As the eleventh incarnation of the Trungpa Tulku, the milk-fed sage was raised from his childhood to be the supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet.
Having been enthroned in Tibet as heir to the lineages of Milarepa and Padmasambhava, Trungpa left the country for India in 1959, fleeing the Chinese Communist takeover.
There, by appointment of the Dalai Lama, he served as the spiritual advisor for the Young Lamas Home School in Dalhousie, until 1963
From India Chögyam went to England, studying comparative religion and psychology at Oxford University.
(A later student of Trungpa’s, Al Santoli, “suggests that the CIA may have had a hand in getting the eleventh Trungpa into Oxford” [Clark, 1980].)
He further caused quite a stir in clashing with another tulku adversary (Akong) of his who, like Trungpa himself, had designs on leading their lineage in the West.
In any case, Trungpa and Akong went on to found the first Western-hemisphere Tibetan Buddhist meditation center, in Scotland, which community was visited by the American poet Robert Bly in 1971.
That same center later became of interest to the police as they investigated allegations of drug abuse there. Trungpa, not himself prone to “missing the point,” avoided that bust by hiding in a stable.
In 1969 Chögyam experienced a tragic automobile accident which left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. The car had careened into a joke shop (seriously); Trungpa had been driving drunk at the time
(Das, 1997), to the point of blacking out at the wheel
Note, now, that Trungpa did not depart from Tibet for India until age twenty, and did not leave India for his schooling in England until four years later. Thus, eleven years of his having “had women” were enacted within surrounding traditional Tibetan and northern Indian attitudes toward acceptable behavior (on the part of monks, etc.). Indeed, according to the son referenced above, both his mother and Trungpa were under vows of celibacy, in Tibet, at the time of their union
(Dykema, 2003). Of the three hundred monks entrusted to him when he was enthroned as supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries, Trungpa himself
(1977) remarked that
one hundred and seventy were bhikshus (fully ordained monks), the remainder being shramaneras (novices) and young upsaka students who had already taken the vow of celibacy.
Obviously, then, Trungpa’s (Sarvastivadin) tradition was not a “monastic” one without celibacy vows, as is the case with Zen.
Further, Trungpa himself did not formally give up his monastic vows to work as a “lay teacher” until sometime after his car accident in England. This, then, is another clear instance of demonstration that traditional agrarian society places no more iron-clad constraints on the behavior of any “divine sage” than does its postmodern, Western counterpart.
Trungpa may have “partied harder” in Europe and the States, but he was already breaking plenty of rules, without censure, back in Tibet and India. Indeed, one could probably reasonably argue that, proportionately, he broke as many social and cultural rules, with as little censure, in Tibet and India as he later did in America. (For blatant examples of what insignificant discipline is visited upon even violent rule-breakers in Tibetan Buddhist society even today, consult Lehnert’s  Rogues in Robes.) Further, Trungpa
(1977) did not begin to act as anyone’s guru until age fourteen, but had women since he was thirteen. He was thus obviously breaking that vow of celibacy with impunity both before and after assuming “God-like” guru status, again in agrarian 1950s Tibet.
In 1970, the recently married Trungpa and his sixteen-year-old, dressage-fancying English wife, Diana, established their permanent residence in the United States. He was soon teaching at the University of Colorado, and in time accumulated around 1500 disciples. Included among those was folksinger Joni Mitchell, who visited the tulku three times, and whose song
“Refuge of the Roads” (from the 1976 album Hejira) contains an opening verse about the guru. Contemporary transpersonal psychologist and author John Welwood, member of the
Board of Editors of The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, is also a long-time follower of Trungpa.
In 1974, Chögyam founded the accredited Naropa Institute in Boulder, Coloradothe first tantric university in America. Instructors and guests at Naropa have included psychiatrist R. D. Laing,
Gregory Bateson, Ram Dass and Allen Ginsbergafter whom the university library was later named. (Ginsberg had earlier spent time with Swami Muktananda [Miles, 1989].)
Also, Marianne Faithfull, avant-garde composer John Cage, and William “Naked Lunch” Burroughs, who had earlier become enchanted (1974, 1995) and then disenchanted with L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. Plus, the infinitely tedious Tibetan scholar and translator Herbert V. Guenther, whose writings, even by dry academic standards, could function well as a natural sedative.
