Chögyam Trungpa


The followers of Tantra, of the Prajnaparamita,
the Vinaya, the Sutra's, and the other religions,
will all, by their writings and philosophic dogma's,
not see the shining Mahamoedra.

(From: the Mahamoedra of Tilopa)

To understand the tragedy of Chögyam Trungpa´s life a bit more, one has to differentiate clearly between two paths of spiritual seeking. In traditional Buddhism these two roads are usually referred to as the path of the arhat and the path of the bodhisattva. One is tempted to call the arhat a Buddhist mystic in the strict sense of the word. The bodhisattva seems more to be a believer and a follower of theTrungpa creed. One is reminded of the difference between a Chritian mystic and a Christian believer. But later on we will see that such clear cut definitions are a bit too simple. In reality these two paths show more resemblance and more overlapping. There clearly is a difference between the Buddhist situation and the Christian.

Let´s start with the path of the arhat. The arhat is a man or woman who´s sole purpose in life is to become enlightened. The arhat lives on his own. He loves being alone. He tries as much as possible to close his eyes and to come to know his inner life. He is not so much bothered about the happiness and the enlightenment of other human beings. He knows everybody is free to make his own decisions. If someone wants to become enlightened also, he rejoices and wishes him all the luck in the world. But if another human being wants to remain fettered in ignorance, that´s fine with him also. The arhat wants to leave be. It´s everybody´s birthright to make his own choises.

Before his final enlightenment the arhat remains prefectly silent and still. He is well aware of the great danger of talking, not yet being enlightened. He knows all the major flaws that can occur when someone pretends to know when he does not or does not yet. He is waiting silently in his hut. He alone knows the moment when it is there. Then he will decide to speak in the open. Or maybe not.... Maybe he will remain silent all the rest of his life. For this inner joy and this inner contentment is so great. Who bothers about divulging it? What is gained by making it public? For the arhat this will only show its imperfection.

The arhat can be a wandering Buddhist monk or one living in a monastery. But he can also be the solitary  figure living on the edge of town. Or the shoemaker or that kind blacksmith over there, who seems to be such an ordinary fellow, just doing his work and not bothering with anybody. Most of the time he is that ordinary figure, who always lifts up his hand to say hallo, but remains fairly unknown to the rest of the town. Not that interesting, but not bothering either. People respect his being alone.

Another type of spiritual seeker in Buddhism is the bodhisattva. He is well trained in the fundamentals of mysticism. He has learned the words of the Buddha and the enlightened ones by heart. He believes that the words of the Buddha will become a living reality in his heart, but when his day of final redemption will dawn, he doesn´t know. All he knows is that these words and this belief are so far reaching and so important that the whole world should hear about it. Even before his own enlightenment, he shall speak to the world. For why should he work at his own enlightenment if he can save thousands of others in the meanwhile? Maybe others will become enlightened before he does and that will be far more important than his own salvation, wouldn´t it?

So the bodhisattva is willing to postpone his own enlightenment in the service of others. In the eyes of the bodhisattva the path of the arhat is a bit selfish. There is far more delight in helping others. Did not the Buddha say that we should be compassionate towards others? And who knows we will never become fully enlightened. What the Buddha accomplished was very extraordinary indeed. We can not all be such a genius. So the bodhisattva goes on spreading the word, though he knows he is not fully on a par with the Master. But who is? And would it not be a bit arrogant to presume to be on a par with the Buddha?

But the bodhisattva is not a mere believer, like his Christian counterpart. Just like the arhat the bodhisattva works hard, with his meditations, with his spiritual studies, with everything that is needed to make the soil ready for final enlightenment to occur. The dream of the bodhisattva is also to become enlightened. But the only difference with the arhat is his decision to speak before enlightenment occurs. And perhaps this is a great blessing for mankind. For the bodhisattva spreads the word and in doing so he may liberate the whole world.

