Chögyam Trungpa PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 19 January 2009 16:26

Chögyam Trungpa

Born: February 1939 Kham region, Tibet

Died: April 4, 1987 Halifax, Nova Scotia

Age: 48

Cause of death: Heart failure.

Notable because:  Significant figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

Chögyam Trungpa was a Buddhist meditation master, scholar, teacher, poet, artist, and a Trungpa tülku. Widely recognized, both by Tibetan Buddhists and by other spiritual practitioners and scholars, as a preeminent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, he was a major figure in the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism to the West, founding Vajradhatu and Naropa University and establishing the Shambhala Training method. His controversial career is characterized by his style of "crazy wisdom" by his Western followers. Physically weakened by years of heavy alcohol use, he died in terminal stages of heart failure at the age of 48.

Born in the Kham region of Tibet in February 1939, Chögyam Trungpa was eleventh in the line of Trungpa tülkus, important figures in the Kagyu lineage, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism that is renowned for its strong emphasis on meditation practice. Among his three main teachers were Jamgon Kongtrul of Sechen, HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and Khenpo Gangshar.

The name Chögyam is a contraction of Chögyi Gyatso which means "ocean of dharma". Trungpa  means "attendant". He was deeply trained in the Kagyu tradition and received his khenpo degree at the same time as Thrangu Rinpoche; they continued to be very close in later years. Chögyam Trungpa was also trained in the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the four schools, and was an adherent of the ri-me ("nonsectarian") ecumenical movement within Tibetan Buddhism, which aspired to bring together and make available all the valuable teachings of the different schools, free of sectarian rivalry.

Already installed as the head of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet, Chögyam Trungpa was forced to flee the country in 1959, at the age of twenty. Barely escaping the Chinese invasion, he and a small party of monks crossed the Himalaya on foot and on horseback into India.

From 1959-1963, by appointment of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Chögyam Trungpa served as the spiritual advisor for the Young Lamas Home School in Dalhousie, India.

In exile in India, Trungpa began his study of English. In 1963, with the assistance of sympathetic westerners, he received a scholarship to study Comparative Religion at Oxford University in England. In 1967, he was bequeathed a former hunting lodge in Scotland that had recently been converted to a meditation center by a western Theravadan monk named Anandabodhi, which then became Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West. At this monastery in Scotland, David Bowie was one of Chogyam Trungpa's meditation pupils. In 1970, after a break with his fellow lama Akong Tulku Rinpoche, Trungpa moved to the United States at the invitation of several students.

Shortly after his move to Scotland, a variety of experiences, including a car accident that left him partially paralyzed on the left side of his body, led Trungpa to the decision to give up his monastic vows and work as a lay teacher. This decision was principally motivated by the intention to undercut the temptation of students becoming distracted by exotic cultures and dress, and by their preconceptions of how a guru should behave. He drank, smoked, slept with students, and often kept students waiting for hours before giving teachings. Much of his behavior has been asserted as deliberately provocative and sparked controversies that continue to this day. In one account, he encouraged students to give up smoking marijuana claiming that the smoking was not of benefit to the spiritual progress and that it exaggerated neurosis. Students were often angered, unnerved and intimidated by him, but remained fiercely loyal, committed, and devoted.

Upon moving to the United States in 1970, Trungpa traveled around North America almost constantly, gaining renown for his unique ability to present the essence of the highest Buddhist teachings in a form readily understandable to western students. During this period, he conducted thirteen Vajradhatu Seminaries, three-month residential programs at which he presented a vast body of Buddhist teachings in an atmosphere of intensive meditation practice. The seminaries also had the important function of training his students to become teachers themselves.

In 1973, Trungpa established Vajradhatu, encompassing all his North American institutions, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. Trungpa also founded more than 100 meditation centers throughout the world. Originally known as Dharmadhatus, these centers, now more than 150 in number, are known as Shambhala Meditation Centers. He also founded retreat centers for intensive meditation practice including Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, CO, Karme Choling in Barnet, VT and Gambo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

In 1974, Trungpa founded the Naropa Institute, which later became Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado. Naropa was the first accredited Buddhist university in North America. Chogyam Trungpa hired Allen Ginsberg to teach poetry there and William Burroughs to teach literature there.