(1997) related his own, more lively experiences, while teaching Indian music for three months at Naropa in the ’70s:
The party energy around [Trungpa] was compelling. In fact, that’s basically what Naropa was: a huge blowout party, twenty-four hours a day....
I was in a very crazed space and very lost. One day, after having sex with three different women, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was traumatized. It was all too much.
Jack Kornfield offered a less “traumatic” recounting of his own days lecturing there, being invited to teach after he and Trungpa had met at a (where else) cocktail party in 1973:
We all had this romantic, idealistic feeling that we were at the beginning of a consciousness movement that was really going to transform the world
(in Schwartz, 1996).
Befitting the leader of such a world-changing effort, in 1974 Trungpa was confirmed as a Vajracarya, or a “spiritual master of the highest level,” by His Holiness the Karmapa Lama, during the latter’s first visit to the West
* * *
The practice of “crazy wisdom” itself rests upon the following theory:
[I]f a bodhisattva is completely selfless, a completely open person, then he will act according to openness, will not have to follow rules; he will simply fall into patterns. It is impossible for the bodhisattva to destroy or harm other people, because he embodies transcendental generosity. He has opened himself completely and so does not discriminate between this and that. He just acts in accordance with what is.... [H]is mind is so precise, so accurate that he never makes mistakes [italics added]. He never runs into unexpected problems, never creates chaos in a destructive way
[O]nce you receive transmission and form the [guru-disciple] bond of samaya, you have committed yourself to the teacher as guru, and from then on, the guru can do no wrong, no matter what. It follows that if you obey the guru in all things, you can do no wrong either. This is the basis of Osel Tendzin’s [Trungpa’s eventual successor] teaching that “if you keep your samaya, you cannot make a mistake.” He was not deviating into his own megalomania when he said this, but repeating the most essential idea of mainstream Vajrayana [i.e., Tantric Buddhism]
Q [student]: What if you feel the necessity for a violent act in order ultimately to do good for a person?
A [Trungpa]: You just do it
A perfect example of going with energy, of the positive wild yogi quality, was the actual transmission of enlightenment from Tilopa to [his disciple] Naropa. Tilopa removed his sandal and slapped Naropa in the face
We could, of course, have learned as much from the Three Stooges.
Q [student]: Must we have a spiritual friend [e.g., a guru] before we can expose ourselves, or can we just open ourselves to the situations of life?
A [Trungpa]: I think you need someone to watch you do it, because then it will seem more real to you. It is easy to undress in a room with no one else around, but we find it difficult to undress ourselves in a room full of people
Yes, there was plenty of undressing. At the Halloween costume party during an annual seminar in the autumn of 1975, for example:
A woman is stripped naked, apparently at Trungpa’s joking command, and hoisted into the air by [his] guards, and passed aroundpresumably in fun, although the woman does not think so (Marin, 1995).
The pacifist poet William Merwin and his wife, Dana, were attending the same three-month retreat, but made the mistake of keeping to themselves within a crowd mentality where that was viewed as offensive “egotism” on their part. Consequently, their perceived aloofness had been resented all summer by the other community members ... and later categorized as “resistance” by Trungpa himself.
Thus, Merwin and his companion showed up briefly for the aforementioned Halloween party, danced only with each other, and then went back to their room.
Trungpa, however, insisted through a messenger that they return and rejoin the party. In response, William and his wife locked themselves in their room, turned off the lights ... and soon found themselves on the receiving end of a group of angry, drunken spiritual seekers, who proceeded to cut their telephone line, kick in the door (at Trungpa’s command) and break a window (Miles, 1989).
Panicked, but discerning that broken glass is mightier than the pen, the poet defended himself by smashing bottles over several of the attacking disciples, injuring a friend of his. Then, mortified and giving up the struggle, he and his wife were dragged from the room.
[Dana] implored that someone call the police, but to no avail. She was insulted by one of the women in the hallway and a man threw wine in her face (Schumacher, 1992).