But let´s not close our eyes for the great dangers involved in both paths. The danger for the arhat is to become solely occupied with his own liberation to the point of selfishness and solipsism. Why not share your flowering with the rest of the world? Why not help others also to become liberated? What is the use of one Lotus flower, when the rest of the world is littered with carbage? Should we not try to help our fellow man?

But though the path of the bodhisattva looks far more rational and also far more moral, the danger involved is just as great as with the arhat. For there is danger in speaking when one does not really know. The bodhisattva may literally transmit the words of the Buddha, the enlightened one, and by doing so help mankind tremendously, but his interpretation of the words may slightly miss the mark and thereby cause confusion and darkness in the heart of the listener. By doing so he will create more harm than by remaining silent. For his students will also miss the mark and remain ignorant. The dharma (the Buddhist teaching) is so very subtle, that it needs an accomplished Master to give the right instructions and the right interpretations.

There is another danger also that is perhaps even more threatening: the bodhisattva, out of his own imperfection, may with the example of his own life give the wrong example to his students or may not be able to live up to the high principles he so ardeously advocates. Then we have the Buddhist counterpart of the Christian broadcast preacher who spends his collected money on drugs and brothels. The innerTrungpa motivation and intent of such a preacher may be pure and motivated by integrity, but the personality of the preacher is often not completely purified. So at times the preacher relapses into his old behavior (or in his true state of being, as cynics may easily conclude): he acts contrary to his own moral lessons.

This has been the tragedy of Chögyam Trungpa's life also. He never claimed to be enlightened. His was the path of the bodhisattva. His great dream was to spread the dharma of the Buddha to the West and he succeeded in doing so. He founded numerous retreat centers all over the West, particularly in the US. He even founded the first Buddhist university in America, in Boulder, Colerado. He has made thousands of Westerners familiar with the Buddhist teachings, and he did so with the offer of postponing his own enlightenment. He has done Buddhism the greatest favor possible. He has spread compassion all around.

But ... he has done a lot of harm to Buddhism also. Perhaps his greatest mistake was to transpose the Tibetan way of giving instruction and dealing with trainees to the Western situation, without making some modifications suited to the Western way of life. For the Asian situation is completely different from the Western. In Asia Buddhist monks are used to hierarchy. Their compliance and obedience is a natural phenomenon, because they are raised and brought up in a hierarchical culture. Individualism is not well understood and not tolerated by society and clergy alike. In the monestaries the rules and regulations are strict. With hard hand the disobedient monk is brought back on track. Violence is a normal and day to day phenomenon in Eastern religious life, as is well documented by the proverbial slapping of the Zen master, a slapping happening too often in Zen stories to be merely ´satori provoking´ all of the time.

This was the life Chögyam Trungpa was familiar with. In Tibetan monestaries violence and  humiliation were somtimes accepted means to ´break the ego´ of a disobedient monk. And because of that strict rule (and also because of the taboo on individualism prevalent in the whole of Asian culture) the Asian Buddhist was altogether different from his Western counterpart. When Chögyam Trungpa came to Europe and to the US, in the seventies, he must have been shocked by the individualism of his new trainees, most of the time hippies and rebellious youngsters, living in a culture of ´free individual expression´ very alien to the Asian way of life. 

Chögyam Trungpa adjusted to the Western style of life, in a way. He laid down his monk´s robe, put on a suit and got married. But he never was able to lay down his more deeply rooted Asian attitudes and mores. He remained very hierarchical in the way he managed the Buddhist community (the sangha). Also in the guru-disciple relationship he remained close to the old Tibetan principles: the disciple had to follow the master in everything; obedience had to be the key word in the mind of the disciple.

These principles, perhaps born out of good intentions, can be very dangerous. For if the master is not fully enlightened it can deteriorate into a power trip, into abuse and exploitation of the good will of the religious adspirant. The Tibetan way of life demands full compliance and obedience, but what if the master is not ´a perfect being´? Remember, the bodhisattva is not such a perfect being. He may be very proficient on the spiritual path, but he is not flawless yet. And here all problems begin. Here all problems began for Chögyam Trungpa also.

