Dreamers and Their Shadows

A Review by John Sell


In the bombed-out wreckage of post-war Tokyo, a safe is discovered that contains several scrolls within a gorgeous antique lacquer box. They chronicle the strange trajectory of the Prince of Ling, a sixteenth-century Japanese spiritual teacher who tried to found the Kingdom of Shambhala in an area of Hokkaido. The scroll paper is even older than the period described, and at least two of the writers use script styles that are older still. “The whole of Japan is pure invention,” said Oscar Wilde, quoted in the book’s epigraph, and Douglas Penick’s book, Dreamers and Their Shadows (Mountain Treasury Press, 2013), is a novel—an invention—not a memoir.

The novel presents five annals by different writers, all purporting to be from sixteenth-century Japan and all concerning the charismatic Prince of Ling. The two most important witnesses from the scrolls are Lady M, the courtesan who writes the first annal, and the Duke of K, the Prince’s brother-in-law and student. The scrolls are discovered in the 1950s, soon discredited, but studied nonetheless in the mid-sixties by a late-career Japanese academic and Edward, his American graduate-student assistant, who translates them. The novel interweaves the stories of the Prince of Ling and of Edward, as he moves through the Japan of the sixties and then America—New York and Boulder, Colorado—in the late sixties and early seventies.

The author, Douglas Penick, was a long-time student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and, like the Duke of K, the brother-in-law of his teacher for a time. Chronicles readers of a certain age will instantly recognize many events and personalities from the years that Trungpa Rinpoche taught in North America, especially in Boulder, where Mr. Penick lives. Students of Trungpa Rinpoche may find, as I did, that his world is more vividly evoked here than in the biographies and memoirs, which perhaps aim to serve another function. This vivid experience is partly due to Mr. Penick’s skill, and also because he has written a novel about a world that we remember in our own ways. Maybe the discrepancies between the novel and our memories heighten the effect. But the book isn’t simply a roman a clef, although on that level it provides a certain perspective. It stands on its own as a work of fiction. In other words, you don’t have to have been there to appreciate it.

Back to the novel: The scrolls are discovered, and there is some excitement in academic circles. In the environment of a shattered culture, the sense that there could be an alternative history, an alternative kingdom, speaks to a longing there that’s hard to articulate. After some time, however, a spectrographic analysis reveals the scrolls to be fraudulent. It’s puzzling, though—the antique red lacquer box is genuine, as is the very old Mongolian brocade they are wrapped in. It is unclear who could have perpetrated this fraud, or why. The whole situation is “unpleasantly redolent of stage magic.” Embarrassed scholars are suddenly allergic to the whole enterprise, and the annals are forgotten.

A dozen years later when the distinguished, late-career academic takes an interest in them again, it is widely viewed as eccentric. Using Edward, the American graduate student, to translate them brings complexities of its own. The time: the mid-sixties. The worlds of the annals and the worlds of Edward and the professor begin to echo each other.

The first annal is written in a straightforward style that combines something of a female Heian-era diarist such as Sei Shonagon and a twentieth-century writer given to concise, physically grounded descriptions colored by feeling. Lady M clearly has an aesthetic bent, and is largely focused on the ups and downs of her relationship with the prince. Her preoccupations tend to be those of a courtesan. The opening pages effectively paint a picture of cultural chaos, where traditional continuity has been cut—her uncle has retired as a samurai and now runs a shop selling second-hand swords, for example.

She becomes the Prince’s lover early, shortly after meeting him. She suffers from jealousy because he sees other women. But he invites her to become his secretary, their relationship expands, and she finds a role in the growing community of students. She makes few friends. When the scene shifts into politics, she leaves to study with the Abbot, a great spiritual figure. She comes back toward the end of the Prince’s life to be near him. At that point, he has become His Majesty, and he is steadily moving into a post-human realm of some kind.

The second annal consists of a short chronicle from a spy written for his superior, in a brisk, efficient style. It has a dramatically wider, more social focus than Annal 1. His teaching style is considered closely from an outsider’s perspective, and the spy concludes that, whatever their intent, the community around the Prince doesn’t pose a serious threat to the existing order. The third annal is a series of dharmic poems, short lines, with themes revolving around passion and the duality/nonduality conundrum.