And then, at the feet of the wise guru, after Trungpa had “told Merwin that he had heard the poet was making a lot of trouble”:
[Merwin:] I reminded him that we never promised to obey him. He said, “Ah, but you asked to come” (Miles, 1989).
An argument ensued, during which Trungpa insulted Merwin’s Oriental wife with racist remarks [in return for which she called him a “Nazi”] and threw a glass of saké in the poet’s face (Feuerstein, 1992).
Following that noble display of high realization, Trungpa had the couple forcibly stripped by his henchmenagainst the protests of both Dana and one of the few courageous onlookers, who was punched in the face and called a “son of a bitch” by Trungpa himself for his efforts.
“Guards dragged me off and pinned me to the floor,” [Dana] wrote in her account of the incident.... “I fought and called to friends, men and women whose faces I saw in the crowd, to call the police. No one did.... [One devotee] was stripping me while others held me down. Trungpa was punching [him] in the head, urging him to do it faster. The rest of my clothes were torn off.”
“See?” said Trungpa. “It’s not so bad, is it?” Merwin and Dana stood naked, holding each other, Dana sobbing (Miles, 1989).
Finally, others stripped voluntarily and Trungpa, apparently satisfied, said “Let’s dance” (Marin, 1995). “And so they did.”
And that, kiddies, is what they call “authentic Tibetan Buddhism.”
Don’t let your parents find out: Soon they won’t even let you say your prayers before bedtime, for fear that it might be a “gateway” to the hard-core stuff.
The scandal ensuing from the above humiliation became known as, in all seriousness, “the great Naropa poetry wars.”
It was, indeed, commemorated in the identical title of a must-read (though sadly out of print) book by Tom Clark (1980).
If you need to be cured of the idea that Trungpa was anything but a “power-hungry ex-monarch” alcoholic fool, that is the book to read.
(Interestingly, a poll taken by the Naropa student newspaper in the late ’70s disclosed that nine of twenty-six students at their poetry school regarded Trungpa as being either a “total fraud” or very near to the same.)
For his journalistic efforts, Clark was rewarded with “lots of hang-up phone calls,” presumably as an intimidation tactic on the part of Trungpa’s loyal followers.
And incredibly, even after enduring the above reported abuse, Merwin and Dana chose to remain at the seminary for Trungpa’s subsequent Vajrayana lectures.
At any rate, Chögyam’s own
(1977) presentation of the goings-on at his “seminars,” even well after the Merwin incident, predictably paled in comparison to their realities:
I initiated the annual Vajradhatu Seminary, a three-month intensive practice and study retreat for mature students. The first of these seminaries, involving eighty students, took place ... in the autumn of 1973. Periods of all-day sitting meditation alternated with a study programme methodically progressing through the three yanas of Buddhist teaching, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana.
“Mature, methodical progression,” however, does not quite capture the mood earlier expressed by the traumatized Das or the involuntarily stripped Merwin and his wife.
How then is one to understand Chögyam’s “extra-curricular” activities within the context of such Vajrayana teachings?
The notorious case involving Trungpa ... was given all sorts of high explanations by his followers, none of whom got the correct one: Trungpa made an outrageous, inexcusable, and completely stupid mistake, period
Trungpa’s own insistence, however, was again always that he and his enlightened ilk “never make mistakes.” (The explicit quote to that effect, above, is from 1973a full decade prior to Wilber’s attempted, and wholly failed, explanation.) Rather, the day following the Merwin “incident,” Trungpa simply posted an open letter to everyone at the retreat, effectively explaining his previous night’s behavior as part of his “teaching.” No apology was offered by him, and he certainly did not regard himself as having made any “mistake” whatsoever (Marin, 1995).
Even in the late ’70s, when Allen Ginsberg asked Trungpa, “was it a mistake? He said, ‘Nope’” (in Clark, 1980).
Ginsberg himself, too, “said Trungpa may have been guilty of indiscretion, but he had not been wrong in the way he had behaved” (Schumacher, 1992).
And indeed, any disciple who might ever question the stated infallibility of such a guru would again only be demonstrating his own disloyalty. The only “option” for any obedient follower is then, quite obviously, to find a “high explanation” for the activities.
