Was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche an alcoholic? Dispelling myths with openness.

Via on Apr 26, 2009

trungpa

Was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche an alcoholic?

Did he sleep with some of his students? Was he chauffeured around in a Mercedes?

And, do bears shit in the woods?

The other day I was talking with a newer student of Buddhism, who was falling in love with Chogyam Trungpa—the late Tibetan Buddhist guru largely credited with transmitting esoteric Buddhism into terms immediately accessible to the modern West; the founder of Shambhala and Naropa and a wild and crazy rock star of a guru, particularly in his ever-growing posthumous legend.

The young student, my friend, was making her way through his extensive teachings in books, video, audio. As she cut my hair, she said, “you know, it’s too bad, most people can’t get past his lifestyle—sleeping with all his students, drinking all the time.” He was was chauffeured in a Mercedes, if you want to add anything to the list.

And I wound up my old inner ear recording of what I thought about all that, which I’ve said a thousand times, and answered her. 

Basically, here’s the deal. Chogyam Trungpa didn’t sleep with alll this students, of course—not even many of them. Many of the students he did sleep with were married, but this was the 70s when key parties and wife swapping were far less foreign to fun-lovin’ party animals than they are now. This was the height of the sexual liberation: post-feminism, pre-AIDS.

Trungpa Rinpoche was, like an rock star or leader, incredibly charismatic and attractive to his students. There was, however, then, little sense of power-play. Example: he asked my mom, once, who was lovely and tall and fit, if she’d like to sleep with him. She thought it over, and demurred: I think it’d get too complicated, I’d rather stay just teacher-student. They continued to be as close as close can be, she became a senior teacher and leader in his tradition, and she gets all googly-eyed to this day when you ask her about Trungpa Rinpoche.

Another point to remember: Trungpa was half-paralyzed. He couldn’t walk without assistance. Spending time in bed with Trungpa Rinpoche, one of his consorts once told a crowd (back in the day, his community was very open about all this) was like having a picnic, for the most part. You were just hanging out. It was all very sweet and quiet and meaningful.  

Most importantly, however, and I think this also applies to Beat poet and Trungpa student Allen Ginsberg’s sleeping habits, which were occasionally far more out there—Trungpa Rinpoche was wide open. There was no secretive powerplay behind-the-curtain hypocrisy, secrecy or bullshiite going on. He was who he was.

As for alcohol…yes. He drank a little, much of the time. Every lecture I saw him give, there was a glass of sake. It’s true, everyone drank (and smoked) a lot more commonly back then—it was less of an event, like “Let’s go out for a drink,” than it was something you did while you did other things.

In this case, however, I do think he was susceptible to alcohol. His early administrative and entrepreneurial energy and brilliance changed, along with the color of his skin, after say 1981 or 2 or 3 or certainly by 1984. I remember old students of his regaling me with profound spiritual narratives about how they didn’t serve him the whole beer, and he knew it…some of his handlers and attendants certainly fell into the role of enablers, and he died of liver failure I’ve been told. It gives me great sadness to think that he could be with us, still only 69 years old or so, right now, instead of passing away in 1987. That said, he often told his students he wouldn’t be around for long, and that we were a non-theistic tradition, and that they’d better learn to run and direct things without him—one of the most profound lessons of all, and one my Shambhala community still struggles (often successfully) with. 

As for the Mercedes, the man was a king in the Buddhist tradition. I’d be happy to drive him around myself, today, everyday. He couldn’t drive himself, due to his being partially paralyzed. 

So, I hope that provides context and does away with some confusion on the whole WAS TRUNGPA A CULT FIGURE question. Now, as that young student has done, forget all the entertaining questions and get back to basics: pick up one of his books, right now…and you’ll recall how open, how knowledgeable and energetic and well-studied he was…he was no cultish dilettante. He was perhaps the greatest American Buddhist teacher we’ve run across, a man who galvanized hundreds and thousands of strong personalities with big dreams, and families with simple dreams, and young students with neurosis and sadness…and he told them all the same thing: 

Sit! Sit more! 

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104 Responses to “Was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche an alcoholic? Dispelling myths with openness.”

  1. LaSara says:

    What a beautiful piece. Thank you. It's a gift. One from you, and from him – through you. You've done a good job with carrying on without him.

    Thanks again. Deeply.
    Peace, and gratitude,
    -LaSara
    http://lasarafirefox.com

    • I hope so. It's certainly intended as such, to be open and honest and fair, things which Trungpa Rinpoche was excellent at doing, and which we his students aren't always so good at.

      • LaSara says:

        I just got to hear some of Trungpa's words on a recording, and it was just what I needed to hear. Let go of the past. Let go of the future. Be present. (Paraphrase, of course.) It is amazing when we become present in this now – the eternal, ordinary now.

        Yes, a hard concept to teach. Easier to sit in. Wish I lived nearer by, I'd love to come and sit with you all.

  2. David Lance says:

    This guru superiority stuff has to be acknowledged and honestly dealt with. It is the poison that ruins spiritual communities more than anything else. This idea that everyone is special, but some are more special than others. That the master has one set of rules, and everyone else has another, lesser set. That the leader is wiser, smarter, closer to God, above the honesty of marital fidelity, less constrained by honesty, more blessed, deserving of sitting in the comfortable chair, while the less enlightened sit at their feet.

    Whenever this comes up, (and if you pay attention to spiritual circles you will encounter it constantly), remember Jesus cleaning his disciples feet with his hair. There are gurus, and there are gurus.

    • LaSara says:

      We tend to put leaders on pedestals that, perhaps, they would rather not be on in the first place. And then we knock them down. It's an ages old sport, I'm sure. ;-) I've seen it from both sides of the looking glass, and think it's just as dis-heartening from both.

      Hero-worship is a dance, and it takes two (or more) to Tango.

    • sethbrigham says:

      Yes, and from what I hear is the Rinpoche that replaced, succeeded him was wholly and totally out of control, having unprotected sex while knowingly having AIDS…

      Could anyone in the know, tell the readers more?