Sections of the annals alternate with sections labeled “Continuity,” which recount Edward’s experience and provide the book’s narrative spine. Edward endures a translator’s displacement and somewhat ghostly role, which helps makes him a good companion on the journey through the annals—a companion for the professor, and for the reader. The professor dies, Edward is alienated from the professor’s family, which resents him, and he returns to America, eventually moving in with a well-to-do cousin in New York City. His work on the translation continues.

The fourth annal, focused on the Duke of K, traces the shift from the Prince’s early seminars through the founding of the kingdom. Unlike the first annal, it is written in the third person—the Duke of K is one of the subjects, not the narrator. Teaching situations are described, sometimes with long quotations from his seminars:

“So in this moment we should take our time to recognize that we are living in the outstretched hands of millions of men and women who have reached out from the past to touch us here and now.”

A military encampment with a mock battle between the forces of the Minister of Security and the Prime Minister, who is also the Prince’s dharma heir, is vividly described. The Prince, outraged and disgusted by both generals’ selfish approaches, makes them do it over. A meeting between the Prince and the utterly devastated Prime Minister in the aftermath includes this extraordinary statement from the Prince: “The radiance of goodness shines in the senses. Brilliance stops subconscious gossip. The power of goodness draws the elements towards whatever or whoever displays courage, bravery, mercy and elegance. These powers will move towards whoever behaves this way, regardless of his or her ultimate purpose. They are impersonal. For the benefit of the future, we must capture them.” A number of encounters between the Prince and others are recorded, and they carry some force.

The Prince’s Court environment is described, including depictions of dinners and games, the intense collective experience of the holidays, the transition from spiritual movement to government. The Prince hosts visits from the Abbot and his retinue, and their relationship is described with some care. Elocution is introduced, memoirs are written very slowly over series of all-night dinners, guests squirm and squirm, there is an unmistakable environment of transformation.

The Prince starts to express doubts about the Prime Minister, various promises are made, and the Prince has a difficult fall down the stairs, which contributes to shifts afterward. A trip to the Kingdom of Silla bears close resemblance to Trungpa Rinpoche’s trip to Japan. The Prince moves more resolutely into other realms, and goes on a year-long retreat late in his rather short life. The Duke of K fervently holds that His Majesty is engaged in the same work as always, but in worlds that aren’t visible to his followers.

The descriptions of the Prince’s strokes, loss of the power of speech, and the curious blind spots among the attendants are very moving, as is the discussion of his death. The Duke of K’s wavering relationship to the many developments is depicted unsparingly and with some nuance, but he is clearly in an enviable witness position.

The fifth annal is written in a variety of hands on 16th-century paper. Its few pages describe the events in the kingdom following His Majesty’s death—the Prime Minister’s illness, the collapse, the fragmentation. “Memory became for [his followers] more compelling than the disappointing confusion of daily life.”

Edward, however, secures a temporary academic appointment in Boulder, Colorado. He finishes the translation, but the world of the annals continues to mix with his daily experience. The book ends with an ordinary/extraordinary encounter that brings the disparate strands of the novel together. And beautifully.

“The past is … unpredictable”

Many of the events in the novel mirror the history of Vajradhatu and its transformation into Shambhala. The writing style bears some resemblance to The Memoirs of Sir Nyima Sangpo—sparing in physical detail (sky, grass, weather), and not of any particular time, which give proceedings a fairy-tale feeling. It’s only 200 pages, shorter than any of the student memoirs or biographies that have been published. Yet it brought back for me the experience of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching mandala, his world, and the life of the sangha in Boulder more vividly than anything else I’ve read. Many of the personalities I encountered there are here, and those of you who were there will find them too. There’s the occasional nasty aside, which is reliably fun. But these aren’t the book’s real strengths.