“I was wrong,” Trungpa might have said. Or, “he was wrong,” his disciples might have said. But they cannot say such things. It would interfere too much with the myth [of Trungpa’s supernatural enlightenment] they have chosen to believe....
I think back to a conversation I recently had with the director of Naropa’s summer academic program.... [W]hen, in the course of the conversation, I asked him whether Trungpa can make a mistake, he answered: “You know, a student has to believe his master can make no mistake. Sometimes Trungpa may do something I don’t understand. But I must believe what he does is always for the best” (Marin, 1995).
In 1978, the emotionally involved Allen Ginsberg was confronted with the suggestion that the obedience of Trungpa’s followers in the “Merwin incident” might be compared to that of participants in the Jonestown mass suicides. He then gave his own heated, and utterly irrational, analysis:
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! Anythingsymbolically
(in Clark, 1980).
Further, regarding Wilber’s intimation that the guru’s actions were an isolated “mistake”: When a former resident of Trungpa’s community was asked, in 1979, whether the “Merwin incident” was a characteristic happening, or a singular occurrence, she responded (in Clark, 1980):
It is a typical incident, it is not an isolated example. At every seminary, as far as I know,
there was a confrontation involving violence.
In any case, the regarding of such actions as Chögyam’s versus Merwin, as being simple “mistakes,” certainly could not explain away the reported premeditated means by which disciples were kept in line within Trungpa’s community:
We were admonished ... not to talk about our practice. “May I shrivel up instantly and rot,” we vowed, “if I ever discuss these teachings with anyone who has not been initiated into them by a qualified master.” As if this were not enough, Trungpa told us that if we ever tried to leave the Vajrayana, we would suffer unbearable, subtle, continuous anguish, and disasters would pursue us like furies....
To be part of Trungpa’s inner circle, you had to take a vow never to reveal or even discuss some of the things he did. This personal secrecy is common with gurus, especially in Vajrayana Buddhism. It is also common in the dysfunctional family systems of alcoholics and sexual abusers. This inner circle secrecy puts up an almost insurmountable barrier to a healthy skeptical mind....
[T]he vow of silence means that you cannot get near him until you have already given up your own perception of enlightenment and committed yourself to his
The traditional Vajrayana teachings on the importance of loyalty to the guru are no less categorical:
Breaking tantric samaya [i.e., leaving one’s guru] is more harmful than breaking other vows. It is like falling from an airplane compared to falling from a horse (Tulku Thondup, in [Panchen and Wangyi, 1996]).
In many texts, the consequences of breaking with one’s guru are told in graphic terms, for it is believed that, once having left a guru, a disciple’s spiritual progress “comes to an absolute end” because “he never again meets with a spiritual master,” and he is subject to “endless wandering in the lower realms.” In the case of disrespect for the guru, it is said in the texts that if the disciple “comes to despise his Guru, he encounters many problems in the same life and then experiences a violent death” (Campbell, 1996, quoting from [Dhargyey, 1974]).
Such constraints on the disciple place great power into the hands of the guru-figurepower which Trungpa, like countless others before and after him, was not shy about exercising and preserving.
[Trungpa] was protected by bodyguards known as the Vajra Guard, who wore blue blazers and received specialized training that included haiku composition and flower arranging. On one occasion, to test a student guard’s alertness, Trungpa hurled himself from a staircase, expecting to be caught. The guard was inattentive, and Trungpa landed on his head, requiring a brief visit to the hospital (Miles, 1989).
We could, of course, have learned as much from Inspector Clouseau.
Or, expressed in haiku (if not in flower arranging):
Hopped up on saké
I throw myself down the stairs
No one to catch me
I was scolded by one of his disciples for laughing at Trungpa. He was a nut. But they were very offended....
He had women bodyguards in black dresses and high heels packing automatics standing in a circle around him while they served saké and invited me over for a chat. It was bizarre (Gary Snyder, in
Interestingly, Trungpa considered the SFZC’s Shunryu Suzuki to be his “spiritual father,” while Suzuki considered the former to be “like my son”
(in Chadwick, 1999).
* * *
There is a actually a very easy way to tell whether or not any “sage’s” “crazy wisdom” treatment of others is really a “skillful means,” employed to enlighten the people toward whom it is directed.
