In May 2010, Chogyal Namkhai Norbu visited the UK and gave a few days of essential Dzogchen teachings at the Camden Centre in London. The event attracted a huge number of people from the International Dzogchen Community as well as students from many of the other Buddhist Centres in London. In early June, Rinpoche also gave a lecture to launch the first volume of his book on early Tibetan culture ‘The Light of Kailash’ at the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London (SOAS). The event was combined with a reception and photographic exhibition about the region of Shang Shung in Eastern Tibet, thanks to collaboration with the Meridian Trust. This event officially launched the ‘Shang Shung Institute UK: London School of Tibetan Studies’ in June 2010.
Just under a year earlier in August 2009, Oliver Leick from Shang Shung Institute Austria had come to London with the ambitious proposal to set up an Institute for Tibetan Studies in London. Rinpoche had made it clear that he wanted the Shang Shung Institute to have a presence in London because of the cultural importance of the city internationally. His inspiration for the Institute in London was based on a traditional Tibetan Shedra or college: ie a Centre framed around the five great fields of knowledge or five sciences of Tibetan culture: that is art, medicine, language, logic / philosophy and Buddhist studies. Rinpoche also stressed that London was not only an important cultural centre but also had a renowned academic history and tradition. Within a few months, on the basis of Rinpoche’s guidance, a ‘not-for-profit company with charitable aims’ was legally established in the UK.
Prof. Dominic Kennedy, a lecturer at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies – University College London), was elected as the Principal Director of SSIUK. It was largely through his connections that a very fruitful relationship was established between SSIUK and SOAS in the early years. This included an on-going collaboration between Dominic and Dr. Nathan Hill, Senior Lecturer of Tibetan Studies at SOAS, who kindly offered Shang Shung Institute UK the use of the SOAS University facilities for public talks and lectures. In his own words, Dominic describes how in May 2010, Yeshi Namkhai also made an important contribution to the early development of Shang Shung Institute in the UK:
“Yeshi Namkhai strolled into SOAS and delivered his first ever talk in the UK. This apparently casual but ground breaking introduction promises to be a big and significant start to a series of new events for the whole Dzogchen Community in the UK.”
Indeed, Yeshi Namkhai initiated what was to become a very successful programme of activities, the so-called ‘SOAS Lecture Series – later the ‘SSIUK Lecture Series’, by giving two engaging talks in the lecture halls of London University: the first in May 2010 and another in October the same year. At the same time, Yeshi advised that it was important to develop a programme of activities in London which had a progressive theme based on the observation of the secondary causes which were already present in the place i.e. the people, the connections, the environmental & cultural factors and that it should not be based on a theoretical idea.
Following the success of his ‘Light of Kailash’ lecture at SOAS in June 2010, Rinpoche was welcomed back to London to take part in another SOAS / SSIUK collaboration as the key speaker in a major Conference entitled ‘Bon, Shang Shung & Early Tibet’. Other key speakers at this conference included H. E. Lopon Tenzin Namdak and Prof. Samten Karmay together with many other well-known academics and international Tibetologists. Rinpoche went on to launch all three volumes of his ‘Light of Kailash’ series in London over the following years, culminating in his ‘Light of Kailash Vol. 3’ lecture at Asia House in October 2013. Sadly Dominic passed away in June 2013.
Judy Allan became the Principal Director of SSIUK with Richard Steven as the Company Secretary. Judy already had excellent contacts within the UK Tibetan Community and within UK academic circles in general. She invited Rinpoche to be the keynote speaker at the ‘Padmasambhava Conference: Different Aspects’, which was again organized as a SOAS / SSIUK collaboration in September 2013. A book covering the full procedure of this unique conference is due to be published later by Garuda Verlag, edited by Dr. Jamyang Oliphant. Under Judy’s guidance, Shang Shung UK developed a wide ranging programme of activities which included open Yantra Yoga and Vajra Dance courses in collaboration with local Dzogchen Community instructors; Tibetan Language classes run by Prof. Fabian Sanders; art and calligraphy courses, led by world class experts including Tashi Mannox, Timea Tallian and Teresa Heady as well as open talks and short courses on Buddhism, philosophy and Tibetan medicine.
For several years, the Shang Shung Institute UK was fortunate to be able to use the facilities at SOAS as well as the Buddhist Arts Centre in East London to hold many of their courses and activities. The Dzogchen Community was also kindly given permission to use the Drukpa Centre in Primrose Hill in North-West London to hold open meditation courses and related study groups. In these early stages, SSIUK was experimenting with a diverse range of programming including traditional Tibetan medical courses with Dr. Nida Chenagtsang, Elio Guarisco and Aldo Oneto as well as open meditation & Buddhist philosophy courses with teachers including Dr. Jim Valby and Prof. Paula Zamperini. Rinpoche’s initial inspiration of a ‘Shedra style’ institution was at the heart of Judy’s enthusiastic work in developing SSIUK over this period and we are indebted to her endless energy and dedication which she brought to this endeavor. Judy also worked closely with Richard Steven during this period, who was largely responsible for designing the SSIUK programme & website based around the theme of the traditional five sciences. Judy Allan passed away unexpectedly and suddenly on 26th March 2014 … it was a shock to everyone who knew her.