Among his most famous and well known students are Pema Chödrön, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Peter Lieberson, José Argüelles and Francisco Varela. Ginsberg, Waldman, and di Prima were also teachers at Naropa University. Some important but less well-known students, whom he taught in England before leaving for the USA, were Alf Vial, Rigdzin Shikpo (né Michael Hookham), and Francesca Fremantle. Rigdzin Shikpo went on to continue Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's teachings from a primarily Nyingma rather than a Kagyü point of view in the Longchen Foundation.

In 1976, Trungpa began giving teachings, some of which were gathered and presented as the Shambhala Training, inspired by his vision (see terma) of the legendary Kingdom of Shambhala. Trungpa had actually started writing about Shambhala before his 1959 escape from Tibet to India, but most of those writings were lost.

In his view not only was individual enlightenment not mythical, but Shambhala Kingdom referred to an enlightened society that could actually be realized. The practice of Shambhala vision is to use mindfulness/awareness meditation as a way to connect with one's basic goodness and confidence, as well as with that of others and the world. Shambhala vision is described as a secular approach, rooted in meditation, but accessible to individuals of any, or no, religion. In Shambhala terms, it is possible, moment by moment, for individuals to establish enlightened society. His book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, provides a concise collection of the Shambhala views.

From the beginning of his time in America, Chögyam Trungpa passionately encouraged his students to integrate a contemplative approach into all of their everyday activities. In addition to making a variety of traditional contemplative practices available to the community, he also incorporated the many already-existing special interests of his students, evolving specialized teachings on how to apply a meditative approach to these various disciplines. These disciplines included kyūdō (Japanese archery), calligraphy, ikebana (flower arranging), chado (Japanese tea ceremony), dance, theater, film, poetry, as well as health care and psychotherapy. His aim was, in his own words, to bring "art to everyday life." He founded the Nalanda Foundation in 1974 as an umbrella organization for these activities.

In 1986, Trungpa, in failing health, moved Vajradhatu's headquarters to Halifax, Nova Scotia. On September 28th he suffered cardiac arrest, subsequent to which his condition deteriorated further, requiring intensive care in hospital, then at his home, and finally back at the hospital in mid-March 1987, where he died on April 4th. His wife Diana Mukpo summarizes: "Although he had many of the classic health problems that develop from heavy drinking, it was in fact more likely the diabetes and high blood pressure that led to abnormal blood sugar levels and then the cardiac arrest". One of his nursing attendants reports that in his last months, he suffered from incontinence, distended belly, discolored skin, hallucinations, varicose veins, gastritis, and esophageal varices -- classic symptoms of terminal alcoholism and cirrhosis -- and yet he was still drinking heavily. She adds, "At the same time there was a power about him and an equanimity to his presence that was phenomenal, that I don't know how to explain."

He is reported to have been in a state of samādhi for five days after his death, his body not immediately decaying and his heart remaining warm. His body was packed in salt and laid into a wooden box to be delivered to Karmê Chöling, a major meditation center in Barnet, Vermont. His cremation there on May 26, 1987 is said to have been accompanied by a number of traditional signs demonstrating his enlightenment, including the appearance of rainbows and of eagles circling.

Upon the death of Chögyam Trungpa, the leadership of Vajradhatu was first carried on by his American disciple, appointed regent and Dharma heir, Ösel Tendzin (Thomas Rich), and then by Trungpa's eldest son and Shambhala heir, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

The next Trungpa tülku, Chokyi Sengay, was recognized in 1991 by Tai Situ Rinpoche.

Chögyam Trungpa's style of teaching was often unconventional. In his own words, "When we talk about compassion we talk in terms of being kind. But compassion is not so much being kind; it is being creative to wake a person up." He did not encourage his students to imitate his own behavior, and he was troubled by those who felt empowered by his example to do whatever they wanted and manipulate people. As the third Jamgön Kongtrül explained in a teaching given to students of Chögyam Trungpa, "You shouldn't imitate or judge the behavior of your teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, unless you can imitate his mind."

There exist a number of controversies surrounding Trungpa's behavior.