Consider that we would not attempt to evaluate whether a person is a hypochondriac, for example, when he is in the hospital, diagnosed with pneumonia or worse, and complaining about that. Rather, hypochondria shows when a person is certified to be perfectly healthy, but still worries neurotically that every little pain may be an indication of a serious illness.
We would likewise not attempt to evaluate any author’s polemics in situations where the “righteous anger” may have been provoked, and may be justifiable as an attempt to “awaken” the people at whom it is directed, or even just to give them a “taste of their own medicine.” If we can find the same polemic being thrown around in contexts where it was clearly unprovoked, however, we may be certain that there is more to the author’s motivations than such claimed high-minded ideals. That is, we may be confident that he is doing it for his own benefit, in blowing off steam, or simply enjoying dissing others whose ideas he finds threatening. In short, such unprovoked polemics would give us strong reason to believe that the author is not being honest with himself regarding the supposedly noble basis of his own anger.
We would not attempt to evaluate the “skillful means” by which any claimed “sage” puts his followers into psychological binds, etc., in their native guru-disciple contexts, where such actions may be justified. Rather, we would instead look at how the guru-figure interacts with others in situations where his hypocritical or allegedly abusive actions cannot be excused as attempts to awaken them. If we find the same reported abusive behaviors in his interactions with non-disciples as we find in his interactions with his close followers, the most generous position is to “subtract” the “baseline” of the non-disciple interactions from the guru-disciple ones. If the alleged “skillful means” (of anger and reported “Rude Boy” abuse) are present equally in both sets, they cancel out, and were thus never “skillful” to begin with. Rather, they were simply the transplanting of pre-existing despicable behaviors into a context in which they may appear to be acceptable.
In the present context, then, since Akong was never one of Trungpa’s disciples, Chögyam’s poor behavior toward the former cannot be excused as any attempted “skillful means” of awakening him. Merwin and his wife were likewise not disciples of Trungpa. Thus, his disciplining of them for not joining the Halloween party arguably provides another example of the guru humiliating others only for his own twisted enjoyment, not for their spiritual good.
We will find good use for this “contextual comparison” method when evaluating the reported behaviors of many other “crazy wisdom” or “Rude Boy” gurus and their supporters, in the coming chapters.
* * *
Allen [Ginsberg] asked Trungpa why he drank so much. Trungpa explained he hoped to determine the illumination of American drunkenness. In the United States, he said, alcohol was the main drug, and he wanted to use his acquired knowledge of drunkenness as a source of wisdom (Schumacher, 1992).
[Trungpa’s] health had begun to fail. He spent nearly a year and a half in a semicoma, nearly dying on a couple of occasions, before finally succumbing to a heart attack (Schumacher, 1992).
Before he died of acute alcoholism in 1987, Trungpa appointed an American acolyte named Thomas Rich, also known as Osel Tendzin, as his successor. Rich, a married father of four, died of AIDS in 1990 amid published reports that he had had unprotected sex with [over a hundred] male and female students without telling them of his illness
Tendzin offered to explain his behavior at a meeting which I attended. Like all of his talks, this was considered a teaching of dharma, and donations were solicited and expected
Having forked over the requisite $35 “offering,” Butterfield was treated to Tendzin’s dubious explanation:
In response to close questioning by students, he first swore us to secrecy (family secrets again), and then said that Trungpa had requested him to be tested for HIV in the early 1980s and told him to keep quiet about the positive result. Tendzin had asked Trungpa what he should do if students wanted to have sex with him, and Trungpa’s reply was that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, it did not matter, because they would not get the disease. Tendzin’s answer, in short, was that he had obeyed the instructions of his guru. He said we must not get trapped in the dualism of good and evil, there has never been any stain, our anger is the compassion of the guru, and we must purify all obstacles that prevent us from seeing the world as a sacred mandala
of buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Yet, in spite of that, and well after all of those serious problems in behavior had become widely known, we still have this untenable belief being voiced, by none other than Ken Wilber
“Crazy wisdom” occurs in a very strict ethical atmosphere.