    • Andy Anderson says:

      I could not agree more with you – I have lived in five spiritual centers and no longer want anything to do with them. Thanks for your wonderful post

  3. perhaps the advice from the Tibetan tradition of living at least Three Valleys away from ones teacher would have been sound guidance. Let's not forget that these Lamas had zero experience with women, having been taken away from their own mothers at a very young age and brought up in a world of men.
    While in no way justifying the all too often … disgraceful and chauvinistic treatment of women…it should shed some light on the behavior…..just because you call something "enlightened" doesn't in fact make it so. As it seems from history that the opposite is more likely the case. For more info on the abusive treatment of women by the "enlightened" see http://www.american-buddha.com/

    • Thanks for that, Mathew. That said, I don't think Trungpa Rinpoche has ever been accused of discraceful and chauvinistic treatment of women by the women who studied with him or were intimate with him, or both…in fact I think he said that women ought to be more involved in politics, teaching, leadership generally, that things would be better if they were.

  4. ACFRI says:

    Alcohol is an insidious, addictive substance. Interesting that even meditation masters are fallible.

    • Many Tibetans, a warrior clan of clans, are particularly susceptible…a bit like the Native Americans with whom the 16th Karmapa held in such high regard.

      • dakpa says:

        CTR may have been from the 'warrior clan' – and his case is just the exception (susceptible – to alcohol). So don't make assumptions. Sorry that he went the way he did…….so many enablers…..

  5. Excerpts from Stripping the Guru. Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment…..a much overdue and critical look at "Enlightened Masters" just released:
    http://www.strippingthegurus.com/index.html#stgto

    …. Trungpa had the couple forcibly stripped by his henchmen—against 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.”

    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 (Butterfield, 1994).

    • This incident is perhaps the one serious mark against Trungpa Rinpoche and his partying, rollicking, mind-challenging community in the entire decade of the 70s. I'd challenge just about any community to match such a record. It's common in the Vajrayana tradition to challenge one's disciples physically, emotionally, etc…as Trungpa Rinpoche did 1000s of times to 1000s of students. Merwin, a celeb of sorts, proved not to be open to said challenge…so things got out of hand. Interestingly, Trungpa Rinpoche himself commissioned a study of the incident at Naropa Institute (now University) after a number of students asked about it. That's my main point, above—there was full openness. There can be no cultish behavior where openness reigns. As anyone who read the chapter on cocoon in Shambhala knows, openness is fundamental to Trungpa Rinpoche's conception of enlightened society.

      As for the last two paragraphs, I've taken all Vajrayana vows in VCTR's community and, as you can see, am fully open. Those paragraphs, as well as most of the above, are painted with a pre-determined picture in mind, and without the full context. Some folks found their egos challenged by Rinpoche, and instead of stepping into the openness, off the cliff, spent there energies inciting invective.

      The site you reference, Mathew, is a repository for gossip—a valuable one, in that Buddhist communities (as Catholic, etc) are not open enough—but still, it's half-truth-land.

      • damcho raphel says:

        Let's set the record straight. Trungpa did NOT commission the investigation of the Merwin incident. Ed Sanders was brought to Naropa to teach an experimental journalism class, and he asked the students to pick a topic to investigate together. The students chose the Merwin incident. The folks at Naropa deserve some credit for allowing it to continue, but no one in authority commissioned it. The class, in fact, wanted to interview Trungpa, but he refused to speak to them.

    • Shoot. I just left a long reply, and don't see that it posted.

      • What I said, in about 400 words, in say 100:

        The above incident is painted in broad brushstrokes, with intent to incite, not portray an accurate picture. Interestingly, Trungpa Rinpoche commissioned a study of the incident after students at Naropa Institute (now University) asked about it. In the rollicking, crazy world of 70s spirtualism, to have one tough incident to explain ain't a bad record–and again Trungpa Rinpoche was wide open about anything and everything. The last two paragraphs are bullshit—I've taken all vows and while secrecy is talked about in the context of Vajrayana it is not talked about with the intent to silence students in talking about sangha incidents etc. My post above is proof of that. Trungpa Rinpoche often talked about how Dharma challenged and threatened ego—including pseudo celeb Merwin's…but also he talked about how openness, fresh air, was necessary to dissolving cocoon and establishing enlightened society (Shambhala). Trungpa Rinpoche directly challenged 1000s of students 1000s of times…and most of those students recount those often crazy wisdom crazy crazy incidents with joy (Ed Shapiro, where are you when I need you?). Merwin and Dana didn't want to open—they weren't interested—despite the fact that they'd entered the very serious Vajrayana Seminary. After that incident, which is painted one-sidedly above—Trungpa Rinpoche closed Seminary to beginning students who just wanted to sit and enjoy a more simple, casual, lifestyle sort of Buddhism. Part of Vajrayana is you and your teacher vow to work with one another without flinching—kinda like marriage, it's a vow that takes two.

        • damcho raphel says:

          Let's set the record straight. Trungpa did NOT commission the investigation of the Merwin incident. Ed Sanders was brought to Naropa to teach an experimental journalism class, and he asked the students to pick a topic to investigate together. The students chose the Merwin incident. The folks at Naropa deserve some credit for allowing it to continue, but no one in authority commissioned it. The class, in fact, wanted to interview Trungpa, but he refused to speak to them.

  6. Comments from FB:

    Christopher Heffley, Francois Henrard, William Harryman and 3 others like this.

    Carl R. Castro at 9:22am April 26
    Amrita, heart connection, elegance.

    Steve Silberman at 9:39am April 26
    Nice piece, Waylon. But what do you mean by saying that Ginsberg's sex with his own students was "far more out there"? There was no secretive power-play hypocrisy or bullshite with him either.

    Leandro Velez at 9:49am April 26
    he was an alcoholic who slept with his students and smoked cigarettes. deal with it.