In 2015, the Shang Shung Institute UK arrived in its new home: ‘Lekdanling: Tibetan Cultural Centre’, in Hackney, East London. After a dynamic fundraising campaign, the Dzogchen Community UK was able to buy a studio space that was large enough to house the Vajra dance mandala and could also act as a base for the activities of Shang Shung in the UK. Rinpoche visited the new Centre in May 2015 following his two day ‘Ati Evolution’ Dzogchen retreat in London, and named it ‘Lekdanling’ meaning ‘Place of Good Fortune’. He also specified it was to be a new kind of Ling, because here there was to be an emphasis on running events which were open to the general public alongside running Dzogchen Community activities and transmission based practices.
Over the past five years, there have been several Festivals held at Lekdanling which have welcomed the general public, including ‘The Sacred Space Festival’ in 2016; the ‘Himalayan Health & Vitality Festival’ with Lelung Rinpoche as a keynote speaker in March 2017; followed by a ‘Himalayan Music & Dance Festival’ in October 2017. The ‘Festival of Mind’ was another initiative launched in 2018: the first to discuss the theme of ‘Mindfulness: Past, Present & Future’ which was held in May 2018 and another in May 2019 to explore the ‘Nature of Emotions’. Khaita also became a strong new trend over these years culminating in two Khaita performances being held in the prestigious Great Hall of the British Museum, the first in March 2018 and a second in collaboration with members of the London Tibetan Community in March 2019. This has led to an on-going relationship between SSIUK and the British Museum and involvement in their upcoming ‘Tantric Art’ exhibition, originally scheduled for 2020.
Close bonds with members of the Tibetan Community in London have naturally been growing over the past ten years, largely through our collaborative musical & dance ventures but also through academic talks and lectures with Tibetan scholars, with subjects as diverse as Tibetan cookery, folklore and bow making. SSIUK also established a good connection with the Wellcome Collection Trust in 2017 and was gifted the centre-piece mandala of their popular exhibition entitled ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’, many thanks to the curator Ian Baker, now housed at Lekdanling together with many of the accompanying photographs from the exhibition. We are also extremely grateful to Anne Bancroft, the Arts Director for Shang Shung Institute UK, for providing an important link between the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) and SSIUK over the years, especially in relation to the Buddhist art traditions.
Another important and popular development for the SSIUK more recently is live streaming many of its events online via Facebook. The Khaita performance at the British Museum was viewed by over 17,400 people globally and especially by members of the Tibetan community around the world. Likewise, some of our talks from our Shang Shung Lectures Series, such as Darig Thokmay’s talk on traditional ‘Bon and Buddhist Folk Customs’ reached over 2,300 views from individuals as far afield as India, Switzerland and Canada.The ability to provide online streaming immediately opens up our programme to a much wider audience.We are now also filming or recording most of our London events so it is possible to view them at home either via Facebook or as a download from the Shang Shung Institute UK website or as a Vimeo presentation. Because of our rich history, the SSIUK website: shangshunguk.org now contains a wide range of talks, lectures and conference proceedings that have been recorded over the past ten years, many of which contain unique material which is not available elsewhere. It is possible to see an overview of our last 10 year history of events and activities in our new brochure at the archive section of our website.
The emphasis for SSIUK events and activities has imperceptibly moved in the direction of focussing on Tibetan arts and language since its inception in 2010. Buddhist studies and philosophy, and the exploration of ‘inner knowledge’ in a non-sectarian context, have also been emphasized through the series of lectures, conferences and festivals held over the past ten years. In addition, a series of ‘Insight Tours’ to centres of Buddhist culture, including two trips to Eastern Tibet led by Dr Jamyang Oliphant, have focussed on providing a ‘living’ knowledge of Tibetan culture.
It is our aim to gradually build up an online documentary & video library covering all different aspects of Tibetan culture, as an easy-to-access global facility. This is particularly relevant during this period of lockdown when zoom and other online facilities have become more valuable and visible as a means of communicating internationally. In the near future we also plan to start using Youtube for broadcasting our open talks and events. We regularly update our Shang Shang Institute programme in London so we recommend visiting our website regularly to see what is happening. There is also a designated Lekdanling website: lekdanling.org which covers all the Dzogchen community events happening in London as well as regular weekly practise sessions. Alternatively, it is possible to be added to our SSIUK mailing list and directly informed of all our activities, by emailing www.shangshunguk.org/contact/
Finally, none of these activities can take place without the support and energy of our dedicated SSIUK team as well as the numerous teachers, speakers, organizers and volunteers who have made an invaluable contribution to the life of SSIUK. Many thanks to all those people who have helped to actualize Rinpoche’s vision, including: Prof. Fabian Sanders (Academic Director); Anne Bancroft (Arts Director); Richard Steven (Company Secretary); Dr. Jamyang Oliphant (intrepid Fundraiser & Tour Guide); Premila Van Ommen (News & Social Media); Mike Gilmour (Bookshop Manager); Russell Pond (Bookkeeper / Accounts); Maciek Sikora (Khaita Coordinator); Jon Kuan (Film Coordinator) plus the Dzogchen Community UK and all those who have generously donated to SSIUK enabling its activities to continue and progress.
(Principal Director, SSIUK)