He was known for his drinking of alcohol. Before his coming to America, Trungpa, while under the influence, drove a sports car into a joke shop in Dumfries, Scotland. He was left partially paralyzed and often in need of assistance to walk. On some occasions he was carried off-stage for being too drunk. David Chadwick recounts:

Suzuki [Roshi] asked Trungpa to give a talk to the students in the zendo the next night. Trungpa walked in tipsy and sat on the edge of the altar platform with his feet dangling. But he delivered a crystal-clear talk, which some felt had a quality – like Suzuki's talks – of not only being about the dharma but being itself the dharma.

An incident that became a cause célèbre among some poets and artists was the Halloween party at the Fall, 1975, Snowmass Colorado Seminary, a 3-month period of intensive meditation and study of the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana vehicles of Tibetan Buddhism. The poet W. S. Merwin had arrived that summer at the Naropa Institute and been told by Allen Ginsberg that he ought to visit seminary. Although he had not gone through the several years worth of practice required, Merwin was insistent he attend, and Trungpa eventually granted his request – along with his girlfriend as well. At seminary the couple stayed to themselves. At the Halloween party, after many, including Trungpa himself, had taken off their clothes, Merwin was asked to join the event, but refused. On Trungpa's orders his Vajra Guard forced entry into the poet's locked and barricaded room; brought him and his girlfriend, Dana Naone, against their will, to the party; and eventually stripped them of all their clothes, onlookers ignoring Naone's pleas for help and for someone to call the police. The next day Trungpa asked Merwin and Naone to remain at the Seminary as either students or guests. They agreed to stay for several more weeks to hear the Vajrayana teachings (which center around samaya), with Trungpa's promise that "there would be no more incidents," and Merwin and Naone's assertion that "it would be with no guarantees of obedience, trust, or personal devotion to him." They left immediately after the last talk. In a 1977 letter to members of a Naropa class investigating the incident, Merwin concluded,

My feelings about Trungpa have been mixed from the start. Admiration, throughout, for his remarkable gifts; and reservations, which developed into profound misgivings, concerning some of his uses of them. I imagine, at least, that I've learned some things from him (though maybe not all of them were the things I was 'supposed' to learn) and some through him, and I'm grateful to him for those. I wouldn't encourage anyone to become a student of his. I wish him well.

Author Jeffery Paine commented on this incident that "Seeing Merwin out of step with the rest, Trungpa could have asked him to leave, but decided it was kinder to shock him out of his aloofness." However, he also notes outrage felt in particular by poets such as Robert Bly and Kenneth Rexroth, who began calling Trungpa a fascist. Rexroth (in Miles, 1989) offers the observation that "Many believe Chögyam Trungpa has unquestionably done more harm to Buddhism in the United States than any man living", and called for his extradition from the United States.

Trungpa's choice of Westerner Ösel Tendzin as his dharma heir was controversial as Tendzin would be the first Western Tibetan Buddhist lineage holder and Vajra Regent. This was exacerbated by Tendzin's own behavior as lineage holder. Tendzin was gay and sexually involved with students while knowingly carrying HIV.

Rick Fields, historian of Buddhism in America, writes that Trungpa "caused more trouble, and did more good, than anyone I'll ever know."

Despite these controversies, major lineage holders of his own Tibetan Buddhist traditions and many other Buddhist teachers supported his work.

In 1974, Trungpa invited the Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu lineage, to come to the west and offer teachings. Based on this visit, the Karmapa proclaimed Trungpa to be one of the principal Kagyu lineage holders in the west:

The ancient and renowned lineage of the Trungpas, since the great siddha Trungmase Chökyi Gyamtso Lodrö, possessor of only holy activity, has in every generation given rise to great beings. Awakened by the vision of these predecessors in the lineage, this my present lineage holder, Chökyi Gyamtso Trungpa Rinpoche, supreme incarnate being, has magnificently carried out the vajra holders discipline in the land of America, bringing about the liberation of students and ripening them in the dharma. This wonderful truth is clearly manifest. Accordingly, I empower Chögyam Trungpa Vajra Holder and Possessor of the Victory Banner of the Practice Lineage of the Karma Kagyu. Let this be recognized by all people of both elevated and ordinary station.

In 1981, Chögyam Trungpa and his students hosted the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in his visit to Boulder, Colorado. Of Trungpa, he later wrote, "Exceptional as one of the first Tibetan lamas to become fully assimilated into Western culture, he made a powerful contribution to revealing the Tibetan approach to inner peace in the West."

