Chögyam Trungpa

Trungpa Rinpoche Chögyam Trungpa was born in Geja, Tibet in February 1939 and at 13 months old was recognised as a "reincarnation" of the tenth Trungpa Tulku, the 11th descendent in a line of teachers of the Kagyü lineage, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He was installed as the head of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet but in 1959, the Rinpoche (a Tibetan honorific meaning precious one) fled the country because of the Chinese takeover. He spent two years in India, then four in England at Oxford University, then moved on to Scotland to found a meditation center. In 1969, after scandalising straight-laced sections of the Buddhist community he relinquished his monastic vows. The next year, at 31 years old, he married a 16-year-old English girl, Diana Pybus. The marriage drew much criticism from other lamas. Trungpa was too smart for those critics. In 1973 he published "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" raising the stakes in spiritual one-upmanship. I'm an Australian of an older generation so I have a cultural disdain of pomposity and pretension. Trungpa was just another Emperor Who Has No Clothes though in his case he was a General with Too Many Costumes and his inner core of "students" were only too happy to play dress-ups to make him happy.

He also defined the relationship of the guru and student. In stories about such famous (though mythical) Tibetan Buddhist sages as Naropa & Marpa & Milarepa he recounts the abasement and degradation required of a student to their "spiritual friend". The guru is cruel and inexplicable, total surrender is required.

The process of receiving teaching depends upon the student giving something in return; some kind of psychological surrender is necessary, a gift of some sort. This is why we must discuss surrendering, opening, giving up expectations, before we can speak of the relationship between teacher and student. It is essential to surrender, to open yourself, to present whatever you are to the guru, rather than trying to present yourself as a worthwhile student. - Spiritual Materialism

Trungpa Rinpoche In Tibetan Buddhism, it is claimed, there has to be full trust in the guru, otherwise nothing is accomplished. "It's a particular type of religious devotion," says a former student of Rinpoche's, "Where you surrender all your critical faculties to a guru." Whatever it is, initiates have a tendency to tell uninitiates, it is inexplicable unless one is an initiate thereby providing the allure of the mysterious.

In 1970 Trungpa went to the USA and traveled and taught, setting up urban meditation and study centers, the two most prominent in Boulder and in Barnet, VT. In 1975, followers established the Naropa Institute, a liberal arts college, in Boulder.

Trungpa RinpocheHis demonstrated a sophistication way above the norm in the Eastern Spirituality circles that had arisen from the 1960's hippie "counter-culture" and positioned him as a guru for the sophisticated. Only a person already enlightened (if such a state exists) would be without spiritual materialism so Trungpa, who was "officially" enlightened, lorded it over his students using Buddhism for his personal aggrandisement while using drugs to remain in a numbed out state, Spiritual materialism on many levels. If nothing else he was an astute businessman. His devotees were upper middle class and white, some with impressive academic credentials. They dressed like Dharma bums in the beginning, but soon the teacher had them shaved, suited and cravated. If they did not exactly turn their pockets inside out for their teacher - and some did - they made good fund raisers. Successful executives, lawyers, doctors, dentists, shrinks, anthropologists, and the Beats: poets (Allen Ginsberg), novelists (William Burroughs) and composers (John Cage) became his followers. Even the selection of Boulder as a center was a commercial brainstorm; it is a mecca for vagabond trust fund kids. He lived as ostentatiously as a televangelist and as tastelessly. In later life he set up a royal court and lived like a minor potentate. He lacked power but he had a lot of servants.

Crazy WisdomHe drank an awful amount of alcohol and had sex with many of his women followers. He was partially physically paralysed from his first car smash as well as from alcohol so this part of his career was exaggerated. These were supposedly part of the Crazy Wisdom method which use "skilful means" to help his students to enlightenment. In the eyes of his devotees this was "enlightened drunkenness," "enlightened sex." There is a minor tradition in Tibetan and Chinese of such enlightened sages though an alcoholic "sage" has breath as foul, sweat as stinking and vomit as disgusting as any gutter drunk. The more intelligent the followers the more sophisticated the rationalisations to explain away the guru's failings but it is ever that way with naked emperors. He surrounded himself with a staff of bully boys and bully girls. He became abusive at a drunken party in Colorado. He got nasty and had his guards rip the clothes off a couple of poets, Dan Merwin and Dana Naone - a beautiful Hawaiian whom Ginsberg called an "Asian slit cunt." It happens at many a frat party though its not usually claimed to be a method of enlightenment. Trungpa said it was no big deal. Ginsberg, that gasbag puffed up with bullshit, pontificated:

In the middle of that scene, [for Dana] to yell "call the police" - do you realize how vulgar that was? The wisdom of the East being unveiled, and she's going "call the police!" I mean, shit! Fuck that shit! Strip 'em naked, break down the door! Anything … - The Great Naropa Poetry Wars by Tom Clark, 1980.

Merwin and Naone were in the throes of a passionate affair and Trungpa wasn't. Naone was young and beautiful and Trungpa wasn't. Trungpa got to vent his jealous spleen and get to see her naked on the floor before his throne. Robert Bly and Kenneth Rexroth, grand old men of American Poetry, were understandably outraged by the incident, with Rexroth calling Trungpa "an obscene fraud." At least somebody understood Trungpa.

Dan Merwin and Dana Naone

His teachings were varied and included the enormous corpus of esoteric Tibetan Buddhism, (unlike his Western followers he had had a childhood education in tulkuhood) in a religous tradition that makes even Roman Catholicism seem simple and straightforward. He could easily confuse any Westerner with discussion of the abstruse and complex Tibetan Buddhist scriptures and philosophies. The mainstay of his attraction was that of the enlightened sage, validated by his "authorised" reincarnated status and romantic beliefs about the spiritual "Shangri-La" of the Himalayas. He was the eleventh Trungpa tülku, a tertön, the Supreme Abbot of the Surmang monasteries, a Rinpoche (precious one). No doubt many of his followers were first introduced to Tibetan Buddhism by such fakes as T. Lobsang Rampa and Paul Brunton.

Trungpa and GinsbergTrungpa and Alpert

TrungpaTrungpa was the first of the tulkus to escape the control of their monastery and revel in the possibilities of Western life though alcoholism is one of the West's lowest possibilities. While a particularly strong Rinpoche (or in one case even a Dalai Lama) could live licentiously in Tibet, most were controlled by their monastic organisations if not their consciences. With access to Tibetan children severely limited, rinpoches will increasingly be found in the West and an increasing number of recognised reincarnates will refuse to abide by the monastic rules and regulations and scandals will proliferate. Trungpa died in 1987 at age 48 of cirrhosis of the liver. He drank himself to death, not exactly displaying "skilful means" in his own life.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche The Shambhala Organisation which is the main body controlling and propagating Trungpa's teachings is now headed by his eldest son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.


  • Born in Tibet
    Chogyam Trungpa
    This is the autobiographical story of the life of Trungpa Rinpoche from his early childhood through his escape from Tibet in 1959. This edition includes an afterword that provides an update through 1976.
  • Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
    Chogyam Trungpa
    This book spans the gulf between the esoteric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and the everyday joys, sorrows and questions of spirituality in everyday modern life. This presentation of the spiritual path focuses on the role of expectation and promise of reward.
  • Crazy Wisdom
    Chögyam Trungpa
    In a series of talks on the life of Padmasambhava (the teacher who first brought the Buddhist teachings to Tibet), Trungpa presents the notion of "crazy wisdom" -- a perspective of freshness and innocence that provides practitioners a means of discovering delight in the challenges of daily existence. Born in Tibet, Trungpa

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