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Biography: What Becomes A Legend Most?

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, though certainly not the only Tibetan Lama hounded out of Tibet by the Communist Party’s pogrom of Buddhists, was undeniably the one who packed the most wallop, stirred up the most controversy and built the largest and best-known organization in North America. Trungpa, an authentic “crazy wisdom” master, 11th in the line of Trungpa Tulkus, or incarnate lamas, likened the tantric path, of which he was a recognized master, to sliding down the middle of a razor blade with both legs dangling precariously over either side. Never user-friendly like His Holiness the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese monk of Plum Village fame, Trungpa was known for his womanizing, ability to imbibe prodigious amounts of liquor (which some say hastened his early demise at age 47), and the scandals that made him the subject of headlines. In one such scandal, he disrobed and ran off to marry a 16 year-old British schoolgirl. Another infamous act involved the poet W.S. Merwin, who, with his girlfriend Dana Naone, got into a fracas with Trungpa by refusing to undress at a party. Merwin began hitting Trungpa’s guards with broken beer bottles, but he and Dana eventually stripped and “cowered together before the guru like a chastened Adam and Eve.” The symbolism of this event resonated from the spiritual (stripped of ego) to the poetic (Western formalism vs. Ginsberg-like wild nakedness), yet Merwin still remains a Buddhist.

Image courtesy of Shambhala Publications.

Trungpa, with his classical Tibetan monastic and impeccable Oxford education, also created what is now referred to as Shambhala Buddhism, which has over 150 centers worldwide. He launched rigorous three-month Buddhist seminaries with strict requirements and substantial meditation practice, and introduced to the general public Japanese contemplative arts like Ikebana (flower arranging), Kyudo (archery) Oreokyi (three bowl meals) and calligraphy. He fostered the therapeutic method called Maitri, as well as a specialized theater practice called Mudra, and in l974 he founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, a four year university with renowned specialized programs in dance, dance therapy, psychology, Buddhist Studies, and the infamous Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, born from the creative collaboration between the poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. He was the inspiring force behind Shambhala Publications and the magazine The Shambhala Sun, as well as the weekend meditation programs known as Shambhala Training. He accomplished this all between 1971 and the year he died, l987, while suffering the effects of an auto accident in England that left him partially paralyzed.

In the interest of full disclosure, it is worth mentioning that Trungpa was my main Buddhist teacher, and through him I learned that there is nothing in the West comparable to a Tantric practice, which many associate with wild sex, the Kama Sutra, and Bollywood fantasies. But Tantra, with its origins in ancient Vedic India, works with a specific type of energy where the machinations of the world are perceived as both enlightened and confused states of mind. Practitioners are trained through stages of meditation to see phenomenon as empty and transform their daily life by cutting through neurotic thought patterns—not something for the faint of heart or emotionally unstable.

But who was Trungpa the man, formerly known as the monk, and how was he able to accomplish all of this? Fabrice Midal, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris and a student of Trungpa’s, was commissioned by the prestigious literary house Editions du Seuil to write his authorized biography, and therein lie both the book’s strength and its weakness. It is a uniquely French book peppered with references to and quotations from such European heavyweights as Martin Heideigger, René Guénow and of course the indomitable Marcel Proust. It carries weight precisely because it is an authorized biography with all the privileges that access bestows: private tapes, letters, teachings, coveted interviews etc. But with such access comes a price, and though Midal earnestly attempts critical objectivity, the book teeters tipsily toward the realm of hagiography. He minces around the thorny issues surrounding Trungpa’s regent, Osel Tenzin, who contracted and inadvertently infected others with AIDS, nearly splitting the Sangha, or spiritual community, in two, and other foibles and faux pas made over the years by the Dorje Kasung, the spiritual “guards” who, at least in the early days, overstepped their boundaries and pissed off an awful lot of people.

Trungpa created a royal-like court in his home that appeared stodgy and somewhat medieval to those on the outside but actually taught elegance, discipline and form to those on the inside. He had one wife (Lady Diana, the 16 year-old bride), three or five sons (if you include the sons of Lady Diana’s second husband), and six official and recognized consorts. Their role was not only well within the tradition of tantric masters (the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava, had a bevy of consorts including Indian and Tibetan princesses), but they served as Trungpa’s eyes and ears, and their feminine insight and wisdom were and still are much admired and respected.

Midal traces Trungpa’s life from his early years in Tibet to his move to North America and founding of the Vermont retreat center Karme Choling, the first of a series which now include centers in Colorado, Canada and Europe. In Vermont in the early 1970s, he donned overalls and embroidered Guatemalan shirts to fit in with his hippie students, showing them that despite his wild-and-crazy-guy demeanor, enlightenment wasn’t all that easy. By the time he finished with them they had cut their hair, donned suits and launched businesses.

Midal’s book is thorough, well structured and covers all facets of Trungpa’s life, the organizations he put into motion and their integration into the practice and study of both Tibetan and Shambhala Buddhism. Since his death in 1987, the mantle of Shambhala has fallen to his dharma heir and eldest son the Sakyong Osel Mukpo, born out of wedlock with one of Trungpa’s consorts, and the 26 Acharayas or lineage holders and teachers. A second generation, the “dharma brats” is now grown up, bottle-fed on Buddhism, and their children are morphing into yet a third generation of American practitioners.

That was always Trungpa’s objective. He knew it was his job to transplant the dharma into a uniquely American soil, which would then nourish its own hybrid form and thus thrive. If one looks just at the overbooked activities of the New York Shambhala Center, it certainly seems to be working.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2005

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