Chögyam Trungpa believed in ´crazy wild wisdom´. He believed that the Buddhist trainee had to be shocked out of  his old way of life. For the ego of the new trainee could be very stubborn and sly. Sometimes a gentle approach and gentle treatment was not appropriate to bring the message home. For the mind invents all kinds of defense strategies to keep up its status quo. Sometimes more harsh methods were needed. To be always kind and gentle meant ´idiot compassion´. Sometimes only a shock treatment could offer a cure.

But with this attitude it is very difficult to stay within certain bounds. One may easily slip into violence and abuse. This happened with Chögyam Trungpa on numerous occasions. Infamous is the so called ´Mervin incident´ that happened during a three months retreat at the Naropa Institute in the autumn of 1975. The pacifist poet William Mervin and his wife Dana behaved somehow a bit too critical and too reserved to find grace in the eyes of the guru Chögyam Trungpa and the other trainees. When the pacifist couple, completely in line with their most inward convictions, decided to spend the rest of the evening all by themselves, they were literally dragged out of their room and stripped naked in front of a live audience. When more violence ensued, Dana got so scared that she kept on yelling ´someone call the police!´, having no dharma police in mind, but a real copper.

Various reports tell us that this was not an isolated incident. On more than one occasion Chögyam Trungpa's ´crazy wisdom´ got out of hand. And perhaps the poor fellow is not to be blamed for it; for everyone who has somehow managed to keep alive during the seventies, knows how annoying the hairy hippies behaved at times. But though slapping hairy hippies can probably be fun, it is not fitting for a peace loving bodhisattva, who is trained in simply watching his emotions (and not watching them get out of hand). For with one slap of the hand the whole dharma can be repudiated and the preacher debunked as being a fraud.

But let´s not be too harsh with Chögyam Trungpa. For remember, he never claimed to be an enlightened, perfect being. He lived to show others the path, so they could reach enlightenment also, maybe prior to his own final salvation. So I would rather describe Chögyam Trungpa's life and work as tragic. For he never reached the final rest and bliss he believed to be the center of all existence and which he longed for all of his life. Like a French existentialist philosopher his words became gloomy and somewhat depressing, stressing the first truth of the Buddha a bit too much to be fully healthy. So it´s no small wonder that he finally sought consolation in liquor, for the inner conflict between his hope in everlasting happiness and the real state of his inner life was sometimes too much to bear. For his own salvation it would probably have been better if he had remained a mere nothing, instead of the new pope of American Buddhism. But then he would not have reached the thousands of Westerners who now find a refuge in the sangha. And wouldn´t that be tragic also?

So let us not put a verdict on the life of Chögyam Trungpa, but let´s focus instead on the beautiful message he brought to the New World. For his message was the message of the Buddha, a compelling exhortation to make a one hundred and eighty degree turn and turn inward, to find the inner life. Chögyam Trungpa introduced the meditation technique of ´mindfulness´ (vipassana) to his Western audience. He taught them how to observe one´s thoughts and emotions without repression, without evaluating or judging, but with letting your mind and heart be just as they are. Eventually this still witnessing of one´s inner life would transform you, but only after one had learned about all that passed across one´s mind´s screen with equinamity and gentleness.

Chögyam Trungpa warned his students against the danger of, what he called, ´spiritual materialism´: the expectation and the hope of getting happiness, benefit, prosperity, or atleast ´something´, out of the practise of meditation. Then we would be just as materialtistic in our spiritual life as we´d always been in our consumer´s life. He warned against expectations and wanting to see results right away. Instead of future orientated our inner life had to become present orientated. And how could there be results in the here-now? Results can only be in the future. We have to perform meditation in the present, at the no-spot in time and place. So forget all about purpose and results.