Chögyam Trungpa also received support from one of his own main teachers, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma lineage. In addition to numerous sadhanas and poems dedicated to Trungpa, Khyentse Rinpoche wrote a supplication after Trungpa's death specifically naming him a mahasiddha.

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche said, "As taught in the Buddhist scriptures, there are nine qualities of a perfect master of buddhadharma. The eleventh Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche possessed all nine of these." 

Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and another important exponent of Buddhism to western students, described Trungpa Rinpoche in the context of a talk about emptiness:

The way you can struggle with this is to be supported by something, something you don't know. As we are human beings, there must be that kind of feeling. You must feel it in this city or building or community. So whatever community it may be, it is necessary for it to have this kind of spiritual support. That is why I respect Trungpa Rinpoche. He is supporting us. You may criticize him because he drinks alcohol like I drink water, but that is a minor problem. He trusts you completely. He knows that if he is always supporting you in a true sense you will not criticize him, whatever he does. And he doesn't mind whatever you say. That is not the point, you know. This kind of big spirit, without clinging to some special religion or form of practice, is necessary for human beings.

Gehlek Rinpoche, who lived with Trungpa Rinpoche when they were young monks in India and later visited and taught with him in the U.S., remarked:

He was a great Tibetan yogi, a friend, and a master. The more I deal with Western Dharma students, the more I appreciate how he presented the dharma and the activities that he taught. Whenever I meet with difficulties, I begin to understand – sometimes before solving the problem, sometimes afterward – why Trungpa Rinpoche did some unconventional things. I do consider him to be the father of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States. In my opinion, he left very early – too early. His death was a great loss. Everything he did is significant.

Diana Mukpo, his wife, stated :

First, Rinpoche always wanted feedback. He very, very much encouraged his students’ critical intelligence. One of the reasons that people were in his circle was that they were willing to be honest and direct with him. He definitely was not one of those teachers who asked for obedience and wanted their students not to think for themselves. He thrived, he lived, on the intelligence of his students. That is how he built his entire teaching situation.

From my perspective, I could always be pretty direct with him. Maybe I was not hesitant to do that because I really trusted the unconditional nature of our relationship. I felt there was really nothing to lose by being absolutely direct with him, and he appreciated that.


1940: Born in Kham, Eastern Tibet. Enthroned as eleventh Trungpa Tulku, Supreme Abbot of Surmang Monasteries, and Governor of Surmang District. Some put his birth in 1939.

1944–59: Studies traditional monastic disciplines, meditation, and philosophy, as well as calligraphy, thangka painting, and monastic dance.

1947: Ordained as a shramanera (novice monk).

1958: Receives degrees of Kyorpön (Doctor of Divinity) and Khenpo (Master of Studies). Ordained as a bhikshu (full monk).

1959–60: Escapes to India during the Chinese invasion of Tibet amidst the increasing suppression of the Buddhist religion.

1960–63: By appointment of the Dalai Lama, serves as spiritual advisor to the Young Lamas' Home School in Dalhousie, India.

1962: Sires first son, Ösel Rangdröl (Mukpo), by a nun later referred to as Lady Kunchok Palden (or Lady Konchok Palden).

1963–67: Attends Oxford University on a Spaulding scholarship, studying comparative religion, philosophy, and fine arts. Receives instructor's degree in Sogetsu School of Japanese flower arrangement founded by Master Sofu Teshigahara.

1967: Founds Samyê-Ling, a meditation center in Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

1968: Receives The Sadhana of Mahamudra terma text while on retreat in Taktshang, a sacred cliffside monastery in Bhutan.

1969: Becomes the first Tibetan British subject. Injured in a car accident, leaving him partially paralyzed. Relinquishes monastic vows and robes.

1970: Renounces monastic vows and marries wealthy sixteen year old disciple Diana Judith Pybus. Arrives in North America. Establishes Tail of the Tiger, a Buddhist meditation and study center in Vermont, now known as Karmê Chöling. Establishes Karma Dzong, a Buddhist community in Boulder, Colorado.

1971: Begins teaching at University of Colorado. Establishes Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, now known as Shambhala Mountain Center, near Fort Collins, Colorado.

