Those who have never lived here often trade in concepts of Los Angeles: the home of sun, surf, celebrities and smog. We Angelenos do too but we also know our city as something much more. LA is so big and so rich; it’s elusive, can never quite be pinned down. The Shambhala teachings refer frequently to the vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Could this be the very same sun that shines nearly every day, all year, in Los Angeles? What is it like to approach Los Angeles with freshness, free from fixed mind? This post is the first in an ongoing series called La La Land that explores fixed concepts and ideas about Los Angeles.

New Yorker Kevin Townley attended a weekend program at SMCLA in January 2013.  The teaching that weekend was on Drala which, in Tibetan, means “unconditioned wisdom and power of the world,  beyond any dualism, above any enemy or conflict.” He wasn’t sure he would find much here in LA. But he did.

Colorado Street Bridge

I was totally bummed. Due to a conflict in my schedule I was going to have to miss my center’s Drala weekend. There are quite a few people who I’ve been progressing through the programs with since Level I and we’ve grown quite close. THIS IS GOING TO BE THE BEST PROM––er––DRALA WEEKEND EVER AND YOU ARE GOING TO MISS IT!!! And since these second year programs are only offered annually at most centers, you miss one and you’re pretty much screwed unless there’s another center nearby you can visit to keep on top of your prerequisites.

I had already planned on making a trip to Los Angeles to visit my brother for his art show at Night Gallery and as it turned out the Eagle Rock Center was offering Drala on the exact same weekend. Tendrel! And on top of it all, my brother lives in Eagle Rock . . . so I figured I could maybe even walk to the center (I moved to New York right after high school and never learned to drive).

The question on my mind, of course, was: is there drala in LA?

I’m not one to fan the flames of the New York/LA debate; I’d been to LA several times before and had enjoyed my visits, but I could never quite remember anywhere I’d actually been. LA left me more with a feeling than any distinct memories; to me LA always feels wistful, like I’m in high school again, in a car on my way to a really great party that I never actually seem to get to. Sure, New York is dirty, frenetic and compressed, but at least there’s something geometrical about it. It has the Empire State Building, Central Park, and the Statue of Liberty (even though that’s technically in New Jersey); LA has the La Brea Tar Pits, the Scientology Celebrity Center, and the recently opened Dames and Games.

On the first night of the program I decided to walk to the Shambhala Center from my brother’s house. Being from New York, I felt like I could handle it, plus, since everyone I mentioned this idea to looked at me as if I were insane, I took it as a cheerful challenge.

It’s hard to gauge walkable distances in LA since a fifteen minute walk and an hour walk are met with equal concern and disdain.

I set off along Yosemite as a light drizzle broke out, the pretty houses scattered in the hills behind the high school looked like a pop-up book. Pretty soon it was actually raining and even by New York standards this was a bit of a trek. Suddenly I felt lost, and an old feeling, one I thought I’d left behind at Columbine Elementary, reared its head: panic. I had no idea where I was going; I felt like a lost child. But then I remembered a line I’d read from Chögyam Trungpa’s Education of the Warrior after my Windhorse program:

Then the fearful mind
Can change into the warrior’s mind,
And that eternally youthful confidence
Can expand into space without beginning or end.
At that point it sees the Great Eastern Sun.

And it did. Just as I turned left on Figueroa, beyond the golden glow of McDonald’s arches, I saw the Great Eastern Sun on the  Eagle Rock Shambhala Center’s sign, a beacon in the night.

I was immediately made to feel welcome by the very friendly sangha (Jenny went above and beyond by volunteering to be my chauffeur for the weekend).

But even though all of the faces were new, there was a sense of congruity; the feeling that I’d been progressing along the same path with them, just on the opposite side of the continent.

One of the big themes I took away from Drala is learning to de-compartmentalize my experience and open up enough to be willing to see all aspects of the world as sacred. An unfettered connection to the mundane can open me up to the experience of ordinary magic.This was highlighted perfectly by our drala walk; at trip to the Arroyo Seco Park in Pasadena. For those of you who haven’t been, the Arroyo is a public park with hiking trails that wind back up behind the lovely Colorado Street Bridge with its globed lamps. Most of the trails lead away from the urban crush, screening hikers from the parking lot and the highway with a mesh of leaves.

In the spirit of aimless wandering, I decided to just follow whatever impulse arose in the moment and found myself not delving into the greenery, but walking along a straight path towards the bridge instead, with the trees on my left and a concrete irrigation ditch on my right. And somehow they didn’t really seem at odds with each other. There were ducks playing at the top of the stream where the water cascaded down into a man-made waterfall and the palm trees shot up in jagged angles towards the Colorado Street bridge which seemed to hover in the blue and cloudy sky as a delivery truck with a giant pink cupcake on it cut through along the highway. The juxtaposition of all of these seemingly mismatched elements converged into a hub, which was me, in that moment.

This was my first program on the Shambhala path that I took away from my home Center, and what made it marvelous (aside from my fellow Drala explorers and our fearless leader, Bill Bothwell) was the feeling that the aspiration of Enlightened Society that we Shambhalians are all striving towards is happening all around the globe, simultaneously. It’s not just happening in my own little bubble––as Mr. Bothwell said, it’s happening in a much bigger bubble.  And while the phrase ‘Enlightened Society’ seems almost too Herculean to even attempt at times (Shastri Nichtern once said the next most challenging aspiration would be  “Enlightened Galaxy”), being in LA, seeing the continuity of the work, feeling the genuine good-heartedness of complete strangers, made me realize that Enlightened Society is something I can experience now, even if it only lasts for as long as it takes for a cupcake truck to cross the Colorado Street Bridge.

I fell so seamlessly into the LA sangha because it is a satellite of a much larger sangha to which I already belong, and need only meet again and again.

As Jenny said, we put the LA in DraLA!


Kevin TownleyKevin Townley is a New York-based writer and performer. He has written for Shambhala Publications’ “Under 35 Project” as well as for Rookie Magazine. He is currently working on a YA novel for Scholastic. He has been listed as one of New York’s best dressed by Time Out New York and Worst Dressed by Star Magazine.