    William Harryman at 10:05am April 26
    nice article, but I wonder if you are rationalizing his behavior? while I do not think he meant to harm anyone, ever, I see him as a flawed person, and an example of what can go wrong when someone is "enlightened" in the spiritual line of development, but not nearly so developed in the relational line, or others – his self-destruction with alcohol is representative of that – seeing him in the context of his times is important, but it's also true that he violated some of the "rules" of being an ethical teacher – all of which is to say that he changed my life and I feel closer to his teachings because he was more like me than a less flawed teacher might be

    Lisa K Moore at 10:38am April 26
    "Good bad,happy sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like a bird in the sky……." CTR He never, never gave up on anyone and his legacy of bringing Buddha Dharma to the west could not have happened by a lesser being. Whether he drank, did this or that is not the point.
    Whether he drank or not, he did not push the button for the atom bomb for example; or make up unethical rules for behavior on this planet we call earth.

    His son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche continues to carry out his legacy and is not giving up on any of us as we truly try to discover that we are enlightened human beings.

    Carl R. Castro at 11:10am April 26
    Leandro, William, et al.:
    Basically, it isn't possible to know whether or not such behavior is enlightened or not except by seeing directly, from an enlightened point of view, whether or not it is enlightened. Those with a strong, big connection to Trungpa Rinpoche, who sometimes shared that point of view with him, were able to do so. Those who have heard stories and but don't have such a connection will just being going through supposedly rational deliberations: thinking, reacting, thinking. Besides any debates on blogsites in the West, all the major Tibetan Buddhist teachers have the highest regard for Trungpa Rinpoche, his realization and accomplishment. Drinking, smoking and sleeping with people are just not regarded as inherently and necessarily negative, habitual and unenlightened by those teachers.

    Buckwheat Zafu at 11:26am April 26
    Regarding his paralysis, the first time I saw VCTR was at a program at Karme Choling in 1978 titled Confidence and Enlightenment. He came *striding* into the shrineroom unassisted, and by himself, albeit with a slight limp.

    • Steve: I say that Ginsberg was open. What I'm referring to was his enthusiastic membership in the MBLAA, which goes well beyond something totally normal—being gay—into something totally…well, illegal.

    • William,

      Rationalizing behavior is unethical, so I appreciate your question. While he wasn't conventionally ethical, my understanding from his students was that he was direct, but always with compassion as intent. Ethics can go beyond rules, as we all know. Rules are for those with training wheels on the bike…rules are to be broken once you're a master at your particular sport, even if that "sport" is teaching and compassion.

      That said, of course Rinpoche was imperfect, fallible, Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, the whole point is to be fully human. It's not about perfection, unlike with the God-ridden theistic traditions.

      • That is a very interesting statement Way;
        How can one truly know the intent of another and even if we should, does that "compassionate intent" somehow magically purify any wrong doing or inappropriate action? MANY wrongs are done in this world with high and holy intent…they paved a road somewhere with such intentions….
        Also, please elaborate on your statement that Buddhism is not about Perfection:
        "That said, of course Rinpoche was imperfect, fallible, Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, the whole point is to be fully human. It's not about perfection, unlike with the God-ridden theistic traditions."
        I have never come across any traditional texts of the Tibetan Buddhist Lineage that speak of the meaning of the path as merely to be become "fully human". The language tends much more strongly towards the Fully Enlightened Perfectly Perfected Pristine Primordial Buddha etc. etc.
        As well, the LAMA in this lineage is considered a manifestation of said "perfectly perfected Buddha" and thus can actually do no wrong. Which is the context and question of this post and these comments.
        At least in the "God-ridden theistic traditions" theirs is not a tendency for a human to take on the status that has been delegated to a much larger force.

        • > At least in the "God-ridden theistic traditions" theirs is not a tendency for a human to take on the status that has been delegated to a much larger force.

          The Pope might disagree, Mathew. :)

    • Mr. Buckwheat Zafu,

      There are many stories about Rinpoche walking for short distances unassisted…they fall into the "I saw Jesus do this miracle realm." Truth was his leg was bent, numb, useless…his mobility on lower half of body was a joke. Most of the time he was pretty much carried places, slowly limping. I remember many such.

      Yours,

      Hemp Sofa

  7. Comments from FB:

    Paul Segal at 11:31am April 26
    If you have recieved his blessing, you know that he is much bigger than his human body. I think he sacrificed his whole being for us.

    Steve Silberman at 11:43am April 26
    From my 2006 interview with Diana Mukpo:

    SS: Why do you think Rinpoche drank so much, and do you feel it ever became a poison for him?

    DM: [...] I think that Rinpoche probably drank because he felt it facilitated his ability to teach in the West. I think he drank because he felt that he was able to harness more energy to teach.. Other Tibetan teachers would refer to Rinpoche as a mahasiddha, that he was not an ordinary person, and he would have been the first to say that people should not imitate his behavior. Knowing Rinpoche as I did, he was not a traditional alcoholic. You never felt that he just lost it when he got drunk. I never experienced him that way. On the other hand I do think it became a poison because I think it was one of the contributing factors to his physical decline and death. So I think it was both a medicine and poison for him.

    SS: Did you ever ask him to stop drinking?

    Diana Mukpo: Yes, many times. Sometimes he did for a little while, but it didn’t last.

    Steve Silberman at 11:43am April 26
    More: http://bit.ly/ghdv7

    Steve Silberman at 3:42pm April 26
    Mathew, I was around Naropa immediately after this all happened and have read a lot of the material gathered by Ed Sanders' investigative poetics class, who dug into the Merwin incident like private detectives. It was certainly an ugly scene, but it was not as simple as these Trungpa debunkers make it appear. For instance, Merwin talked his way into that Seminary, though it was usually reserved for senior students, and then refused to participate in many of the seminary activities. Though this incident has become so infamous, and is nearly the only thing some people know about Trungpa, Merwin himself didn't want to make a big thing about it until another poet, Robert Bly, did. Guru debunking is practically its own literary genre; I also went through the "debunking" of my own former teacher, Richard Baker-roshi, in the early '80s, by the book "Shoes Outside the Door" — which also struck me as a highly oversimplistic book.

    • Funny, Steve, then, that Trungpa Rinpoche had invited Robert Bly to poetry readings with the Beats, then proceeded to publicly make fun of Big Bly. Perhaps Bly was motivated by a little ill-will.