1972: Initiates Maitri, a therapeutic program that works with different styles of neurosis using principles of the five buddha families. Conducts the Milarepa Film Workshop, a program which analyzes the aesthetics of film, on Lookout Mountain, Colorado.

1973: Founds Mudra Theater Group, which stages original plays and practices theater exercises, based on traditional Tibetan dance. Incorporates Vajradhatu, an international association of Buddhist meditation and study centers, now known as Shambhala International. Establishes Dorje Khyung Dzong, a retreat facility in southern Colorado. Conducts first annual Vajradhatu Seminary, a three-month advanced practice and study program.

1974: Incorporates Nalanda Foundation, a nonprofit, nonsectarian educational organization to encourage and organize programs in the fields of education, psychology, and the arts. Hosts the first North American visit of His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyü lineage. Founds The Naropa Institute, a contemplative studies and liberal arts college, now fully accredited as Naropa University. Forms the organization that will become the Dorje Kasung, a service group entrusted with the protection of the buddhist teachings and the welfare of the community.

1975: Forms the organization that will become the Shambhala Lodge, a group of students dedicated to fostering enlightened society. Founds the Nalanda Translation Committee for the translation of Buddhist texts from Tibetan and Sanskrit. Establishes Ashoka Credit Union.

1976: Hosts the first North American visit of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, revered meditation master and scholar of the Nyingma lineage. Hosts a visit of His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma lineage. Empowers Thomas F. Rich as his dharma heir, known thereafter as Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin. Establishes the Kalapa Court in Boulder, Colorado, as his residence and a cultural center for the Vajradhatu community. Receives the first of several Shambhala terma texts (see termas). These comprise the literary source for the Shambhala teachings. Founds Alaya Preschool in Boulder, Colorado.

1977: Bestows the Vajrayogini abhisheka for the first time in the West for students who have completed ngöndro practice. Establishes the celebration of Shambhala Day. Observes a year-long retreat in Charlemont, Massachusetts. Founds Shambhala Training to promote a secular approach to meditation practice and an appreciation of basic human goodness. Visits Nova Scotia for the first time.

1978: Conducts the first annual Magyal Pomra Encampment, an advanced training program for members of the Dorje Kasung. Conducts the first annual Kalapa Assembly, an intensive training program for advanced Shambhala teachings and practices. Conducts the first Dharma Art seminar. Forms Amara, an association of health professionals. Forms the Upaya Council, a mediation council providing a forum for resolving disputes. Establishes the Midsummer's Day festival and Children's Day.

1979: Empowers his eldest son, Ösel Rangdröl Mukpo, as his successor and heir to the Shambhala lineage. Founds the Shambhala School of Dressage, an equestrian school under the direction of his wife, Lady Diana Mukpo. Founds Vidya Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado.

1980–83: Presents a series of environmental installations and flower arranging exhibitions at art galleries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and Boulder.

1980: Forms Kalapa Cha to promote the practice of traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony. With the Nalanda Translation Committee, completes the first English translation of The Rain of Wisdom.

1981: Hosts the visit of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to Boulder, Colorado. Conducts the first annual Buddhist-Christian Conference in Boulder, Colorado, exploring the common ground between Buddhist and Christian contemplative traditions. Forms Ryuko Kyūdōjō to promote the practice of Zen Archery under the direction of Shibata Kanjuro Sensei, bow maker to the Emperor of Japan. Directs a film, Discovering Elegance, using footage of his environmental installation and flower arranging exhibitions.

1982: Forms Kalapa Ikebana to promote the study and practice of Japanese flower arranging.

1983: Establishes Gampo Abbey, a Karma Kagyü monastery located in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for Western students wishing to enter into traditional monastic discipline. Creates a series of elocution exercises to promote precision and mindfulness of speech.

1984–85: Observes a year-long retreat in Mill Village, Nova Scotia.

1986: Moves his home and the international headquarters of Vajradhatu to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

1987: Dies of an alcohol-related illness, April 4, in Halifax; cremated May 26 at Karmê Chöling. (His followers have constructed a chorten or stupa, The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, located near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, for his remains.)

1989: The child recognized as his reincarnation, Chokyi Sengay, is born in Derge, Tibet; recognized two years later by Tai Situ Rinpoche.

 

Last Updated on Monday, 19 January 2009 16:34
 

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