In many ways the world of Shambhala is better suited to a novel with unreliable narrators than to either a history or memoir. “The past is unpredictable,” as one of the novel’s characters observes. The experience of being a student during the period from the seventies to the eighties was one of collecting and evaluating stories from different parts of the mandala: the court stories, the kasung stories, the recounting of early interviews, the stories from teaching seminars and from seminaries, occasional consort stories, witnesses to conversations between Trungpa Rinpoche and His Holiness Karmapa or the Vajra Regent, stories told by the Vajra Regent or the directors, stories from the family or the household. Having the window of the reactions and feelings of two very different witnesses, Lady M and the Duke of K, witnesses with their own relationships to different components of the mandala, churned up memories of my own, and I trust that will be true for others. Readers who were participants in any way will find themselves writing their own book as they read, which is a rare kind of experience, consonant with the slippery nature of this reality.

In the collective world of the students of Trungpa Rinpoche, rumors would spread. They had many sources—there were first-hand accounts of incidents, there were public recountings by people in positions of authority, such as directors or officers within the kasung, or perhaps visit organizers. Or consorts. Or people involved in the household, or servers at the court. Some were very well structured, some served a distinctly political end, some were perhaps shaped by the teller for maximum effect (blind leading the blind). Often a statement or piece of advice that Rinpoche made to a student would circulate as a more general teaching—the context would tend to be the first thing to be lost.

People who saw Rinpoche frequently had the obligation to share their experience. How complex a teaching situation shaped by us flawed people, venal and idealistic in our particular ways. Dreamers and Their Shadows plunges us right into this circumstance, which makes it a portrait of a situation. Especially in the Fourth Annal, the points of view and circumstances shift rapidly, and the narrative frequently reports on the feelings of those involved—such as dinner guests. One of Mr. Penick’s bolder gambits is to give talks and write poetry in the voice of the Prince, something a memoirist couldn’t do as concisely. I think it succeeds here, and also has the effect of abruptly changing the context, which was happening all the time around Trungpa Rinpoche. Sometimes the descriptions of teachings or the moment of exchange with a student have the heart-stopping quality of sudden, intimate contact.

Current Shambhala students and students of other teachers will recognize the roots of what they now practice and study, and will find much to contemplate in this examination of attempts to create a mandala. Much provocative teaching is buried in the story, and it has the feel of oral transmission.

This is not simply a book for Buddhists, though. As a novel it’s subtle, especially in its examination of what is true and what is not, interlocking or impinging realities that multiply, and its exploration of time. But it’s easy to read. The sentences are clear, the style varied, the juxtapositions vivid, and it is structured with great care. The narrative itself opens up into a contemplation of time and meaning—it doesn’t require any special effort of the reader. The Prince is a compelling enigma, manifesting as many characters, and throughout, other characters are trying to figure him out, with only limited success. And the Prince’s world is a kind of dream, where the past has its own life, parallel or slightly skewed universes invade each other, cracks in the fabric appear. Many readers could find themselves haunted by the worlds evoked here.

I read a review copy, and they are sometimes issued before proofreading. Perhaps the too-frequent typos have been repaired. If not, the book deserves some cleanup on that level—I hope it gets it.

You might also be interested in reading Mr. Penick’s A Journey of the North Star (Publerati Press, 2012), a thoroughly imagined novel told by a eunuch in chronicle style, set in a 15th-century Chinese court during a period of great expansion. Among other things, it’s a portrait of an emperor.

-John Sell, Halifax, 20 February 2014

Readers’ Comments

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Dear Chronicles and John,

I recently finished the book and I loved it for its remarkable, as John said, remarkable evocation and skillful structure. I too appreciated the very rich vocabulary that only amplifies the story’s clarity. John, thank you for similar care, talent with language, and vitality.

To Chronicles, heart-felt thanks for delivering countless gifts,

Deborah Jones


This really sounds good. Thank you to Mr. Sell for such an appetizing review. I look forward to reading Mr. Penick’s latest. Cheers……….from the far very far side of Mother Earth. -Jack


What a fine review of Dreamers and Their Shadows the book by Douglas Penick,Thank you Mr John Sell this book pierced my heart with sadness,and joy,what a gift. -Julia Gray