  8. Bryce Navin says:

    Good piece, if a bit short… I feel like this issue certainly has more facets and should be discussed more openly both inside and outside the Shambhala community, as it affects everyone who came in contact with Trungpa's work.

  9. Comments from FB:
    JC at 4:05pm April 26
    when people ask me the most honest thing I can say is I don't know what it was a manifestation of. What I do know is the energy of enlightened being I felt in his presence and even more all he gave to us as his students.

    When I meet students from other teachers I am often amazed at how thorough my training in the 3 yanas is. The emphasis on practice and on warrior in the world, the art the poetry Naropa Univ etc.

    I just say I don't justify or not justify. I do know I've never known an alcoholic who could accomplish what he did in such a short time, or even non-alcoholics. But it's not about that, it's about what I received as a dharma student and practitioner and that is so precious, I can have nothing but gratitude.

    Steve at 4:27pm April 26
    Waylon, in most online communities I've been in since 1993, it's generally considered good protocol to ask before reposting a comment from a closed environment (Facebook) to an open one (the Web). It's fine in this case, but please ask me in the future before reposting. It may not always be appropriate.

    Leslie at 5:42pm April 26
    Hornet's nest poked…

    Waylon Hart Lewis at 6:55pm April 26
    Sorry, bro–I will check and can take ur last name off if you like…

    That said, FB comments are only 'closed' if you consider my 3000 friends a private community…far larger than will see a post on elephant…that said, I'm happy to take down. I repeatedly ask folks not to comment here, but on our site, btw…I'm not spending my every day working my butt off so folks can have debates while building FB's traffic…I'm trying to create an indie, uplifted media vehicle that's sustainable.

  10. Joshua says:

    Chogyam Trungpa's alcoholism is one of several reasons why I never signed on to the Shambhala tradition. I'm told that the mysterious Shambala teachings were passed on to him through "mind transmission". These were not ancient written writings that were discovered and shared, but information he claims was given to him from some other realm or something. That alone makes me question its legitimacy, but knowing he was under the influence a good deal of the time makes it all the more suspect. Stick to Tibetan or Zen stuff.

    • Well, first of all, you don't have to sign on…at least, not with your credit card. Buddhism is not about converting or saving anyone, so Trungpa Rinpoche likely wouldn't care if you studied with him, just so long as you were practicing meditation and staying sane and compassionate.

      As for your mind transmission criticism, if you'd looked into it at all you'd know "mind transmission" is a translation of "terma," which has a long tradition in Zen, Tibetan (which is in fact Trungpa Rinpoche's lineage, Nyingma and Kagyu). As some of the early comments said, Trungpa Rinpoche was held in the HIGHEST esteem by his Tibetan colleagues. Anyways, many writers (as in fiction) often say, wow, I was in the zone, the writing just came through me, I didn't write it. Really terma is just about connecting your heart/mind inspiration with lineage, and letting it flow. Easier if you're more or less enlightened, I'm sure, I haven't had any success!

      Finally, I'd just say that your cynicism is your strength—Trungpa Rinpoche and any Buddhist teacher worth their salt would welcome it and encourage it. Just look deeper and bother to research life-important decisions.

      • dakpa says:

        Was Trungpa Rinpoche's 'mind transmission' terma authenticated by any of HIS peers?
        there was a reason Trungba did not want shambhala teachings under the bigger umbrella of Tibetan Buddhism.
        it was not meant to be taken as Buddhism – bust as a way of living life. He was honest about that.

    • Green Dakini says:

      Joshua, have you ever read the Mahasiddha stories? Do you know anything about the lives of the many Indian and Tibetan teachers who transmitted Buddhism over the centuries. Why don't you read a bit of them? You will find many, many references to mind transmission among the siddhas who passed the teachings down (yes, if you like, teachings from "some other realm or something — the realm of awake.) You'll also find a lot of unconventional behavior and — yes — Mahasiddhas who drank heavily and were pimps and did some pretty unconventional tings You say you like "Tibetan stuff" and "ancient written teachings." Try studying, then.

  11. John P at 3:55am April 27
    YES!!

    Buckwheat Zafu at 6:32am April 27
    I have been to the blog and can't comment — you are required to login but I see nowhere to create an account.
    Can someone send me a link to the place where you create the account that is required to post to the blog?

    Buckwheat Zafu at 6:34am April 27
    My comment about seeing him walking in 1978 was in no way intended to suggest something miraculous. I was merely observing that back then he could walk unassisted (if he felt like it? or what? — I don't know).

    Waylon Hart Lewis at 8:27am April 27
    Sorry about that, Buckwheat Zafu…annoying…I'llc heck with our web guru, who can indeed perform (small) miracles.

    Yah, I've heard so many stories from old students about little miracles Trungpa Rinpoche would enact…which in my mind are a theistic tendency that Trungpa Rinpoche himself never encouraged…I thought your story was in line with that, but glad to hear it was more in the spirit of questioning.

    Waylon Hart Lewis at 8:36am April 27
    John, honor to have you comment. Was that your Marv Albert impersonation?

    Waylon Hart Lewis at 8:36am April 27
    John was Rinpoche's "butler" for a number of years!

  12. A Shambhala Buddhist sangha member just emailed:

    these are not new "rumours". Why bring it up now?

    - "rest in basic goodness…"

    My response:

    Read the post…bc it's still in the minds, in fact even more now today, of new students who didn't know him.

    Yours,

    Way

    Another student of VCTR emailed with thanks. My reply:

    Hope it helps diffuse some of the rumors that new would-be students are always talking about, at least in Boulder. – W.

  13. Kathy says:

    The Buddha has been credited with saying “Do not accept what you hear by report. Be lamps unto yourselves.” He allegedly also told his followers: “Do not go by what is handed down, nor by the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves, ‘These teachings are good or not good,' only then accept or reject them.”

    This has many implications here – both with the guru and the debunkers

  14. A very thoughtful post, Robin, thanks.

  15. Anonymous:
    Dear Waylon,
    I was a close student
    of the Vidyadhara's and saw him almost every day for many years.