If all of the above was occurring within a “very strict ethical atmosphere,” however, one shudders to think of what horrors an unethical atmosphere might unleash. Indeed, speaking of one of the unduly admired individuals whom we shall meet later, an anonymous poster with much more sense rightly made the following self-evident point:
One problem with the whole idea of the “crazy-wise” teacher is that [Adi] Da can claim to embody anyone or anything, engage in any sort of ethical gyration at all, and, regardless of disciples’ reactions, Da can simply claim his action was motivated as “another teaching.” He thus places himself in a position where he is utterly immune from any ethical judgment (in
Bob, 2000; italics added).
More plainly, there can obviously be no such thing as a “strict ethical atmosphere” in any “crazy wisdom” environment.
But perhaps Trungpa and Tendzina former close disciple of Satchidananda, who was actually in charge of the latter’s Integral Yoga Institute in the early ’70s (Fields, 1992)had simply corrupted that traditional “atmosphere” for their own uses? Sadly, no:
Certain journalists, quoting teachers from other Buddhist sects, have implied that Trungpa did not teach real Buddhism but a watered-down version for American consumption, or that his teaching was corrupted by his libertine outlook. After doing Vajrayana practices, reading texts on them by Tibetan authorities, and visiting Buddhist centers in the United States and Europe, I was satisfied that this allegation is untrue. The practices taught in Vajradhatu are as genuinely Buddhist as anything in the Buddhist world....
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, after the Tendzin scandal, insisted to Vajradhatu students that Trungpa had given them authentic dharma, and they should continue in it exactly as he had prescribed
(Butterfield, 1994; italics added).
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche“Rinpoche” being a title meaning “Precious One”was head of the oldest Nyingma or “Ancient Ones” School of Tibetan Buddhism from 1987 until his death in 1991.
Even with all that, Peter Marin (1995)a non-Buddhist writer who taught for several months at Naropa in 1977still validly observed that the activities at Naropa were relatively tame, compared to the oppression which could be found in other sects.
In the end, though, Andrew Harvey
(2000) put it well:
In general, I think that nearly all of what passes for “crazy wisdom” and is justified as “crazy wisdom” by both master and enraptured disciple is really cruelty and exploitation, not enlightened wisdom at all. In the name of “crazy wisdom” appalling crimes have been rationalized by master and disciple alike, and many lives have been partly or completely devastated.
One is of course still free, even after all that, to respect Trungpa for being up-front about his “drinking and wenching”
(in Downing, 2001), rather than hypocritically hiding those indulgences, as many other guru-figures have allegedly done. That meager remainder, however, obviously pales drastically in comparison with what one might have reasonably expected the legacy of any self-proclaimed “incarnation of Maitreya Bodhisattva” to be. Indeed, by that very criterion of non-hypocrisy, one could admire the average pornographer just as much. Sadly, by the end of this book, that point will only have been reinforced, not in the least diminished, by the many individuals whose questionable influence on other people’s lives has merited their inclusion herein. That is so, whatever their individual psychological motivations for the alleged mistreatment of themselves and of others may have been.
To this day, Trungpa is still widely regarded as being “one of the four foremost popularizers of Eastern spirituality” in the West in the twentieth centurythe other three being Ram Dass, D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts
(Oldmeadow, 2004). Others such as the Buddhist scholar Kenneth Rexroth (in Miles, 1989), though, have offered a less complimentary perspective:
“Many believe Chögyam Trungpa has unquestionably done more harm to Buddhism in the United States than any man living.”
* * *
Sometimes the entire Institute seems like a great joke played by Trungpa on the world: the attempt of an overgrown child to reconstruct for himself a kingdom according to whim (Marin, 1995).
Through all of that celebrated nonsense “for king/guru and country,” the Naropa Institute/University continues to exist to the present day, replete with its “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.” Previous offerings there have included courses in “Investigative Poetry”though, sadly, no corresponding instruction in “Beat Journalism.” Also, at their annual springtime homecoming/reunion, participation in “contemplative ballroom dancing.” (One assumes that this would involve something like practicing vipassana “mindfulness” meditation while dancing. Or perhaps not. Whatever.)
Indeed, a glance at the Naropa website
and alumni reveals that the ’60s are alive and well, and living in Boulderalbeit with psych/environmental majors, for college credit.