producer, philosopher, and designer, and has been a dharma practitioner since 2008. She is queer, non-binary, and disabled, and has Métis and British ancestry. She has most often practiced with Shambhala and in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, and is a student of Pema Chödrön. She is currently enrolled as a student in the Upaya Zen Center’s Buddhist chaplaincy training program.

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