    It is always challenging to try to explain anyone's actions, particularly
    someone who has dedicated his or her life to benefiting others – waking them up.

    I can only say that every one of the Vidyadhara's actions that I saw seemed to
    come from that place of compassion and skilful means. But we shouldn't expect
    people to believe that.

    I can also say, with confidence, that he was not addicted to alcohol. His health
    was certainly diminished by the years of drinking, often heavily, but he was not
    addicted.

    His behavior did not change if he was drinking, or not. And he went for long
    periods – days at a time – without anything to drink. He never missed it, asked
    for it, or had any signs of withdrawal.

    It seems he drank for other reasons. No one know for sure. I do know it suited
    his purposes well – getting us to rely on ourselves not him – cutting through
    our theistic views of being saved. When you have to help someone else up the
    stairs…

    One time he entertained my parents and was unrecognizable! On time, for
    example, chattered away whenever there was lull in the conversation – made me
    realize how much of his usual behavior was for us – a useful way of teaching, of
    taming such beings.

    You are welcome to quote this anonymously. "A close student …

    thanks for your good work.

    ~~~~
    I agree with all of this, I've heard it from many. I do believe he dedicated his every breath to others. That said, the drinking did impact his health, which makes me sad. That said, he did teach non-theism quite powerfully by dying young and leaving the sangha to his students!

    yours,

    Way

  16. A Shambhala Buddhist sangha member just emailed:

    Hey Waylon,
    There are some interesting comments in the Regent's talk from the 1980 Vajrayana Seminary transcripts.
    He quoted CTR as saying in response to his intake of alcohol, "Sometimes you have to insult people to get their attention".
    M.
    Wishing you good things.

  17. A Shambhala Buddhist sangha member just emailed (below is abridged to keep private stuff private):

    Someone discovers meditation and it could be a lifesaver, the founder of the center was a drinker but he's long gone and everyone seems pretty on the up-an-up, teaching good technique, real dharma…But then you stir the pot, maybe to bump up the "hits" on the site, and their mind is not so stable, yours is enough but not enough to see theirs…And they get conflicted by the klesha, drift away and back to smoking weed, whatever… die soon enough and then…it's too late. You could say that it will come up eventually but maybe when and where their mind is clear, 'not on the net where it is speeding, and most of all, it won't be your fault…

    ~~~
    My response:

    Bro, I've talked this over with a ton of new students, I'm sure you have and all of us have, and I can say they leave the conversation feeling better for the context, not worse. Of course decision is up to them.

    The Proclamation of Truth is Fearless. I'm doing my best, in this non-theistic tradition, to speak it. Stirring the pot doesn't get me traffic long-term, only criticism. Speaking truth or doing my best wins loyalty, repeated traffic, that's my goal–to be of some benefit. Thanks for the critique.

    Yours,

    Way
    Waylon Lewis – elephant journal dot com
    Facebook. Twitter. Walk the Talk Show.
    Featured on: Planet Green. Treehugger. 5280. Huffington Post. Shambhala Sun

  18. Senior Sangha member:

    Way
    Nice job on the Trungpa/alcoholic article–I think you hit just the right tone for a public article. It was not an apologia, but talked straight about who he was, how important he was, and that he was a real-life enlightened guy who was not afraid of warts.
    Dan

    Yay! Razor's edge, writing that one. Thanks, Dan.

    Yours,

    Way
    Waylon Lewis – elephant journal dot com
    Facebook. Twitter. Walk the Talk Show.
    Featured on: Planet Green. Treehugger. 5280. Huffington Post. Shambhala Sun

  19. Senior Sangha member:

    Waylon,

    I'm a big fan of yours (In case you didn't know), but am finding the
    subject [bar] of this email ("Was VCTR an alcoholic?") a bit
    sensationalist… I hope this doesn't qualify as a nasty email, but I
    would think something that mirrors what you said in the message "share
    your understanding or experience of VCTR's unorthodox ways" would sit
    better. Understand that you are generating traffic, but…

    With love,

    D

    ~~~ My Response:
    It's a great point I thought about when writing it. I intended it to be direct, not sensationalist. If you read the article, the post was inspired by the zillionth young would-be student asking me about this. They don't ask 'would you share your understanding or experience about this difficult, koan-like issue?" They say, "was he a cult leader? Did he have sex with students? Did he die of alcohol poisoning?" [elephant journal.com] doesn't succeed by being sensationalist, that's not my goal please rest assured. My goal is do write stuff that's of benefit. If I do that, folks will read me far more than if I'm cheaply sensationalist.

    Yours,

    Way
    Waylon Lewis – elephant journal dot com
    Facebook. Twitter. Walk the Talk Show.
    Featured on: Planet Green. Treehugger. 5280. Huffington Post. Shambhala Sun

  20. You're a sensationalist, and I've read the rag, and you ought to get your facts
    straight, at least….otherwise, there's nothing to stop you, so Happy karma.

    J.T.

    What facts do I have wrong? Happy to correct. Thanks, bro.

    Yours,

    Way

  21. Certainly one effect of Rinpoche's drinking was to cause one to disengage the tendency to judge others, or to predetermine what actions are "spritual" and "unspiritual." As Rinpoche states in Dragon Thunder (Mukpo), he used alcoholic consumption by his students as a means of teaching. How? By inducing kleshas to come to the surface where everyone could see them, and where they were forced to acknowledge and work on them. People could pretend to be enlightened, but not when drunk. Only he seemed to be able to manifest enlightened activity in that outer condition. He once handed me a bottle of sake at the beginning of one of his talks, and during the talk kept nodding for me to refill his glass. As his talk progressed he kept edging his chair further back on the platform on which it rested until one of the rear legs was half off the edge. I remained, poised, ready to lunge forward and catch him when his chair flipped over backward. But that moment never came. Despite having consumed most of the bottle, another hour passed with him poised on the edge, and me in a state of hyper vigilance–no doubt exactly what he wanted. He remained fully conscious and in control, and imparted an understanding of mindfulness which has stayed with me to this day.

