Changing bureaucratic institutions from the inside

Last week, I wrote about fighting city hall to make my home town more “chicken friendly.”  After reading the blog, one of my students asked me “how do you work to change a bureaucratic institution without getting angry?”  This blog focuses on my experience working with bureaucracy; from local government to large universities.   I know that getting angry (even when its justified) rarely helps.

I’ve spent much of my academic career trying to change university programs (as both a faculty member and an administrator) to be more supportive of sustainability principles.  I’ve also worked within local government (serving on several town boards and commissions) to support local sustainable agriculture.  While institutions of power, may be influenced by outside pressure (including protests which certainly have value and are needed at times), my own experience is largely trying to change bureaurcacy “from the inside.”

When asked by students how to change bureaucratic institutions, I tell them the story of The Shambhala Worker Prophecy.

This story, adapted with permission from Joanna Macy, is said to have emerged from Tibetan Buddhism about twelve hundred years ago.  It predicts a time when great destructive powers have emerged – perhaps a time not unlike our own.

The Shambhala Worker Prophecy claims that “…there will come a time when all life on Earth is in danger.  In this era, great barbarian forces will have arisen which have unfathomable destructive power.  New and unforeseen technologies will appear during this time, with the potential to lay waste to the world.

Do you believe “all life on Earth is in danger” today?

What “barbarian forces” might have created this situation?

“In this era, when the future of sentient life seems to hang by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala will appear.

“The kingdom of Shambhala is not a geopolitical place, but a place that exists in the hearts and minds of the Shambhala Worker.  These workers wear no special uniform, nor do they have titles or ranks. They have no particular workplace, as their work is everywhere.  In fact, they look just like the barbarians on the outside, but they hold the kingdom of Shambhala on the inside.”

Do you know any “barbarians”?

Do you know of any “institutions of great destructive power”?

“Now the time comes when great courage – intellectual, moral and spiritual – is required of the Shambhala Workers.  The time comes when they must go into the very heart of the barbarian power, into the tall buildings, corporate offices, factories, and the citadels of learning where the weapons of destruction are made – to dismantle them.

“The Shambhala Workers have the courage to do this because they know that these destructive systems are ‘mind-made’.  That is, they are created by the human mind, and they can be unmade by the human mind.  The lie that these systems are the inevitable result of progress must be exposed by the Shambhala Workers.  Shambhala Workers know the dangers that threaten life on Earth are not visited upon us by any extraterrestrial powers, satanic deities, or preordained fate.  They arise from our own decisions, our own lifestyles, and our own relationships.  They arise from within us all.”

Do you know any Shambhala Workers?

Might you be one?

“The Shambhala Workers go into the corridors of power armed with the only tools that the barbarians don’t understand, and for which there is no defense.  The tools of the Shambhala Workers are compassion for all, and knowledge of the connectedness of all things.  Both are necessary.  They have to have compassion to do this work, because this is the source of their power – the passion to act along with others.

“But that tool by itself is not enough.  Compassion alone can burn you out, so you need the other tool – you need insight into the radical interdependence of all things.  With that wisdom you know that the work is not a battle between good guys and bad guys, because the line between good and bad runs through the landscape of every human heart.  With insight into our interrelatedness, you know that actions undertaken with pure intent have effects throughout the web of life, beyond what you can measure or discern.  By itself, that knowledge may be too conceptual to sustain you and keep you moving, so you need the energy that comes of compassion as well.

“Within each Shambhala Worker these two tools, compassion and insight, can sustain you as agents of wholesome change.  They are gifts for you to claim and share now in healing our world and our destructive institutions of power.”


There are several interpretations of this prophecy.  Some portray the coming of the kingdom of Shambhala as an internal event, a metaphor for one’s inner spiritual journey.  Others present it as a transformation of the human social system that will occur at the just right time.  Now would be a good time!

So, when students invariably ask me if the time is now, I tell them that I think we have a choice.  I believe we can create the kingdom of Shambhala whenever we are ready to begin.

Do you know of anyone who might be a Shambhala Worker?  Are you?

Please post your own Shambhala Worker story in the comments box below.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

8 thoughts on “Changing bureaucratic institutions from the inside”

  1. The longer I work in a "large bureaucracy" the less I think we "change them." Perhaps another angle on your thinking is the observation that we change ourselves (and if we're lucky, occasionally one another) and happily or not we ARE the large bureaucracies and if we're fortunate we get to see a little movement once in a while…

  2. Thank you JShoenfeld.
    This month marks 2 important anniversary '41 Supreme Court decision (predates Rosa Parks), & '61 Freedom Rides.
    Not sure the amount of space I have, will keep it short.

    I see a corollary with the Shambala Warrior as well. Many have said of community change (such as the above civil rights efforts) and personal change, development and growth "never the twain shall meet" ("monk" v "community organizer"). I disagree. A few additions to your short article were stirred up while reading, John:

    The work needs the addition of – the rightness/eventual victory of the effort, and a personal dedication and commitment to the change. This anniversary reminds us of importance of these two additional factors and Dr. King et al's eventual success (albeit limited as seen today). Much of that success was done due to personal change ("I here by over come my fear & act ill-regardless of the personal consequences") AND social action combined. At that point one's actions lead others by example, creating their own action which can feedback to reenergize the self. A very nice circle indeed (is this demonstrated in Egypt recently?).
    Again great article, John, thank you. U have the 'script' to avoid burn-out in this work. Some of that is based in right-use (righteousness) of emotional energy. Something bearly grazed in my graduate level community change course work. Running on anger, disgust, etc never is sustainable.

  3. I know so many Shambhala workers. What a privilege to work alongside them.

    I can understand the question about how to manage anger in the face of bureaucratic slowness. What I always come back to is the issue of integrity. That is, am I doing the right thing, no matter the rate of response from those around me? Am I able to take the long view and the still-longer view, understanding that ripple effects take time? Am I able to get rid of the good guys/bad guys dichotomy? Am I able to feel the anger and grief, honor the legitimacy of those feelings, and then channel them, use them as fuel for constructive action, knowing that they are a natural result of love and compassion?

    Blessings to my co-Workers, both working within institutions and outside them.

  4. Never heard of this prophecy before, but it is wonderful to read, thanks John – as always! I think we all have this in us, it's just a matter of being provided with the right conditions to actually find a need to put this power to use…and, this is a very inspirational reminder!

  5. Change is about building on the inside with help from the outside. Communications is vital.
    Was there really supposed to be an inside and an outside at a US, state Land Grant?
    It often has taken a true farmer to remind the value and beauty of a root system and the "life" that feeds it.

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