For then meditation becomes just another ego embellishment. `I` am performing this thing called meditation to have a better ´me´ and it will make me feel and look superb! Everyone will see what good a person I really am, now being Buddhist and all, practicing meditation, talking with real Tibetan buddhist monks and starting a new life!  But then it turns out to be just another power trip, to look better, to be more successful and to have a one-up by being able to tell others how to live the right way. This can be the greatest pitfall one can stumble into, that one wants to retain the old me, but just a little bit more shining and polished now. 

But according to Chögyam Trungpa's buddhist teaching, there is no solid `I´ to begin with. The `I´ is just a concept invented to escape the notion that all life, also the inner life, is fleeting and subject to Trungpachange. When is your `I´ something permanent and abiding? One tries hard every day to have a constant and unwavering ´I´, but it never works. Sooner or later one has to give up trying. For thoughts about the self change, and moods, which to a large extent give us the feeling of being an ´I´, also change. The next moment you are a completely different person than you were just a while ago. Were has the old `I´ gone to? Will it come back again? Why do I feel so completely different now than I felt yesterday?

Our mind tries very hard to conceptualize a solid `I´, because the mind loaths change. It cannot life with change. It has to invent something permanent, something secure, something everlastingly the same, for it can only verbalize and logicalize reality. Giving a word to something, conceptualizing something, means making something solid, hard, non-fleeting. But in fact this is distorting reality. It is a lie. Reality is always becoming, change. If we want to be happy, we have to confront reality as it is. We have to accept that there is no ´I´ to begin with. This hurts. For if I have no ´I´ , who is this beautiful, loving, spiritual, powerful person that I like myself to be? Or who is this very modest person who questions me being beautiful, loving, spiritual or powerful?

The Buddha summons us to wake up from this `I´ dream. There is only emptiness if we close our eyes and go beyond our thoughts and feelings. Life is just a mere nothing. Whether this nothingness has some final Ground, we cannot tell, because it is far beyond the capacity of our mind to comprehend the quality of its vastness. Buddha remained silent when somebody asked about the Ground of this nothingness, indicating it to be impossible to speak about. So Buddha chose to negate everything and to stay in sunyata. For he knew that emptiness was blissfulness. He was very honest. He never pretended to know more. Buddha was a nihilist.

This may give the impression that the teaching of the Buddha is very pessimistic and nihilistic in a depressing sense. But this may only seem so to people who have never experienced the utter blissfulness of living in total emptiness. Most people are afraid of the emptiness of their lives and try to run away from it all the time. With exhaustive energy they fill their days with shunning the emptiness of their lives. Like the proverbial donkey they keep on running after the carrot of their activity, but they never seem to get anywhere or to reach something. All the Buddha is saying is: ´stop! confront your emptiness! it is the only real thing in your life; make friends with it, if you want to be happy!´

This is the beautiful message Chögyam Trungpa wanted to transmit to future generations in all parts of the world. That the teaching of the Buddha may never be lost. For years on end he gave lectures about Buddhism and taught meditation. But somehow he missed the point, like many a bodhisattva before him. He never succeeded in becoming that mere nothing his Master wanted him to be. Perhaps he should have listened more carefully to the words of Tilopa.

Amsterdam, June 14 2005

Chögyam Trungpa

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was one of the most dynamic teachers of Buddhism in the 20th Century. He was a pioneer in bringing the Buddhist teachings of Tibet to the West and is credited for introducing many important Buddhist concepts into the English language and psyche in a fresh and unique way. No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary cites his use of the word ego in one of its definitions.

He started the first Buddhist-inspired University in North America: The Naropa University; founded more than 100 meditation centers throughout the world; authored two dozen popular books on meditation, Buddhism, poetry, art and the Shambhala path of warriorship; brought many of the great Tibetan lineage holders to North America for the first time; and attracted several thousand students who have continued to spread his teachings and his legacy into the new milllenium.


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