  22. Mark Porter says:

    Buddhism is about ethics! Those priests or wannabe priests that get caught in unethical behavior are not the priests you want to follow. They clearly do not understand Buddhism.

  23. Bryce Navin says:

    This is one of the oldest debates in Buddhism; the role of ethics. This is precisely why it has a multi-tiered structure for understanding/realization. Ethics play a major role in enlightened society, but in terms of relating with the ego and attempting its destruction, all bets are off. The Vajrayana master has to point this sort of thing out somehow. Naturally, methodologies in doing so vary as much as the individual approach to any given topic.

  24. Mark_Porter says:

    First of all, these supposed guru's don't even understand their own mind much less other peoples. They are charlatans disguised in Buddhist clothing, making their living off people who are sincere in their efforts.

    "His Body of Reward or Manifold Virtues and Wisdom (S. Sambhogakaya)

    "It is born of morality, mental concentration, spiritual insight, liberated understanding, as well as knowledge & vision,
    It is inspired from Samadhi, the six penetrations & the facets of spiritual awakening,
    It arises from kindness & compassion, the ten spiritual powers & the fourfold fearlessness, and
    It appears because of the good karmic deeds of living beings…"

    • Bryce Navin says:

      Aren't you describing samsara in that sense? It goes both ways with any guru/student relationship.

      • Mark_Porter says:

         IntenseDebate Notification <DIV>I understand that it goes both ways, but the teacher must maintain ethics or he reduces him/herself to the student.</DIV> <DIV style=\”FONT: 10pt arial\”>

        • LaSara says:

          Thank god!

          No guru should be held to some unreachable ideal, and the best thing that can happen, and I dare say perhaps the only thing that can happen, to help a student "reach" or "attain" enlightenment is 1. the ignoblement and debasement of the guru through some sort of transgression, or 2. the total disappearance of the guru.

          Trungpa pulled off both! Good job.

          But seriously, enlightenment, or the state of being "awake" is almost never a static one. It phases in and out. Or, should I say, we do. And, as Trungpa – and many other teachers – said, holding on to some ideal of what presence or enlightenment is, is silly.

          It's just now. Presence is, even when we are not awake to it. And it's no less so in suffering than in blinding joy. And no less so in blinding joy, than suffering.

          Guru, and ideas of perfection, or expectations of some way of righteousness, should not be the thing that comes between any person, and their own awakening. And if we do, our bad.

  25. David Dailey says:

    The simple truth appears to be CTR died of acute liver failure from his many years of alcohol abuse! Crazy Wisdom is frequently offered as a catch all slogan for behavior he engendered (by himself and/or his students). Maybe, maybe not!

    Tea cup and sake glass turned over – gone!

    • edward says:

      Maybe but there is nothing simple when it involves Trungpa Rinpoche.
      It is impossible for the average person, even those that imagine themselves as following Dharma,
      to fully grasp a Mind unaffected by the past, present and illusory future. More so to consider a mind that
      can be unaffected by the intoxicants and sensual stimulation that enslave most of us. Rinpoche might
      have been a prime example of "things are not what they seem". I, for one, care little about the speculation
      regarding the cause of his death or the details about his intimate affairs. I DO care about his message and intention to point out to others the self-existing awakened quality that simply is.

  26. sethbrigham says:

    Yes, Rinpoche was a drunk and a womanizer.
    Most of those budding buddha's at Naropa were involved with alcohol and/or drugs.
    And, meeting the most famous writers, for example, Ginsberg and Waldman, were rather too human, as in egotists and self promoters… Though, some of their work is a contribution to society.
    I'd call it a religion of personalities at Naropa.
    Allen propositioned me even though he knew I was in the midst of a manic episode.
    I had apolgized to him for telling him to go back to "highway 61" because he was nothing more than a rolling stone gathering moss. This was 1994, at the Tribute to Allen Ginsberg.
    No wonder Kesey left in a "storm" because the politically correct students headed by Anne Waldman were offended by his play, TWISTER, which made fun of the apocolyptic times, Aids, included.

  27. Mr. Fractal says:

    You can't just TALK about being a Buddha; you have to LIVE THE LIFE! This guy was a drunk. Get REAL! You ALL got taken in and now you defend all the bullshit. That is the REALLY absurd part. Sad really. Go read about the life of Meher Baba; this is a REAL LIFE, a REAL MASTER, not a drunk sex poser.

    • I like ALL CAPS! Oh my god! I like COFFEE! I like to yell at my LAPTOP when I'm sitting at home ALONE! I'M ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT EVERYTHING!

      Taken in by what? It's not like you had to join some credit card signing secret cult and drink kool aid (speaking of drinking). Perhaps you oughta reread Meher Baba, sure he wouldn't go around calling hard-working hard-living big-loving teachers "drunk sex posers", probably his momma taught him some basic human manners.

  28. guest says:

    waylon, what do your mother's looks have to do with anything? VCTR also liked short women, curvy women, and squishy women. subtle, yet offensive remark that seriously has nothing to do with the topic. (unless it is glorifying yourself somehow to have a lovely fit mother?) please think about what you say more.

  29. [...] I saw my little bird friend again, he was moving, although kind of like he had had a few drinks. He stumbled around and tried to fly – right into the wall of the building. But he was [...]

  30. [...] website, Pema Chödrön explains another concept called “idiot compassion” coined by her controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Idiot compassion is exactly what it sounds like—thinking you are being compassionate, but [...]

  31. Manjusri says:

    This piece is absolute garbage. Chogyam Trungpa and his inner circle were a pack of scoundrels, no better than Jim Jones or David Koresh, not only for their vicious tastes, and manipulative power dynamics.

  32. I've benefited from Naropa, and read a couple of pretty good books by Trungpa, and so think he's certainly somebody to admire. And, like every other person I admire, he clearly had his flaws. Then, one difference between him and most others, and the one thing I didn't like in his books, is the "guru thing." A previous commenter said something about the tendency to put people on a pedestal and then knock them down–and there's certainly a lot of truth in that. However, those who set themselves up–or allow religious structures like Tibetan Buddhism to set them up–as gurus, or, as Trungpa did, insist on the necessity of gurus, are far more actively involved in getting on and staying on pedestal–and, as such, are asking to be held to a far higher standard than the rest of us.

    • The same goes for the recent argument here about the Dalai Lama. While I mostly agreed with you (Waylon), there was one point where you said something about "His Holiness" being just a person like the rest of us"–to which I say "then how come you're calling him 'His Holiness'? (or, for that matter, calling him the "Dalai Lama," thus upholding the idea that some people are born more spiritual than others?)" Personally, I find Tenzin Gyatso admirable *despite* the pedestal the hierarchical theological structure of Tibetan Buddhism has put him on–and, actually, my favorite thing about him is his questioning the validity of that pedestal–but he has yet to reject it completely.

  33. via http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal

    Christian
    what he gave us is worth much more then idle gossip, moreover i am no angel either.

    Justin
    wow you can really tell what this author's geographic location is.. think you should look deeper. he was a teacher who taught crazy wisdom.. don't you think he would embody that? i've heard from several former attendants/naropa folks that he never ended an evening with out his bombay..

    Cathy
    was he, wasn't he…was she, wasn't she…spiritual; enlightenend but never perfect…how would any of us ever get any-where if we did not stumble…

    Diane
    The issue is worshipping the person. Natalie Goldberg was ostracized by many when she disclosed the unethical behavior of her Zen teacher. I think the ethics standards developed at Spirit Rock are ones that every serious spiritual center should consider.

    Cathy
    I think people need to calm down from all of this spiritualization, take a breath and be…phew…thank you!

    Gayle
    Shouldn't we look at this imperfect being the same way we look at all imperfect beings (including ourselves)… with compassion? Trying to put my mind in his shoes… a man raised by monks in a simple environment reaches rock star status in the US – not totally surprising he has trouble controlling various desires. Just because he was brilliant at … See Moreunderstanding the teachings doesn't mean he's superhuman. This same problem has impacted the yoga world, too. It is a sad day when your teacher does not follow the path he/she preaches, but then shame on me for the attachment.

    Lisa
    Well said, Gayle. I especially like your last line… agreed.

    Darryl ૐ
    Maybe his drinking was a teaching…the bodhisattva will find any means necessary to hook you, so the they can plant seeds in your mind, they think in terms of eons not weeks or years…they will find ways to shake up your ego, reflect back at you how not to be, crack open your heart to compassion…in skillful ways according to the level of mind… See More & need of sentient beings…

    We don't know his mind, we tend to assume things based on our conceptual mind grasping at categorically defining his behaviour…it may just be crazy wisdom…he hooked a lot of people…his behaviour left a big imprint, good or bad in our view, thats just what it is …our view…thats why we are still talking about him…

    If he is controversial enough people may look deeper & learn something..alas!..he has hooked you…you explore the teachings due to being curious about his drinking…thats the motivation , to sacrifice oneself for others so they can learn what they need to learn to wake up…whatever means necessary to get others to wake up…even if it means destroying oneself in the process…..

    If we can't read another's mind perfectly we don't know their motivation 100%, especially a bodhisattva, we never know whos a bodhisattva…could be your boss, a homeless person, a drunk on the street, an abusive parent…anyone who shows you your own mind in a way that wakes you up, that shakes your ego, that snaps you out of your trance…look closer…read Dragon Thunder…a book about life with him by his wife…it puts things in perspective

    Don
    He was only human….

    Daniel
    sila

  34. Laura
    everything and everyone is guru, perfect teacher, regardless of the storyline—true, I believe, but hard to keep that perspective at times.

    Urgyan Tenpa Rinpoche
    Full disclosure: I drank with Rinpoche, and I did so more than once. I can only tell you what I observed. Fair enough? Rinpoche was an alcoholic, but not a drunkard. While alcohol touched his body rather conclusively my direct, personal observation is that it did not touch his mind to even the slightest degree. Nor did it shape his actions in any … See Moreway. There is nothing he said or did while drinking that he could not or would not say or do when he wasn't drinking. Thus, I can say that while he used alcohol in a clinically rather well understood pattern, I never saw him drunk. Here is what he said to me once: "What is the difference between the mind that thinks its drunk and the mind that thinks its sober?" That is a very good question, you know? From my perspective, I am so sorry that it killed him, but Rinpoche's use of alcohol is otherwise absolutely unimportant. As to who he slept with or what motorcars he had, oh my goodness, please grow up.

    Karen
    is there a difference between alcoholic and drunkard?

    Mer
    I especially like Chogyam bc of who he was, not just his teachings. Holier than thou syndrome is exactly what is wrong with the world today, these so called "ethics" have deepened the victim mentality groove and further alienated people from connection bc so little is "appropriate" anymore….We don't need ethical guidelines to protect us, we need … See Moreself love and true human connection…The kinds of guidelines i'm seeing these days with accredited MFT's and places like spirit rock look no different than guidelines catholic priests were given and look what happened with those guys…i'm just saying.

    Becca
    Thats what I LOVE about him. He was real being dealing with a classic addiction that many humans deal with. It allows, I think, more of a personal connection to the wisdom that flowed through him.

    UM
    yes and no

  35. Bob Hamil says:

    Come on people… the dude died of liver failure. Liver failure. Do you know how much alcohol someone has to consume to achieve liver failure? TONS. And many of you say he wasn't addicted to alcohol? What? Look, he might have been amazing, but it's really quite he was in pain, turning to a drug to dull his inner turmoil.

    I'm saying he didn't have many good qualities, but it's very sad and quite a downer to think that if this guy was an alcoholic,what about people who actual work for a living and have to deal with real stresses. I'm sorry, but if I need to look to someone for guidance it's not going to be a dude who wears all the right dogmatic clothes and preaches one thing, but does another.

    Think about it, if one is really enlightened, why would he/she need to drink to to the point of liver failure?

  36. Seth Brigham says:

    Desperate people will follow just about anyone.

    And, why is Elephant digging up this worthless story in the first place.

    because, it brings people to his site that sells happy smiling people consciousness… by hemp underwear and the like.

    Let Elephant die.

    it’s not enlightened in the slightest.

    it’s commercial crap for the rich, pretending to be conscious.

    End the conversation.

    Tear down this wall!

    • Robert J. Bullock says:

      You know, I"m starting to agree with you, Seth. I'm finding very little of any worth here on Elephant, but a lot of pretentiousness, a lot of sensationalism, and very little actual dharma sharing or insight. And, of course, what we also get is a ton of ads for "lifestyle products" and yoga… Bleh!

      • sethbrigham says:

        Tell it to Waylon… it's a magazine, website for the rich socially self-conscious…

        I forwarded him an article about sexual abuse in the Buddhist "church."

        He found it not compelling. Why?

        He sings to the converts!

  37. Deb Huntley says:

    Sensationalism will get you no-where. CTR was real, did not hide anything, and was honest.

  38. dharma friend says:

    There was simply no excuse to the harm that this man did in influencing an entire generation of young people to drink, have casual sex (no matter that is was the more accepted norm back then) and then form uptight and power driven organizations that continue to this day! So yes he was powerful and charismatic but so were a lot of misguided people. If Trungpa was about freedom for the mind the mind his organizations are enough to make you feel strangled to the core. I experienced all of this and no matter how good his books were he didn't live it himself. What a shame and a waste of a precious human life.

    • elephantjournal says:

      You're saying he's evil, and we're defending him. Other comments say we're attacking. I think all you commenters should get together, hash it out, then let me know how I failed you.

  39. Metronomic says:

    Making more excuses for a failed Lama who broke wide open 2 of 5 precepts. I see no reason to follow such a flawed "spiritual teacher" or to buy into his watered down pseudo Buddhism called Shambhala, who are more interested in getting your fees than teaching any real knowledge. The Kagyu lineage looks upon it as an inside joke to say the least.

  40. Kelley says:

    pretty awesome article. i like the last part. sit. sit some more. seems like in order to really understand someone that awesome and profound the best thing would be to experience the depth and profundity by engaging in a truly transformative practice like meditation. really great article. waylon always does a really good job responding to the comments as well. very constructive.

  41. Goodieb says:

    Thank you Waylon. I've been a "Buddhist" for at least 15 years. It is only recently that I have decided to take my refuge vows in the Shambhala tradition. I am proud to commit to such and Trungpa Rinpoche is a large factor in that. He was human and accessible.

  42. karma says:

    Very good attempt to erase greats works of a great teacher. The teacher says don’t do as I do but do as I say. Work of art, literature and teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche can not to neglected at all.

  43. edward says:

    I attended a lecture at the Manhatten Dharmadhatu back in '77 or '78 and recall the person talking picking up a cigaretter and taking a puff. Later, this person was sipping from a beer. This was a major contrast from the various Yoga Centers in the City at that time. Went to several lectures after that and simply could not understand the tobacco, alcohol and other stuff.
    Tried reading Trungpas books and simply never "got it". Learning the basic sitting technique the the NY Dharmadhatu and that's about it.
    Problem: i can't shake Trungpa.
    I dream of him once in awhile and it is always an interesting conversation. Thoughts of him are daily to the point where i have a picture of him in my work office. I have never taken any Shambhala courses, attended any seminaries or plan to.
    I wonder if this guy will ever leave me alone. No doubt, this is the experience of many, many others.
    Mahasiddha – Hmm, maybe….

  44. [...] fortify ourselves against the openness and unknown. This is powerful post-meditation practice. As Trungpa Rinpoche said, “There are always possibilities of sabotaging the security system of central headquarters. [...]

  45. ed_papson says:

    "The simple truth appears to be CTR died of acute liver failure from his many years of alcohol abuse!"

    Died?

    Seems like CTR is more active than ever ;)

  46. Jordan Epstein jhepstein says:

    I like the subtle question that this begs, and for me it was "how could we possibly consider ourselves spiritual if we go around judging everyone else for not being spiritual?" I also love that you didn't just throw it out there like that!!!

    Very well done, thanks!

  47. karlsaliter says:

    Loved the article. I like my leaders human anyway, and as a man in recovery, I toast the Rinpoche and all the things he
    took on in bringing the Dharma to our doors. Cheers buddy: your humanity is a valuable part of the puzzle: it gives access.

    Agreed, Way, "Sit more" is the heart of it.

  48. Ryo says:

    A true teacher is known by how he lives, not by any sort of title. Moral principles and proper conduct is the foundation, the very kindergarten, of spiritual life.

  49. Gary says:

    This article you makes me sick, why are there always stupid people apologising for dodgy gurus. Human beings are flawed, spiritual teachers are not allowed to be, it's contradictory. GET IT RIGHT!

    • edward says:

      This universe appears vast enough for every opinion.
      To an uninformed outsider like me, Trungpa was not a Teacher.
      He was Awakened Mind expressing Itself through every possible expression of human activity
      while never being diminished, altered or distorted in any way. This, to me, is Trungpa Rinpoche.
      All fools dream, i dreamt of him a few months back and experienced "something" quite, simple, ordinary
      and beyond words. If this is what a few crumbs are like to a distant outsider, then anyone following his Dharma must
      be living a Daily Feast. Thanks, Rinpoche. No clue why me, but Thanks.

  50. PapaGauge says:

    I only know of this man from what I saw in the biographical movie about his life, but if there is any truth behind the stories told in the film then not only was he an alcoholic and a womanizer but he was a huge hypocrite. The part of the movie where he invited his students to his room and told them to bring their marijuana with them illustrates this perfectly. After inviting his students to his room with their weed he tells them to put it all onto a plate. Then he starts throwing their baggies into a fireplace saying something to the effect of "This is self deception.". Modern science has proven time and time again how cannabis is no where near as harmful as alcohol is and is overwhelmingly beneficial to physical and mental health. I recall a clip from the film that told of a lecture he was giving where he was simply trashed on sake, giggling and making no sense. I respect the fact that he escaped communist China and made the teachings available to the rest of the world but that's where my respect for him ends. Mankind needs teachers that lead by example. The world is full of enough "do as I say not as I do" type of spiritual leaders. Sorry kids.

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